A mob of hundreds of men have assaulted women holding a march demanding an end to sexual harassment, with the attackers overwhelming their male guardians and groping and molesting several of the female marchers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
From the ferocity of Friday’s assault, some of the victims said it appeared to have been an organized attempt to drive women out of demonstrations and trample on the pro-democracy protest movement.
The attack follows smaller scale assaults on women this week in Tahrir, the epicenter of the uprising that forced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down last year. Thousands have been gathering in the square this week in protests over a variety of issues — mainly over worries that presidential elections this month will secure the continued rule by elements of Mubarak’s regime backed by the ruling military.
Earlier in the week, a reporter witnessed about 200 men assault a woman who eventually fainted before men trying to help could reach her.
Friday’s march was called to demand an end to sexual assaults. About 50 women participated, surrounded by a larger group of male supporters who joined to hands to form a protective ring around them.
The protesters carried posters saying: “The people want to cut the hand of the sexual harasser,” and chanted: “The Egyptian girl says it loudly, harassment is barbaric.”
After the marchers entered a crowded corner of the square, a group of men waded into the group of women, heckling them and groping them. The male supporters tried to fend them off, and it turned into a melee involving a mob of hundreds.
The marchers tried to flee while the attackers chased them and male supporters tried to protect them, but the attackers persisted, cornering several women against a metal sidewalk railing, including a reporter, shoving their hands down their clothes and trying to grab their bags. The male supporters fought back, swinging belts and fists and throwing water.
Eventually, the women were able to reach refuge in a nearby building with the mob still outside until they finally got out to safety.
“After what I saw and heard today, I am furious at so many things. Why beat a girl and strip her off? Why?” Sally Zohney, one of the organizers of the event, wrote on Twitter.
The persistence of the attack raised the belief of many that it was intentional, though who orchestrated it was unclear.
Mariam Abdel-Shahid, a 25-year-old cinema student who took part in the march, said: “Sexual harassment will only take us backward.”
“This is pressure on the woman to return home,” she said.
Ahmed Mansour, a 22-year-old male medical student who took part in the march, said there are “people here trying to abuse the large number of women protesters who feel safe and secure. Some people think it is targeted to make women hate coming here.”
“I am here to take a position and to object to this obscene act in society,” he said.
Assaults on women in Tahrir Square have been a demoralizing turn for Egypt’s protest movement. During the 18-day uprising against Mubarak last year, women say they briefly experienced a “new Egypt” taking place in Tahrir, with none of the harassment that is common in Cairo’s streets. Women participated in the anti-Mubarak uprising as leading activists, protesters, medics and even fighters to ward off attacks by security agents or affiliated thugs. They have continued the role during the frequent protests over the past 15 months against the military.