Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 June 2005
Issue No. 745
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Women in black

Women activists lead a day of mourning, even as the government promises to investigate allegations of abuse and sexual assault on protesters on 25 May. Jailan Halawi reports

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Yesterday members of the Press Syndicate and the Bar Association joined several non-governmental organisations, led by an ad hoc group of women calling itself the Egyptian Mothers' Union, to protest the series of violent assaults against women, allegedly by sympathisers of the ruling National Democratic Party, that marred Wednesday's referendum on amending Article 76 of the constitution.

Eight journalists and two lawyers were among the most seriously injured in the assaults which activists claim amount to an attempt to systematically intimidate women from exercising their right to protest.

Those attending the rally were urged to dress in black to mark "a national day of mourning".

Two days earlier a separate campaign was launched, urging people to wear a white ribbon in solidarity with the victims of the attacks and in support of the right to the peaceful expression of thought.

The initiative was the brainchild of three women who, through text messages and e-mails, spread the word. To judge by the scenes outside the Press Syndicate it is a technique that worked. Gathered on the steps were rows of men and women dressed in black, many sporting white ribbons. They listened as some of the victims of the assaults related their stories, and then clapped their hands in peaceful protest.

Many attending the rally insisted they would not give in to such intimidation and would continue to defend the right to express their opinions.

"I was flabbergasted by the photos I saw of what I hate to think was an organised assault. But when my children said such things were common practice and that protesters should understand there is no hope I decided that something had to be done. Along with two friends, Esmat El-Nahhas and Nayla Hefni, we decided to speak out and denounce acts that we believe are completely alien to the Egyptian character," said Ghada Shahbandar, one of the organisers of the white ribbon campaign.

The three women are demanding an official apology for the assaults which they believe happened because the public is becoming increasingly apathetic towards acts of violence.

"We refuse to remain silent when the environment in which our children must grow is increasingly contaminated by such a distorted morality. We want our children to grow up in a society that encourages them to tolerate difference. This is how Egyptians have always been and it is how they should continue to be. We are determined not to stop until that goal is achieved," Shahbandar said.

"What happened last Wednesday was a flagrant violation of the rights of women. They presented absolutely no threat to national security yet they were beaten, and some were sexually assaulted, while the police watched," Awatef Abdel-Rahman, professor of Journalism at Cairo University, told Al- Ahram Weekly.

Abdel-Azim Manaf, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Mawqif Al-Arabi, said the assaults the women suffered are "an unforgivable mistake, a shame the government will never erase".

Writer Fatheya El-Assaal denounced the attacks as "barbaric". But women, she said, will continue their struggle for the benefit of coming generations and to show the world they are not afraid to express their opinions.

At Cairo University, professors organised a symbolic sit-in to demonstrate their solidarity with the victims of the violence. They stood in silence holding banners that read: "We denounce the daily humiliation of Egyptians as they practice their constitutional right to demonstrate peacefully. We will not abandon that right."

Also on Wednesday women demonstrated outside the Egyptian Embassy in Paris in solidarity with their Egyptian counterparts.

The assaults, some of which were caught on video, sparked revulsion both in Egypt and abroad and have led many to question the ruling party's commitment to political reform.

The Press Syndicate has called for the resignation of Interior Minister Habib El-Adli, claiming the security forces failed in their duty to protect citizens. Chairman of the Press Syndicate Galal Aref met with Prosecutor- General Maher Abdel-Wahed to complain about brutality said to have taken place as the police stood idly by. Ibrahim Nafie, chairman of the Arab Journalists' Federation, said he would fully support whatever steps the Press Syndicate thinks appropriate while Abdel-Wahed, in response, promised a thorough investigation.

According to one of the victims the police "did not lift a finger to stop the assault". And when she went to a nearby police station to file a complaint "the officers in charge refused to take a statement".

Iman Taha, a freelance journalist, remains in hospital following what she says was a violent sexual assault. Once she recovers, Taha's lawyer is adamant about filing a complaint "not only against her attackers but also against the police who prevented her from reaching an ambulance or seeking medical help for hours".

The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights has already filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office on behalf of reporters attacked while covering the protests, while the Washington-based Human Rights Watch has asked President Hosni Mubarak to set up an independent judicial panel to investigate what it describes as "state- sanctioned brutality".

Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for journalists, said it was shocked by the assaults on female journalists committed "under the noses of secret service members. We strongly condemn these squalid assaults, unworthy of a democracy".

US President George W Bush condemned the attacks saying that "the idea of people expressing themselves and opposition of the government and getting a beating is not our view of how a democracy ought to work" while in a written response the State Department expressed concern over the "distressing news of abuse and intimidation of women" noting that "it is incompatible with a genuinely free and fair election process."

"Anyone who attacks peaceful demonstrators should be arrested and tried. Freedom of assembly by opposition parties and critics of those in power is important when it comes to conducting free elections," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

In response, Egypt's Information Ministry said that it regretted incidents in which reporters were hurt when they were caught between groups of fighting protesters who, it claimed, were seeking to disrupt the balloting despite a government ban on demonstrations.

The ministry said eight members of the NDP had also filed complaints alleging they were beaten.

Presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad described international reaction and media coverage of the incidents as "unfair and unjustified". With more than 54,000 polling stations nationwide, he said, "two sad, unacceptable incidents in greater Cairo have been exaggerated".

On the day of the referendum police arrested 46 members of opposition groups, half of them in the Suez Canal town of Ismailia. The arrests follow the detention of hundreds of members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. On Monday the prosecutor-general ordered the release of 52 student members of the group so they could sit examinations. On Saturday 77 others were released for the same reason.

Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the Brotherhood's supreme guide, has repeatedly denounced the "violent treatment" meted out to members of the group.

"In backing these thugs and failing to stop attacks against demonstrators the Interior Ministry must be considered responsible for such immoral excesses," said a Brotherhood statement.

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