Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2006
Issue No. 818
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Streets of shame

Reports of sexual harassment in downtown Cairo have left many Egyptians dumbfounded, reports Karim El-Khashab

On the first and second day of Eid Al-Fitr, Egyptian bloggers reported attacks against women by hordes of young men in downtown Cairo near Metro Cinema in Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Street. The Interior Ministry has denied the reports, saying no complaints or charges have been filed relating to such incidents. If they did really happen, sources at the Interior Ministry ask, why were no reports filed at police stations?

Bloggers at the scene at the time of the incidents refute the ministry's denials. Blogger Malek Mustafa, also known as Malcolm X, says he witnessed the attacks first hand as mobs of men near the cinema picked on women at random, encircling them and attempting to tear away their clothing.

It started, says Mustafa, when tickets for the movie premier at the cinema sold out and the men could not gain admittance. They proceeded to break the windows of the cinema before turning their attention to women in the area. In all, Malek says, he saw five women attacked in the ensuing chaos that lasted for almost an hour.

The first incident Malek witnessed involved a young woman who tried to run away from a crowd of 50 or 60 men.

"The girl tried her best to get away but tripped and was immediately surrounded," says Malek. "They started touching her and attempted to rip away some of her clothing."

At that point a store owner rushed out and pulled the girl into his store, fending off her attackers with a belt. Later the crowd of men attempted to force their way into the shop.

The crowd then turned on two other victims who were also encircled.

"I couldn't see exactly what was happening because the crowd was so large. I tried to climb on top of a pole and saw two young veiled women in the middle."

One managed to escape into a nearby store while Malek says the second was groped by the men who tore at her clothes before she too was rescued by shop owners.

As the random attacks continued security guards from a residential building and nearby shopping mall tried to intervene, one of them waving his pistol at the attackers to force them away from a young woman.

Farag, a security guard on duty in one of the buildings, says one girl was taken into the building and the doors locked to prevent the men following. Security guards also told blogger Wael Abbas, who was taking pictures on his cellular phone, to stop, saying they did not want the disgrace to be seen.

Karim, owner of a shop near the cinema, says there is nothing new in such incidents. "These things happen all the time but because it was Eid and the streets were more crowded with young men the incidents were more numerous and severe."

Yet other store owners were keen to stick to the official denial, saying they saw nothing.

Professor of political sociology Saed Mostafa Sadek believes that a stronger police presence on the streets during crowded times would deter such attacks but the "security forces are only interested in politics not the security of the people."

That such events are allowed to happen in Downtown Cairo is, he believes, a reflection of the retreat of the state at a time when Egypt is facing "the worst social situation in its history" and when harassment towards women has become commonplace in the street.

He points out that when female journalists were sexually assaulted by plain-clothes security personnel during a demonstration to protest last year's referendum on Article 76 of the constitution no one was prosecuted or held accountable. Such flagrant disregard for the rights of woman has, says Sadek, encouraged a culture of violence in the street of which women are often the target. It is fuelled, he believes, by the sexual frustration that many young men harbour. What we are seeing, he says, is a mixture of "desire and hatred", desire for what they want and hatred at what they cannot have.

Whatever the facts of the incidents over Eid, many Egyptians have been outraged by what is said to have happened on a holy celebration, a time traditionally for families to go out and enjoy themselves.

"I never thought things could get this bad. Harassment is commonplace today, but this is an escalation," says Nora, a 21-year-old student from Ain Shams University. She can understand neither the limited media attention the story received nor the seeming lack of police on a busy Downtown street during its busiest time of year.

"The police's only job now is to protect a small minority of the political elite," says leading commentator Salama Ahmed Salama. It has completely abandoned its role of protecting the public.

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