Sexual assaults in Cairo's Tahrir Square 'out of control'

Vigilante group formed to protect women at protest in square report 46 attacks on Sunday alone, plus the gang rape of a Dutch intern

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 4:25am

A new wave of sexual assaults, including at least one gang rape, has been reported during anti-government protests in Cairo's central Tahrir Square, as millions of Egyptians take to the streets to demand the ousting of President Mohammed Mursi.

A vigilante group formed to protect women in the square, which has become the epicentre of anti-government rallies, said it recorded 46 sexual assaults by mobs of men on Sunday alone. A Dutch woman was gang-raped when a crowd surrounded her in Tahrir Square on Friday, as protests by Mursi's supporters and opponents got under way.

During daylight on Sunday, most protesters were festive as families with small children and others spilled into side streets and across boulevards, waving flags, blowing whistles and chanting.

But the atmosphere became less friendly in Tahrir as night fell on the badly lit plaza, which became notorious for sex attacks during the 18-day revolution that forced the resignation of Mursi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011. Sexual harassment has long been common in Egypt, but its increasing frequency and violence has shaken the protest movement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said the Dutch woman was repatriated, referring to a statement issued by the Dutch embassy in Cairo.

A security official said the prosecutor's office had launched an investigation into the attack.

Dutch media reports said the women, 22, was an intern with an Egyptian organisation and had gone to the square to take photos of the demonstrations.

Presidential aide Essam el-Haddad said the attack was among seven cases reported by human rights groups in or around Tahrir on Friday. "Those criminal acts do not appear to be politically motivated or controlled," he said. The president's office also said the attacks "appear to be a sign the crowds in Tahrir are out of control".

Some protesters have said the government has exaggerated claims of sexual assault to try to drive away female protesters and mar the movement's reputation.

But Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, which patrols the square, said 46 group assaults were recorded on Sunday in Tahrir, calling that the highest number it has encountered since the group was formed in November 2012.

"Many cases were severe cases that required either psychological or medical treatment," said Engy Ghozlan, a member of the group.

The group said at least 17 attempted assaults were reported on Monday, and volunteers had intervened in eight of them.

A reporter witnessed a group of men waving wooden sticks surrounding an Egyptian woman on Sunday. She shouted at them before falling on the ground. Many of the men claimed they were trying to help the woman but they would not allow anybody to approach her and it was unclear what happened next. The reporter was not able to reach the woman and help her.

Nabil Mitry, a protester who saw the same incident, said the stick-wielding men were yelling insults at a man trying to help the woman. He blamed the lack of police at the square. Security forces largely stay away to avoid provoking confrontations.

"The problem is that there is no police, so there is no security. If the police was securing the square we wouldn't have this kind of problem," he said.