Egyptian military apologises for assaults on women protesters
CAIRO // Thousands of Egyptian women marched in the streets of Cairo yesterday, protesting abuse by soldiers who dragged women by the hair, stomped on them and stripped one half-naked on the street while cracking down on anti-military protesters in scenes that shocked many in the conservative society.
The march was a rare protest by women and its numbers - about 10,000 by some estimates - underlined the depth of anger over the images from the fierce crackdown over the past five days on protesters demanding the ruling military step down immediately.
Even before the protest was over, the ruling military council issued an unusual apology for what it called "violations" - a quick turnaround after days of dismissing the significance of the abuse.
The council expressed "deep regret to the great women of Egypt" and reaffirmed "its respect and total appreciation for the women of Egypt and their right to protest, effectively and positively participate in the political life on the road to the democratic transition." It promised it was taking measures to punish those responsible for violations.
The attacks on the women came in fierce clashes since Friday as troops broke up protests by activists demanding the immediate end to the rule of the military, which took power after the February fall of Hosni Mubarak. The clashes saw military police chasing young men and women through Tahrir Square and nearby streets, beating them with clubs and sticks.
The latest crackdown has killed at least 12 people, all protesters, according to the ministry of health. Other reports of casualties, including those from doctors working in the field hospitals in Tahrir Square, say the death toll stands between 14 and 18.
One doctor told the state-owned daily Al Ahram Online that four protesters died yesterday morning, all from gunshot wounds, when Egyptian troops and riot police raided the square, firing automatic weapons and tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators.
Witnesses also recounted horrific scenes of bloodstained streets, wailing demonstrators and chaotic, tense scenes at field hospitals. Many protesters have collected the empty bullet casings they say prove troops are deliberately firing on civilians.
Protesters and human-rights activists say the brutality shown by both the police and army in the past few days is unprecedented.
"[Field Marshall Mohamed] Tantawi did not have to use this type of force," said Sheikh Hisham Attya, a Muslim cleric at Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's premier institute. Mr Tantawi is the head of the ruling military council.
Footage circulating on social networking sites such as YouTube, showing soldiers stripping a woman of her hijab, ripping her clothes to reveal her underwear, then clubbing and kicking her, have added to the protesters' rage.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on Monday denounced the attack as "shocking" and a "disgrace" to the state. She accused Egyptian authorities of failing the country's women since the revolution, both by excluding them from power and humiliating them in the streets.
"This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people," Mrs Clinton said in a speech at Georgetown University.
The images have pegged women's rights in the square as an important sub-narrative to the larger story of police and army violence.
"In recent months, the military have been relatively successful in marginalising [the protesters] and depicting their ongoing campaign as a nuisance to society," said Louisa Loveluck, an analyst on Egyptian affairs at the London-based Chatham House, an international affairs think tank. Mrs Loveluck has published several papers on the role of media in post-Mubarak Egypt.
"The vulnerable and intensely human nature of this image [of the woman being stripped] appeals to Egyptians on the most basic of levels," she said.
But some female activists here say Mrs Clinton's focus on violence against women does a disservice to some of the larger abuses against the protest movement.
"Clinton is missing the bigger picture; this is not only a feminist issue," said Menna Alaa, 18, an Egyptian female blogger and journalism student. "She should be making the point that the army is killing protesters - man, woman, child. They are not making distinctions. That is the issue."
* With additional reporting by Associated Press
Updated: December 21, 2011 04:00 AM