New wave of sexual assaults reported in Cairo's Tahrir Square
CAIRO // A new wave of sexual assaults on women by groups of men has been reported during the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
A vigilante group formed to protect women in the square said it recorded the highest number of attempts - 46 - on Sunday when the majority of protesters were festive as families with small children and others spilled into side streets and across boulevards, waving flags, blowing whistles and chanting.
The atmosphere became less friendly as night fell on the badly lit plaza, where attacks against women have increased since shortly after the 18-day revolution that forced Hosni Mubarak to resign in 2011. Sexual harassment has long been common in Egypt, but the rise in frequency and violence has shaken the protest movement.
A Dutch woman was assaulted by several men when a crowd surrounded her in Tahrir Square on Friday as weekend protests by supporters and opponents of the president, Mohammed Morsi, got under way, officials said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said on Monday that the 22-year-old woman had been repatriated, while a security official said the Egyptian prosecutor's office was investigating the attack.
Dutch media reported that the foreign ministry had confirmed a 22-year-old Dutch woman had been assaulted on Friday night on Tahrir but gave no more details.
A top presidential aide, Essam Al 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.
Some protesters have alleged that the government has exaggerated claims of sexual assault to try to drive away female protesters and mar the movement's reputation.
Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, which patrols the square, said 46 group assaults were recorded in Tahrir on Sunday, the highest number it has encountered since the group was formed last November. "Many cases were severe [and] required either psychological or medical treatment," said Engy Ghozlan, a member of the group.
The group said that at least 17 attempted assaults were reported on Tahrir on Monday, and volunteers had intervened in eight of them.
Nabil Mitry, a 35-year-old protester at Tahrir, was present when a group of men waving wooden sticks surrounded an Egyptian woman on Sunday. She shouted at them before falling to the ground. The men claimed they were trying to help the woman but would not allow anybody to approach her. It was unclear what happened next.
Mr Mitry blamed the attacks on the lack of police at the square. Security forces tend to stay away to avoid confronting the protesters.
"The problem is that there is no police, so there is no security. If the police were securing the square we wouldn't have this kind of problem," he said.
A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Gehad Al Haddad, urged protesters and others to support initiatives such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault "to prevent anything from happening to citizens joining their demonstrations".
The group dismissed the statement, saying, "we don't believe in the presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood's sudden concern about the women's physical integrity or their full right to protest safely, when we all know their position regarding women's equality and rights".
Initiatives to counter the problem have mushroomed in recent months, with groups protecting women at large protests and during national holidays when groping and harassment in crowds is at an all-time high. Activists have offered self-defence classes for women. Social-network sites have been started where women can "name and shame" their harassers.
But there also are conservative religious leaders and some government officials who blame women, saying they invite harassment and sexual abuse by mixing with men.
In one of the most high-profile cases, Lara Logan, a correspondent for the US network CBS, was sexually assaulted and beaten in Tahrir Square at the height of the anti-Mubarak uprising. She said later that she believed she was going to die. After being rescued, Logan returned to the United States and was treated in hospital for four days.
Updated: July 3, 2013 04:00 AM