Sickened by dozens of brutal attacks on female protesters in Egypt, a group called the Tahrir Bodyguard sends men and women clad in neon vests and hard hats to patrol the country's most dangerous square.
Tahrir bodyguards out in force to protect Egyptian women from 'sickening' sex attacks
CAIRO // Amid a growing number of brutal attacks on women protesters in Egypt, one stood out: a mob of men on Cairo's Tahrir Square raped a 19-year-old woman with a sharp object, requiring her to undergo emergency surgery.
The assault was one of the worst in a string of attacks over the past year in which women have been stripped, groped and raped at demonstrations in Egypt. More than two dozen sexual attacks were reported in the week leading up to the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak - a wave that activists call the worst in years and describe as the darkest stain on the country's opposition street movement.
In response, several groups have arisen to protect female demonstrators. The latest to emerge is Tahrir Bodyguard, which sends men and women clad in bright neon vests and hard hats to patrol Tahrir Square.
Soraya Bahgat said she founded the group using social media after seeing television footage last November of a mob of men attacking a woman and tearing off her clothes. She had been on the way to a demonstration at Tahrir herself, but instead stayed in, gripped with fear.
"It was sickening. They were dragging her through the street," said the 29-year-old, who works as a human resources manager. "I couldn't imagine something so horrific, and something that fundamentally would keep women from exercising their right to assembly like anyone else."
Such is the concern that the United Nations has demanded authorities act to bring perpetrators to justice, saying it had reports of 25 sexual assaults on women at Tahrir rallies in just one week.
Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, which also patrols the square, reported 19 incidents on the January 25 anniversary of the uprising, including the one on the 19-year-old.
"She had a laceration in her genitals and bite marks all over her body," said Hussein ElShafei, whose group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault helped get the woman to safety.
Extraordinary violence has been used in more than one attack. Amnesty International says that several meet the definition of rape, including penetration with fingers and sharp objects. Frequently, fights with knives and blunt weapons break out when people try to stop the attacks, blurring the lines between those helping and the perpetrators.
"Testimonies from victims and those attempting to save them paint a frightening picture: tens if not hundreds of men surrounding the victims with countless hands tearing-off clothes and veils, unzipping trousers and groping breasts, nipples and backsides," Amnesty's Egypt researcher Diana Eltahawy wrote in a blog post.
Activists say they can expect little help from the police, who rarely intervene in such cases and whom they accuse of failing to properly investigate allegations. Uniforms are almost never seen at Tahrir during demonstrations except at the fringes, where riot police clash with rock-throwing youths.
Sexual harassment in Egypt is not a new phenomenon. Women on the streets frequently are subjected to everything from stares to catcalls and attempts to grab them. In previous years, there were instances of young men ganging up to grope girls in parks or on main boulevards during public holidays when large crowds are on the street.
The trend however has worsened since the 2011 uprising, which saw a general collapse of security and rise in crime after the fall of Mubarak. Experts, activists and media have attributed the harassment to a wide range of possible factors. Some blame widespread unemployment or underemployment among youth. Others cite an attitude in the conservative nation that women should not be out in public and thus those who are are fair game. Activists have speculated that some attacks are planned, aiming to discredit the protesters or to dissuade women from joining them.
The patrols, which aim to deter potential assailants and evacuate women under assault, have prompted a backlash from harassers.
"We've had people beaten up, and in one instance a crowd - some of whom were carrying knives - tried to break into one of our locations," said Mr ElShafei. "Threats are a regular occurrence."
"I think people are getting more violent. It's been two years now and they are battle hardened," said Mohammed Osama, a 35-year-old computer engineer and black belt in judo who said he joined the bodyguard group after being slashed with a knife in street violence in his hometown of Alexandria. He said that after experiencing violence himself, he wanted to do something to prevent it from striking others.
"Individual efforts aren't enough - organisation is needed. And it's the honorable thing to do," he said in measured tones, a scar visible under his eye.
As for the perpetrators of the attacks, he described them as a "social disease."
"Sometimes attacks are organised, other times it's people profiting from chaos on the streets, said Osama. "Ignorance and poverty is part of the problem, but for those who seek to victimise others, they now have another thing coming."