A mob of hundreds of men have assaulted women holding a march demanding an end to sexual harassment, with the attackers overwhelming the male guardians and groping and molesting several of the female marchers in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The attack follows smaller scale assaults on women this week in Tahrir, the epicenter of the uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down last year. Thousands have been gathering in the square this week in protests over a variety of issues — mainly over worries that presidential elections this month will secure the continued rule by elements of Mubarak's regime backed by the ruling military.
Friday's march was called to demand an end to sexual assaults. Around 50 women participated, surrounded by a larger group of male supporters who joined hands to form a protective ring around them. The protesters carried posters saying, "The people want to cut the hand of the sexual harasser," and chanted, "The Egyptian girl says it loudly, harassment is barbaric."
After the marchers entered a crowded corner of the square, a group of men waded into the group of women, heckling them and groping them. The male supporters tried to fend them off, and it turned into a melee involving a mob of hundreds.
The marchers tried to flee while the attackers chased them and male supporters tried to protect them. But the attackers persisted, cornering several women against a metal sidewalk railing, including an Associated Press reporter, shoving their hands down their clothes and trying to grab their bags. The male supporters fought back, swinging belts and fists and throwing water.
Eventually, the women were able to reach refuge in a nearby building with the mob still outside until they finally got out to safety.
"After what I saw and heard today. I am furious at so many things. Why beat a girl and strip her off? Why?" wrote Sally Zohney, one of the organisers of the event on Twitter.
The persistence of the attack raised the belief of many that it was intentional, though who orchestrated it was unclear.
“These women stood up to demand an end to sexual harassment. What they got was intimidation and sexual assault,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, in a statement.
“In last year’s protests, Tahrir Square was a place where women stood on an equal footing with men to demand their freedom. Now it has become a place where women are singled out for sexual harassment.
“These attacks need to be investigated immediately and those found responsible held to account. An investigation would serve as a deterrent against sexual harassment and will help protect women protesters who are exercising their right to peacefully express their views.”
Notably, the protest was organized by 20 Egyptian women's groups - yet only 50 women showed up, which might indicate that most Egyptian women knew something like this would occur.