This is not a new phenomenon. In February 2011, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was in Tahrir Square to report on the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, when a crowd of men overpowered her crew, stripped her, and subjected her to a prolonged and brutal sexual assault. In June 2012, documentarian Natasha Smith suffered a similar assault at the hands of a mob who stripped her and violated her with their hands as they dragged her, naked, through the square. There have been many more attacks against Egyptian women following the same pattern: a group of men isolate a woman, then surround her with what one activist has called “the circle of hell” – a ring of men who strip and assault the woman, surrounded by outer circles of accomplices who enable the attack by pretending to help the victim, and distracting the crowd from what is happening.
I recently spoke to Joost Schefferss, a 21 year old journalism student from the Netherlands who is currently studying Arabic in Cairo, about an attack that he and his friends suffered in Tahrir Square last Sunday. Thankfully, his group was rescued shortly after the assault began, narrowly avoiding a more serious fate.
Joost had gone to the square with two friends: another male student from the Netherlands, and a young Swedish woman. (His friends prefer not to be identified.) They were accompanied by two Egyptian journalists. Although Joost and his friends had no involvement in Egyptian politics, he felt an “intense strong feeling to go there to see what was going on.” He sensed that history was happening nearby, and thought it would be a shame to miss it.
They arrived at the square in the late afternoon, while the sun was still bright, and spent several hours there without incident. The atmosphere was happy, “like a festival, or something like that.” Helicopters flying Egyptian flags circled overhead, and the crowd cheered them, taking the choppers’ presence as a sign of support from the army. “It was a good atmosphere, great, really.” He took photographs, and tweeted about the excitement of the crowd.
As evening fell, and it began to get dark, however, Joost felt the mood of the crowd begin to change. “Be careful, be careful,” people in the crowd began to say to them, in English. His group linked together to walk single file, “like a train.” Each held onto a shoulder of the person in front of them, with the two Egyptian journalists bracketing the line in front and back, an engine and a caboose.
They began to make their way out of the square. Suddenly, “at a certain moment, the people were pushing, pushing, pushing. I didn’t have any idea what was going on.”
“It kept on going, and I felt a guy pushing me on my back, and again.” He briefly thought that it was merely the density of the moving crowd, but when he turned, he saw that there was plenty of space. Joost realized that the pushes were deliberate attacks meant to separate the group. Surprisingly, their attackers were teenagers. The person pushing Joost was “like a kid, of 17 or 18 years old.”
As he struggled to stay on his feet, Joost realized that his Swedish friend had lost hold of his shoulder. “I started to look, where she is, where she is, where she is? And I saw her, being pushed through the crowds by the Egyptian journalists, to get away from there.”
“She was pushed away, and the other guys were pushing me very hard, front and back.” He tried to follow, but the young woman was surrounded by a group of youths who were sexually assaulting her. “She got touched – hands were all over her whole body, grabbing her.” The two Egyptian journalists were trying to protect her, but they were unable to escape.
The Egyptian boys around Joost and his other friend continued to slam into them, trying to knock them to the ground as they tried to reach the young woman to help her. Joost felt certain that she was the main object of the attack. “That is the tactic of these groups. They push, and they push and they push, and at a certain moment the girl is gone.”
During the struggle, Joost made eye contact with one of the attackers. Horrifyingly, he looked like was having fun. “I looked the guy straight in his eyes… his face was really, really happy. He was enjoying it, definitely. There was a big smile on his face.”
Joost does not know how long the assault lasted, because he was just focused on keeping his feet, and getting to his friend. Suddenly, a group of broad-shouldered, muscular Egyptian men ran up to them and “smashed” away the youths committing the assault. With the Egyptian journalists, their rescuers joined hands to form a circle and made their way through the crowd, out of the square. Joost believes that things could have gotten much worse if they had not been rescued. “We were really lucky, after all.”
Once they were out of the square, most of their protectors disappeared – probably back into the square, to return to their patrol. However, “one of them walked with us to our car, just to make sure we arrived there, as safe as possible.” Joost would like to find the group, to thank them for their help, but has not been able to do so thus far. The rescuers never introduced themselves, so it is unclear whether they were volunteers with an official organization like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, or just concerned citizens.
“The guy who accompanied us to the car, he had a red t-shirt and a red key card with a red card on it, but I don’t know exactly what the red card was from. I also don’t know who he was, where he was from, or what else – I’ve got no clue at all.”
I asked Joost if he had any sense of what the attackers’ motivation might have been. He offered a few general theories, such as the mistrust created by Egyptian ad campaigns telling people not to trust foreigners, and the frustration felt by young men who are unable to get jobs or marry, but while those explanations might explain Egypt’s generally high rates of sexual harassment, they don’t explain the specific phenomenon of mob assaults on women in Tahrir Square. Joost has also heard that there is credible evidence that other sexual assaults were designed to drive women and journalists out of the square. “There were signals that those attacks were structured to get the journalists off Tahrir and make everyone afraid to come there and protest.”
That doesn’t seem to fit his own experience, though. “They could have been instructed by special forces to [attack us], but I really doubt it, because they were so young.” He imagines that if such attacks were planned, the organizers would send “a big group of strong men, to make sure that it happens. Not a bunch of kids.” (He hastened to add that this was just his own impression, however – he doesn’t have enough information to comment about the phenomenon of these assaults more generally.)
Whatever the motivation behind this particular assault, at this stage it seems clear that these attacks are taking place with horrifying frequency. Last Friday, a Dutch journalist was reportedly gang raped in Tahrir, and remains hospitalized for her injuries. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a volunteer organization in Cairo that sends volunteer patrols into Tahrir Square to protect women from attack, received 46 reports of mob sexual assaults on women on Sunday, 17 Monday, and more than 20 yesterday. The victims of yesterday’s attacks reportedly included “grandmothers, mothers with their children,” and 7 year old girls.
Despite the ongoing assaults, however, women continue to participate in the Tahrir demonstrations, and to volunteer with the bodyguard groups patrolling to rescue women from sexual assaults. Three cheers for their bravery, which is an example to us all.