Rabaa Fahmy, a slender woman in a black skirt and jacket, had already been beaten and dragged into the street by a government-organized mob. But as a lawyer, she was determined to press charges against one of her attackers, so she quickly returned to the scene of the melee to try to nab and identify him.
The mob was momentarily paralyzed by the reappearance of the disheveled figure it had just punched, slapped, groped and dragged down a staircase. But when Fahmy lunged for the young assailant whose bleached hair she recognized, the crowd sprang into action and beat her again.
It was a quixotic and telling episode in an attack on democracy demonstrators in the Egyptian capital Wednesday that coincided with a nationwide referendum on multi-party presidential elections. Members of the opposition Kifaya, or Enough, movement were set upon and beaten, under the indifferent gaze of riot police, by mobs directed by officials from President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Few of the Kifaya demonstrators were women, but at least a half-dozen of them were singled out for attacks that included aggressive fondling.
Of all the demonstrators who were physically assaulted and ejected from the steps of the Journalists' Syndicate building Wednesday, only Fahmy went back to do battle.
In the face of a mob attack, and in a country with a long and well-documented history of sharply repressing political gatherings and free speech, Fahmy thought she should take her assailant to court. "I wanted the police to arrest him," she said in an interview Thursday. "I wanted to bring him to them. When the mob threw me out to the street again, a policeman asked me, 'Didn't we tell you to go home?' "
An unusual activist
Fahmy is somewhat of an oddity in Kifaya, a group of political and human rights activists working to end Mubarak's 24-year rule. Not only did she serve in the army, which is not required of women, but as a civilian she traveled to Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion intending to fight American troops. She is a devout Muslim who wears Western-style clothing, and she runs her own criminal and family law practice.
Yet she is representative of the resilience of Kifaya and of other key Egyptian opposition movements. All have seen members subjected to repeated arrest, and often violence, and all have persevered.
In addition to Kifaya, mobs have attacked campaigners for Ayman Nour, a lawyer and the only candidate actively running against Mubarak in the presidential election scheduled for September. Nour was jailed for six weeks in the spring and has been charged with forging official documents in a case he has described as blatant intimidation.
After the two-day visit of first lady Laura Bush this week, opposition groups expressed concern that the U.S. government had abandoned the cause of political reform in Egypt. On Monday, Bush praised Mubarak for taking a "wise and bold" step toward democracy with his proposal for multi-candidate elections.
On Thursday, however, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, condemned the attacks on Kifaya. "I think our view is very well known when it comes to freedom of assembly, and freedom of assembly by opposition parties and critics of those in power is important when it comes to conducting free elections," McClellan said.
Egyptian state television and government newspapers reported nothing about the opposition demonstrations and the violent response to them. "Even though Kifaya is small, the government is afraid," Fahmy said. "We as Kifaya broke the barrier of fear in Egypt."
Fahmy joined Kifaya a few months after returning from Iraq, where she had gone in March 2003 on a trip organized by the Pharmacists' Syndicate, but where she said she planned to stay and fight. U.S. forces were advancing rapidly on Baghdad. President Saddam Hussein was still at large. But before she could pick up a rifle, she was hurt in a bus accident in Anbar province, the area that has since been the scene of the stiffest resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.
Fahmy, 38, said she went to Iraq out of religious conviction and opposition to what she calls the American empire. "Islamic teachings say that if Muslim lands are occupied, you must perform jihad," she said.
"I also went as an Arab joining an Arab army," she went on, and reminisced about her six-year service as an officer in Egypt's army in the 1990s. "It was wonderful to have the stars of my country on my shoulders," she said. She studied law in the army and launched her career after she got out.
Friends invited her to join Kifaya, and she began trying to recruit fellow lawyers. The response has been unsatisfactory, Fahmy said, blaming Egypt's legendary political apathy. "Maybe it's the Egyptian character refined by 6,000 years of one-man rule," she said. "Egyptians want the change to come from above."
Fahmy also took part in Kifaya demonstrations. They have mostly been small affairs of a few score activists dwarfed by cordons of police -- and, on Wednesday, assaulted by an organized mob.
"I noticed right away there was something different," Fahmy said. "The plainclothesmen were in close contact with the police. And the crowds of people with sticks and banners -- they looked like criminals to me. Their hairstyles, their look. We Egyptians can smell them."
"I never imagined it would reach the level of violence it did," she added. "Not to the point of a kind of sexual assault."
When the crowd made its first charge up the stairs, Fahmy stood with her back to a column. The man with bleached hair -- Fahmy said she thinks he was about 18 -- pointed at her, and other young assailants attacked. They pulled at her blouse and skirt, ripping both. They grabbed her hair and pulled her down the stairs. Eventually someone pushed her through the line of policemen, who stood beyond the mob. Fahmy recognized some of the security agents outside the police barriers. "They leered at me. They had seen me humiliated," she said. "They didn't lift a finger to stop it."
Fahmy decided to go back up the stairs. She weaved her way around the police barriers and marched through the men, rearranging her torn clothing as best she could. Her curly black hair stuck out in every direction. She soon disappeared in a sea of flailing hands and kicking feet, suffering bruises and a gashed left ankle. After she was carried again beyond the immobile line of police, she walked to a nearby police station to file a complaint. The officers in charge refused to take a statement, she said.
This incident shattered the rosy view Fahmy had held of her country. "We are supposed to have an ethical basis of society here," she said. "We don't attack women. I'm embarrassed."
"The regime is a tower of garbage," she added, tears glistening in her eyes. "It will fall."
Fahmy said she would continue to organize and attend demonstrations. "This was obviously aimed at eliminating women from protest," she said. "For sure, the gap between us and the regime is wider. The animosity deeper. I would like to put Hosni Mubarak on trial for this."