Egypt’s women watch protests from sidelines amid fears of sexual violence

Volunteers form a safe zone between men and women to avoid sexual harassment during a protest against President Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo on July 2. Amr Nabil / AP, file

CAIRO, Egypt - Nashwa Youssef and her husband Sherif have been following every twist and turn amid the turmoil in the wake of the ouster of Egypt’s democratically elected president.

“The anxiety is too much to bear. All I do is watch the news and surf social media for the latest updates,” said 30-year-old Youssef, an English teacher who lives just six miles from Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of Egypt’s demonstrations. "My husband has gone down to Tahrir every day since the protests started.”

But while they share their passion for politics at home, the couple did not do so on the streets. “My husband completely refused to let me go with him,” said Youssef, who supported the military's removal of President Mohammed Morsi. “He was worried that violence would break out unexpectedly, or the risk of sexual harassment.”

The Tamarod protest petition demanding Morsi leave office allegedly garnered 22 million signatures. But while their names and signatures may have been on the list that eventually saw Morsi stripped of the presidency and placed under house arrest, many women like Youssef are staying at home amid fears of being sexually attacked during what some are calling Egypt's "second revolution."

There have been 173 cases of mob sexual assault reported in the epicenter of protests in Tahrir Square and in front of the Presidential Palace since June 30, but only one arrest, according to Harassmap, which tracks attacks online.

While images of women protesters have accompanied stories of Egypt’s protest movements since the beginning of the Arab Spring in December 2010, a more sinister narrative has emerged: mobs of men surrounding, abusing and raping women participating in protests.

While CBS News journalist Lara Logan's well-publicized assault in Tahrir Square in February 2011, shed light on the problem, it has not gone away. If anything it has gotten worse, activists say. 

The second anniversary of Egypt’s revolution on January 25, there was the first reported case of rape of a protester by a weapon, according to Harassmap co-founder Rebecca Chiao.

"The attacks have become increasingly violent and we are not sure why," she said.

Volunteers secure women opponents of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Amr Nabil / AP, file

Harassmap is among seven groups that form an umbrella coalition Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, or OpAntiSH, that spread out and intervene to stop attacks in protest areas such as Tahrir Square and near the Presidential Palace.

According to Chiao, women are opting not to attend demonstrations for fear of assault. Warnings not to go to Tahrir spread quickly on Twitter, she added. 

Mob sexual assault is often used as a political tool, according to Chiao and other activists. The first documented case was in 2005 under the rule of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak. 

“There is usually a mixture of assailants, perhaps five paid thugs who instigate the matter, and then bystanders join in,” Chiao said. There are claims that a number of men have confessed on camera to being paid, although the exact identities of who pays the men to instigate violence is not known.

The assaults seem to follow a common pattern. A group of men will separate the woman or girl from her group and swarm her by creating a circular tornado of bodies. 

This makes it nearly impossible for her to escape, and very difficult for anyone to save her. Victims have reported that men often shout phrases like, “Stop! You’re hurting her! She’s like your sister” while at the same time as sexually assaulting her. Often the victim’s clothes are stripped from her body. 

The OpAntiSH team works out of an operations room, taking calls and logging alerts to the intervention team stationed around Tahrir.

After an alert is made, the interventions team enters the mob surrounding the girl using Tasers or flares, rescues her and delivers them to a safety team. The team then takes her to a safe house to consult a psychologist or doctor depending on her injuries.

While OpAntiSH has helped hundreds of women protesters, one woman it wasn’t able to reach is freelance journalist Hania Moheeb.

After her brutal attack in Tahrir Square in January, nurses told her to be quiet and not tell her husband in case he decided to leave her.

She ignored their advice. 

“I encourage all women to speak up and go after their rights," Moheeb said. "Go and file cases, part of the problem is the police ridiculing the issue for so long."

And unlike many of her sisters, she still goes to Tahrir.