CAIRO — Women hoping to extend their rights in post-revolutionary Egypt were faced with a harsh reality Tuesday when a mob of angry men beat and sexually assaulted marchers calling for political and social equality, witnesses said.
“Everyone was chased. Some were beaten. They were touching us everywhere,” said Dina Abou Elsoud, 35, a hostel owner and organizer of the ambitiously named Million Woman March.
She was among a half-dozen women who said they were repeatedly groped by men — a common form of intimidation and harassment here that was, in fact, a target of the protesters. None of the women reported serious injuries.
The demonstration on International Women’s Day drew a crowd only in the hundreds to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the popular revolt that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power. Gone, organizers said, was the spirit of equality and cooperation between the sexes that marked most of the historic mass gatherings in the square.
As upwards of 300 marchers assembled late Tuesday afternoon, men began taunting them, insisting that a woman could never be president and objecting to women’s demands to have a role in drafting a new constitution, witnesses said.
“People were saying that women were dividing the revolution and should be happy with the rights they have,” said Ebony Coletu, 36, an American who teaches at American University in Cairo and attended the march, as she put it, “in solidarity.”
The men — their number estimated to be at least double that of the women’s — broke through a human chain that other men had formed to protect the marchers. Women said they attempted to stand their ground — until the physical aggression began.
“I was grabbed in the crotch area at least six times. I was grabbed in the breasts; my throat was grabbed,” Coletu said.
She and several others said they eventually took refuge in a tourism agency office protected by Egyptian army personnel.
The sexual assault of CBS News reporter Lara Logan during the Tahrir Square protests last month brought the problem to wider Western notice, but Egyptian women say that sexual harassment has long been rampant here and that they grow up expecting to be fondled in public by men with impunity.
Nagla Rizk, also a professor at American University in Cairo, said she went to the march Tuesday full of hope but left within an hour after sensing the ugly mood of the counterdemonstrators.
“The whole event was not successful, and I am very disappointed,” she said. “This is totally alien to the spirit of Tahrir.”