Women Stood Their Ground in Tahrir

Fighting marginalization -- and much worse -- from all sides.

CAIRO — Only one woman sat among the 14 people who flanked General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Egyptian state television as he announced Egypt's new constitutional order. In President Mohamed Morsy's cabinet, there were two -- out of 24 people. Over the last few days, in other words, Egyptian women have been asked to take sides between two organizations in which women are almost entirely marginalized: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian army.

And yet, whenever there are protests, there are women in Tahrir Square -- lots of them. They know the drill. They have seen the videos on YouTube. They know the risks they take when they go down there. During the day, there are usually families in the square -- little girls on their mothers' shoulders, grandmothers.

But at night, when the families leave, the harassment begins.

Harassment is actually a gentle, almost euphemistic way to describe it. At least 80 women were assaulted last night in the square as the crowd celebrated Morsy's ouster and the army's takeover. And yet, this morning they were still there. 

A week ago, before the June 30 protests, everyone hoped, as they do before any large demonstration in Tahrir since the revolution, that this time would be different-that the men who surround women, cut off their clothes, and attack them in groups and from every angle, many while pretending to recue them, would stay home. But if they ventured the hope, they also prepared for the worst. 

In the week leading up to June 30, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), Tahrir Bodyguard, and other organizations held trainings in their central Cairo offices on how to intervene in instances of mob sexual assaults. These groups document cases ranging from sexual harassment to assault to rape. Men and women would show up, volunteers still in their work clothes, and stay long into the night to undergo training for the day itself. 

By the Friday before the planned uprisings, there had already been 12 assaults in Tahrir. Last night saw the largest number of reported assaults since these organizations began documenting them. 

Although there are many volunteers, and more at every demonstration than at the last, the scope of the problem is overwhelming and diffused across a wide and densely crowded area. "The problem is that the cases are all over the place," said Mariam Kirollos, a core team member of OpAntiSH. Because of the large number of volunteers of both genders, they are often able to intervene at a very early stage. But there are so many attacks, and the square so large, and the crush of people so dense, that they are far more often unable to reach people who need them. 

Both OpAntiSH and Tahrir Bodyguard maintain an active presence on Twitter and Facebook, advising women and men which parts of the square and which metro exits to avoid. Meanwhile a group called Harassmap maintains a map of where the assaults take place. When Tahrir is full, it is impossible to move without coming into contact with other bodies and impossible to see what is happening only feet away. As a result, it is often difficult to access women who are being assaulted to bring them to safety. It becomes a crowd-sourced effort. Activists pass out flyers in Tahrir explaining to bystanders what to do if they witness assaults and, more broadly, the need to change the culture that allows them to happen. Last night, they even called on those who had access to apartments overlooking the square to try to identify instances of assault from above. Because the attacks can involve many assailants, it is actually possible to spot them aerially. One volunteer reported an assault in which as many as 400 people were involved, some participating while others looked on. "Maybe they're organized," said Kirollos, "but definitely there are people who join in." 

Activist groups sometimes have to step in even when it seems that the survivor should be in safe hands: OpAntiSH tweeted that its activists had intervened in a case where a survivor was about to undergo a "virginity test" by a female doctor in a police booth inside the Tahrir metro station. Military officers used these so-called tests against female protesters under the SCAF's previous tenure as rulers of Egypt.  

As far as activists are aware, no one has been arrested or even charged in connection with these gang assaults. 

In recent days, Muslim Brotherhood members have contrasted the lack of sexual harassment at their pro-Morsy protests with the assaults in Tahrir. They have a point. But at the Brotherhood protests, there were far fewer women present overall. And activists respond that there were many mob assaults documented during the jubilation in Tahrir Square when Morsy took office a year ago. 

Moreover, on the question of women's rights, the relative absence of sexual assault at Brotherhood protests is about the only thing one can say for the Brotherhood just now. Former President Morsy's government fumbled at every turn. As recently as June 30, the Ministry of Health shared a survivor's name, hospital, and details of the assault with the newspaper of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political party) while also citing instances of sexual assault in the square in an attempt to delegitimize the protesters there. In March, they opposed a document on violence against women issued by the United Nations, and they consistently refer to female genital mutilation, a widespread practice in Egypt, as a sanctioned cultural practice. 

General Adel Afifi, a member of a Salafi party allied with the Brotherhood who serves on the Shura Council's human rights committee, in a statement that has now become legend among the activist community, declared: "Girls who join [the protests] do so knowing they are in the middle of thugs and street types. She must protect herself before asking the Ministry of Interior to do so. Sometimes a girl contributes 100 percent to her rape because she puts herself in those circumstances." 

Given comments like this and, more broadly, the risks each woman takes consciously when she enters the square, it says something about the strength of women's conviction of their right to participate fully in public discourse and political life that they keep showing up. 

The women at the protests are of all religious and political persuasions. On June 30, I met Amani Sayed, 43, who wore a full face veil. Her gripe with the Brotherhood? That they had divided Egyptians from one another -- Muslim from Christian, liberal from conservative. 

Huwaida Ibrahim, a 34-year-old international football referee who does not wear a hijab, emphasized the role of women in the economy, saying, "If women don't go to work, half of the country will stop." That was why she was there -- to protest the horrendous economic conditions under the Brotherhood.

Fatima Mustapha, a 35-year-old Cairene housewife said she had supported Morsy until he made such a mess and "spilled the blood of our youth." She said that when it came to women's participation in politics, "lack of knowledge" was the problem, "I want women in the People's Assembly, on the Shura Council, in the cabinet, in the judiciary" she said. "But it won't be people like me. It will be particular people [of a particular social class or educational background], ... but we all want to be able to try." 

This morning, there was a military air show over Tahrir, a last hurrah of the protests and a message to the masses: Show's over, go home. At Tahrir around midday there was a small stage set up on one side of the square with music and a crowd of a few hundred people. There was a women's section in the middle cordoned off from the men with a large space around them, patrolled by women in yellow vests. A cruel joke given the violence of the night before.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Dead on Arrival

Why is John Kerry shuttling around trying to kick-start a Middle East peace process that no one wants?

TEL AVIV, Israel — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a four-day Mideast peace push on Sunday, June 30, his latest effort in the most sustained U.S. bid at reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks in half a decade. On his fifth visit to the region since taking office in February, America's top diplomat shuttled between Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman for meetings that sometimes ran into the wee hours of the morning.

Such a flurry of diplomatic action has led some to believe a breakthrough could be nigh. Yet in Israel, Kerry's dogged do-goodery was met primarily with bemusement.

"One wonders why the secretary of state would, as a first step in his foreign policy, embark on a very complicated issue that seems to many here to be unsolvable," said Zvi Rafiah, a former diplomat closely involved with U.S.-Israel relations for four decades. "Many Israelis are asking why he would choose to stake his prestige on this issue.… If he succeeds, most Israelis would say, 'God bless.' But the chances he succeeds where his colleagues have failed are dim."

If Israelis are confused by Kerry's efforts, they're also not paying much attention. On Monday, the three networks' evening newscasts -- which still set the tone for the national discourse here -- all led with Egypt's mass anti-government protests. In the same day's Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's highest-selling daily, the first four pages were devoted to Egypt and the next 14 to internal affairs. Kerry's photo appeared only on page 18, in a midsized item titled, "Leaving empty-handed."

Maariv, another mass-market daily, ran a nearly identical headline: Kerry was "leaving empty-handed after 72 hours of frantic shuttling." As conservative columnist Amnon Lord opinionated: "This isn't a [peace] process aimed at historic achievements -- forget about it. This is a process for the U.S. government to appear as if it's doing something in the Middle East."

Lord is a former peacenik who changed his spots after the wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks by both Hamas and Fatah that followed the short-lived optimism of the 1993 Oslo Accords and became known as the Second Intifada. His right turn was sharper than most, but it's representative of a widespread skepticism across the Israeli mainstream over whether peace with the Palestinians is achievable -- now or ever.

It's not just right-wingers who predict Kerry's campaign is doomed. Barak Ravid of the progressive daily Haaretz dubbed the secretary of state "naive" and "ham-handed" for his efforts. His colleague Ari Shavit concluded bluntly that there was "no serious Israeli or Palestinian who thinks that the Kerry approach would work."

It does seem an odd time to take another stab at the peace process. Both the United States and Israel face a daunting array of challenges in the Middle East. In Iran, the centrifuges still spin. Along Israel's border with Syria, a two-year civil war has cost upwards of 100,000 lives, drawn in jihadists from far and wide, and sent a half-million refugees into neighboring Jordan. Israel's other borders offer scant consolation -- Hezbollah and Hamas plot attacks from Lebanon and Gaza, while Egypt grapples with some of the largest protests in its history.

Israel's own house is also divided, and citizens are hitting the streets to voice their own economic grievances. In 2011, hundreds of thousands demonstrated nationwide against the rising cost of living. This year, smaller rallies picketed the finance minister's home to protest austerity plans.

Today, the peace process simply ranks low on Israelis' list of priorities. The most recent Peace Index -- a monthly survey conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute -- found Israelis consider the widening socioeconomic gap between rich and poor, the Iranian threat, public safety, and the deficit to be their country's biggest problems. Talks with the Palestinians came in fifth, with just 10 percent saying it ought to top the government's to-do list.

Past failures to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians have turned Israelis into a cynical lot. Many here point to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's failure to respond to a reasonable offer by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, and to a similar failure by Abbas's predecessor, Yasir Arafat, at the landmark Camp David summit eight years prior, as signs that the Palestinian leadership is unwilling to sign a conflict-ending agreement. They point to the Palestinians' own infighting: Abbas's Fatah movement wields authority only in the West Bank and not in Gaza, where Hamas, which has denounced Kerry's peace train as a "catastrophe," holds sway. And they note the steady diet of anti-Semitic hatred fomented by Palestinian Authority media and schools.

Yet mixed with despair is also the widespread recognition that there are few alternatives to a two-state solution.

"It's truly remarkable how the secretary of state of the United States is investing so much time and energy into the region," said Yossi Shain, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations who teaches at Tel Aviv University and Georgetown University.

"Several presidents have invested heavily in the peace process -- notably Bill Clinton and also George W. Bush -- and have been burned. Presidents should not invest all their energies into the issue, as important as it may be," Shain said. "But there's a paradox: Presidents can't be seen to be disengaged.… It's a very difficult line to walk."

For its part, the Palestinian Authority sums up the reason for the impasse in one word: settlements. Palestinian officials highlight the traditionally pro-settlement policies of the Likud, now the Knesset's most powerful faction, and this week's party elections that brought gains to its more hard-line wing, as proof that it's Israel that's holding up a deal.

In March, Haaretz revealed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to quietly refreeze building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a gesture to Kerry as he sought to revive talks. That move, however, was to last only through the end of June. On Sunday, June 30, hours before the secretary of state left Jerusalem, local media publicized Housing Ministry plans to build additional homes in Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem that Palestinians say impedes travel between Arab parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Yet settlements are just one of a handful of core issues on which Israeli and Palestinian officials still seem miles apart. There is the Palestinians' demand for a "right of return" for millions of refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, for example, to which no elected Israeli government will ever agree. There are the questions of how to divide up scarce water resources, the status of Jerusalem, and how to assuage Israeli concerns that a Palestinian state will serve as a launching pad for more acts of terrorism.

It's unclear how Kerry intends to address these issues, which have bedeviled peace processors more experienced than he for decades. Jordanian media have reported he is seeking to organize a four-way peace summit in that country, and the secretary himself has hinted that he envisions a pathway to peace that could "surprise people."

But so far, Kerry's efforts have stumbled over the same, predictable obstacles that have lain in the way of a peace deal for decades. "We look at it from two perspectives. On one hand, we say, 'God bless you, Mr. Secretary; we wish you luck,'" said Rafiah, the ex-diplomat. "On the other, we wonder, 'Where are you running so fast?' The whole Middle East is boiling, and you're concentrating on Israeli-Palestinian talks that will have no impact on the killings in Syria, Iran, or the crisis in Egypt. We're a bit bewildered, but we wish you well."