CAIRO » The sheer number of women sexually abused and gang raped in a single public square had become too big to ignore. Conservative Islamists in Egypt’s new political elite were outraged — at the women.
"Sometimes," said Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, a police general, lawmaker and ultraconservative Islamist, "a girl contributes 100 percent to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions."
The increase in sexual assaults over the last two years has set off a new battle over who is to blame, and the debate has become a stark and painful illustration of the convulsions racking Egypt as it tries to reinvent itself.
Under Hosni Mubarak, the omnipresent police kept sexual assault out of the public squares and the public eye. But since Mubarak’s exit, the withdrawal of the security forces has allowed sexual assault to explode into the open, terrorizing Egyptian women.
Women, though, have also taken advantage of another aspect of the breakdown in authority — by speaking out through the newly aggressive news media, defying social taboos to demand attention for a problem the old government often denied. At the same time, some Islamist elected officials have used their new positions to vent some of the most patriarchal impulses in Egypt’s traditional culture and a deep hostility to women’s participation in politics.
The female victims, these officials declared, had invited the attacks by participating in public protests. "How do they ask the Ministry of Interior to protect a woman when she stands among men?" Reda Saleh Al al-Hefnawi, a lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, asked at a parliamentary meeting on the issue.
The revolution initially promised to reopen public space to women. Men and women demonstrated together in Tahrir Square peacefully during the heady 18 days and nights that led to the ouster of Mubarak. But within minutes of his departure the threat re-emerged in a group attack on the CBS News correspondent Lara Logan. There are no official statistics on women attacked — partly because few women report offenses — but all acknowledge that the attacks have grown bolder and more violent.
By the second anniversary of the revolution, on Jan. 25, the symbolic core of the revolution — Tahrir Square — had become a no-go zone for women, especially after dark.
During a demonstration that day against the new Islamist-led government, an extraordinary wave of sexual assaults — at least 18 confirmed by human rights groups, and more, according to Egypt’s semiofficial National Council of Women — shocked the country, drawing public attention from President Mohammed Morsi and Western diplomats.
Hania Moheeb, 42, a journalist, was one of the first victims to speak out about her experience that day. In a television interview, she recounted how a group of men surrounded her, stripped off her clothes and violated her for three quarters of an hour. The men all shouted that they were trying to rescue her, Moheeb recalled, and by the time an ambulance arrived she could no longer differentiate her assailants from defenders.
To alleviate the social stigma usually attached to sexual assault victims in Egypt’s conservative culture, her husband, Dr. Sherif Al Kerdani, appeared alongside her.
"My wife did nothing wrong," Kerdani said.
Of the 18 confirmed attacks that day, six women were hospitalized, according to interviews conducted by human rights groups. One woman was stabbed in her genitals, and another required a hysterectomy.
In the aftermath, victims of other sexual assaults around Tahrir Square over the last two years have come forward as well. "When I see Mohamed Mahmoud Street on television from home, my hand automatically grabs my pants," Yasmine Al Baramawy said in a television interview, recalling her own attack last November.
She and a friend were each surrounded by two separate rings of attackers, she said. Some claimed to be protecting her from others but joined in the attack. They used knives to cut most of the clothes off her body and then pinned her half-naked to the hood of a car. And they continued to torment her on a slow, hourlong drive to a nearby neighborhood, where she said residents finally interceded to rescue her.
"They told people I had a bomb on my abdomen to stop anybody from rescuing me," Baramawy said.
The attacks have underscored the failure of the Morsi government, with its links to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, to restore social order. The comments by the president’s Islamist allies blaming the women have proven embarrassing.
Pakynam al-Al Sharkawy, the president’s political adviser and the highest-ranking woman in his administration, called such statements "completely unacceptable."
She attributed the attacks to the general breakdown in security but also to the refusal of the protesters to allow the police into the square since the revolt against Mubarak. "The protesters insist on keeping security out of the square, even to regulate traffic," she said.
On Sunday, the Morsi government convened a meeting of women to discuss plans for their advancement. So far, though, its most tangible measure to address the problem is draft legislation to criminalize sexual harassment.
But women’s rights advocates say the bill would do nothing to protect women from social attitudes and scorn that assault victims face in hospitals and police stations — not to mention in the Parliament — if they try to bring legal complaints.
Moheeb said in an interview that after she was attacked nurses told her to keep silent in order to protect her reputation.
With police protection negligible, some women are taking their security into their own hands. At a recent march to call attention to the sexual attacks, several women held knives above their heads.
"Don’t worry about me," said Abeer Haridi, 40, a lawyer. "I’m armed."
Members of the political elite, meanwhile, have appeared more concerned with blaming one another. The Muslim Brotherhood "plotted the sexual harassment in Tahrir Square" to intimidate the demonstrators, asserted Mohamed Abu Al Ghar, the president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
The Muslim Brotherhood said opposition leaders "ignored the brutal party of harassment and rape" in the square, according to a column on the Brotherhood website. The rapes are "a disgrace on their foreheads," the column declared.
Other Brotherhood lawmakers faulted protest organizers for failing to segregate the demonstrators by gender as the Islamists usually do.
Some ultraconservative Islamists, now a political power alongside the Brotherhood, condemned the women for speaking out at all.
"You see those women speaking like ogres, without shame, politeness, fear or even femininity," declared a television preacher, Ahmed Abdullah, known as Sheikh Abu Islam.
Such a woman is "like a demon," he said, wondering why anyone should sympathize with those "naked" women who "went there to get raped."
Moheeb called such remarks "scandalous" and accused Islamist lawmakers of being complicit.
"When ordinary people say such things, ignorance might be an excuse," Moheeb said, "but when somebody in the legislature makes such comments, they’re encouraging the assailants."