On Wednesday night, when Egypt's army chief announced the forced departure of Mohamed Morsi, the streets around Tahrir Square turned into an all-night carnival. But not everyone there was allowed to celebrate. Among the masses dancing, singing and honking horns, more than 80 women were subject to mob sexual assaults, harassment or rape. In Tahrir Square since Sunday, when protests against Morsi first began, there have been at least 169 counts of sexual mob crime.
"Egypt is full of sexual harassment and people have become desensitised to it – but this is a step up," said Soraya Bahgat, a women's rights advocate and co-founder of Tahrir Bodyguard, a group that rescues women from assault. "We're talking about mob sexual assaults, from stripping women naked and dragging them on the floor – to rape."
Since Sunday, campaigners say at least one woman has been raped with a sharp object.
Such crimes have been endemic at Tahrir protests since at least the 2011 revolution, but they have never been documented in such high numbers.
"It's been underreported because a lot of people are unwilling to come forward," said Bahgat, "and because no one wanted to disturb the sanctity of Tahrir."
In a typical attack, lines of men push their way through the packed square, surround lone women, and start ripping at their clothes until they are naked. Some women have been violated by men using their hands.
Circle of hell
"Suddenly, I was in the middle, surrounded by hundreds of men in a circle that was getting smaller and smaller around me," one woman has written of the experience. "At the same time, they were touching and groping me everywhere and there were so many hands under my shirt and inside my pants."
"We call it the circle of hell," said Bahgat, who herself narrowly escaped assault this week.
Since last November, help has been at hand. Two volunteer rescue groups – Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntish) and Tahrir Bodyguard – have squads of rescuers patrolling the square in groups of around 15. The two organisations have slightly different tactics and uniforms, but their methods are broadly the same. They seek to fight off the attackers, sometimes with clubs and flamethrowers, and re-clothe the women – and then secret them to safe-houses nearby, or even to hospital. Mobs have been known to try to break down the safe-house doors, while some of the rescuers have been assaulted themselves.
Often, random passers-by join in the attacks. But all activists in the field feel sure that the assaults are usually started by groups of men who go to the square together on crowded protest days with the specific intention of violating women.
"There's an absolute absence of any security forces in Tahrir," explained Bahgat, who no longer runs the group. "And also the crowd seems to have become conditioned to it."
Such indifference is not specific to Tahrir. While in the past year many more people have begun to mobilise against it, sexual harassment still remains an accepted part of Egyptian life. According to a UN survey released this April, 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed, with 91% saying they feel insecure in the street as a result.
One problem is that sexual harassment is not properly defined under Egyptian law, which makes prosecuting perpetrators difficult. Another is that when women try to file complaints under more general harassment and assault laws, their cases are not taken seriously by police. "Cases that are reported to the police are handled in a disgusting manner," said Mariam Kirollos, an OpAntish organiser, and an activist for women's rights. "They are not taken seriously. In some cases, girls filing a police report are even harassed."
For most, the obstacles start long before they reach the police station, as passers-by try to excuse the harassers' behaviour. "People say, 'oh, he was poor, he didn't know what he was doing," said Bahgat.
"Primarily, the blame is on the woman. People always ask: what was she wearing?"
When Lyla el-Gueretly, a 30-year-old teacher, was sexually harassed and then assaulted on a Cairo bridge in April, she was repeatedly told by passers-by not to pursue charges.
"They said: what did he actually do?" Gueretly remembered. "They said I should just let it go. If you're a 'decent' girl, you're expected to leave it."
But Gueretly for once refused, chose to follow the case through to court – despite being discouraged at every turn – and last month became one of just half-a-dozen women to successfully prosecute a man for harassment in Egypt.
Even then, the conviction was a legal fudge – for mere physical assault, rather than anything sexual – and her harasser was sentenced to jail in absentia, having been allowed to leave custody. Police have made no serious attempts to track him down.
"The problem is that the state has been condoning these crimes," said Kirollos. "There's no accountability whatsoever. There has also been zero effort by the government to change how the media or the education system deals with this problem."
Egypt's National Council for Women is working with the country's interior ministry to set up a system where women can report sexual harassment to a specialised team of female police officers – so that their cases might be taken more seriously. The group has also proposed new legislation to Egypt's cabinet that specifically outlaws sexual harassment. But with Wednesday's coup changing the people in power, both projects may not happen. Besides, campaigners are adamant that the problems cannot be solved by legal tweaks alone.
"It's going to take more than just laws, and more than just implementing those laws, to stop this happening," said Kirollos.
"Society needs to change to stop it." – © Guardian News and Media 2013