You are here

Home » News and Views » Egypt: Mass March by Cairo Women in Protest Over Soldiers’ Abuse

Egypt: Mass March by Cairo Women in Protest Over Soldiers’ Abuse

Publication Date: 
December 20, 2011

By 

CAIRO — Thousands of women massed in Tahrir Square here on Tuesday afternoon and marched to a journalists’ syndicate and back in a demonstration that grew by the minute into an extraordinary expression of anger at the treatment of women by the military police as they protested against continued military rule.

Many held posters of the most sensational image of violence over the last weekend: a group of soldiers pulling the abaya off a prone woman to reveal her blue bra as one raises a boot to kick her. The picture, circulated around the world, has become a rallying point for activists opposed to military rule, though cameras also captured soldiers pulling the clothes off other women.

The march, guarded by a cordon of male protesters, was a surprising turn. In Egypt, as in other countries swept by the revolts of the Arab Spring, women played important roles, raising hopes that broader social and political rights would emerge along with more accountable governments. But with the main popular focus on preparing for elections and protesting the military’s continued hold on power, women here had grown less politically visible.

The women’s protest came on the fifth day of violent clashes between Egyptian soldiers and protesters. The severity of the military’s defense of its hold on power, even as the newly elected Parliament begins to take shape, has restored a degree of unity that had been missing among the civilian political factions, liberal and Islamist, since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

On Monday, Gen. Adel Emara of the ruling military council denied that soldiers had been responsible for any violence or abuses over the weekend, portraying them as victims of provocateurs. He stopped a journalist before she could open a newspaper carrying the photograph of the so-called blue-bra woman.

“Before you open the newspaper, fold it; I know what I’m talking about,” General Emara said. “Yes, this scene took place, and we’re investigating it. But let’s look at the whole picture and see the circumstances the picture was taken in, and we will announce the complete truth.”

The general dropped the warm, avuncular approach he and others in the council had taken toward the news media, chastising journalists as though they were naughty schoolchildren. “When you want to speak, tell me to stop talking!” he said sarcastically. “I didn’t allow for talking,” he said at another point. “If you talk, I’ll kick you out.”

He continued, without explaining, “Don’t take only this shot, you or any other, and cite it to prove that violence was used.”

Though General Emara boasted briefly of the military’s success in delivering a transition to democracy, he made no reference to the military’s recently formed, and almost immediately disbanded, civilian advisory council. The council suspended its activities until the military stopped the violence and apologized; about a third of its roughly 30 members have quit.

So far, the military council has resisted calls from the United States, the United Nations and a newly united front of Islamist and liberal political leaders to stop the violence, which has left more than a dozen people dead.

General Emara insisted that the military had never used violence against peaceful protesters.

“The armed forces and the police pledged not to use violence against protesters actively or even verbally,” he said. Instead, he said, the protesters had deliberately provoked soldiers into clashes as part of a plot “to destroy the state.”

Egypt will never fall, he declared, “as long as it has heroes from the armed forces.” And rather than apologize for the military’s violence, he threw back the challenge to the Egyptian news media: “Why don’t you talk about the excessive use of violence by the other side?”

“The military council has always warned against the abuse of freedom,” he said. Excessive freedom, he said, “leads to chaos and the fall of the state, instead of the fall of the regime.”

Protest leaders said his remarks were the clearest sign yet of the depth of the military’s determination to hold on to power even after the new Parliament is seated early next year.

“We are definitely now living in a military coup,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a young liberal organizer. “And the whole world should know.”

Since Sunday, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations; the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton; and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have all urged the military to halt the violence, leaving no doubt about the question of responsibility for keeping the peace.

In a statement issued late Sunday from Washington, Mrs. Clinton said she was “deeply concerned” about the violence. “I urge Egyptian security forces to respect and protect the universal rights of all Egyptians, including the rights to peaceful free expression and assembly,” she said. “We call upon the Egyptian authorities to hold accountable those, including security forces, who violate these standards.”

Ms. Ashton of the European Union warned that the fighting threatened to undermine confidence in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which are still in progress. “The democratic electoral process should continue in a safe and transparent environment,” she said.

Dozens of newly elected members of Parliament, most notably the new liberal icon Amr Hamzawy, sought to capitalize on their new authority as Egypt’s first democratically elected representatives in more than six decades. They were joined Monday afternoon by other candidates and political leaders, including Mohamed Beltagy of the Muslim Brotherhood, on the steps of Egypt’s high court to demand that the military turn over power to the lower house of Parliament soon after its election.

They set a deadline of Jan. 25, the first anniversary of the protests that began the revolution. And they called for the election of a president by Feb. 11, one year after Mr. Mubarak left power.

A onetime civilian leader of the military-led transitional government, Essam Sharaf, the former prime minister, added his voice to the calls for a swift end of military rule. “Away from the language of intimidation and mistrust, speeding up the transfer of all powers to a civilian-elected presidency is inevitable now,” he said in a statement, noting that the military council has often professed to want to leave power as soon as possible.

Indeed, since helping to usher out Mr. Mubarak, the ruling generals have imposed a relatively gentle martial law with many of the trappings of civilian government. They have let their appointed prime ministers do most of the talking. They have usually responded to major street protests with concessions and ingratiation instead of just bullets.

Most of all, they have sent criminal defendants to civilian judges who cited legal texts as though judicial authority and individual rights had not been suspended along with the Constitution when the generals took over. Most Egyptians seem not to notice that they have lived under martial law for months, with the generals above the courts.

Mayy el-Sheik and Dawlat Magdy contributed reporting from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from London.