CAIRO — The young activists lingered on the streets around Tahrir Square, scrutinizing the crowds of holiday revelers. Suddenly, they charged, pushing people aside and chasing down a young man. As the captive thrashed to get away, the activists pounded his shoulders, flipped him around and spray-painted a message on his back: “I’m a harasser.”
Egypt’s streets have long been a perilous place for women, who are frequently heckled, grabbed, threatened and violated while the police look the other way. Now, during the country’s tumultuous transition from authoritarian rule, more and more groups are emerging to make protecting women — and shaming the do-nothing police — a cause.
“They’re now doing the undoable?” a police officer joked as he watched the vigilantes chase down the young man. The officer quickly went back to sipping his tea.
The attacks on women, a problem Egypt has long wrestled with, did not subside after the uprising. If anything, they became more visible as even the military was implicated in the assaults, stripping female protesters, threatening others with violence and subjecting activists to virginity tests. During holidays, when Cairenes take to the streets to stroll and socialize, the attacks multiply.
But during the recent Eid al-Adha holiday, some of the men were surprised to find they no longer had the ability to harass with impunity, a change brought about not just out of concern for women’s rights, but out of a frustration that the post-revolutionary government still, like the one before, was doing too little to protect its citizens.
At least three citizens groups patrolled busy sections of central Cairo during the recent holiday. The groups’ members, both men and women, shared the conviction that the authorities would not act against harassment unless the problem was forced into the public debate. They differed in their tactics, with some of the activists criticizing others for being too quick to resort to violence against suspects and encouraging vigilantism. One of the group leaders compared the activists to the Guardian Angels in the United States.
“The harasser doesn’t see anyone who will hold him accountable,” said Omar Talaat, 16, who joined one of the patrols.
The years of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule were marked by official apathy, collusion in the assaults on women or empty responses to the attacks, including police roundups of teenagers at Internet cafés for looking at pornography.
“The police did not take harassment seriously,” said Madiha el-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. “People didn’t file complaints. It was always underreported.”
Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, who portrayed herself as a champion of women’s rights, pretended the problem hardly existed. As reports of harassment grew in 2008, she said, “Egyptian men always respect Egyptian women.”