The recent second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak was marred by renewed violence between protesters and security forces of the country’s new government under President Mohamed Morsi. Disillusioned with the direction taken by Egypt’s new Islamist leader, activists took to the streets again reportedly only to see a replay of many of the excesses that could be seen during the uprising two years ago.
Amnesty International Egypt researcher Diana Eltahawy was there to witness some of the most recent events. She spoke with VOA’s Susan Yackee.
Yackee: You’re there in Cairo to observe what’s going on. Could you share with us your eyewitness account of what you’ve seen?
Eltahawy: I came shortly before the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution…. I went to Suez and Port Said and have documented the use of excessive, including lethal force, by Egypt’s security forces in the recent protests. So, the weekend of violence left about 50 people dead. Some of them were unarmed and were not posing any threat to the security forces that shot at them randomly.
So, we are calling on the Egyptian authorities, including the highest level of the state, and President Morsi, instead of condemning the violence and condemning protesters’ actions, to really give clear instructions to security forces to stop using force like this with impunity.
What we’ve seen since the [start of the] revolution is that over 1,000 people have died. And for this nobody has been held to account; no security officer has been sentenced and punished for what has happened.
“[W]e just don’t know the number of women who haven’t spoken [out] but have experienced [such sexual assaults], and who have nowhere to turn to seek protection….” – Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International
Yackee: Can you give us some examples of what you have seen?
Eltahawy: I went to several hospitals and morgues in Suez and Port Said, and I have met with a number of grieving families who lost relatives…. [Those who died] were not armed, yet they were victims of the use of force. [Relatives] told us how they’ve seen police officers standing on rooftops of buildings, driving armored vehicles [and] shooting at random.
For instance, I spoke to one man who was recovering from a gunshot wound in his shoulder – he is someone who has a disability, he’s in a wheelchair and he sells dishes and handkerchiefs on the main road, near the site of violent clashes. He was not involved in the clashes, he was going about his daily business, and he clearly was not posing a threat to security forces. And, yet, he was shot at, and he told me that the people who tried to get him into an ambulance were also shot at.
I also wanted to talk about something else, another phenomenon that I have observed here, a very dark disturbing story of opposition protests. For instance, on Tahrir Square on the day commemorating the January 25 revolution a number of women were violently sexually assaulted and harassed in the square by groups of large men. I spoke to some of the activists who were present at the square and provided them with relief, and they’ve documented 24 cases of women being violently attacked; some of them had their clothes ripped off; some of them were actually finger-raped, and some of them were able to be rescued, but there were larger groups [about which] we don’t know what happened to them. And all of this was happening while the security forces were [supposed to be] preventing these kind of violent assaults on women and also assigned to prosecute those who are doing this.
Yackee: I’m sorry you had to experience that, to witness that.
Eltahawy: I spoke with one woman who is actually herself a member of a group…. and the purpose of this group is that they’re present in the square, and when they hear a report of a woman being violently sexually assaulted, they go and try to rescue her to take her out of the mob. And [after a member of that group] got the call and went, along with her colleague, to help the women, she herself found herself in the middle of that mob being attacked. She could not even count the number of hands that were touching her, that were ripping off her clothes… luckily she was able to be rescued by a group of her colleagues, and got to the hospital. But, again, we just don’t know the number of women who haven’t spoken [out] but have experienced this, and who have nowhere to turn to seek protection, because there is a whole shame and stigma attached.
Yackee: I’m so sorry. I know it’s very difficult to be a witness to that and for these poor women. Do you see any signs that these protests may be easing up a bit? Is everything calming down or is it just as bad as it has always been?
Eltahawy: The thing that can be heard most [often] from activists in Egypt and those who have been involved in protests for the past two years is that it’s very [difficult] to predict anything in Egypt. A protest that is going on peacefully, that starts as a peaceful march can deteriorate at any moment, and once it deteriorates, it becomes very difficult to control. What is very strange here as well – I was at these protests on the 25th of January trying to monitor [them], and you can see the juxtaposition of the normalcy on some parts of the square – people sitting around in cafes discussing politics and joking – and just one street down there is heavy use of teargas, there are clashed ongoing between security forces and protesters, and there are people being injured, and another street down there will be a [victim] of sexual violence being attacked by a vicious mob.
Listen to Susan Yackee’s interview with Diana Eltahawy (5:43)
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Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.