Witness recounts harrowing sexual assault by Tahrir Square mob

Sceen grab from a video showing the sexual assault, published by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment.
 
A video showing a sexual assault in Tahrir Square on January 25 – the day Egyptians commemorated their revolution’s two-year anniversary – caused outrage the world over. That day, our Observer Mostafa Kandil tried to intervene to protect the victim, who was assaulted by a mob of dozens, if not hundreds, of men. Today, he shares his story.
 
According to local anti-sexual harassment groups, at least 19 women were sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on January 25 alone. One of these women was raped with a sharp object and severely injured. These incidents angered many Egyptians, but sadly, did not come as such a surprise. In Egypt, sexual harassment is extremely frequent, especially in large cities. According to the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, more than 80 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. Activists say incidents of mob attacks during protests are becoming increasingly frequent, and suspect they are meant to scare women away from the streets
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“She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Please help me’”

Mostafa Kandil is a dentistry student in Cairo. He is a member of Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a group that tries to protect women from sexual harassment during protests.
 
We were in Tahrir Square when we heard yelling and screaming. Some people told us that there was a sexual harassment incident taking place nearby, just outside the square. We ran there and found a huge crowd, with many men holding batons and belts in their hands. We pushed through to find a young woman stuck between her attackers and a metal fence.
 
I tried to calm her down by repeating, “I am Mostafa from Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment.” She looked me in the eye and said “Please help me!” She held onto my hand as the crowd continued to push us against the fence.
 
Suddenly, a flare exploded that forced everyone to move back a little. We took advantage of this to start slowly moving the girl toward a nearby crossroads, with the hope of getting her safely into a building. However the push of the crowd moved us in the opposite direction, back toward Tahrir Square.
 
“Bit by bit, the men cut off the girl’s clothes”
 
A lot of the men around us had opened Swiss army knives, and bit by bit they took the girl’s clothes off as I started losing her in the crowd. She lost her shirt and became topless. I was only hanging on to one of her arms at that point. She was being pulled from every one of her body parts – one man was pulling her leg, another was pulling her other leg, and yet other men were pulling her hair. Hundreds of people were surrounding us, and in this crowd, I could only spot one or two of my colleagues. The rest were strangers to me.
 
The girl fell to the ground and I lost her. A few people tried to lie on top of her – I don’t know if they were trying to protect her or attack her. Despite getting beaten from all sides, my colleagues and I managed to lift the girl up again. At that moment I felt a baton hit my head. I lost my balance and was pushed out of the circle surrounding the girl. I felt blood on the back of my head, and thought I would faint, but I managed to regain my spirits and fought my way back in. When I got there, a guy holding a kitchen knife forced me and my colleagues to move back, and we lost her again.
 
“A man in the crowd insulted us and threw a Molotov cocktail at us”
 
I can’t remember how we got back to the girl, but I grabbed her arm and my colleagues and I carried her toward the square. Someone in the crowd started shouting insults in our direction. He shouted “Come back you sons of ******” and threw a Molotov cocktail at us. My clothes as well as the girl’s pants – which were all she had left – caught on fire. We managed to put out the fire and kept moving. At one point I felt a hand trying to reach down my pants. Now I was getting harassed too. I pushed him and managed to get away from him.
 
We arrived at another fence. I started getting hit and was pushed over the fence. The girl was still on the other side, sitting on the pavement, with lots of men crowded around her. Suddenly a street vendor, who had noticed the logos on our T-shirts, asked my colleagues and I, “Are you from the anti-sexual harassment group?” We said yes, so he got a gas bottle and a lighter and shot a flame toward the crowd so that they would move away from the girl. Two young people stayed by her: one took off his pants and gave them to her and the other gave her a scarf so she could cover her top half. They helped her climb over the fence and we were again reunited. But at that point the vendors’ flame petered out, and the crowd starting chasing us again.
 
We were pushed up against a building just next to Tahrir Square’s KFC, which was where we were hoping to find refuge. Two of my colleagues stood in front of the girl and I while the crowd kept attacking us. Someone took this opportunity to slip his hand into my pocket and snatch my phone. I hit him with a metal rod and screamed “Thief!”, hoping someone would attack him, instead.
 
“All I knew is that I would do everything I could to protect her, even though there were hundreds of people around us, and even though I was powerless”
 
I remember looking into the girl’s eyes and being speechless. I only managed to say something like, “I’m from Operation Anti Sexual Harassment, and I will get you out of here, I will, I will, I will…” Things I wasn’t really sure of, but what I knew was that I would do everything I could to protect her, even though there hundreds of people around us and even though I was powerless.
 
That’s when I thought, “Why are all these people attacking and assaulting her?” And I realised it was simply because they saw that she was a girl. So I took off my sweatshirt and gave it to her. I said, “Put on the hoodie and we’ll try to get away by pretending you are a boy”. We had so little space around us that we could barely breathe, but somehow, even with everyone pushing, we managed to get the sweatshirt on her. While my colleagues kept pushing the crowd back, we managed to slowly move away, and nobody realized that she was the girl they were after.
 
When we arrived at the KFC, we saw that it was closed, so we continued moving down the road. But then a voice in the crowd yelled, “The girl has fled!” and they chased after us again. At that moment I noticed a building where a porter, who had spotted the crowd, was shutting the door. We ran toward it; the girl fell repeatedly but I got her up each time. The porter let us in and immediately locked the door behind us. I fell to the ground, breathless. A lady came out of her apartment and offered us some water.
 
“My colleagues got her out through a backdoor, and I didn’t see her again”
 
The girl was crying, hanging on to my arm, and asking me not to leave her. Outside, hundreds of people were screaming, brandishing weapons, all yelling that they were her cousins and to let them enter the building. The girl was terrorised that they might still get her.
 
We sat in the porter’s room for a while, trying to calm her down. I called one of my colleagues and asked him to send clothes and an ambulance. However, we realised it would be impossible for us to get her into an ambulance with the crowd still waiting outside. The porter suggested that she go through a backdoor that connected his building to the KFC’s kitchen. Some of my colleagues, who had arrived with clothes for her, took her through this backdoor and got her to a safe place. I didn’t see her again.
 
I’ve heard of many incidents like this one, but being part of it was very different than anything I could have imagined. I just have one thing to say to the harassed and assaulted girls of Egypt: you are the strongest and the greatest.
 
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