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Mob sex assaults on women overshadow Egyptian inauguration

By Salma Abdelaziz, CNN
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Women sexually assaulted at Egypt's inauguration festivities, anti-violence group says
  • Interior Ministry says several officers trying to rescue women also were wounded
  • Police arrest seven men Monday on charges of sexual harassment

(CNN) -- Uniformed Egyptian police pull a woman in nothing but her underclothes from a frenzied mob.

"Get back boy! Get back!" the officers say as one lifts his pistol into the air.

Large patches of skin on the victim appear bloodied and raw as she struggles to walk toward a police van with hordes of men still fighting for a handful of her body.

Moments later, she falls to the ground, naked. Police carry her into the vehicle, seemingly incapable of thwarting the crowd.

In the background, revelers set off fireworks and wave flags to celebrate the election of Egypt's new president.

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This is just one of at least five mob sexual assaults that took place in Cairo's Tahrir Square in the past week, according to the "I Saw Harassment" campaign, which documents sexual violence against women in Egypt. The attack is shown in a less than two-minute viral cell phone video that CNN cannot independently verify. It is unclear when the video was shot, but social media reports indicate the incident took place Tuesday after Egypt's election body announced Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won elections in a landslide.

Days later, as the restive country celebrated the presidential inauguration, human rights groups documented more sexual assaults in Tahrir.

"It is shameful that the security leaders of the Ministry of Interior did not take into account any security measures or plans to prevent such incidents," a statement from the "I Saw Harassment" campaign reads. "Junior officers and individuals were left alone to face sexual harassment groups without any tools or plans."

Four of the five victims sexually assaulted in the square required medical attention, the "I Saw Harassment" campaign said. The attacks against them were so ferocious that several officers deployed to rescue the women were themselves wounded by the crowd, according to a statement from the Interior Ministry on Monday.

Police arrested seven men Monday on charges of sexual harassment after two women filed police reports and identified their attackers, an Interior Ministry spokesman said. Video of one of the assaults was posted on YouTube and the video is a part of the ongoing investigation, said another official from the Interior Ministry, who was not authorized to speak to the media.

The response by authorities did little to squelch anger on social media channels, where many criticized the authorities and criticized local media for a lack of professionalism.

"They are happy, huh?" Maha Bahnassy said laughingly about the crowd on private network Tahrir TV during a live report on harassment from inside the square. Bahnassy publicly apologized Monday, saying her comments were misunderstood.

Activists said the anchorwoman's jarring remarks appeared part of a general trend by Egypt's pro-military factions to sideline the systemic violence against women in favor of glorifying Egypt's new head of state, former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The state-affiliated National Council of Women characterized Sunday night's violence as an orchestrated conspiracy against el-Sisi, saying, "The acts were meant to spoil the joy of Egyptians and their wedding of democracy." The group called on officials to find the "masterminds."

"Every day sexual harassment is a social epidemic affecting everyone, every day. Mob violence is an extreme form of this act that has been normalized by society," said Noora Flinkman, communication manager at HarassMap, a volunteer-based initiative aimed at combating sexual harassment. The group dismissed claims that the attacks were part of an organized political act against the new government.

A 2013 United Nations report from the Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women found that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment and more than 82% of female respondents felt unsafe in the street.

The mass attacks come just days after Egypt passed the first law criminalizing sexual harassment, making it punishable by up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds.

"For a long time harassers have been able to harass with impunity. Now with this amendment to the law it is a good opportunity to take action not just in cases of mob assault but in cases of everyday sexual harassment," Flinkman said. "We are waiting to see what steps the authorities will take."

READ: Violence against women by the numbers

READ: Egypt criminalizes sexual harassment

READ: Is Egypt in the midst of a sexual harassment epidemic?

READ: Rapping for respect: Meet the 18-year-old singer standing up for women in Egypt

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