وثيقة:Wael Abbas' Testimony on the Sexual Harassment Incidents in Downtown Cairo in 2006
It was supposed to be the usual feast celebration. Every year the ministry of interior bores us with the usual statement before the feast, whether on television or in the press: "the police will be highly alert in order to enable the Egyptians to enjoy the feast".
I usually don't go out during the feast days, but that very first day of Eid I happened to be on duty. I finished work and headed to down town to chill out with some friends. We were sitting in an outdoor café when a friend came to alert us that hell was breaking loose in the vicinity of Cinema Metro and Cinema Miami.
He started telling us about women being sexually harassed by huge numbers of men. His sentences comprised descriptions like: torn clothes, shattered ticket windows and a surprising absence of the police.
We were astounded. At first we did not quite believe him. We thought it must just be the usual Eid entertainment; guys trying to talk to girls, mild flirting, just hanging out, the normal stuff. We grew curious and went to see the broken ticket windows of Cinema Metro that would make a good picture or two.
Our group was made up of Reuters photographer Abdul Nasser Al Nouri, Al Karama newspaper photographer Peter Alfred, blogger and activist Malek Moustafa, blogger and activist Mhammad Gamal, Mohammad Al Sharkawy and several other bloggers, activists and professional journalists and myself. We were around ten, all of us saw what happened and some of us managed to take pictures.
Arriving at the scene we immediately noticed the destroyed ticket windows of the cinema, but other than that everything seemed normal except for the expected crowds outside the cinema during the feast days.
But all of a sudden dozens of guys started running in a certain direction. We followed. They were after a girl, encircled her and started touching and groping her. The girl ran and stumbled. They tried to stop her, but finally she was able to take refuge inside a restaurant. They surrounded the restaurant. The workers in there came out and tried to drive them away. A policeman tried to use his club but in vain.
Their attention was not diverted from the girl inside until one of them shouted: "another one at Cinema Miami". Only then did they all head in the direction of the other woman. The tragedy was repeated, and kept repeating itself till midnight as I was told by other witnesses the next day.
No matter how a woman was dressed, veiled or unveiled, young or old, alone or accompanied by a father, husband, brother or friend, it all made no difference. To them, anything that smelled like a female and moved was a target.
This unfortunate event took place more than once during the same day, by various groups of men, attacking many girls in different streets in the same vicinity simultaneously. Two girls dressed in the gulfi Abaya were surrounded, separated and harassed. One of them took refuge in the entrance of a building and the janitors protected her. A security guy even drew his gun to drive away the gangs.
Another girl took refuge inside a shop whose owners had to pull down the shutters to protect her. They were so furious at what was happening that they decided to take things into their own hands, using clubs, whips and even broom sticks to rescue the other girls attacked outside the shop.
Even girls inside cars were harassed. A group of men tried to pull a girl out of a taxi. Another girl was withdrawing money from an ATM machine when she found herself surrounded by dozens who started touching and groping her. She was only rescued by a cab driver who took her inside his car, but the men did not like that and surrounded the taxi. Eventually he was able to flee with the girl in his car. There were, however, several other accounts of girls that were pulled out of taxis, and noble taxi drivers who insisted on saving them ended up with their taxi windows destroyed. Several eyewitnesses said that some of these girls had their clothes torn off and there were numerous other accounts on the internet and in the printed press of even more horrific incidents of sexual harassment, not only in Cairo, but also in Alexandria and Mansoura.
Unlike in peaceful protests where the police forces outnumber the demonstrators, there was less than half a dozen policemen at the scene. They were only keen on protecting the cinemas and the movie stars who attended their premiers. They saw everything and did nothing despite the fact that the police station was just a few blocks away, so they could’ve asked for whatever extra forces needed to contain the chaos. The officers had walkie talkies, they could have asked for backup, but still didn't. Their only source of nuisance seemed to be “us” and our taking pictures. We approached them and asked them to act promptly, but they gave the feeble excuse that because of the feast they were outnumbered. They even tried to entice us to stop taking pictures by offering to let us into any of the cinemas to watch the movies for free.
We were speechless and helpless. Of course we could not fight all these numbers of angry men in the midst of such sexual frenzy. I was carrying a backpack with a laptop inside, not prepared at all for a street fight, so we decided to warn women and girls coming down the street, explain to them and ask them to change their route. This seemed to be the only helping hand we could lend on that crazy crazy night.
What was really shocking was that the same scenario repeated itself the following day and the day after on Talaat Harb street as well as several other places down town.
That day I did not have a professional camera. I only had the camera installed in my mobile phone. It was dark, too crowded and naturally people did not react too well to the fact that I was taking pictures. One security guard cocked his gun in my face to make me stop. I didn’t blame him. He thought it was scandalous, and indeed it was.
Due to the technical shortage, the pictures did not come out good, hence the reaction of the ministry of interior and some official newspapers that claimed that my photos were fabricated. The Reuters photographer in our group did not think highly of his photos either and he deleted them. As for Peter from Al Karama, and although his pictures were unclear as well he still kept them for the next issue of his weekly newspaper.
I uploaded my pics onto the computer, and decided to keep them for later use. Malek, Jimmy and Sharkawy all published their accounts of the incident in their respective blogs. The responses they received were massive. There was a whole gamut of people’s reactions. While some were shocked, others doubted the whole episode. Malek called me and asked me to publish the pictures, and only then that things got messier.
It had never happened to me before that anybody doubted the credibility of my photos, which are often used by most independent and opposition newspapers, and even some official newspapers resort to using them. The poor quality of the mobile phone down town photos seemed to be a good opportunity for some people to attack my credibility.
Reports published in official newspapers showed that there was an intention to fabricate a case against me for spreading rumours. Some journalists voiced suspicions in my report of the incident and attacked me personally. My family started receiving weird phone calls of people trying to locate me. Security officials attacked me severely on television and tried to make people believe that I had a criminal history.
I was only saved by some TV programmes which hosted eyewitnesses who were there during the crisis and who confirmed what I said, but it is such a shame that the ministry of interior would go that far and that low in order to cover up for their negligence.