Vigilantes in Egypt crack down on public abuse of women

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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 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 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 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 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 authorities would not act against harassment unless the problem was forced into the public debate.

The years of President Hosni Mubarak's rule were marked by official apathy, collusion in assaults on women or empty responses to attacks, such as police roundups of teens looking at pornography in Internet cafes.

"The police did not take harassment seriously," said Madiha el-Safty, a American University sociology professor in Cairo. "People didn't file complaints. It was always underreported."

Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, has presided over two holidays, and many activists say there is no sign that the government is paying closer attention to the problem.

But the citizens groups' work may be having an effect: Last week, after the Eid al-Adha holiday, Mr. Morsi's spokesman announced that the government had received more than 1,000 harassment reports and said the president had directed the Interior Ministry to investigate.

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