Meltdown: Women harassed, attacked in Tahrir Square during International Women's Day protests

This wasn’t the only ominous confrontation today in Egypt: Crowds of Muslims and Coptic Christians ended up throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at each other after a protest over a church-burning over the weekend. I want to focus on the women’s protest, though, partly because of the location, partly because it’s International Women’s Day, and partly because I got to “watch” it happen, sort of, in real time this morning. (More on that below.) CNN is reporting what happened as a case of “shouting matches” between women in the Square demanding equal rights and men opposed to them, but things went waaaay beyond that.

Protesters were attacked and driven out of the square, accused of being “foreigners” (quite a few foreign women and journalists were present), and had their flyers and posters torn up.

There was tension from the beginning, with throngs of male hecklers outnumbering the hundreds of female protesters…

Many of the protesters’ male critics invoked religion saying Islam itself decrees that men and women are different, and that men should be responsible for, and rule over, women. At one point, a crowd of male counterprotesters circled a women in a niqab (the full, black veil that covers everything but a woman’s eyes and is worn by Islamic fundamentalists here) chanting, “This is an Egyptian woman!”…

“Suddenly we heard people raising their voices and women screaming. I didn’t see exactly what happened because we had to run,” says Engy Ghozlan, another young activist.

“One woman was attacked,” says journalist Pakinam Amer. “And after that we heard gunfire shots. People started targeting women. They were being very hostile, very aggressive. They were systematically trying to get us out of Tahrir.”

The AP, acknowledging that sexual harassment is widespread in Egypt, says what started with heckling ended with shoving, groping, and even beatings. And, as with the attack on Lara Logan, it didn’t stop until the Egyptian army intervened. Quoth one woman protester: “I thought we were going to be celebrated as women of the revolution because we were present during the days of Tahrir. Unless women are included now, we are going to be oppressed.” Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell started retweeting reports from English-speaking Egyptian women in the Square while this was all going on, which is how I came to follow the story. Here’s a selection of them from his Twitter feed; it’s in reverse sequence, so read from the bottom up to see how it unfolded. Hounshell’s verdict, delivered amidst these reports: “What’s going on in Tahrir Square right now is a national tragedy for Egypt.”

Some ask: “Are you not disappointed with what happened today?”… We believe that what happened today is -unfortunately- a surprise to no one.

My friends & @Sabelo were groped & chased by a mob of men; took refuge in a little shop; rescued by Army; now safe nr Talaat Harb. #Egypt

I am so disgusted by the news about wht happened in Tahrir today, this is totally against everything we have been fighting for #jan25 #Egypt

Literally some girls got sexually harrassed by thugs. They wanted them to leave. #millionwomen #egypt #womeninternationalday

a sad day reminds us of the close mindedness that still exists in #egypt against women & christians. Egypt must rise above ignorance

Seeing my friends getting groped and unable to protect them breaks my heart. #egypt

Encircled by men, yelling “out.” Told me I’m “spreading lies.” Cam almost taken.

Abuse of Egyptian women struggling in Tahrir by men: disgusting. Cultural revolution needed across the Arab world & must include women.

Sad day for women i just got chased out of tahrir by mob of men #jan25

Men only can be seen in the place where we were, very few women.

Groups of men attacked women protesters and ran after them. Few tried to help. At one point army intervened for 3 women. Very ugly scene.

It’s amazing: there were human shields for Muslims and Christians but there were none for Women Today #BIGFAIL #WomenDay

Refuse to believe that the pigs who attacked the women today represent the majority of Egyptian men,if they did it’d be over for #Egypt #IWD

Heartbroken. Enraged. Is this revolutionary #Egypt? Just 200 people turn up 2 support women’s rights? #IWD #Jan25

You can’t ask for democracy when you’re denying half of the population their right to speak! I’m done with this country! #tahrir #women

got into an argument that almost turned into a fist fight with a Asshole over women’s right for presidential nomination

We didn’t meet any supporters, the type of crowd was weird and not average tahrir protesting! #IWD #tahrir

Men were pursuing us, screaming at us. Scary. Men near Omar Makram came between us. Girls, if you’re in #Tahrir leave, it’s dangerous.

Enough with the thugs nonsense. Men harassing us today are average Egyptians who have not learned to respect women. #iwd

We have no idea who attacked us, but they tore the demands and said leave, they say y foreigners are here #tahrir

Some men trying to convince us now that harassment doesn’t happen. The plot thickens. And I’m leaving. #Tahrir

Anti demo accused us of being foreigners. As if an Egyptian woman wouldn’t dare ask for equal rights. #iwd #Egypt

Men just told me and @ShereefAbbas that they are agst women’s being harassed today but “we are against women protesting in the first place”

Just spoke to one woman who was harassed “I was grabbed today while shouting for my rights. We have more work to do than we thought” #Egypt

men chanting ” atbokhi” cook , as the opnly role of women m still the women are chanting for equality #iwd

Just heard three women have been chased after by dozens of men, scene in tahrir still very tense

Men chanting against us were very furious. It offended them that we were calling for equal rights. #Egypt #Jan25

Military got in and dispersed crowds, we are safe, we met moushira khattab on the way walking w her daughters asked her not to go in

Unbelievable this is organised attacking us for our demands #tahrir

We were beaten and pushed us out, girls were beaten and harassed #tahrir

On another note, friend is deeper into the crowds called us and said some men are “attacking” a woman. Not sure what he means. #Tahrir

What is happening in tahrir is killing me. Plz dont ask again how r u women oppressed in such a country. #millionwomen #egypt

Absurd RT @Egyptocracy: Men encircled a woman in niqab and chanting: this is the Egyptian woman. #Egypt

Aaaand we just got harassed. Time to go home. More disappointed than I could have possibly imagined. #tahrir

Was just ranted at by a ‘sheikh’ telling me to go home and raise my kids. #tahrir

Man came up to me, asked “Why are u showing world Egyptian women are mad?” Many saying now is not the time. #Egypt

Leaving now. It is getting ugly. I just got grabbed by someone telling me I can’t run for president. #Egypt

Men: “we don’t want it secular, egypt is in an islamic country.” #tahrir

I’m actually starting to feel a little unsafe. Couple of thousand shouting men and what doesn’t even look like 100 women.

Million woman march in #tahrir so insulting. Men “woman’s voice is 3awra” “forget it.” “We don’t want it secular.” #jan25

“Womens rights, yes but not Now!” said an old man at the Womens march #Tahrir

A guy just lifted his shoe at us. Happy women’s day! #Egypt #Jan25 #WomensRights

The turnout against Mubarak in Tahrir Square was on the order of hundreds of thousands; the turnout today for women’s rights, less than a month after revolutionary brotherhood swept the old bastard from power, was by some estimates less than 100. Quote: “‘I’ve never been as afraid as I am now in all my years in Egypt,’ she said, watching men deride women standing nearby and yell: ‘The people want to bring women down!'”

So there’s where things stand today in the heart of the new Middle East. For an equally pessimistic take, read Hitchens’s new piece in Vanity Fair explaining why he can’t get excited about the Egyptian revolution. And in case you’re wondering, no, there’s no coverage of this yet at Al Jazeera’s website that I’ve been able to find. There is, to their credit, this overview of sexual harassment and women’s rights in Egypt but nothing about the ugliness in Tahrir Square. That’s not the first time they’ve quietly overlooked a story about an attack on women that would reflect badly on the revolution. Probably won’t be the last.