- By Lydia Tomkiw<p> Lydia Tomkiw is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. </p>
The chaotic showdown between the Egyptian military and now-former President Mohamed Morsy has overshadowed another troubling development in the country: the nationwide protests that began on June 30 brought a new round of sexual assaults and mob attacks, with Human Rights Watch reporting on Wednesday that “mobs sexually assaulted and in some cases raped at least 91 women in Tahrir Square” over the last four days (journalists and foreigners have also been victims of the violence).
Since Egypt’s first wave of game-changing protests in 2011, several online tools have sprouted up to help document these kinds of cases and reduce their frequency. HRW, for instance, cites Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), which confirmed 46 attacks in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on June 30, 17 on July 1, and 23 on July 2. The Twitter accounts @OpAntiSH and @TahrirBodyguard are organizing volunteers to protect women and intervene in instances of assault (according to HRW, OpAntiSH intervened in 31 such cases over the past week). The massive number of people in Tahrir Square in recent days prompted @TahrirBodyguard to tweet, “Women of Tahrir, plz do not trust anyone without our full uniform -yellow helmet &neon yellow vest- and is in a group of at least 8 or more.”
Several activist groups are working with OpAntiSH, including the HarassMap project, which started in 2010 to document sexual harassment across Egypt by allowing women to report incidents online or by SMS — and also by dispatching group members to monitor developments on the ground. Click the image below to see the map the group has been building (note: not all reports of harassment are verified).
During Egypt’s 2011 protests, HarassMap received fewer reports of mob assaults. “They occurred, but not as often or as extreme,” HarassMap co-founder Rebecca Chiao told FP. “There are more reports now. Partly I think this has to do with our own improved operations. Partly I think that the mob assaults are happening more often.” She said the group has received reports that paid “thugs” are perpetrating attacks, though it’s unclear who’s funding them, and that political actors have not “made a serious effort” to prevent these incidents or punish the assailants.
Since HarassMap first launched, Chiao has noted a shift in Egyptians’ attitudes. “People are speaking out more — sending more reports, being more open about discussing the issue and volunteering more,” she explained. “This is important since breaking the silence is the first step to stopping the problem.”