We have heard in the past two weeks a lot of speculation about what happened to foreign female journalists in Tahrir Square on 11 February. There has been much Muslim bashing and victim blaming in the global blogosphere regarding the case of CBS correspondent Lara Logan. This writing will not be that, but instead a personal testimony.
Was I merely lucky to avoid what happened to Lara Logan, who suffered a “serious sexual assault and beating” and — according to some other sources — “had been raped” right after Mubarak resigned from the presidency? At the same time, and at the same place, where I had been walking for hours?
Foreign reporters did not have it easy in Egypt during the revolution. According to Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 140 journalists were harassed or banned through 8 February, and one Egyptian journalist was killed. These conditions were applied by state authorities and pro-Mubarak protesters before the resignation of the president.
Paranoia was undoubtedly growing, and I was myself, on two occasions, thought to be an Israeli spy and, on one occasion, confronted by a Hebrew speaking Palestinian woman, where I had to prove that my zero knowledge of Hebrew made me an unlikely foreign agent. Fortunately, the suspicions were dropped.
Attacks were not expected from civilians after the long-awaited resignation. The ambiance was indeed festive and celebratory on 11 February as, a few minutes after the speech of the vice-president, I headed towards Tahrir Square. I did not have any fear walking around the square with my camera and dictaphone for many hours. My Egyptian friends led me through the crowd and told me the “rules of the game” for women. If I wanted to speak to someone I had to first ask, a command that was, of course, almost impossible to comply with. Even so, I managed to speak to several dozen people. Men behaved in a polite and friendly manner, no one wanted to harass or harm me, even in the slightest.
The air became heavy on the avenue leading from Tahrir Square to the 6th of October Bridge, where we had to walk between a military tank and a stage. Men and women gathered there to listen to Shadia’s song, “My love, Egypt”. In the middle of that crowd I suddenly found hands in the intimate parts of my body. When I realised that this was not a one-off incident, but that many people were interested in touching me, I felt vulnerable and became angry.
In an instinctive response, I wanted to smack the molesters, but they disappeared fast. Touching and pulling went on for some minutes when people around me started to notice what was happening.
My Egyptian friends and other friendly Egyptians closed the space around me, and gave precise instructions: while I was pulled forward, they told me to finger point to those people who were molesting me. They looked different from the bright, celebrating faces. After taking me out of the crowd, my new bodyguards turned against the attackers. An awful quarrel started.
Sensibilities are different
While this incident was not agreeable, I did not consider it to be a serious case. Rather, I saw it as a necessarily evil, that one could face in any crowded European football stadium. I was more frightened to learn that Lara Logan, at the same time and same place, reported that she had been beaten, seriously assaulted and raped.
Was I lucky that, even as a suspected “Israeli spy”, I had not been beaten up on 11 February? Or was it my brown hair that protected me, even if it belongs to an obvious foreigner face? Was I saved because I was not reporting to a well-known American channel, but only to the Hungarian media? Or because I was guided through the crowd by my Egyptians friends?
Now that four weeks have passed, I still don’t know anything about my and Logan’s attackers, those people who tarnished the image of young revolutionaries in the Western media. This was obviously not in the interest of those youth who, the next morning, cleaned and painted the entire square. Having no evidence, and busy with new political developments, local agencies are hesitant about how to report the assault on Logan. Rayadab Ouawad, responsible for cultural issues at the AFP news agency, told me that he excludes that someone could have been raped in the middle of that crowd. Other Egyptian journalists I talked to seem to believe that at that place and time there was no opportunity to rape women.
Manal Agrama, managing editor of Radio & TV Magazine, a woman who spent 18 days in the square, did not know anything about the harassment. “Women were respected on the square; revolutionary men were very keen to protect us in the days before the resignation. Even if the NDP (National Democratic Party) harassed foreign journalists in hotels, they did not assault them sexually. On Friday, many people tried to go to the square, and mix with the revolutionaries, that can be the only explanation,” she said.
Ibrahim Kaoud, deputy chief editor of Akhbar El-Yom, can believe that the crime could have been committed, but “it was certainly an exceptional case.”
Recent reports about young Egyptians do reveal escalating social problems together with sexual frustration. But the question is whether, without showing evidence, we can suppose that young revolutionaries wanted to satisfy their sexual frustration at the same time as fighting and dying for freedom?
After three weeks of wondering about this dark episode of the Egyptian revolution, I think that there are many ways to become a victim. We have the option to turn in anger against the whole Egyptian youth. Or — in a perhaps more sophisticated approach — we can disclose the details of our assault, hence assisting the investigation regarding those particular people who committed them. I invite Lara Logan to join me in choosing the second option.
The writer is a Hungarian freelance journalist.