CAIRO — A prominent Egyptian-born U.S. columnist said local police sexually assaulted, beat and blindfolded her after she was detained Thursday near Tahrir Square during clashes, leaving her left arm and right hand broken and in casts.
Mona Eltahawy, 44, lives in New York and is a prominent women's rights defender, a lecturer on the role of social media in the Arab world and a former Reuters journalist. Eltahawy describes herself as a liberal Muslim who has spoken publicly in the U.S and other countries against violent Islamic groups, particularly in the wake of 9/11. She is known as a scathing critic of the former Egyptian regime.
Eltahawy arrived in Egypt Wednesday evening and went straight to Tahrir Square, getting close to the front lines of clashes between protesters and the police at the nearby Interior Ministry. She was detained outside the ministry in the early morning hours of Thursday and released about 12 hours later.
"They hit me with their sticks on the arms and head. They sexually assaulted me, groping my breasts and putting their hands between my legs," she told The Associated Press. "For a moment I said 'this is it. No one is around. I am finished.'" As she struggled, shouting: "No! No," her attackers dragged her by her hair from the street to the Interior Ministry, cursing her.
"What I experienced is just the tip of the iceberg of the brutality Egyptians experience everyday," she said, considering herself lucky because her dual nationality might have played a role in sparing her further abuse. "This is just the type of brutality that our revolution came about to fight."
Eltahawy is a vocal supporter of the Egyptian revolution and has visited the country at least twice since the January uprising. Known for her harsh criticism of the regime of the ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Eltahawy continued to denounce the new military rulers in post-Mubarak Egypt. She warned in public speeches that one Mubarak has been replaced with "1,800" others, in reference to the military council.
"I am not worried about the Egyptian revolution because the Egyptians who have been fighting for it are determined to make it succeed," Eltahawy said. "I am worried that the military doesn't know what it is doing with the police and that police brutality has not changed one iota."
Anger over police brutality, particularly by members of the notorious state security agency, was a big impetus behind the first Egyptian uprising. Human rights groups have said it was systematic during Mubarak's time, perpetuated by impunity — something many complained has not yet changed.
Another prominent U.S.-Egyptian filmmaker, Jehan Noujaim, was also detained near Tahrir Wednesday. She was released Thursday after being charged with throwing firebombs and rocks at the Interior Ministry, destroying public property, said her lawyer, Mohammed Abdel-Aziz.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Egyptian authorities to investigate the arrest and beating of Eltahawy and condemned the detention of Noujaim.
"The military and the police must stop using physical violence and detention to silence or intimidate journalists," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. The group said it documented 17 attacks on journalists on Sunday and Monday, at the height of the clashes near the square.
Eltahawy said she was standing with a group of protesters snapping photos of the clashes and the crowd ducked when shots were fire. The group fled but she was cornered by a half a dozen security officers in riot gear.
She was held initially by uniformed regular riot police who she said beat her and sexually abused her. She said they broke her left arm and right hand by beating her with batons and she posted pictures on Twitter of both her arms in casts.
"My arms are broken, but my spirits are high," she said. Eltahawy said the police kept her in an Interior Ministry office for hours before they transferred her to the military intelligence in a military van . On her Twitter account, Eltahawy said she was blindfolded for two hours by military police before she was released. The military police offered an apology and promised an investigation. She did not accuse the military police of any violence or sexual abuse.
She insisted that a military officer record her testimony.
Many women have said sexual harassment by ordinary Egyptian men is rife in the square, a disappointing departure from the 18-day uprising earlier this year.
On the final day of that uprising, U.S. correspondent for CBS television Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a frenzied mob in the square, probably by Mubarak supporters.
Eltahawy said she had to fight off many men who harassed in the square before she was arrested. She said Egyptian public space is not safe for women, and women must speak out even more on sexual violence.
"It is outrageous," she said. "If we want our political revolution to succeed , we have to have a social and culture revolution."