CAIRO — Around 10,000 women marched through central Cairo demanding Egypt's ruling military step down Tuesday in an unprecedented show of outrage over soldiers who dragged women by the hair and stomped on them, and stripped one half-naked in the street during a fierce crackdown on activists the past week.
The dramatic protest, which grew as the women marched from Tahrir Square through downtown, was fueled by the widely circulated images of abuses of women. Many of the marchers touted the photo of the young woman whose clothes were partially pulled off by troops, baring her down to her blue bra, as she struggled on the ground.
"Tantawi stripped your women naked, come join us," the crowd chanted to passers-by, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council that has ruled Egypt since the Feb. 11 fall of Hosni Mubarak. "The daughters of Egypt are a red line," they chanted.
Even before the protest was over, the military council issued an unusually strong statement of regret for what it called "violations" against women — a quick turnaround after days of dismissing the significance of the abuse.
The council expressed "deep regret to the great women of Egypt" and affirmed "its respect and total appreciation" for women and their right to protest and take part in political life. It promised it was taking measures to punish those responsible for violations.
The statement suggested the military's fear that attacks on women could wreck its prestige at home and abroad, which has already been heavily eroded by its fierce, five-day-old crackdown on pro-democracy protesters demanding it surrender power. The ruling generals have campaigned to keep the public on its side in the confrontation, depicting the activists as hooligans and themselves as the honorable protectors of the nation, above reproach.
In unusually harsh words, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday accused the Egyptian security forces and extremists of specifically targeting women.
"This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people," she said.
In a possibly significant hint of new flexibility, the council also said in its statement Tuesday that it was prepared to discuss any initiatives to help the security of the country. In recent days, a number of political factions have pressed the military to hand over power by February, rather than June, when it promised to hold presidential elections.
In the past, police in Mubarak's regime were accused of intentionally humiliating women in protest crackdowns. But images of women being abused by soldiers were particularly shocking in a society that is deeply conservative and generally reveres the military. The independent press has splashed its front pages with pictures of soldiers chasing women protesters, including ones in conservative headscarves and full face-veils, beating them with sticks and clubs and dragging them by their hair. The crackdown has left 14 people dead — all but one by gunshots — and hundreds wounded.
The images of the half-stripped protester, whose identity is not known, clearly had a powerful resonance.