It received worldwide media attention and drew women in droves to the streets: Footage of a veiled Egyptian woman being dragged by her black abaya across Tahrir by soldiers, one of whom kicked and stomped on her limp body. Her face remained covered, but her blue bra and pale midriff were exposed. She had been caught in a violent clearing of protestors in Tahrir on Dec. 17, 2011, during which soldiers beat those in their path.
Some had claimed a still image from the video plastered on newspapers was fabricated, while unsympathetic critics had questioned, "Why was she there?" or made even inflammatory comments about the woman. Those without Internet, like a cab driver we encountered a few days later, weren't sure what to think. "Is this real?" the cabbie asked us, pointing at the image of the half dressed woman flanked by soldiers on the cover of a newspaper. We pulled up the video on our cell phones and showed it to him.
"That's it," he said. "I was against the protestors, but now I'm with them."
That occurred during the interim rule of the military regime. Short-lived public outrage at the state and its security apparatus -- and protests mostly led by women ("Egyptian women are the red line!") came and went. Today under Egypt's new government, led by Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, excessive force by security officials and assaults on women in particular continue, despite calls for change and even strategic campaigns by activists such as those outlined by reporter Ghazala Irshad "Attention Men: If You Attack a Woman In Tahrir Square, You Might Get Your Ass Kicked, Finally."
Amid clashes in Cairo on February 1, two videos simultaneously became viral -- reigniting widespread public debate about the treatment of protesters by the state and the treatment of women by men. The first showed a man without his clothing apparently being beaten and dragged by police during clashes outside the presidential palace. Tweeps watching the aerial footage live on television tweeted their outrage, while others had nuanced real-time responses: "Everyone is so shocked by the video. This is what happens to women during mob sexual assault," tweeted @Sarahngb.
Soon after, a second video grew viral, showing a mob attack in Tahrir, being tweeted as "Tahrir gang rape video." A woman's calm voice-over describes in Arabic a horrific scene taking place amid the chaotic swarm of men, filmed from above: "Right now there are three to four hands inside her pants, and three to four hands inside her shirt, there are 10 men pulling her from every body part. There is now a guy taking her shoes off so his partner can easily pull off her pants." The video concludes by asking viewers to volunteer to help defend against sexual assaults.
Tweeps expressed their horror. Through the night some continued to make comparisons between the treatment of men and women in reference to the video of the man beaten at the presidential palace, alluding to common criticisms of women who are victimized: "If the person stripped at Itihadeya clashes was a girl, people would've still asked the same question, "Why was she there?" tweeted @kabretism.
Others urged against comparison: "A key tactic of this state has, for years, been violent sexual humiliation, and it's been used against women & men horrifically," tweeted local filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton. "When it comes to the police, everyone gets fucked the same. People must not be divided by their grievances when they are the same," he tweeted one minute later.
As international media picked up the "stripped man" story, a drama unfolded over the weekend: Egypt's interior minister offered a rare apology and announced there would be an investigation. Prosecutors alleged the man said he was assaulted by protesters and that security forces were assisting him. The man's daughter spoke on Egyptian television, urging him not to be afraid to "tell the truth." On Sunday, the man reportedly reversed his statement, saying Egyptian riot police were responsible.
Perhaps the "stripped man" video will be a turning point of sorts in the ongoing conflict -- beginning Friday night, some Egyptians reportedly left their homes to join protesters at the presidential palace upon seeing the footage of the man, according to tweets from the scene. "Mass condemnation of police behaviour tonight,following footage of man being stripped,dragged&beaten. #MOI and #Morsi in trouble" tweeted reporter Bel Trew, who was at the presidential palace and tweeted as she witnessed the beating.
The prime minister was reportedly heckled when he tried to make a visit to Tahrir on Saturday morning, and later made a speech in which he said: "Let us admit that the government, all the political forces, all the parties failed in containing the youth... This is something that we all have to work on."
Meanwhile, on Sunday the Capital Broadcast Center (CBC) aired interviews with Egyptian women about sexual harassment: "Watch CBC now! Addressing #sexualharrasment in #Egypt. Finally!" tweeted @ZeinabSabet. On Wednesday, Egyptian women's rights groups and activists are expected to hold a march. Al Jazeera English reporter @RawyaRageh tweeted (from a personal account): "I guess the question is - why is there zero political will to address the festering issue of sexual harassment?"
Activists and commentators are echoing such questions and longstanding calls for reform, including of the state security apparatus. On Monday an Egyptian opposition party said police tortured one of its members to death, electrocuting 28-year-old Mohammed el-Gindy and beating him repeatedly on the head. Soon after, news broke that the Egyptian minister of culture reportedly submitted his resignation in protest over the assault of the man stripped of his clothes and beaten by police. He would be the third culture minister to resign from office since the January 25 uprising, according to Ahram Online.
"I believe that at the heart of this crisis -- and at the heart of the revolution -- is the issue of security and police corruption," wrote Khaled Fahmy, chair of the American University in Cairo's Department of History, in an opinion piece about the current unrest. He concluded his piece by reminding the "youth of this revolution" that they "must realise that they are the only ones who can make an accurate diagnosis of the crisis, have a clear vision of how to handle it, and steadfast determination to do so."
The U.S. called Monday on the Egyptian government to investigate violence against protesters and sexual attacks on women, and hold those responsible to account. Egyptian protesters are leading the call to continue pushing for reform two years into the revolution, while skeptics are framing these recent cases as the latest in a trend of governmental ill. One of the satirical accounts that pretends to tweet on behalf of President Morsi, @MorsilliniMo tweeted, "Why u r all up in arms about naked-strip-guy? Old regime pring u #bluebra girl; my regime pring u naked-strip-guy. Bas. Even."
Whether systematic change arrives is a matter to be seen in the coming months.
Follow Shadi Rahimi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shadirahimi