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Last Year's Violence Hangs Over Eid Celebrations in Egypt

The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr has already begun in many countries. Egypt will mark the holiday on Saturday, but the celebrations connected to the Eid will continue for several days. This year, there is apprehension in Cairo after the events of last year's Eid al-Fitr, when a mob of young men rampaged through the crowds of downtown revelers, assaulting women and trying to tear off their clothes. VOA's Challiss McDonough has more from the Egyptian capital.

Colorful fabric banners and other trappings of the holiday have appeared all around town as Cairo prepares for the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Celebrations typically go on for several days, and in past years the streets of downtown Cairo have been thronged with families enjoying a night out to mark the end of a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting.

But last year, on the second night of the Eid, something happened that deeply shocked and horrified much of the nation. According to eyewitnesses, a mob of young men stormed through the downtown crowds for several hours, assaulting every woman they came across. They chased them, groped them, and tried to tear off their clothes.

Taxi drivers and shopowners tried to shelter the women, but witnesses said the police did little to stop the rampage.

The events became public only after several eyewitnesses posted photos, videos and their own accounts of the violence on the Internet. The disclosures were met at first with disbelief, then with outrage. The government initially denied anything had happened, and accused one of the bloggers of lying. But the sheer number of eyewitness, some of whom shared their stories with a local television station, supported the blogger's account. Nobody denies it anymore.

Against that backdrop, some women say they are nervous about going out during the holiday this year. But Elham Mohammed, 45, predicts the Eid crowds downtown will be as big as ever. She calls the events of last year "exceptional" and compares the assaults to being hit by a car. She asks, "Does that mean you never walk on the street again, or ride in cars?"

"Egypt is safe," she adds. But not everyone agrees.

Security guard Osama Saleh says the fear persists, and his wife will not go downtown without being accompanied by himself or her brother.

Being with male family members did not help the women who were attacked last year. The mob attacked them regardless of who they were with or what they were wearing. Some commentators see the assaults as an extreme version of what happens every day in Cairo, the harassment of women in public places.

When Egyptians speak about the events of last year's Eid, or about year-round harassment of women on the streets of Cairo, it is not unusual to hear people transfer some of the blame for the assailants' actions onto the victim. Saleh says some of the victims were wearing tight clothes.

That attitude, a common one here, frustrates women's rights activists, who say it is never acceptable to blame a victim for the actions of her attacker. Stigma attached to sexual assault keeps most victims in Egypt from reporting the crimes.

At any rate, the argument that the Eid assault victims were behaving improperly holds little weight. Some of the women were wearing the Muslim headscarf, and most were out with male relatives.

After the assaults, the publisher of a local newspaper, Mirette Mabrouk, wrote an editorial slamming not just the assailants, but the society that let the attacks happen and also looks the other way when women are harassed on the streets all year round.

She wrote that the fact that they can get away with it is an unmitigated shame to Egypt and its culture.

The Eid assaults did push the issue of sexual harassment into the public eye. A controversial advertising campaign recently challenged Cairenes to think of their own female relatives when they see strangers being harassed.