Ahead of Egypt’s run-off presidential poll, the young, progressive activists who formed the backbone of the country’s revolution are struggling to remain hopeful and relevant despite lacking a coherent position.
On a recent weekday afternoon, there was a protest march in Cairo's Tahrir Square, but 26-year-old Egyptian activist Nihal Saad Zaghloul chose to stay at home. She gently joked with a few visitors as she offered them tea and coffee, but Nihal was noticeably on edge. She and two female friends were sexually assaulted in Tahrir a few days earlier while walking through a crowd of men. Her voice wavered and she struggled to keep her composure as she described the attack, in which her veil was pulled from her head and she was groped by dozens of men.
"It was like they were animals on drugs or something," she told DW. "It wasn't normal. They were enjoying - it was, like, sadistic."
Cairo is a difficult city for women. Catcalling, groping and unwanted sexual advances are not uncommon. A 2008 report from the Cairo Center for Women's Rights found that more than 80 percent of Egyptian women and over 90 percent of foreign women had reported being harassed, many of them on a daily basis. Perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.
"The truth of the matter is that even in the more serious incidents, even in the rare cases when women do insist on filing a complaint, it never goes anywhere," Heba Morayef, an Egypt analyst with Human Rights Watch, told DW. Morayef says the Egyptian government and police simply don't take sexual harassment seriously.
The assault came as a severe blow to Nihal, who had already begun to lose faith in a protest movement that has splintered and sputtered since forcing the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago. Young progressives, whose impassioned street protests inspired their compatriots, have so far failed to form a coherent political movement and were walloped in the country's parliamentary elections, which saw the rise of Islamist parties including the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood.
The failure of liberal and progressive groups to organize politically is perhaps best illustrated by the choice of candidates in Egypt's presidential election. In a first round of voting, liberal Egyptians didn't coalesce around one candidate; they split their vote among a few men. The race has come down to a runoff between Mohammed Morsi, the stolid but charmless candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafiq, a former Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarak who has positioned himself as the law-and-order candidate and gleefully needles young activists in press conferences and television interviews. A growing movement aims to boycott the election and return to protests in Tahrir.
"This whole thing in Tahrir right now, from my perspective, is really not as useful as it used to be," said Nihal. "The card of protesting and demonstration died. It burned."
Nihal says she will vote for Mohammed Morsi, though she has some concerns about the conservative direction in which the Muslim Brotherhood appears to want to take Egypt. She believes that sitting out the election will pave the way for a win by Ahmed Shafiq, who has vowed to use force while cracking down on activists.
"The first presidential round we made the mistake of looking for a candidate that will represent [revolutionary] ideas and methodologies and principles but this was incorrect," Nihal said. "Right now, the country needs us to be united and we need to choose one who will take care of the country and will bring us from rock bottom up to the skies - or at least above rock bottom a bit."
Nihal isn't sure what form her activism will take from now on, but says she can't simply go back to the apolitical charity events with which she used to occupy her time.
Return to Tahrir
A few days after the assault in Tahrir, Nihal returned to the square, this time as part of a rally against sexual harassment, which she helped to organize along with a 22-year-old engineering student, Abd el Fattah Mahmoud. Mahmoud became outraged after reading a blog post that Nihal wrote about the incident.
"This square harbored revolutionaries," Abd el Fattah told DW, explaining why he chose to form a civilian initiative to protect women in Tahrir. "It witnessed the birth of a revolution. [Women] don't deserve this kind of treatment here."
Nihal stood with about 50 other women who held homemade signs and chanted against harassment. The women were ringed by young men in neon yellow vests, members of Abd el Fattah's civilian security patrol.
"It feels a bit awkward and strange, but seeing all these people supporting us, it just feels better," Nihal said from behind the cordon of men.
The rally was scheduled to end at sunset and as dusk descended the group disbanded and most participants headed for home. A few stayed behind in the square. As night fell, they were attacked by a mob of men. The women and their male protectors fled and escaped without serious injuries. The attackers have not been identified.
That night, Nihal Saad Zaghloul gave an interview on an Egyptian television program in which she decried the assault and demanded better for Egyptian women. At that moment, it seemed as if the young activist may have found a new calling.
Author: Noel King, Cairo
Editor: Rob Mudge