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2011-11-28

As Egypt Holds Vote, Journalist Mona Eltahawy Recounts Beating, Sexual Assault by Egyptian Forces

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Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy was detained for 12 hours by Egypt’s security forces last Wednesday near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, during which time she was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted. She has just returned from Cairo and joins us in our studio. "So many people in Tahrir Square came up to me, and they would kiss my forehead, they would give me a hug, they would say, ’We’re not going to let them get away.’ They would say, ’We’re going to snatch Egypt back from them.’ And I’ve come back with so many messages of love and support from Tahrir, I feel like Tahrir’s spirit is going to help my arms heal even quicker. And this is for Egypt, you know? I mean, people have lost eyes. People have been killed. People have lost loved ones," says Eltahawy. "What happened to me is minuscule compared to that. I have a voice in the media they don’t, so I want to use that voice to get across to the world that our revolution continues." Today Egypt held its first round of parliamentary elections to elect a new post-Mubarak government in the wake of fierce clashes between protesters and police that lasted nine days and left at least 42 people dead and more than 3,000 wounded across the country. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The first round of parliamentary elections are underway in Egypt today. Voters are going to the polls to elect a new post-Mubarak government. One of Egypt’s presidential candidates, Amr Moussa, cast his ballot and stressed there’s a real appetite for democracy in Egypt.

AMR MOUSSA: This is the beginning of a new era in Egypt: democracy in action. Not in theory, but in action.

REPORTER: Mr. Moussa, what do you think, after the elections, should be done, if the people are still in Tahrir? What do you—what’s—

AMR MOUSSA: What is that?

REPORTER: If the people remains in Tahrir Square, what do you think about after the elections? What should be done after the elections?

AMR MOUSSA: Well, after the elections, you will have a parliament. You will have your deputies that you have elected yourself. But if you want to go to Tahrir and express your—another point of view, why not? This is a—has to be a free country, but disciplined afterwards.

REPORTER: And finally, what about the relation with the military? I heard you’ve been at times with them, so what’s the final things you have been after?

AMR MOUSSA: We have reached an agreement, a very important one, that the—all the elections, including the presidential elections, will come to an end before the beginning of July. So by the 30th day of June, all the elected officers should be in place and start the new era in Egypt, in the government of Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: One of Egypt’s presidential candidates, Amr Moussa, speaking with reporters as he cast his ballot in today’s parliamentary election. He’s not actually running for president today in these elections.

These elections are being held in the wake of fierce clashes between protesters and police last week that lasted for nine days, left at least 42 people dead, more than 3,000 wounded across Egypt. It marked the worst violence in Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster. Thousands of protesters have launched a mass sit-in in Tahrir Square in front of the Parliament in downtown Cairo to call for the ruling military council to step down and hand over power to a civilian government. Many of the protesters are boycotting the elections.

Well, for more, we turn right now to Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy. She was detained by Egypt’s security forces last Wednesday near Cairo’s Tahrir Square. She was taken to the Interior Ministry, detained for 12 hours, during which time she was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted. While in captivity, she tweeted, "Beaten arrested in interior ministry." Mona Eltahawy has just returned from Cairo last night, and we are very glad that she at least is in condition enough to be with us in studio, although you have casts on both of your arms, Mona.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us exactly what happened.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Thanks for having me, Amy.

It was on Wednesday night when I went along with an activist friend of mine to Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which was the front line between where protesters have been in a standoff and clashes with security forces. And soon after we arrived on the front line, they started shooting, so we took cover in what we thought was a safe area. But we realize now that we’d been entrapped by government agents on our side of the barrier, because they basically held on to us. And I didn’t realize this at the time, until my activist friend told me, in recalling his own arrest. They held on to us until riot police came onto our side of the barrier and took my friend away and surrounded me.

I was surrounded by four or five riot police. And they just brutally beat me with their sticks. They have these huge sticks. They’re known for their brutality. And in trying to protect myself, they broke my arm here, and they broke my hand there. And then they dragged me into a no man’s land in between where the protesters stand and where the security forces are, and that’s where the sexual assault happened. It was just hands all over me, on my breasts, in between my legs. I lost count of the number of hands trying to get into my jeans, all while I was being beaten. My hair, they were pulling my hair. They were calling me a whore, the daughter of a whore. And so—and then they managed to drag me all the way into the Interior Ministry, where the assaults continued to happen, until someone from the military said, "Take her inside." And then I was held inside the Ministry of Interior for five to six hours, on the pretext that they wanted to verify my identity. But you don’t take six hours to verify someone’s identity. And then I was handed over to military intelligence, where I was blindfolded for two or five hours, and again the pretext of verifying my identity.

When I look back now, I think what actually happened—well, I’m guessing, but this is the thing that makes sense, the most sense to me—is that, while at the Interior Ministry, they looked at my files, and like many journalists in Egypt, I have many files in there. And they realized that they had a journalist who had written a lot against the previous regime. I’ve exposed a lot of human rights violations. They know my position on the revolution. So I think they were probably trying to figure out, during those 12 hours, am I more trouble with them or more trouble free? And I would say, as much pain as I was in, and they wouldn’t get me medical treatment, they counted on the wrong thing, because ever since they released me, I’ve just been on a campaign to shame and expose them.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who exactly they were.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, the one’s who beat me and sexually assaulted me are the riot police, and they are conscripts, basically. They’re kind of the lowest-ranking soldiers, if you like, of the Ministry of the Interior. And they are the ones on the front line with protests, and they’re the ones that basically unleashed—the Ministry of the Interior unleashes them on protesters, because they’re just like automatons. They just—all they do is beat.

And with women, the sexual violence with women is really important here, because the Mubarak regime began this horrendous policy of targeting female activists and journalists, because they wanted to shame us, they wanted to silence us. So it started then in 2005. But then the military now—right now, Mubarak is not in charge anymore. It’s the military, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. They too have used sexual violence against women. In March, they subjected at least 17 activists to so-called virginity tests, which are, you know, sexual assaults. And now, here again.

Now, who’s in charge of Egypt? Again, it’s this military junta. So they are in charge of whatever the Ministry of the Interior and the police do. And so, even under the military rule now, the same kind of violence we experienced under Mubarak, and sometimes worse, is still being unleashed on Egyptians. So, at the end of the day, you have to look back and say, look, we started this revolution in January against police brutality, amongst many other things, and that brutality continues, which says to me that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces has failed at leading Egypt, and it must step aside immediately. And that’s exactly what protesters at Tahrir Square are demanding.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about this, what has taken place over the weekend, the level of violence. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, our correspondent, has been reporting through the weekend. I mean, the number of people killed and wounded?

MONA ELTAHAWY: It’s horrendous. I mean, as you mentioned, almost 40 people killed and thousands injured. I am just one of many thousands. And there are many other Egyptians out there that you don’t hear of. So this is just a symbol of that violence.

You know, it started out as a peaceful protest against expanding army rule. And the army, along with the police, invaded Tahrir Square and very violently tried to break it up, killed several people, burned tents. And it was in reaction to that violent invasion of Tahrir Square that activists and protesters then went on to Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which is where I was taken, because that street is the street along which they came from the Interior Ministry.

And the level—you know, the sadism. It’s just sadistic, Amy. They have been targeting people’s heads. Human rights groups in Egypt have documented that they’ve been deliberately targeting the head, so they can get the eye. Lots of activists have lost one or both eyes. It’s just horrendous what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is in control?

MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, supposedly, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, and the head of which is Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. He used to be Mubarak’s defense minister. He’s now the head of that Supreme Council. Now, I call that council the Supreme Council of Mubaraks, because we’ve basically replaced one Mubarak with 18 Mubaraks. They’re all Mubarak’s men. They rose through the ranks of the military with Mubarak. And here is his former defense minister. Mubarak is 83. This man is 81. Like one of the activists I met in Tahrir Square said, he’s older than her grandfather. And they were supposed to hand over power to a civilian leadership in Egypt in September.

They claimed that they were the guardians of the revolution, because they didn’t shoot, they didn’t open fire on Egyptians during those 18 days. But all that time, they were detaining, they were torturing, subjecting people to virginity tests. And we have this saying in Egypt that the army and the people are one hand. Well, I tell everyone now that they’ve broken my hand, and they’ve broken the hands of many Egyptians, and that kind of relationship is definitely severed. More and more ordinary Egyptians, even those not involved in the revolution, have been watching the violence that the military and the police have unleashed on people and are realizing that the military is not the guardian of the revolution, but that the military is trying to hijack our revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what’s happening today, these elections, who’s boycotting, who’s not, what the demands are of the people in Tahrir Square.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Right, well, the Tahrir Square demands have been the ones that have been there all along since January the 25th. And that is, the revolutionary demands that include civilian leadership for Egypt, an end to state-endorsed violence and brutality against protesters, a demand for justice for the families of the martyrs during the 18 days of the initial uprising, but also families who have lost loved ones all the way up until this past week. No one has stood trial for shooting and killing people during those 18 days that got rid of Mubarak. And also an end to military trials. Twelve thousand, at least 12,000, civilians have stood before military tribunals in Egypt on various charges. Now, civilians should not have to go under military tribunal. So there’s a whole host of very, very clear demands.

Now, what has happened over the past week, and because of expanding military rule and because of the idea that the military and the Islamists, especially—the Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, are recognized as the most organized, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. And a lot of people worry that the Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have entered into some kind of accommodation deal with the military. So a lot of people who do not identify with Islamists have decided to boycott the elections. But also some people have decided to boycott the elections because of this violence last week, and because very prominent activists, like blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, who’s one of the most well-known in Egypt, are still behind bars on trumped-up charges. So, it’s a confusing time. It’s a very violent time.

AMY GOODMAN: Although it does seem like the turnout is quite high today for these elections.

MONA ELTAHAWY: I would say the majority of Egyptians are not boycotting. I think that those who are boycotting are probably a hardcore group of a smaller number of activists. But I think that you’re seeing this array of voices in Egypt, that you’re seeing people turn out for our first post-January the 25th elections with this hunger to vote and take part in rebuilding the country. This is what gives me hope.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s difficult to see you here talking about what gives you hope with your hands in full casts and one of your fingers—one of your hands is semi-blue, as I’m looking at you with these casts. So, how do you feel hopeful?

MONA ELTAHAWY: I feel hopeful because the people who did this to me are not Egypt. The people who did this to me are the part of Egypt—or is the group that have occupied Egypt for so many decades now that we are trying to get rid of. We are continuing our revolution. We will not allow them to hijack our revolution. And I’m optimistic because of the Eygypt that signed my cast. So many people in Tahrir Square came up to me, and they would kiss my forehead, they would give me a hug, they would say, "We’re not going to let them get away." They would say, "We’re going to snatch Egypt back from them." And I’ve come back with so many messages of love and support from Tahrir, I feel like Tahrir’s spirit is going to help my arms heal even quicker. And this is for Egypt, you know? I mean, people have lost eyes. People have been killed. People have lost loved ones. What happened to me is minuscule compared to that. I have a voice in the media they don’t, so I want to use that voice to get across to the world that our revolution continues.

AMY GOODMAN: Mona Eltahawy, the young women who are in the square now, people you talk to afterwards, how are women faring today?

MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, women are fighting. I mean, we’re kicking and screaming and shouting. Women have been part of this revolution from the very beginning. And women are demanding that whoever wins these elections, whoever gets the parliamentary majority, recognizes that women are integral to this process. Our revolution will not succeed unless women are taken into account in every step of the way, because a lot of people, including myself, worry that if Islamist groups do as well as they’re expected to, the already increasing levels of conservatism in Egypt will rise even more. And I fully believe that conservatism harms women the most. So, with the feminist groups on the ground that I know and the activists I know on the ground, I’m very closely monitoring the situation and going back and forth between here in Egypt to contribute whatever I can to those growing—to that growing chorus of women’s voices, saying, "This revolution will not succeed without us. Women are a central part of this revolution." And, you know, and the sad thing is that we’ve been fighting on many fronts. We fight along with the men. We fight against the military and the counterrevolution. We fight the tear gas. We fight the police brutality. But we fight what I call this fourth enemy, which is sexual violence, and it’s sexual violence that is deliberately targeted at women to try to silence us.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the Obama administration and its stance, when it came to Mubarak, holding on to the end, but now continuing—well, the military in Egypt receives some of the highest amount of aid in the world, $1.3 billion a year.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Absolutely. The amount of aid that the United States gives the Egyptian military comprises 40 percent of its budget. The United States—

AMY GOODMAN: Egypt’s budget.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Of the military’s budget, the Egyptian military’s budget, 40 percent of which comes from the U.S. The U.S. administration and all those other governments that support the military rulers of Egypt now have to also be held accountable for what’s happening, because it’s the tear gas that they provide the security forces with, that they sell them, the weapons that they sell them, and the money they give them in aid that they use to buy those weapons, are what led to this and to the at least 40 killed and the hundreds killed during the revolution and the thousands upon thousands who are in jail. The U.S. administration has lagged behind every step of the way. You know, their statements have been incredibly slow and incredibly ineffectual, and they must recognize that Egyptians realize that they’re one of the best friends of the military junta that is trying to destroy our revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: Mona Eltahawy, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Egyptian-born columnist, journalist. She just returned from Cairo last night. Both of her hands are in casts.

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