Amnesty International called on Egyptian authorities Monday to investigate reports of sexual assaults on women protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, to counter the impression that no one will be punished.
There has been a rise in violent attacks against women since demonstrators returned to the square 10 days ago to protest verdicts against toppled President Hosni Mubarak, his sons and security aides. Mubarak escaped a death sentence over deaths of protesters, and he and his sons were acquitted on corruption charges.
The protesters are concerned that the verdicts indicate the hold the repressive Mubarak regime continues to have on the country, and that the sexual assaults are at attempt to drive women, and eventually the rest of the protesters, from the downtown Cairo square.
A number of sexual assaults on women were reported during the week, including one incident in which the attackers attempted to strip a woman naked.
On Friday, in the face of these assaults, activists organized a rally to demand an end to the harassment _ only to be attacked by a mob of men.
The men groped the women, tore off their clothes and robbed them, despite attempts by other men to fend them off. The frenzy lasted around an hour. Women were rushed to a shelter to hide them from the pursuing attackers.
Amnesty, a leading London-based rights group, said the attacks appeared designed to intimidate women and prevent them from fully participating in public life. It said Mubarak's regime used similar tactics of intimidation against women.
"The authorities have so far done nothing to investigate these attacks," said Amnesty's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. She said the lack of investigation has encouraged the attackers. "The prevailing climate of impunity must stop to bring perpetrators to justice," she said.
Sexual harassment is not new to Egypt, but its increasing frequency and violence has shaken the protest movement.
Over the past year, Egypt's ruling military has worked to discredit protesters, charging that they receive foreign funding and are implementing plans of outsiders to drive the country into chaos, threatening national security.
Activists suspect the attacks on women are part of such an effort to chip away at the body of protesters and empty the square, particularly ahead of the polarizing presidential elections scheduled later this week. The pattern of the attacks and their organized nature is the only evidence the protesters have so far to point that the assaults were planned.
Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, is facing a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, two choices that the protesters see as a recreation of the regime they rebelled against.