Hundreds of Egyptians dressed in black clothes with white ribbons pinned to their chests protested in Cairo, demanding an apology for female activists and journalists who were allegedly beaten and sexually harassed during demonstrations last Wednesday.
Demonstrators took to the streets last week to hold a rally against President Hosni Mubarak and protest a referendum vote on a constitutional amendment intended to encourage multi-party elections. Some call the amendment a step toward democracy, while others insist it is merely a cosmetic change aimed at appeasing the West and allow the ruling party to retain power.
Whether or not the change would indeed pave the way for Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential elections, the harassment of protesters at last week's rally has drawn significant attention. Photos of protesters being attacked appeared in newspapers the following day, prompting many Egyptians to do something rarely done -- publicly criticize Mubarak and his administration.
The white-ribbon protest was spearheaded by housewife Ghada Shahbandar. She says she is not a political activist but she was protesting because "my children will not be brought up to believe this is acceptable, I will not accept it and neither will they."
The women protesters were reportedly attacked by plainclothes men chanting pro-Mubarak slogans. Meanwhile, hundreds of police in full riot gear allegedly watched the beatings and failed to intervene.
The protesters called the proposed amendment a ploy to keep the Mubarak administration in power. The amendment would require independent presidential candidates to have the backing of about 15 percent of members of parliament. Opposition parties would need at least 5 percent representation in both houses in order to nominate candidates.
Opposition groups called for a boycott of the referendum, saying that the conditions were impossible to meet for all but the ruling National Democratic Party ahead of September's presidential elections.
"The regime basically is under a lot of pressure internationally. There is an international consensus that reform in the region has to start from Egypt," said human rights activist and journalist Hisham Kassem. "If Egypt takes a step forward, the region is going to follow."
But Kassem added that these changes are for the most part cosmetic. "The regime needs to prove it is going along the international trend of democratization in the Middle East."
The Egyptian government acknowledged that the assaults on protesters occurred, but has repeated that, regardless of the violence, the referendum was a success.
Some 83 percent of the voters voted in favor of the amendment. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said that the violence was exaggerated by the foreign media.
President Bush spoke with the Egyptian president today, expressing concern about the violence surrounding the referendum and urging Mubarak to lead the way toward democracy in the region by ensuring free and fair elections.
Today's protest by the Kefaya (Arabic for Enough) Movement, took place in front of the Journalists Syndicate in central Cairo. The protesters demanded an apology from Interior Minister Habib el-Adli and an end to Mubarak's rule.