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."
Beaten and Groped
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.
Reform or Cosmetic Change?
"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.
Enough of the Same
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.
Chanting "no to extension and no to inheritance," they alluded to Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, who has risen to the highest ranks of the ruling party and is reportedly being groomed to succeed his father.
"We are telling everyone, we refuse you -- enough," said protester Suzanne Esmat. She says the reforms heralded by the government are just a "show in front of the world, but we don't buy it."
Pushing the Limits
Nawal Ahmed, a journalist who claims to have been beaten and sexually harassed last Wednesday, also joined the protest. "Nothing less than an apology from the president and the resignation of the interior minister will do," Ahmed said.
Despite the government's tepid reaction to the assaults, analysts believe the anti-presidential camp has forged uncharted political territory in Egypt. A few months ago, it would have been unthinkable to voice public criticism of the president or his son.
Human rights activist Kassem says Egyptians feel like they can protest because of "the protection people began to feel they are getting from the international community."
Despite the United States' negative image among Arabs, some Egyptians welcomed Bush's condemnation of the violence during the protest. Analysts say this confirms people's belief that the regime will no longer be supported or tolerated if it resorts to repression.
At the moment, Bush is the most unpopular U.S. president ever, says Kassem, but in a few years people might look differently at his legacy in the Arab World. Even if the protesters don't represent millions, "their numbers are rapidly increasing," Kassem said.
That may be true. The protesters today outnumbered last week's crowd of opposition members.