‘Nothing has changed in Egypt’

When hopes ran high... Tahrir Square, February 2011

Maged Helal under a CC Licence

A dozen police officers surrounded the man as he was dragged across a rock-strewn street fringed by burning piles of rubbish just east of Tahrir Square, early on Sunday evening. The air was thick with tear gas. The officers’ truncheons repeatedly crunched into the back of the man’s head, leaving him bloodied and semi-conscious.

The sustained cracks of anti-riot guns reverberated through downtown Cairo as the army and police fired round after round at protesters demanding Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), stand down.

Nearby, Tahrir Square was ablaze, smoke billowing into the evening sky. Hundreds of soldiers and police had stormed it, firing countless rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets, and quickly clearing the square, before burning down protesters’ tents and retreating.

The violence came on the back of a mass demonstration by the Muslim Brotherhood, Friday, in response to SCAF’s recent constitutional proposals.

Veto powers

The military’s proposals put its budget beyond civilian oversight and gave SCAF powers rivalling a future president. Additionally, SCAF stated that it would select the majority members for the constituent assembly – the body responsible for amending Egypt’s Constitution – while in the second article of its communiqué, it stated that any article that violates March’s constitutional decree has to be revised within 15 days, essentially giving SCAF veto powers over the new Constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood responded by mobilizing thousands of its supporters on Friday, as resentment of the military junta grew after months of the military defining itself as the safeguard of the revolution.

Tahrir Square was ablaze, smoke billowing into the evening sky. Hundreds of soldiers and police had stormed it, firing countless rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets

Since Friday, the situation has escalated dramatically.

On Saturday morning police and military moved to disperse a small crowd of protesters camped out in the Square in remembrance of activists killed during the 18-day uprising that began on 25 January. That small group – outraged that Hosni Mubarak was receiving due process in a civilian court, while 12,000 ordinary citizens have been tried in military courts since February – has now spurred a wave of revolutionary fervour.

Thousands of protesters poured into Tahrir Square on Saturday, taking the square back at around 7pm. But it took a heavy toll. In the first two days of violence, more than 1,000 people were injured, and at least 20 killed, according to medical sources.

By 3pm on Sunday, thousands of protesters were standing off against the central security forces on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, running east off Tahrir Square.

Protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails, while demanding an immediate transfer from military to civilian rule and chanting: ‘The people want the fall of the Field Marshal’ – in reference to Hussein Tantawi.


Police launched volleys of teargas and fired anti-riots guns horizontally, targeting protesters’ heads.

Scores of injured were transferred on motorbikes – horns blaring – to a field hospital down an alley beside Tahrir Square, which was used to treat wounded during the Egyptian uprising earlier this year.

Dozens of people lay on the floor of the makeshift hospital. One man, blood pouring from his forehead, had been shot in the head at close range with a rubber bullet. A doctor skillfully cleaned the wound before administering anaesthetic.

Every few minutes a motorbike would arrive, ferrying another casualty from the frontlines on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

According to Dr Mohammed Talib, who was volunteering at the makeshift clinic, most injuries were consistent with the deliberate targeting of people’s heads, with several protesters losing eyes to riot-gun pellets and rubber bullets.

‘We have had some very severe cases,’ he says. ‘We can provide only basic treatment here, so refer them onto general hospitals. Many injuries are from shooting, particularly around the head and chest.’ One man limped into the clinic, a bloodied hole in his jeans and blood dripping from what remained of his left ear.

By 5pm, the police and military moved to clear Tahrir Square. On a nearby side street, a row of police fired riot guns – muzzle flashes blowing out from barrels – directly at protesters’ heads. Countless teargas canisters hissed through the sky, blanketing much of the downtown in a harsh, acerbic cloud.

It was a brutal, sustained assault and central Cairo began to resemble a war zone.

One 24-year-old protester, Ahmed, while gasping through teargas, said that nothing had changed in Egypt: ‘The police, the military, they want to control all of Egypt. That is all they care about.’ He ran towards police with a group of men, preparing to hurl Molotov cocktails.

A slender young woman and her partner walked down the street holding hands and chanting ‘Go’ in Arabic.

Tides turning

SCAF’s shift from hero to villain was gradual. SCAF certainly enjoys huge support, but the tide is turning.

During the 18-day uprising, SCAF refused to fire on protesters and essentially forced Mubarak out of office – but did act as the former president’s buttress during the first 13 or 14 days of the uprising.

‘Because of its history, we have an ingrained respect for the military. But they use the exact same tactics as Mubarak: violence, arrests, and police in civilian clothes’

However, it has adopted a carrot and stick approach since then, while consolidating its rule. The large number of arrests and military trials – 12,000 since February – the return of emergency law, seeming intimidation of the press and SCAF’s attempts to entrench its power have resulted in the burgeoning insurgency which it is now facing.

SCAF enjoys a privileged position in Egypt. Following the Free Officers Coup – led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser – in 1952, the military played a prominent role in Egyptian politics. Under former president Anwar Sadat and from the early 1970s, the military receded into the shadows while the police became responsible for domestic enforcement. The shadowy role of the military continued under Hosni Mubarak.

Military police.

Gigi Ibrahim under a CC Licence

The military has numerous business interests, which some analysts argue undermines its more democratic instincts and is generally inconsistent with a genuine free market economy. Similarly, it wants to maintain a peace agreement with Israel – contrary to public will – which sees it get an annual $2 billion in US military aid.

By 5.30pm and behind police lines, individual protesters were being dragged towards the Ministry of Interior. Mobs of police would swarm and beat them with clubs and truncheons, before disappearing from view behind military vehicles.

One young woman, wearing a brightly covered hijab, was pulled along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, surrounded by a large mob of police – some in plain clothes – and soldiers.

When asked why the woman was arrested, one officer replied: ‘This is an Egyptian problem, not a problem for foreigners.’

Standing in Tahrir Square on Sunday evening, Mohamed, a civil society activist, said that, like many Egyptians, he had given the military a chance following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February. That was a mistake, he said.

‘Because of its history, we have an ingrained respect for the military. But they use the exact same tactics as Mubarak: violence, arrests, and police in civilian clothes. I’m not sure what will happen to Egypt.’

Nearby, a lifeless body was carried into a waiting ambulance – surrounded by a shocked crowd – before being whisked away.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist.

Postcards from the Middle East

Despite Western perceptions, the Middle East has much to offer. Yes, it can be frustrating, at times tragic. And it certainly has its share of problems.

But there is more to the region than war, car bombs and fanatics.

A few hours spent in a backstreet Cairo coffee shop with men whiling away the day, playing backgammon, reveals more about Middle Eastern realities than the endless stream of news reports quoting faceless politicians and analysts hedging their bets about the impacts of Osama bin Laden’s death.

The Western preoccupation with Middle East terrorism and war misses the point entirely. Most Middle Easterners view al-Qaeda as an anomaly, a source of shame or an embarrassment: a grotesque perversion of Islam whose ideology remains foreign to the overwhelming majority.

In reality, most people are busy trying to live their lives, caught between the competing interests of self-expression, repressive social strictures, family pressures and indifferent regimes that fail them in every respect. The people – from Aden to Aleppo, Dubai to Cairo and down through the Nile Delta sprawl to Khartoum – consistently show a generosity and openness, often tolerance, which stands in contrast to the isolated individualism of the West.

It remains unclear whether the Middle East will emerge from its malaise. The more outward-looking youth are prepared to mobilize in protest of regimes – while being well connected to the outside world – but have emerged on the back of a half-century regression into religious conservatism.

Regardless, substantial change in the Middle East will take time and not come as a ‘spring’ or ‘awakening’. Rather, a gradual shift. At least I hope so.

All photos by Glen Johnson.

Egypt: Riot police clash with protesters in Cairo on the first afternoon of the Egyptian uprising.

Egypt: Protesters march from Mohammed Naguib station towards Midan Tahrir on Day 4 of the Egyptian uprising.

Lebanon: Iraqi Shia during the final of a football tournament organised by the UNHCR for refugees in Southern Beirut.

Lebanon: Shia faithful lament the death of the Prophet’s family members in Karbala, Iraq, 1400 years previously.

Somalia: A woman walks through a former al-Shabab stronghold in the Somali capital. Mogadishu was once known as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’. It has been reduced to a shell.

Palestinian Territories: Palestinian youth cut a razor wire section of Israel’s security barrier.

Palestinian Territories: Israeli border police – known as the Magav – make arrests following the early morning eviction of a Palestinian family from their East Jerusalem home.

Syria: View over the Syrian capital Damascus after a downpour.

Yemen: Shibam’s mud brick ‘skyscrapers’ in the Hadramawt province.

All Egyptians are equal, but some are more equal than others

Portraits of Egypt's women...

Photo by David Berkowitz under a CC Licence

The posters were torn to shreds, laying scattered and in piles at the south end of Midan Tahrir, the epicentre of Egypt’s anti-government protests that began on 25 January.

Some of the posters had giant X marks scrawled across them; others had been covered in writing reading: ‘Not now.’

All were covered by the marks of dirty shoes, as hundreds of reactionary Egyptian men trampled the posters underfoot.

The posters were simple in their few demands. Demands aired as part of International Women’s Day, a day intended to celebrate women’s achievements and aiming to promote gender equality.

A revolution should not simply mean the overthrow of a political system, which has not yet happened in Egypt. A real revolution should entail widespread social reform

The posters called for harsher punishments against sexual harassment – a constant barrage of slurs and sexual innuendo are directed against women in Egypt every day. They called for fairer representation in parliament and for a woman to stand for Egypt’s presidency. In short, the posters called for acknowledgment of women’s rights. The posters called for equality.

Arriving in Midan Tahrir just before nightfall, I saw groups of women scattered around the square in small numbers, surrounded by at least 500 men, possibly more.

I saw a group of around 150 men driving forward, as a lone women, protected by a handful of relatives and friends, yelled at the men, who were working themselves into a frenzy. The woman, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, climbed over a barrier and began running across the grass outside the Mogamma building in Midan Tahrir. She was pursued by a mob of men who were fought back by a handful of people desperately attempting to protect her.

Photo by: Tinou Bao under a CC Licence

Eventually, when the woman’s safety was seriously threatened, two soldiers intervened with truncheons, beating back the mob. The soldiers then left and the woman fled across the street. I saw a young Western woman running across the street, east of Tahrir, holding her head, a group of men stalking away behind her.

I watched as three women stood in Tahrir in front of another group of men, simply holding their posters, completely surrounded by the mob. One man, Yousef, dressed in a well-cut suit and wearing Oakley sun-glasses, was yelling at the three women. ‘Not now!’ he chanted, in chorus with the rest of the men. Yousef explained, with a slight American accent, that Egyptians could not focus on the grievances of one group of people.

‘It is about all Egypt now. We have to stand together. No one group should act alone. We have other goals first. Later they can talk about what they want.’

His sentiments were repeated again and again by others.

An engineer called Abdul-Wahab told me that foreigners were making trouble, forcing women they were having sex with to come out and protest.

What revolution?

Since January, waves of protest have swept across Egypt. From Coptic Christians demanding an end to the discrimination they face, to, importantly, widespread labour unrest – in which workers have been demanding an end to workplace corruption and better salaries. These labour protests are a daily occurrence across all of Egypt and are a direct result of the regime’s neoliberal policies, which undercut workers’ rights. Tens of thousands of workers have been airing their demands, through sit-ins, walk-outs and street protests.

Not once have these protests been shouted down by mobs of men.

Indeed, Abddul-Wahab had been out protesting for workers’ rights in Cairo. Why then the difference for women demanding rights or simply airing their grievances?

‘This is not the time,’ Abdul-Wahab said.

A group of female journalists from a local magazine had prepared banners earlier in the day. Some of them wept as a group of men forced them out of Midan Tahrir. One man, his eye covered in a bandage from an injury sustained during the anti-government protests, was screaming at the young women.

A young child repeatedly yelled ‘Yalla’ (‘hurry up’, or ‘go’) at them.

Much speculation has focused on whether Egypt has really been through a revolution or not. Most Egyptians will say that they have. But a revolution should not simply mean the overthrow of a political system, which has not yet happened in Egypt. A real revolution should entail widespread social reform, or at the very least give rise to an environment in which problems endemic upon a society are verbalized and addressed.

Many women reported an end to sexual harassment during the 18 days of Egyptian protest in Tahrir Square. However, as soon as Hosni Mubarak stood down, harassment started again

In the 2010 World Gender Gap Report, Egypt was ranked 125th out of 134 countries. It performed worst regarding the political empowerment of women. Harassment of women is a constant in the country. Marital rape is widespread. Along with the rest of the Middle East, sexual abuse of children within the wider family is remarkably high, but remains largely unreported.

More than 80 per cent of women are circumcised, though the government has attempted to stamp out the practice, for which there is no religious justification – it is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but is referred to in the Hadiths.

Watching the abhorrent display by Egyptian reactionaries to the women in Midan Tahrir took some by surprise. Ahmed, a translator and Arabic teacher, said that he was ‘shocked’ by the events: ‘After what we went through together here, I can’t believe I am seeing this,’ he said.

Photo by: David Dennis under a CC Licence

Indeed, many women reported an end to sexual harassment during the 18 days of Egyptian protest in Tahrir Square. However, as soon as Hosni Mubarak stood down, harassment started again. A point which Egyptian women have reiterated time and again. The night of Mubarak’s resignation, there were numerous cases of sexual assault, most involving groping and verbal slurs.

The demands made by the women in Midan Tahrir on International Women’s Day were legitimate, and most importantly, essential for Egypt to progress. Demanding equality cuts deep. Actually listening to these demands cuts much deeper.

Can Egypt adapt and change?

The problems associated with Middle Eastern patriarchy, corruption, autocracy and discrimination can all be addressed, challenged and eventually changed through a fundamental acceptance of equal rights.

‘I did not expect such hatred, not after we stood together in Midan Tahrir. Some men told us that the closest we would ever get to a president is if we gave birth to one'

The scenes in Midan Tahrir on International Women’s Day have called into question the ability of Egypt to adapt and change. Those who failed to protect the female protesters – indeed those who failed to join the protest – are just as accountable as the reactionaries whose backwardness was on display.

For Farida, an editor at a local magazine, who was shouted out of Midan Tahrir, her day had been spent in optimism.

‘It was going to be like a school trip. We made our funny signs and wanted to be there to stand up for women. I did not expect such hatred, not after we stood together in Midan Tahrir. Some men told us that the closest we would ever get to a president is if we gave birth to one. There were so many men we couldn’t even see the women. They got so aggressive with us [and were saying]: “What the hell are you doing here, you should go home.” They started pushing women, some women got kicked, had their cameras taken. They were saying “no” to us. Couldn’t they have given us a couple of hours? What is the problem? In the future I hoped things would get better. After today, that’s bullshit.’

Once again, the Egyptian military failed in its duty to protest legitimate protesters from attacks. Soldiers argued that they could only follow orders and could not be seen to be taking sides: They would lose legitimacy, if they intervened.

Leaving Tahrir, I watched as a man used his foot to drag two pieces of torn poster together. He stood, with another man, reading through the list of women’s demands. A smirk and look of puzzlement spread across his face.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist based in Cairo.

Eyewitness Egypt: day of confrontation

2 February, 2011

It was 3am and groups of several hundred men were roaming the backstreets of downtown Cairo, near Mohammad Nageeb station. Their cries, reverberating into the early morning sky, had none of the hallmarks of previous protest chants. One group, around 50 men, were driving cars, honking horns and yelling: ‘Mubarak, our father.’

These were Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s supporters.

By 2pm thousands of these protestors had surrounded Midan Tahrir, the focal point of anti-government protests for the past nine days, blocking off all the arterial roads leading out of the square. Men rode horses through the anti-government protestors gathered in the square, trampling people. Motorbikes screamed through the streets and patriotic songs blared from  car speakers.  

The protest lacked all of the organic warmth of the anti-government protests of the past nine days, protests characterized by a demographic encompassing all aspects of Egyptian society: lawyers, doctors, accountants, storekeepers, the unemployed, taxi drivers, elderly and young, women and children.

Following the routing of Hosni Mubarak’s security forces on the fourth and fifth day of protests, an almost jovial atmosphere had taken hold of the protestors calling for Mubarak’s resignation. Journalists walked largely unhindered among the people in the square.

By contrast, these pro-government protestors were mostly very rough looking men between the ages of around 20 and 40. Their chants and slogans were crude and guttural, their attitude was one of extreme aggression.

Reports were emerging of journalists being stabbed by pro-Government supporters. Rumours that the security forces were re-organising behind the scenes had proliferated over the past days, as the armed forces maintained calm among the anti-government supporters. Looting was blamed on men who had been caught carrying state security identification cards.

Opposition leader Mohamad al-Baredei claimed that Mubarak was employing ‘scare tactics’, sending out members of his security forces onto the streets.

At around 2.45pm they had opened up numerous fronts against the protestors gathered in Midan Tahrir, essentially trapping the crowd – including a number of children – in the square.

A group of several hundred Mubarak supporters gathered on Sharia Talaat Harb and began marching towards the protestors in Midan Tahrir. I followed them down the road as they chanted, Egyptian flags billowing out beside pictures of Hosni Mubarak. They charged at a line of protestors, hurling rocks.

Within seconds the street had turned into a battle ground. Thousands of rocks flew through the sky and arced down on protestors from both sides. One man spat bloodied and shattered teeth out onto the streets as he ran.

I scrambled into a small alley about a block away from Midan Tahrir. Around 100 pro-Mubarak supporters stood there. They looked at me silently, before letting me walk past. They held bats and sticks and knives. One man’s fingers strained around the handle of a large meat-cleaver, his skin stretched taught over his knuckles.

One man told me that the anti-government supporters had brought shame on the Egyptian people. ‘Where will our country be without him? He has given us everything.’

A man scrambled into the alley, blood pouring out from a gash behind his left ear. It looked like a chunk of skin had been cleaved from out of his head.

The situation deteriorated rapidly in downtown Cairo’s backstreets. The clashes were frenzied, extremely violent and fluid; protestors advancing and retreating. Running down to the end of the alleyway and out onto another street, the scenes were repeated. Men carried sticks with nails driven through them, machetes.

I followed another group of pro-government protestors down to Midan Tahrir as rocks smashed into the buildings around us or broke into the crowd. I hid behind a car and tried to move back into another alley. A young man began screaming at me, telling me to leave. He reached forward and tore my notepad from my hands.

By 6pm, Cairo’s backstreets were transformed into a no-go area and an estimated 500 people had been injured. Countless people were being carried out, with head wounds, staggering on weakened legs.
Near one of the frontlines just north of Midan Tahrir blood covered parts of the street. I saw a man with no legs in a wheelchair wheeling himself away.

A group of men poured forward, screaming. A man had been accosted by another mob, who surrounded him and began beating him as he crumpled to the ground. I saw a woman sitting on a curb, holding an infant child, bundled in a small blanket.

A doctor at a mosque that had temporarily been turned into a hospital beside Midan Tahrir told me that they had treated 1,500 people in the tiny makeshift clinic. One woman had died after being struck in the head by a rock, causing a massive haemorrhage. The doctor said that they had run out of medical supplies and could no longer cope with the amount of persons streaming in.

Down another side street, men chanted pro-Mubarak slogans. Gunshots rang out regularly near Mohammad Nageeb station. Banners waved in the sky.

One of them showed a young looking Hosni Mubarak. A smile spread across his face.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist.

Egypt of protests: an eye-witness account

The shutters on the local street storefronts had rattled down an hour or so earlier. People looked apprehensively out of windows. The smoky trails of tear gas canisters hung from the early afternoon sky.

Within hours, Egypt’s security apparatus would be overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of protestors across the country.

I was following a crowd of around 1,500 protestors heading east from Mohammad Nageeb station to Midan Tahrir, the hub of downtown Cairo.

It was just after midday on the fourth day of Egypt’s anti-government protests. This protest was a mass venting against 30 years of rule by President Hosni Mubarak, the former officer and field-marshall who came to power in 1981, and his ruling National Democratic Party.

Frustration at Egypt’s high unemployment levels, widespread poverty, deep-seated corruption and sham democratic process had boiled over, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptian pouring out into the streets. The protestors were working themselves into a  frenzy as they marched, chanting ‘down with Mubarak!’

The thud of teargas guns cracked out through the street, as a column of riot police fired countless teargas canisters. A thick blanket of the gas billowed through the street and people began running. A man stood in the centre of the street, screaming, while the cloud of gas engulfed him. Another man, carrying a load of bread above his head, collapsed, spilling his bread across the ground.

I stumbled down a side street. Massive booms echoing overhead.

People were hocking gas in thick white globs onto the street. These wrenching coughs. The caustic burn of the gas hung a heavy red in eyes.

Two young women sat breathing through medical masks, while their father tended to them. They were university students, Jihad and Hager. They wore colourful Hijabs, and spoke quickly, slipping between Arabic and English.

‘Mubarak has to leave, we don’t want him,’ Jihad said.

‘He has killed our country. He always tell us things will be different, it will get better.’

‘But it never does. The government does not care for us, so we come to the street, they have to listen to us now.’

More booms rang out from the street.

Men were storming the riot police lines, hurling rocks which crunched into the security force’s shields. Hundreds of stones lopped through the sky. Chunks of torn street, or parts of shattered bricks. Police picked up rocks and began hurling them back at the crowd, then charged, temporarily driving the protestors back.

More gas was fired, a long-range canister took a middle aged man in the back of the head as he ran away, laying him face first onto the concrete street. He stood up and began running, the skin from his nose and forehead scraped off.

By around 5.30pm, the protest was reaching a critical mass. Countless numbers had poured onto the streets of Cairo, opening up numerous fronts against the security forces.

I was making my way down to the corniche, fringing the Nile river.

Women from apartment buildings were throwing toilet paper and bottles of water down to the protestors. The skyline was thick with smoke and gas, rocks littered the streets. Police barricades had been broken down.

A man approached me, screaming,  with blood seeping from under the bandage on his forehead. His name was Mohammad. He said he had been beaten about the head by riot police.

‘This government has no idea about the country. The police say they care about justice. Mubarak says he cares about justice.

‘There is no justice here.’

At just on 6pm the protestors overwhelmed the riot police. It began as rocks rained down, tires were set ablaze and sent rolling toward the police. A company of around 50 riot police were isolated and driven against a shuttered perfume shop. Protest leaders blew on whistles to stop the crowd from beating the officers.

The riot police handed over their shields and batons and were allowed to leave. Some of the security force personnel joined with the protestors and began chanting ‘Allah Akhbar’ as several protestors began kissing them on the cheeks. Others were hurling stones at a still defiant column of riot police.

I continued down toward the cornice as night fell, flames illuminating the streets. I saw an overweight police officer running down the street toward me, a group of five men chasing him. They ran him down and dragged him into an alley. The officer was screaming. They began kicking and punching him. One man pulled out a fine-tipped pen and began stabbing the man in the throat and face, in the side. Others punched him the face.

His screams were a high-pitched and panicked wail. I stood watching as he broke away from the men, running in terror, blood slipping down his face and neck. He tripped off the curb at the corner of the street and pitched forward. Picking himself up hurriedly, still wailing, as the men continued to chase him. At the corniche an armoured personnel carrier was engulfed in flame. Smoke spewed out into the night sky. People walked with police shields and truncheons, broken sticks and crow bars.

A group of perhaps 50 men were trying to break into the underground metro station from two sides. They furiously rattled the metal grills covering the entrance and screamed insults. A number of riot police had fled into the underground, locking it behind them.

I talked with a group of young men, their faces wrapped in scarves. One man, Ahmed – an unemployed accountant – said that he was protesting against Egypt’s unemployment levels, corruption and increased food prices, as much as against Mubarak.

An armoured personnel carrier careened through the columns of protestors walking down the street. By 12 p.m., numerous police buildings had been set ablaze by the protestors. The ruling National Democratic Party headquarters burned and looting began. The Egyptian army was deployed across Egypt’s major cities, as the remnants of the Security Forces melted away into Cairo’s backstreets.

At 1am a young man rode up to me on a police motorbike, waving a policeman’s cap in one of his hands. He asked me if I had any money. A group of men were ransacking a police vehicle.  

Twenty-four hours later looting would reach alarming levels and rumours would proliferate. People would sit at the corners of the streets at night, armed with sticks, pistols and knives. Gunshots would ring out regularly across the city. Tracer rounds flying through the night sky.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist. All photos by author.

Guilty secrets

Photo by: Aysegul Tastaban under a CC Licence

The sky had clouded over, a deep grey. Fat raindrops began falling and within minutes the streets were flooded.

Eight people would drown in slums on the outskirts of Sana’a that day.

I ran through the streets of the Old City. Flashes of lightning lit up the mud-brick buildings – the elaborate friezes and stained glass windows, hemmed in white, looming eight storeys and higher above the narrow, winding streets.

I reached the hotel and hurried to its small restaurant to meet Safa: a 25-year-old Yemeni woman and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. We drank coffee waiting for the rain to pass, and then left to walk through the Old City.

The Old City’s shop walls were lined with gorgeous Jambia (traditional Yemeni knives), water-colour paintings depicting Shibam’s mud-brick skyscrapers, jewellery, thaubs and the red and white keffiyeh worn by the Bedouin. Bookstores were crammed, Qur’ans in windows. There were sacks of raisins, nuts and spices. Men were preparing shawerma sandwiches: pita-like bread stuffed with onion, lettuce and spices. The aromas of the Old City swirled around, reassuring.

To a Westerner walking alone in the Old City, the abusive aspects of Yemeni society are invisible. However, as Safa and I walked, the dream-like facade of the souq vanished. Men stared at her through narrowed eyes. Others told her she was not a Muslim. One man stood in front of her shaking a finger and told her she had brought shame to her family.

A group of men lounging on the side of the street, cheeks bloated with the mild narcotic leaf Qat, asked her, in feigned innocence, why she liked sucking my penis: they had proper Yemeni penises, she could use those instead.

As we walked Safa talked about her former employer. He had asked her to have sex with him the previous week, saying they could get married secretly if it made her more comfortable. She had walked out of the office and he had since refused to pay her.

We arrived at a different hotel that towered above the Old City and took the elevator to the rooftop cafe.

Safa had told me several days earlier that she had been raped as a child, but would not go into details.

I had persuaded her to talk to me, on condition of anonymity, after we discussed the case of a woman who had found her brother-in-law undressing her seven-year-old daughter.

We sat above the city, veiled women walking in the streets below, and Safa began talking. When she was six years old her cousin N had watched her playing with her younger cousins on the bottom floor of the family’s two-storey house. She said that she remembered feeling his eyes on her, that he had looked at her in a ‘very bad way’.

The call to prayer started and her mother asked N to help Safa get ready.

He took her to her bedroom on the second floor. He pushed her onto her bed and stuffed clothes into her mouth. Safa said she tried to scream, but no-one could hear her. He pulled her dress up and sexually assaulted her.

To a Westerner walking alone in the Old City, the abusive aspects of Yemeni society are invisible. However, as Safa and I walked, the dream-like facade of the souq vanished. Men stared at her through narrowed eyes

‘He tied clothes around my mouth. I could feel his fingers doing things to me. When he finished, he told me to go to pray.’

N raped Safa from age six to when she was fourteen. His brother M began sexually assaulting her a few weeks after the first assault. Her uncle, aged 33, twice raped her in her bedroom. For a period of eight years, Safa was sexually assaulted up to three times each week by family members.

‘Maybe one month ago, I told my Aunt that M and N had done these things to me. She told me that N was very bad so I should tell my father, but M was a very good person, so I couldn’t tell anyone about what he did.

‘It hurts me so much because they don’t care about me, but they care about the person who did it.’

Men’s laws

In Yemen, men wield total power in government and society. Mixed with the patriarchy are dangerously conservative and masculine forms of Islam which serve to buttress male hegemony. As such, women’s rights are systematically violated and few organizations can offer women support and protection.

In a 2009 report, ‘Yemen’s Dark Side: Discrimination and Violence against Women and Girls’, Amnesty International argued that Yemeni women faced widespread discrimination and violence. The report addressed restrictions placed on women’s movements, forced and early marriage – including the case of a girl married at the age of eight, honour killings, and laws relating to Zina (immoral behaviour) in which, predominantly, male enforcement bodies decided what constituted an ‘immoral’ act.

Photo by: Franco Pecchio under a CC Licence

In the case of Zina, Amnesty International argued that Article 232 of the Penal Code (law No. 12/1994 ) reinforced a woman’s inferior status: If a husband caught his wife committing adultery and killed her – an ‘honour killing’ – he would receive a maximum prison sentence of one year, or a fine.

Furthermore, a woman arrested for immoral behaviour is forbidden from testifying by Article 53 of the Evidence Law. As such, a woman cannot defend herself against charges that have extreme ramifications: floggings and the death penalty.

The list goes on: women need permission from a father or husband to leave the house and are often accompanied by a relative; a man is allowed up to four wives at any one time – whom he can divorce at will by uttering a short phrase – but a woman is permitted only one husband, whom she cannot divorce without his consent; and attempts to legislate against early marriage have met fierce resistance.

In a landmark case, eight year-old Nojoud Nasser was married to a 30 year-old man by her father. Nasser took herself off to a judge and argued for divorce. She succeeded in having the marriage annulled despite it having been (forcibly) consummated.

In Yemen, men wield total power in government and society. Mixed with the patriarchy are dangerously conservative and masculine forms of Islam which serve to buttress male hegemony

Earlier this year, the government attempted to legislate against early marriage, proposing 17 as the minimum age for a woman to be married.

The proposals enraged Yemen’s fundamentalists and street protests were staged, led by sheikhs championing a minor’s right to marriage. The argument put forward by the fundamentalists was twofold: That the Qur’an did not prohibit child marriage and that, by marrying as a child, a girl would be less likely to commit an immoral act later in life – have sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

Concluding that the government needed to take effective steps to address discriminatory laws and change societal attitudes, the Amnesty report said that women’s rights were ‘routinely violated because Yemeni laws as well as tribal and customary practices treat them as second class citizens’.

Social strictures

Safa said she was afraid to approach any organizations and she would not report the assaults to the police.

‘I have heard about bad things being done at those organizations.’

Pausing, Safa looked out over the Old City towards the distant, massive Ali Abdullah Saleh mosque, its gold-capped minarets glinting in the late afternoon sun.

‘We can’t change anything because it comes from society. The government can’t make the society do something it doesn’t want.

‘I am not virgin. If I go to the police they will see me as a woman they can have sex with. It’s the same with the organizations. They will try to have sex with me.’

Her eyes sank down to the table.

‘If I tell my father, he will kill them and go to jail. The police will make a big problem for me.’

Safa’s story is not uncommon. She knows four women who were abused during childhood by family members, including one of her 23 year-old female cousins. None of them reported the assaults.

‘Why do they do this to us? Because they can’t have sex, or a relationship, they do it to children.’

According to an unpublished 2008 study – overseen by UNICEF – of university students at four Yemeni Universities, 30 per cent of students had been physically sexually abused as minors, while more than 50 per cent had been sexually abused in some way.

Overwhelmingly, sexual abuse took place in the victims’ homes: 37 per cent of the incidents occurred in the home, while 18 per cent of assaults took place in neighbours’ homes.

Eighty-five per cent of perpetrators were males and almost 40 per cent of perpetrators were relatives. An additional 25 per cent of offenders were nuclear family.

The study demonstrated that most sexual violence, 58 per cent, was directed against 6 to 12 year-olds and that 43 per cent of victims were assaulted repeatedly. Fifteen per cent of victims were under the age of 6.

Somewhat surprisingly, and because of the greater personal freedoms granted males, the study postulated that males were more susceptible to sexual abuse, stating that 53.6 per cent of sexual assault victims were males, while 46.4 per cent were females.

Crisis writ large

In Yemen, there is an extreme form of sexual segregation, which undoubtedly contributes to sexual violence. And the country appears to be speeding towards complete disintegration, limiting the timeframe for major reforms.

Yemen is resource poor, ultra-conservative and bound to tribal customs. Its ground water aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate – for which cultivation of the thirsty Qat plant holds a good deal of responsibility. With 45 per cent of the population under the age of 15, the total population of 24 million is expected to double by 2050.

The government draws most of its revenue from oil. However, oil production is expected to drop to zero by 2017, approximately the same time as the water crisis reaches its apex. Unemployment currently sits at 40 per cent, a mid-ranking civil servant averages a monthly wage of around $200. A 2005 UNDP report put female literacy at 28 per cent, while a 2009 UNICEF report put malnutrition in five year olds at 47 per cent.

The government, notorious for its corruption, barely controls the major cities and the majority of the population live in areas characterized by grinding poverty where the rule of the sword holds sway.

With its mix of tribal customs, religious extremism, lack of government control, widespread poverty and looming water and oil crises, not to mention numerous armed groups, Yemen is set apart from the rest of the Middle East in that it shows no real propensity for change.

‘My society is sick’

And so women like Safa have little recourse to hope.

Safa said she had only just begun to address the issues which stemmed from her abuse.

‘I am angry because I don’t tell anyone. I want to know if it’s something wrong with me that made them do these bad things. If I tell my mother she will die from shame. I’m not a virgin. My family will be shamed. No-one will marry me.’

A woman arrested for immoral behaviour is forbidden from testifying by Article 53 of the Evidence Law. As such, a woman cannot defend herself against charges that have extreme ramifications: floggings and the death penalty

For Safa the abuse has persisted, becoming a thing of adulthood. She doesn’t normally wear the niqab (veil) and is therefore constantly abused in the street.

Photo by: Franco Pecchio under a CC Licence

‘If I wear a niqab, men tell me I am the most beautiful, very beautiful girl. If I wear hijab only, they say bad things to me, like that I should have sex with them. My uncle still touches me in a very bad way. He touches me and pretends it is just an accident. But how can I tell my aunt? I will hurt her if I tell, I will hurt my family. My society is sick.’

We finished talking as the sun began sinking. Safa’s curfew – 7 pm – was approaching. We walked through the Old City. Little six-pointed stars could faintly be seen above some buildings’ doorways. The call to prayer was echoing through the streets. The microphone in a mosque was picking up the whisperings of men in prayer, underneath the call.


A week after I interviewed Safa, National Security gave me 72 hours to leave Yemen.

Safa came to my apartment to say goodbye. She brought a cake.

We were eating it, when we heard the first screams from the street. I looked out the window and knew the situation was bad. There were around 50 men gathered below, holding stones or sticks.

I asked Safa to put her veil on, ran downstairs, and opened the large gate.

Some local boys had seen her enter my apartment and had informed the neighbours. Within minutes a crowd of men had gathered.

The assumption was that she was having sexual intercourse and making pornography. I told the crowd that she was a friend who had come to say goodbye as I was leaving Yemen.

One man began screaming at me to bring her out. Her actions were ‘haram’ – she had violated Qur’anic imperatives.

He said that the police were coming.

I ran upstairs. Safa was shaking and saying ‘no’ over and over. ‘They will kill me,’ she said. If the police arrived, she would most likely be flogged 100 times. No-one would believe that she had been sexually assaulted as a child. Then her family would bludgeon her to death. We went downstairs. The landlord was waiting. He told us that we had to get to a taxi. He opened the gate and let us out.

In Yemen, there is an extreme form of sexual segregation, which undoubtedly contributes to sexual violence. And the country appears to be speeding towards complete disintegration, limiting the timeframe for major reforms

I took her hand and told her to stay close to me. We pushed out into the crowd. Safa began crying. Two men grabbed her arms and started pulling her away through the crowd. She was begging for them to let her go. They were yelling: ‘Sharmoota’ (bitch: used normally to refer to a woman who has had sex outside of marriage).

Some teenage boys began throwing rubbish. I broke the men’s grips on her wrists and pushed them away, telling them to leave. The crowd was screaming ‘haramee’ (thief). I was saying that she was a friend only and that there was no problem.

Men were pulling at her hijab and veil.

I thought about a Yemeni woman who was burned to death by her family for having intercourse outside of marriage.

And then it stopped.

They let us walk through. By now, everyone on the street had come out to see what was happening. Safa walked past the veiled women glaring at her. Past the storekeepers shaking their heads. Past the men standing, watching silently with their children.

A child ran up to Safa and yelled ‘fuck you’, his face twisted by a hate which he did not understand, nor had any freedom of thought over.

Safa wept as she walked, her head hung in shame. Short gasps and whimpers. Little exhalations.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop