Before she was arrested, tortured, stripped and subjected to a “virginity exam” — all for her pro-democracy activities — Salwa al-Housiny Gouda admired the Egyptian Army.
Her odyssey is a reminder that the Egyptian revolution that exhilarated so many around the world in January and February remains unfinished. The army is as much in charge as ever, and it has taken over from the police the task of torturing dissidents. President Hosni Mubarak is gone, but in some ways Mubarakism continues.
Ms. Gouda, a 20-year-old hairdresser, is unmarried and strong-willed. She threw herself into the democracy movement early this year, sleeping in a tent on Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, the movement’s epicenter.
Like the other activists, she focused her rage initially on Mr. Mubarak and on the police, rather than the army. “I trusted the army,” she told me, and she and other protesters often chanted slogans like, “The army and the people are one.”
But that was an illusion. Never squeaky clean, the army has increasingly taken over the role of domestic security from the police and seems fed up with disorder. On March 9, it moved in to clear Tahrir Square, pulling down tents and detaining more than 190 demonstrators.
Ms. Gouda was one of about 19 women arrested that day. Though the army has denied all such accusations, her testimony is confirmed by other detainees and by human rights groups. They say that the women were taken to the Egyptian Museum, a tourist landmark beside Tahrir Square, tied up or handcuffed to the gate outside it, and then slapped, beaten and subjected to electric shocks.
“They didn’t give us a chance to speak,” Ms. Gouda said. “They used an electric prod whenever we tried to speak.”
The prisoners were later taken to the military prosecutor’s office, where the men were photographed as criminals beside a table full of clubs and Molotov cocktails supposedly confiscated from them. (In my experience, the people with such weapons in Egypt are usually plainclothes police officers.) The women were paraded before cameras and told that they faced charges of prostitution — leaving them terrified at the thought of the accusations being broadcast on state television.
Ms. Gouda was extraordinarily strong in telling her story. But at one point she broke down in tears. “They know that the way they can harm a woman the most is by accusing her of prostitution,” she said.
Later, the detainees were taken to a military prison. Ms. Gouda said that the women were strip-searched by a female guard, but — perhaps to add to the humiliation — the search was conducted in a room with doors and windows wide open. She said she did not know if anybody looked in.
Then the unmarried women were subjected to a forced “virginity exam,” conducted on a bed in a prison hallway, by a man. When the women pleaded to be examined by a woman instead, they were threatened with cattle prods, Ms. Gouda said.
“I was shattered,” she recalled. “My whole body was shaking.” Her legs were covered with a blanket, but a half-dozen military men stood behind her as she was examined, Ms. Gouda said.
“I was ready to be beaten,” she added. “But the worst moment was when I was stripped and examined.”
Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch said that such exams were not customary in prisons and that the point was to humiliate female activists. “In this context, they’re sexual assaults,” she noted — but added that the military is above the law.
Ms. Gouda and the other women were all released after a few days, and in the end none were actually charged with prostitution. But many male democracy activists have been sentenced to prison terms.
A Cairo human rights lawyer, Ragia Omran, estimates that perhaps 1,000 Egyptians who have been arrested by the military since the protests began remain in detention today. Some have been sentenced to five years in prison after military trials lasting 30 minutes or less, without any right to choose their own lawyers, she said.
Ms. Omran is accustomed to representing other detainees. But during a referendum on constitutional changes this month, she herself was seized by soldiers while observing the polls. By her account, she was roughed up, strip-searched, shouted at and detained for hours until her well-connected family and friends managed to get her released.
All this is a huge letdown from the triumph when “people power” toppled President Mubarak. The lesson may be that revolution is not a moment but a process, a gritty contest of wills that unfolds painstakingly long after the celebrations have died and the television lights have dimmed.
“The revolution isn’t over yet,” Ms. Omran told me. “Freedom isn’t for free.”
By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 26, 2011