Egypt: France 24 journalist Sonia Dridi attacked in Tahrir Square

The Guardian

A journalist for France 24 has described how his female colleague was attacked and groped by a group of men while filming live during protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday night.

Sonia Dridi was surrounded while filming in the square, with the mob closing in on her as she was reporting. The news channel said in a statement that she was attacked at about 10.30pm.

Her colleague from the English section of France 24, Ashraf Khalil, was by her side waiting to do his spot next for the camera but cut her off midway and led her off as the crowd began to move in. All this was caught on camera.

"Usually one of us goes first then the other, Sonia does the French and I do the English," he told the Guardian. "Usually we don't do Tahrir live shots from street level, normally we're on a balcony. We had done an earlier live shot and even then the crowd was annoying.

"When we went back for the second live shot the crowd was worse, it was really hard to control the crowd. If you see the video you can see me popping up on the fringe telling people let her work. By the time it was finished everybody was too close and no one was listening to us. I told Sonia to just go straight to [the shop] Hardee's and wait for me because I didn't want her to wait with this crowd of feral youths."

But the crowd had already begun to close in as Khalil and Dridi made their way to the Hardee's branch at the corner of the square. By the time they made it to the shop Dridi discovered her shirt was open and was grateful that the "tight thick belt" she was wearing prevented worse happening.

"More frightened than hurt," wrote Dridi in French, according to the Associated Press, on her Twitter page on Saturday. Referring in English to her colleague, she tweeted: "Thanks to @ashrafkhalil for protecting me in #Tahrir last nite. Mob was pretty intense. thanks to him I escaped from the unleashed hands."

Khalil said: "I basically had her in a bear hug and we're doing this crab walk towards Hardee's surrounded by 30 guys and some were groping her and others were trying to help but it's impossible to tell who is who."

There had been protests in Tahrir that day against the Muslim Brotherhood, the president, Mohamed Morsi, and the Islamist hegemony of Egypt's future constitution. The Friday before that had seen clashes between members of the Brotherhood and anti-Brotherhood supporters that lasted for hours and resulted in 110 injuries.

Numerous incidents of violence and sexual assault against women have been reported over the past 18 months whenever throngs gather in the square, with not everyone necessarily there with the aim of protesting. Sexual harassment is an endemic problem in Egypt dating back to before the revolution.

Dridi has filed a police report about the incident and said on her Facebook page: "The crowd was out of control, [and] some guys took advantage of it. Some people tried to help but it was hard to know who to trust in the heat of the moment."

Dridi and Khalil's bags were stolen in the ruckus but Dridi's was returned by an Egyptian who managed to wrestle it back.

"What was depressing is that the employees inside Hardee's knew exactly what to do because this seems to happen all the time," Khalil said. "Some terrified woman running in one step ahead of a mob." The doors were bolted and later Khalil went out to hail a taxi and made it wait in front of the shop as Dridi was ushered out. Even then, it hadn't ended, with some men taking notice and banging on the hood of the car.

"Sexual harassment is a 20-year problem here, but now there's a feeling of impunity and the knowledge that the police won't do anything about it, it breeds this culture of lawlessness," Khalil said. "There are always good Samaritans in the crowd but crowds can be stupid and when it tips, it tips. [However] there were several other guys who helped and we couldn't have done it without them, we have to remember that."

At the height of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, Lara Logan, a correspondent for the US network CBS, was sexually assaulted and beaten in Tahrir Square.