CAIRO (AP) — Washington's envoy on human rights cautioned Tuesday against the failure of Egypt's government to identify the perpetrators behind a growing number of gruesome attacks against female protesters, as nearly 1,000 women gathered in Cairo to denounce the recent sexual assaults.
Beating drums and blowing whistles, the women defied advice by some lawmakers that suggested their presence in Tahrir Square, the focal point of protests, was the reason for the mob attacks.
"A woman in the square is a revolution, but your words Afifi are shameful," read one banner in response to Adel Afifi, a member of the Islamist-dominated interim parliament, who said this week that women are subjecting themselves to attacks by mixing with men in unsafe places.
While sexual harassment of women has long been a problem in Egypt, dozens of violent attacks have been reported specifically in and around Tahrir Square since the fall of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Hundreds of unidentified men have taken part in attacks on women, ripping their clothes off, touching them and, in one case, raping a 19-year-old with a blade.
The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner, criticized what he said was the failure of Egypt's criminal justice system to identify and bring to justice perpetrators "involved in an alarming number of rapes and other acts of violence against women."
In meetings with Egyptian officials, including the foreign and justice ministers, as with well as one of the president's advisers and the nation's top cleric, Posner said he expressed Washington's concern that the rights of women are not being prioritized alongside other key issues such as transparency, rule of law and building a better climate for civil society.
"The road to democracy and stability in Egypt must be a peaceful one," Posner told reporters in Cairo. "There can be no turning back to the past."
Male and female civilian volunteers offered to guard the women's rally Tuesday, wearing reflective neon vests and plastic helmets. A similar rally was attacked by mobs in June, despite the presence of volunteer guards.
Monelle Janho, a 47-year-old mother of two and French teacher, said she no longer leaves her house without a stun gun because of the increased levels of violence.
"We will resort to violence if we have to," she said. "We are here and are not seeking violence, but we want the Egypt we know back," she said.
Electrical engineer Manal al-Malla, 42, said she has taken part in more protests, not less, after sexual harassment increased.
"We will continue to defend our freedom and dignity," she said.
Other rallies in solidarity with women in Egypt were slated to take place around the world Tuesday.
They come after lawmakers in the Shura Council, or upper house of parliament, recently suggested women should have a designated space for protesting in Tahrir Square in order to avoid repetitive sexual attacks against them.
"Islamists see that women were an integral part of the revolution and now they are telling us that our participation is the cause of the harassment," al-Malla said.
Bahey Eldin Hassan, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, published an open letter to Washington saying that the United States has failed to address violations under the current regime, saying Egyptians are tired of being punished for their uprising.
"Rape, which is recognized internationally as a weapon of war, is now used in Egypt as a political weapon to deter opponents from gathering in Tahrir Square ," he added.
His letter was published in a state-run newspaper alongside Posner's visit to Egypt.
For years, Washington was criticized by local rights groups for turning a blind eye to police brutality and government corruption in turn for securing Mubarak as a key regional ally. Some allege President Barack Obama may be doing the same with Mubarak's successor, President Mohammed Morsi.
Posner said his visit was in fact to express to Egyptian officials Washington's view that democracy is more than just free elections.
"There is a need to build trust among Egyptians with different political views," he said, adding there are concerns "that the country is divided."
Despite calls by Posner for all parties to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections, opposition leader Mohamed Elbaradei said the coalition he leads may boycott the vote because of controversial election laws currently being debated in parliament.
The opposition alleges the laws favor the president's Muslim Brotherhood group, and says it also does not want to take part in elections during the current climate of violence.
"We will not be part of a decor in an undemocratic process," Elbaradei said in an interview on the privately-owned al-Hayat television station.
Rights activists, meanwhile, say police have used excessive force against the latest wave of protests that started on the eve of the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled longtime Mubarak.
Posner said that while Egyptian security forces are obligated to ensure public order in the face of violent protesters, they are also largely not being held accountable for torture and even deaths in their custody.
"This contributes to a climate of impunity and a lack of meaningful accountability for these actions," Posner said.
His comments came as hundreds of low-ranking policemen staged protests on Tuesday demanding they not be used as a tool for political oppression in the country's ongoing turmoil.
Dozens of policemen rallied outside local security administration headquarters in at least 10 provinces. Some of them carried signs reading: "We are innocent of the blood of the martyrs."
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, policemen gathered outside security headquarters shouting: "Down with the interior minister." They also chanted: "No to the Brotherhood takeover of the interior ministry," alleging that the Muslim Brotherhood is packing state institutions with its members.
Although small, the protests were a rare instance of dissent by Egypt's police force. The rallies reflect fears among many policemen of a public backlash after weeks of violent crackdowns on anti-government protests.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb, Maggie Michael and Amir Makar contributed to this report.