Egyptian women have not been widely recognized for their role in the ouster in February of President Hosni Mubarak and the subsequent march to parliamentary elections. That may change in the wake of Internet videos that showed the military's security forces brutally stripping, beating and stomping women involved in last weekend's protests over the slow transition to democracy. The massive march by women of Cairo in Tahir Square on Tuesday in response to those videos -- particularly the "girl in the blue bra" video that instantly went viral -- certainly portends a more potent political shift.
"Drag me, strip me, my brother's blood will cover me," the women chanted in their march. "Where is the field marshal," they shouted, referring to the military's current leader, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. "The girls of Egypt are here."
The women's spontaneous march was diverse -- participants included a broad mix of students, young mothers carrying babies, and older housewives in abayas and veils -- and virtually unprecedented in the Arab world, which is traditionally patriarchal and restrictive toward women's rights. A New York Times report said Egyptian historians believed the women's march was the largest in modern Egypt's post-colonial history.
The women had good reason to march. The Egyptian army's continued embrace of power and increasingly brutal suppression of pro-democracy protesters has worsened in recent months. In last weekend's clashes with protesters, security forces killed 14 protesters, most with live ammunition; wounded 700, and beat and arrested hundreds of others. Women as well as men were brutally treated.
Public fear of the army's motives is mounting. The military's top leaders apparently aim to keep control of the levers of civil power, even as they let elections for a popularly elected parliament proceed.
The army's ruling council, of course, is blaming protesters -- it calls them thugs and criminals -- for the violence, never mind that its own assaults are carried out with batons, bullets, tear gas, rocks and fire. The military's rulers are aided by the apparent complacency of the two largest Islamist groups that have gotten most of the votes in elections so far, the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafis. Their parties captured more than 60 percent in the early rounds of voting for the planned parliament.
News reports and increasing numbers of videos posted on the Internet showing heavy-handed repression clearly give the lie to the army's claims about the protesters. They show bands of military forces easily routing and brutally beating and shooting protesters. Most Egyptians, unfortunately, have no access to the Internet and only hear and read the military's spin on the protests.
The women's march may bolster the pro-democracy movement, but more help is needed if efforts toward democracy are to succeed. Leaders in Washington and other capitals must speak more forcefully against the repressive campaign of the military and for the right of Egyptians to a fair democratic process.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has correctly chastised Egypt's generals for its latest assaults, especially those against Egyptian women. She also needs to warn the military that Washington will withhold its $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt, most of which goes to the military, if it stalls progress toward a democratic government.