The world is focused on Egypt's political crisis, but there is another less-discussed issue simmering on the streets of Cairo. Recent months have seen an alarming rise in sexual attacks on women at Egyptian protests. Almost all of these attacks occur in or near Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egyptian demonstrations. Activists say there have been more than a hundred sexual assaults there in just the past week alone, and many of them are gang rapes. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo.


SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: From afar, Tahrir Square appears almost festive as protesters chant against their president who was overthrown by the Egyptian military last week. But inside the crushing crowds, the scene can be a lot more sinister.


NELSON: In this video posted by the Muslim Brotherhood, an unidentified woman cries out as men attack her. The group, from which former President Mohamed Morsi hails, claims the attack occurred in Tahrir Square in late June. Human Rights Watch reports a sharp rise in sexual assaults here since anti-Morsi protesters took to the streets in record numbers last week. The rights group says the latest attacks follow an all-too-familiar pattern since mass protests began here in 2011: A few men force a girl or woman away from the people she's with, then rip off her clothes and assault her. Passersby join in the attacks which range from groping to gang rapes that can last more than an hour. One victim Human Rights Watch interviewed is Hania Moheeb, who last March filed a criminal complaint about her attack.

HANIA MOHEEB: They made a very tight circle around me. They started moving their hands all over my body. They touched every inch of my body. They violated very inch of my body. I couldn't cry help. I was just screaming.

NELSON: Some onlookers tell the victims they are there to help, but instead attack them, says Heba Morayef, who is the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.

HEBA MORAYEF: The only way these women can be rescued is because volunteer groups and women's rights organizations have organized a system where once they're alerted, they try to send in volunteers to actually extract a woman from the mob around her.

NELSON: One group is Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault. Founded last November, the Cairo-based group operates at large protests and rallies in Tahrir Square, says one of its organizers, Yasmin El-Rifae. She says the group's volunteers distribute flyers to women with a hotline number and send in co-ed teams to extract victims.

YASMIN EL-RIFAE: They're not concerned with punishing harassers, or identifying them, or anything like that. It is simply about getting women out of these situations and getting them to safety.

NELSON: She adds that the rescuers are sometimes attacked, so they wear helmets, gloves and padding. One member of the extraction team is Aalaam Wassef. He says the rescues take an emotional toll.

AALAAM WASSEF: Life gets sucked out of you. It's terrifying.

NELSON: The volunteer adds that compounding the viciousness of the attacks is how victims are treated by Egyptian authorities. He recalls a case last Tuesday of a young woman in her 20s who was dragged into the subway station at Tahrir Square. There, she was stripped and gang-raped. Afterwards, she was taken to the police station, where the traumatized woman demanded her attackers be punished, Wassef says.

WASSEF: And she was presented to a doctor who wanted to practice a virginity test in the police station itself. This led to this young woman to completely break down.

NELSON: His colleague, Yasmin El-Rifae, says the behavior of the police and the attackers are in part the result of Egyptian society's tendency to blame the victims in sex crimes. The attitude is: these women are asking for it by being in the square instead of staying at home. She says even more disgraceful is how key players in the current crisis are trying to get political leverage out of the attacks and pointing fingers at one another.

EL-RIFAE: You have the Muslim Brotherhood using evidence and footage of these attacks online and at their own rallies to basically point the finger at Tahrir, and say, see, the opposition are all a bunch of thugs. Then you have a lot of the opposition forces essentially denying these assaults.

NELSON: Activists say to date, no one has been prosecuted for - let alone convicted of - sexual attacks in Tahrir Square. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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