A Photo That Encapsulates the Horror of Egypt's Crackdown

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Three soldiers beat a defenseless woman, pull off her abaya, and drag her down a Cairo street

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Reuters

The above photo shows Egyptian army soldiers beating a young woman in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Saturday, the second straight day of clashes with protesters that began on Friday and continued overnight. There's no reason to believe that there was anything special about this woman or even about the way that soldiers treated her. Members of the army, once beloved by Egypt's activists for standing by their side during the revolution in February, have sent hundreds of men and women to the hospital over the last 48 hours and have killed at least 10, some with live ammunition fired into crowds.

But there is something especially barbaric about this photo. The taboo of violence against unarmed women is unusually strong in the Arab world. But to watch three soldiers beat a defenseless woman with batons, their fists, and for one extraordinarily cruel soldier with his boot, is not even the most provocative part. For these men to pull her black abaya above her head and expose her midriff and chest is, for Egypt, a profound and sexually charged humiliation. And there is a certain awful irony of using that abaya, a symbol of modesty and piety, to cover her face and drag her on the street that, though probably not intentional, will not be lost on Egyptian eyes. Here, below, is part of the photo pulled out in detail.

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Activists managed to capture a video of the incident. It is difficult to watch. She takes so many blows to her head, and one man stomps on her chest so forcefully, that it's difficult to imagine she required anything less than hospitalization. Though one of the soldiers makes a half-hearted effort to cover her back up (after he is done beating her, of course, on the face and chest with a baton), she appears limp. Three soldiers pick her up from her arms and legs, and then the camera cuts away.

Outraged Egyptian Facebook users posted a composite of three photos from the above video. Taken together, they appear to show that a pair of bystanders -- a man and a woman, both well dressed -- watched the young woman's beating, went to her side after the troops discarded her, and were then beaten themselves for their effort.

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The Egyptian military, the strongest and most powerful institution in the country and perhaps the Arab world, has taken a dramatic and dark turn since winning power earlier this year. Though it initially safeguarded the revolution in February by protecting protesters from President Hosni Mubarak's state security forces, it has gradually (if clumsily) consolidated power since his fall, declaring that it will retain independence from and control over any democratically elected government. As protests against the military have grown, the generals have abandoned their earlier pledges to support the people and refrain from violence against civilians. The SCAF -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a panel of top military leaders -- increasingly looks like Egypt's new dictator. Its troops, now openly attacking civilians, are unlikely to deescalate their war against democratic activism.

The Democracy Report All crackdowns are brutal. Stories of violence against women, frequently tinged with sexual aggression, are as common in Egypt's crackdown as they are in every other. The story behind this photo, of a modest young woman stripped down and beaten like an animal, is remarkable precisely because it is ordinary.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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