CAIRO -- The two attractive young women were breathless as they ran toward my cafe table outside the Nile Hilton hotel. Both were journalists for the opposition newspaper al-Dustour. They were late for our meeting because they'd been dodging government security men.
Abir al-Askiri and Shaimaa Abol Kheir were in trouble because they filed a lawsuit against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as well as Egyptian Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and a group of government security police. Their complaint: Thugs from Mubarak's ruling party had beaten and groped them along with women who were peacefully demonstrating for democracy on May 25.
But that was not all. Abir, who was panting under her yellow head scarf and red blouse, recalled how government intelligence agents visited her parents' apartment one evening last week and told them they would be arrested if she didn't drop the lawsuit. Two of her brothers, who work for the government, were suspended from their jobs the same day.
Intelligence goons also threatened to frame Abir for prostitution if she didn't withdraw her charges.
"I will not withdraw them," she told me firmly.
Abir and Shaimaa are standing up for their civic rights in a society where most people never imagine that they have rights.
Their story is bigger than a case of two brave journalists. It touches on when and whether democracy will develop in Egypt and the Arab world. The May 25 assaults involved public attacks on women, breaking a deep Arab taboo. For this reason, they are mobilizing civic protest among the middle and upper classes in Cairo, in a society where history and culture have conditioned people to accept authoritarian rule.
Intellectuals in Cairo joke that Egyptians are used to having a pharaoh. One of the hardest challenges in building Arab democracy -- one that makes the hope of a quick transformation unlikely -- is the difficulty of getting people to organize peacefully for change.
But what happened on May 25 in Cairo has expedited a very slow process. It happened after an umbrella movement called Kifaya (Enough!) began staging small protests demanding democracy. At a Kifaya demonstration of a few hundred people on May 25, the police corralled a few dozen women and permitted goons to punch them, kick them, strip them and fondle their genitals.
"May 25 brought many people to the street who don't identify with Kifaya," says Cairo University political scientist Heba Ezzat. Kifaya is now holding demonstrations on Wednesdays, demanding the resignation of al-Adli.
"People are jumping in because they are angry and feel morally responsible to their children," says Ezzat. "This is real civil society, where you stand up because you want to see change. It is unprecedented in Egypt."
One shouldn't exaggerate the strength of Kifaya. Its numbers are still tiny. They pale next to the thousands that Islamists can muster. Unlike secular activists, Islamists have the organizing tool of the mosque.
But new affiliate groups are springing up daily, like Egyptian Mothers for Change, Artists and Writers for Change, and The Streets are Ours. Kifaya affiliates hope to hold a countrywide organizing conference that will draw students, professors, businessmen and Islamists willing to play by democratic rules.
I saw this new civic spirit at work at an evening demonstration last week organized by women from The Streets are Ours to demand that al-Adli resign. They were outnumbered by military police in black with Darth Vader helmets and shields and a rent-a-crowd across the street holding preprinted pro-Mubarak signs.
There were women in T-shirts and jeans, women in long skirts and thick head scarves, women in conservative suits. Some women described to me how they were punched and kicked and fondled on May 25, but they were taking the risk again. Ezzat, a religious woman who usually wears only long skirts, now wears trousers to demos as protection against future assault.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.