Egyptian TV presenter Shahira Amin was eating lunch in a Lebanese restaurant when she received the phone call which dropped a bombshell.
It was an army general responding to the interview request Amin had made last week following a show she recorded with a guest from Amnesty International – the organisation which some weeks ago made allegations that Egyptian women had been subjected to degrading “virginity tests” in custody.
As the general began to speak, Amin stopped eating her tabbouleh salad and began taking notes on a table napkin in front of her. The general’s comments were startling.
He confirmed that following a demonstration in Tahrir Square on March 9, a number of female protesters had been subjected to rudimentary “examinations” in order to determine whether they were virgins or not.
It was the first time since Amnesty’s report that the allegation had been verified by the military. But perhaps what was more startling than the admission itself – which was subsequently denied in an army statement yesterday – was the reasons given by the general and his justifications for the actions of his troops.
“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” the general said, according to the article that Amin wrote for CNN’s website and which was published on Tuesday. “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs).
He continued by saying that the checks had been done so the women could not claim later that they had been raped while in custody.
“We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place,” the general said. “None of them were (virgins).”
Speaking to Al Majalla, Amin said that she was under the impression the general – who asked her to remain anonymous – had been given the green light to talk to her from higher ranking officials.
“As I was talking to him he got a phone call,” she said. “He said to someone, ‘I have Shahira with me on the line’. Then he told me he would call again in five minutes.
“He then called back and said to me, ‘do you know who that was? It was the army chief of staff’.”
Since the CNN story was published earlier in the week, the issue has slowly been developing momentum of its own.
On Wednesday night a couple of hundred people gathered in the plush east Cairo district of Heliopolis to protest outside a meeting being held between the military and a handful of youth groups.
A number of the protesters held up placards and screamed chants expressing their disgust over the general’s comments.
Salma Nagy, a 30-year-old economist who was at the protest, said: “I consider it a personal threat to me. Every time I think about going to protest I think about what happened to the other girls.
Architect Sandra Louka, 32, added: “The virginity tests are ridiculous. I think it’s a violation of human liberty.”
Egypt’s bloggers and tweeters have also taken to the web to denounce the general’s comments, which come after days of mounting unease about the army’s conduct in managing the uprising.
Earlier in the week the renowned Egyptian blogger Hossam Hamalawy was questioned by the military and later released after he said publicly on TV that he had evidence of military malpractice. This week bloggers called another day of online action to criticise the widespread use of military courts to process thousands of Egyptians.
Criticism of the military was utterly taboo under Mubarak, and while restrictions have eased somewhat since the fall of Mubarak, there are still doubts about how far the army is willing to tolerate dissent.
A number of leading military figures have said they cannot wait to hand over to civilian rule. If it means that people start directing their ire at somebody else, then it is easy to see why.