( AFP ) - From lewd looks to inappropriate touching, experts say Egypt's growing street harassment of women is a deep-rooted and largely ignored problem shackling the country's progress.
Sexual harassment in public areas is not limited to a specific age category or social class, says the independent Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), which is spearheading a campaign against this "social cancer" in Egypt.
Nor does an outward expression of piety protect from sexual harassment, generally defined as "all unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature, making women feel uncomfortable and unsafe."
"As soon as I step onto the street, I am surrounded by sexual predators," Rasha Shaaban, 23, from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria told AFP. "I don't feel safe, the problem is getting worse. It has become so bad that I want to leave Egypt."
According to the state National Centre for Social and Criminal Research, sexual crimes are on the rise but while they give no official figures, ECWR says that two women are raped every hour in this country of 80 million and that 90 percent of offenders are jobless men.
There are many contributing factors to the increase in sexual harassment. Rising unemployment may push some men to display their machismo on the streets. The huge cost of marriage and the fact that sex outside marriage is forbidden may also explain the behaviour, experts say.
"Men take out their frustration, not just sexual, against women," Engy Ghozlan, who runs the anti-harassment campaign at ECWR, told AFP.
But some men, who believe a woman's job is to look after the home, say that those out on the street are fair game.
"When (a woman) walks out into the street in tight trousers and tight belts, she deserves what she gets," said Mohamed al-Sayyed, 32, who works as an assistant at an upmarket hairdresser in Cairo.
"The women who come here are different from the ones in my village," he said.
Sayyed grew up in a village near Menya, in the conservative Egyptian south. "My female relatives would never be seen swaying in the street like this," he said, defensively explaining the occasional wolf whistles "and more" he directs at Cairene women.
One sociologist, Dalal al-Bizri, sees a strong link between growing religious conservatism and sexual harassment.
She told AFP that a puritan view of Islam brought over from religiously strict Saudi Arabia is partly responsible for the "culture of hate" against women.
"In the sermons of wahhabi (ultra-conservative) preachers on satellite television, we hear the worst things about women, like the fact that they should not be on the street but at home... that they have an inferior status," Bizri said.
The damage is not only to women's psyche but to the whole country's economic development, according to ECWR.
"There are women who stop going to work, or to university because of harassment," said Ghozlan. "How can the country develop if everyone doesn't mobilise against it?"
"If the minister of tourism wants to keep his tourists, the security services should be stricter with people harassing women on the streets," she said. "If I went to a country where I wasn't respected, I wouldn't go back."
However, one stumbling block is that authorities refuse to admit there is a problem, Ghozlan said. And when they do, it's a question of "OK, it exists, but it's very exaggerated in the media."
According to her centre, of the 2,500 women who reported cases of sexual harassment to ECWR, only 12 percent went to the police with their complaint.
It is "a total lack of confidence in the police and judicial systems," she said.
Following the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in 2006, women's rights activists angrily spoke out against what they called authorities' acceptance of sexual harassment against women, after a mob of men openly molested women in central Cairo.
The incident was widely reported in the press, and some bloggers posted footage on their websites.
"They were touching women all over, the veiled ones and the non-veiled ones," said Wael Abbas, an Egyptian blogger who witnessed the event.
The interior ministry at the time denied any mass harassment took place, saying it had not received any formal complaints.