CAIRO (AP) -- Around 10,000 women marched through central Cairo demanding Egypt's ruling military step down Tuesday in an unprecedented show of outrage over soldiers who dragged women by the hair and stomped on them, and stripped one half-naked in the street during a fierce crackdown on activists the past week.
The dramatic protest, which grew as the women marched from Tahrir Square through downtown, was fueled by the widely circulated images of abuses of women. Many of the marchers touted the photo of the young woman whose clothes were partially pulled off by troops, baring her down to her blue bra, as she struggled on the ground.
"Tantawi stripped your women naked, come join us," the crowd chanted to passers-by, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council that has ruled Egypt since the Feb. 11 fall of Hosni Mubarak. "The daughters of Egypt are a red line," they chanted.
Even before the protest was over, the military council issued an unusually strong statement of regret for what it called "violations" against women - a quick turnaround after days of dismissing the significance of the abuse.
The council expressed "deep regret to the great women of Egypt" and affirmed "its respect and total appreciation" for women and their right to protest and take part in political life. It promised it was taking measures to punish those responsible for violations.
The statement suggested the military's fear that attacks on women could wreck its prestige at home and abroad, which has already been heavily eroded by its fierce, five-day-old crackdown on pro-democracy protesters demanding it surrender power. The ruling generals have campaigned to keep the public on its side in the confrontation, depicting the activists as hooligans and themselves as the honorable protectors of the nation, above reproach.
In unusually harsh words, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday accused the Egyptian security forces and extremists of specifically targeting women.
"This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people," she said.
In a possibly significant hint of new flexibility, the council also said in its statement Tuesday that it was prepared to discuss any initiatives to help the security of the country. In recent days, a number of political factions have pressed the military to hand over power by February, rather than June, when it promised to hold presidential elections.
In the past, police in Mubarak's regime were accused of intentionally humiliating women in protest crackdowns. But images of women being abused by soldiers were particularly shocking in a society that is deeply conservative and generally reveres the military. The independent press has splashed its front pages with pictures of soldiers chasing women protesters, including ones in conservative headscarves and full face-veils, beating them with sticks and clubs and dragging them by their hair. The crackdown has left 14 people dead - all but one by gunshots - and hundreds wounded.
The images of the half-stripped protester, whose identity is not known, clearly had a powerful resonance. A banner showing a photo of her on the asphalt - one soldier yanking up her black robes and shirt, another poised to stomp on her chest - was put up in Tahrir Square for passing drivers to see.
"The girl dragged around is just like my daughter," said Um Hossam, a 54-year old woman in traditional black dress and a headscarf at Tuesday's march. "I am a free woman, and attacking this woman or killing protesters is just like going after one of my own children."
Ringed by a protective chain of men, the women marched from Tahrir to the Journalists' Syndicate, several blocks away, chanting slogans demanding the military council step down.
Many accused the military of intentionally targeting women to scare them and their male relatives from joining protests against the generals. Previously, the military has implied women who joined protests were of loose morals. In March, soldiers subjected detained female protesters to humiliating tests to determine if they were virgins.
"They are trying to break women's spirits, starting with the virginity tests. They want to break their dignity so that they don't go out and protest," Maha Abdel-Nasser, an engineer who joined the march, said.
Two sisters, Yomna and Tasneem Shams, said they never took part in previous protests because their parents wouldn't allow them. But they happened to be downtown Tuesday and spontaneously joined the women's march.
"No one should ever be beaten for expressing their opinion," Yomna, 19, said. "I am proud I took part in today's protest. I feel I can tell my kids I have done something for them in the future."
Some also criticized Islamic parties, which stayed out of the antimilitary protests and did not participate in Tuesday's march - even though religious conservatives often tout their defense of "women's honor." Pro-democracy activists accused them of being worried about anything that might derail ongoing, multistage parliamentary elections, which the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative Al-Nour Party have dominated so far.
"This is a case of honor. But they clearly don't care for honor or religion. They now care only about their political interests," said Mohammed Fawaz, one of the men in the protective chain around the marching women.
The protest also is likely to deepen the predicament of the military as critics began to talk openly about putting them on trial for abuses, and politicians are floating ideas for their exit, perhaps in return for immunity.
Emad Gad, a newly elected lawmaker, said that without guarantees they would not be prosecuted, the generals won't hand over power by the end of June as promised. Foremost on their minds, he said, was the fate of Mubarak, who ended in court facing charges that carry the death penalty after ruling Egypt for nearly 30 years.
"They didn't get clear assurances and that is why they try diabolical tactics to make sure they get these guarantees," he said, citing the military's attempt to enshrine in the next constitution language that would shield it from civilian scrutiny.
"We have to address their fears, their interests and future role," he said.
The public and many activists welcomed the military when it took power from Mubarak in February. But relations have deteriorated sharply since as the democracy activists accused the generals of hijacking their uprising, obstructing reforms, human rights abuses and failing to revive the ailing economy or restore security.
The most recent protests - and earlier round of protests that saw a deadly crackdown last month - have seen unprecedentedly bold ridiculing of the military, which for decades was considered a revered institution above criticism. Young protesters have heaped profanities into their antimilitary slogans, demanded the execution of Tantawi and taunted soldiers in Tahrir.
On Monday, a member of the military council, Maj. Gen. Adel Emara, took a hard-line in a press conference, denouncing the protests as a conspiracy to "topple the state" and accusing the media of fomenting sedition.
He defended the use of force by troops, saying they had a duty to defend the state's institutions and declined to offer an apology for brutality toward female protesters. He did not dispute the authenticity of the image of the woman being dragged half naked by soldiers, but said Egyptians should not see it without considering the circumstances surrounding the incident.
The apparent change in attitude with Tuesday's statement of regret left some women unimpressed.
Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, a 31-year old activist, doubted the promise to punish those responsible and said the statement was in response to the U.S. criticism. "This is an apology to one woman, Hilary Clinton."
"This is like someone raping a girl, and then going to the police station to marry her (to avoid prosecution) and then divorce her as soon as he leaves," she said. "It is an attempt to exonerate themselves after the deed is done, but with little accountability."
Associated Press correspondent Maggie Michael contributed to this report.