The run-off for the Egyptian presidency was this weekend, producing the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi as the projected president-elect.
Political pundits from news agencies across the world have been voicing their concerns and thoughts about the potential outcomes of this runoff, which saw two very unexpected finalists—Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak. Apparently a choice between a step back to pre-revolutionary dictatorship, or a step towards theocracy.
“Everyone who is following the progress of events and incidents in Egypt is curious and everyone inside Egypt is worried, even if their decision is to choose one over the other or to boycott the run-off,”[i] Said MADRE’s Ally Doaa Abdelaal.
MEWC has been reporting on the Egyptian revolution and elections and what they have meant for Egyptian women. An overriding theme has been the force and sacrifice of women in the revolution followed by an abrupt re-institutionalisation of men at the forefront of the formal political process. Women who had organised and fought for a change in regime in the streets had been met by the bureaucratic and political strongholds of men and largely side-lined.
Hilary Clinton, one of the founders of Vital Voices and the U.S. Secretary of State, said that "one of the important indicators as to how the whole process of democratisation, political reform, economic reform is going is the way that the newly formed governments and their allies in the various countries treat women.”[ii] So what in terms of women’s interests, if not through direct decision-making power, had been preserved in the new political process?
Not enough, according to MADRE’s Ally Doaa Abdelaal: “The two candidates for me are disconnected; while they are running from one press conference to another attacking each other most of the time, women in Egypt were busy with other things. Young women and men who are active on the different platforms of social media were leading a campaign against sexual harassment in the streets, work places and homes in Egypt, a phenomenon that is growing widely and systematically; I assume we all remember the famous picture of the stripped protestor to her blue bra. But they are not only on their keyboards but also in the streets and on mainstream media.”
With the ascendance of conservative values a democratizing Egypt and the rise to power of the Brotherhood at the top end of Egypt’s new democracy, MEWC is concerned that women’s politics is being cordoned into local and marginal political movements.
Women move forward despite being left behind
Women were at the forefront of the revolution and after the fall of Mubarak, women’s groups immediately lobbied and worked to get women in the assembly to write a new constitution. Women’s groups submitted names of women for election committees. In the end only 7% (7 members) of assembly seats were held by women, 3 of which are candidates of the socially conservative Muslim Brotherhood. [iii] While this is not a worse case scenario, it is a misleading and disappointing reflection of the centrality of women to the revolution.
Political parties have clearly treated women as merely a social category rather than a constituency of distinct political voices, many with the capacity to take on major decision making roles. Once the voting process ended, women had to struggle to get women into decision-making positions, something many had already proven through leadership of the revolution.
Under the Mubarak regime, there was a 64-seat quota for women in the, albeit weak, parliament. When the Armed Forces took over, the quota was overturned and a new constitution was formed without women’s input on the ground that the old pro-women laws were made under the Mubarak regime and thus illegitimate.[iv] Still, Rina El Masry, an Egyptian business woman, is optimistic: "I believe the ceding of power to Egypt’s interim military government was a step in the right direction for women’s rights despite the number of female parliamentarians dropping to the current two percent under the military as opposed to the 12 percent under deposed former president Hosni Mubarak…All democracies evolve."[v]
However, according to Marianne Nagui Hanna Ibrahim, while the revolution has certainly created an opening for Egypt’s democracy, "When it comes to women, it has failed. The biggest powers in the country at the moment are the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and both are women-free by default…But the revolution has also changed the situation. You can see it in the young women. We are more persistent in claiming our rights. More women are talking about sexual harassment than before. We are open about it and we are clear about our demands. The social change that is taking place – it's gradual but it's still there.”[vi]
“Mozn Hassan, director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a Cairo-based research organization, told CNN: “For years, Mubarak's regime was torturing women, harassing women, detaining mothers and daughters and wives of prisoners to put pressure on them. For sure it's the culture of the SCAF." [vii] Even after the revolution, on June 8th a mob of hundreds of men attacked female protestors in Tahrir Square who were calling for an end to sexual violence and harassment in Egypt. Victims have said this was an organized attempt to prevent women from participating in pro-democracy movements.[viii]
The fight won’t be easy. While women have acknowledged their optimism for women’s rights in this new era, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has also induced a fear that conservative elements are sweeping across the nation. 30% of women are unable to read and write and the majority of the population are socially conservative. “Egyptian feminists have argued that these women were coerced into voting for conservative elements, and were unable to understand the implications of what they were supporting. Against this background was the excellent social services provided by the Muslim Brotherhood for the poor and illiterate, where a good portion of the Brotherhood’s support comes from.” [ix]
On the eve of the vote, the ruling SCAF had shocked the Egyptian electorate after having disbanded the parliament that was dominated by the Brotherhood and ensured legislative power to the military, preventing a Brotherhood stronghold in both branches of the government.[x] Though this was done under the guise of the Supreme Court ruling, there is something to be said about the strengthening hold on Egypt by the military and the rise of sexual and gender-based violence. The increased militarization of Egypt, just as we have seen in all militarized societies, results in an increase in violence against women, gender-based violence and harassment. Sexualized violence against protestors is used to humiliate, render docile, and induce fear. This pattern of violence we are seeing in Tahrir Square of late is incredibly disconcerting.