Millions of Egyptians have seen their hopes of a better future evaporate

According to a recent study by UN Women, a whopping 99% of women have experienced sexual harassment over the past year


“This is a sad day, for me, for Egypt.”

I was shocked to hear Azza, my best friend in Cairo, lament the decline and fall of former President Mohammed Morsi. For months, this middle-class mother of three had been cataloguing the hardships she and her family faced under Egypt’s Islamist government. Economic meltdown meant shortages across the board, and Azza worried daily about finding petrol for her car—essential since she was too afraid to go out alone, given violence in the streets, especially attacks on women. In her neighbourhood, the Islamist pressure was piling up, closing down local hairdressers, banning her young daughter’s dance classes (deemed “immoral”) and generally trying to impose a one-size-fits-all vision of the faith, which Azza bitterly resented.

Yet when push came to shove, Azza was not among the millions urging for the removal of the president. “Yes, I was critical of Morsi and the government, but we can’t just overthrow him and get another. I believe that with enough pressure of the people, he would change. We are frustrated, but I am not expecting a president with a magic stick, to make our country rich, to respect women. This didn’t happen with the army in power, it didn’t happen with Mubarak. It is a question of culture, not just politics,” Azza told me, her voice rising. “We did not give [Morsi] the chance and the support. No one wanted to help him, not the army, not the media, not the judges. We need to respect the elections, we need to respect the president.”

Azza is a devout Muslim: she covers her hair with pride and frets that her twenty-something son might be tempted to have sex before marriage—a no-no in Islam. But like most Egyptians, she and her family had never been members of the Brotherhood, whose methods and motives failed to appeal. Nonetheless, when the time came to vote for change, Azza and her circle all cast their ballots for the Muslim Brotherhood’s new political wing, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and six months later, for its surprise presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi.

What a difference a year makes. Like millions of Egyptians who took to the streets this week, Azza has seen her hopes of a better future for herself and her children evaporate. It’s hard to overstate the failure of Islamist-dominated presidency, cabinet and parliament to come to grips with Egypt’s formidable political, economic and social problems—which, truth be told, would confound even the most seasoned politician—and their gift at creating new ones. In his last hours as president, Morsi stressed his legitimacy as Egypt’s first democratically-elected president. But there is more to a democracy than the ballot box. Declaring yourself above the law and pharaoh until further notice, as Morsi did late last year, is one to avoid. As is throwing protestors into prison, muzzling journalists, riding roughshod over the judiciary, stifling civil society, stacking government with cronies, offering mere crumbs of concession to the opposition and countless other actions by the former president and his coterie.

Women in particular have had plenty of grounds for complaint. Things have gone from bad to worse: according to a recent study by UN Women, a whopping 99% of women have experienced sexual harassment over the past year—including horrific cases of gang rape in downtown Cairo. Nor is all quiet on the homefront: recent estimates from the World Health Organization show more than a third of Egyptian women of women on the sharp end of domestic violence, including sexual abuse. Less than a quarter of Egyptian women have jobs, and rising unemployment has dimmed not only their prospects of a greater degree of economic (and therefore, personal) empowerment, but also affects men, whom research from around the world shows tend behave badly under such pressure.

The rise to power of Islamic conservatives has pumped up these attitudes, while threatening to turn them into the law of the land. The now-suspended constitution—rushed to referendum by an increasingly embattled Morsi—was worded in such a way as to potentially restrict the rights of women according to interpretations of shari‘a, that is, Islamic law. In the Muslim Brotherhood- and ultraconservative Salafi-dominated parliament, with less than a handful of women members, there were efforts to lower the legal age of marriage for women to nine years old, strip them of their right to initiate no-fault divorce, and other measures deeply prejudicial to women’s interests. Islamist officials back-pedalled on family planning (a pressing concern in as populous a country as Egypt) and encouraged decriminalization of female genital mutilation. Some even went so far as to blame women themselves for rape, and to try to block moves abroad, at the United Nations and other international fora, on agreements to eliminate gender-based violence. 

If it had just been a question of Morsi and his circle’s anti-democratic tendencies, or the declining status of women, liberals like myself would continue to be outraged, many more would still be irritated by the creeping imposition of an Islamist agenda, but I doubt that millions would have come to the streets in protest. What brought down the government was its inability to deal with bread and butter issues—economy and security.

I disagree with my best friend; in the face of government ineptitude and intransigence, this week’s people-powered army coup is the best possible outcome for the long-term future of Egypt—provided the military keeps to the proposed roadmap for constitutional reform and transfer to civilian rule, with elected representation of all stripes, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Throwing Morsi and Brotherhood leaders in prison, shutting down Islamist media, confiscating their assets and other punitive measures is not the way forward; it is punishment enough that after 80 years of waiting in the wings, the Muslim Brotherhood rushed to power and blew it. In Sex and the Citadel, I argued that if Egypt’s Islamists failed to grapple with Egypt’s daunting problems, it would not only ruin their chances at home, but undermine political Islam across the Arab world as well; I half-expected them come unstuck, just not quite so fast.

Let us hope the military is a quicker study of past mistakes than Morsi: only two years ago, Egyptians went from celebrating the army as liberators during the uprising against Mubarak to hanging effigies of its leaders in Tahrir Square once they were visibly in charge. Now that the army has undoubtedly secured its economic and political interests, far better for it to go back to barracks and leave the thankless task of actually governing Egypt to civilian experts, who will no doubt be facing protestors again once the post-Morsi honeymoon is over, such is the long and bumpy road to democracy.

Egypt has been on a particularly unscenic detour these past two years. But it has not been a wasted journey. The liberal opposition, once so shambolic, has quickly sharpened its skills against the Islamist opposition, and provided it gets, and keeps, its act together, could offer a promising alternative in the forthcoming elections. Civil society groups, emboldened by the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, are springing up and speaking out, even on once off-limits subjects like sexual violence, and are preparing the ground to tackle even trickier taboos when the time is right.  And the media is fully unleashed, calling leaders to account in ways that were unthinkable at the dawn of this decade. But so much more is needed to improve every day lives: economic reform, a complete reboot of the educational system, a new culture of law in the interests of the people, not the elite--the list goes on and on.

But the political, economic and social rights which millions are hoping to achieve will not necessarily come to Azza and her daughter without a fight. Two years ago, Egyptian women were also out in force in protests to unseat the father of the nation, only to find themselves sidelined in the ensuing order and indeed, on the receiving end of forced virginity tests and beatings at the hands of military authorities.  As the experience of the past two years has shown, political and social liberalism do not go hand-in-hand in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Women, and men, will have to fight hard for gender rights, since the patriarchy runs deep, no matter who’s in charge.

While Azza views the future with fear, I am cautiously optimistic that this week’s events will benefit all Egyptians in the long-term, and revive the “Arab Spring” across the region. “Adversity has its uses,” my Egyptian grandmother used to say; just as well, since there is still plenty of that store, as Egypt and its neighbours struggle to forge a better future than their past.

Shereen El Feki is the author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World and a contributor on women’s rights issues at the Thomson Reuters Foundation (@TR_Foundation)

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