A Journey Through the New Egypt

Time has come to reflect on my 4-month online exploration through the new Egypt.

When America and the world grew captivated by the unforeseen Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, I followed for the same reasons, plus some.

As I shared in the postThe Fragrance of Revolutions: From Carnation to Jasmine, I lived through the experience of a revolution at an early age in Portugal. But I also lived most of my childhood in Mozambique where I had friends from around the globe, including Muslim children, and slept in a bedroom with a balcony overlooking the arched courtyard of a mosque.

That early exposure to a variety of cultures and countries began to shape my worldview and imprinted a particular interest in Arab culture. Later in my teens, as a history student at a Portuguese university, I became fascinated by the profound Arab influences in Portugal, left behind by five centuries of occupation, from the 8th to the mid-13th century.

My interest in the Arab Awakening deepened from the surprising observation that average Americans and the American media were suddenly spellbound by events that qualified as world news but were not natural or man-made disasters. As a European in the U.S., one of my first realizations about American culture was a certain degree of isolationism and a lack of interest in the world beyond borders.

Americans’ fascination with the political and social events of the Arab movements first led me to question the role of social media and the growing user-driven news culture during a Pace University course in Communications Research. My resulting research paper— “The Arab Spring and American’s Interest in Foreign Affairs: The Social Media Factor” — would lead to peripheral readings and excite further interest in the evolution of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. As my graduate work neared thesis time, my topic began to shape itself.

Writing was the focus of my graduate work, and I developed a taste for blogging through the course “Blogging a Better Planet,” taught by Andrew Revkin of The New York Times. Pace’s Media and Communication Arts program offered me the opportunity to replace a conventional thesis with a blogged thesis project. Prof. Revkin would become my thesis sponsor and instructor, and this blog is the result.

I was particularly interested in following the voices of the under-represented: from the youth who used social media to mobilize the uprisings to the women who had long been engaged in revolution-precursor labor movements to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

There were some roadblocks and detours on this journey, as I expected, starting with the language barrier that made it impossible to follow related tweets and Facebook posts by everyday Arabs—rather than media and established blog outlets–as I had hoped. But with every new turn there was something else to be learned, new questions and complexities were added, and every loss returned a gain.

Here, I review the insights, experiences and occasional epiphanies I had along this journey.

Tahrir Square: Whose Revolution?
My first post (January 28) reviewed the mood and the media-talk—in the U.S.and in Egypt–around the first-year anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th revolution. It surprised me that the anniversary became mostly about deep feelings of uncertainty and growing party rivalries. At Tahrir Square, different groups gathered separately to observe the anniversary, and there were disagreements as to what mood was appropriate, and what groups had a right to be there. But the unforeseen, monumental accomplishment of the revolution itself was not only overshadowed, it was beginning to be questioned by many–from foreign policy experts abroad, to average Egyptians.

Reflecting on the years of turmoil that followed Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in April of 1974, I decided to stick with the words of Wael Ghonim, the young Internet activist who led the Facebook mobilization of the January 25th protests: “revolutions, they are processes, not events, and it will take time.”

An edited version of this post was also published at The Huffington Post.

Egypt: The Revolution’s Sense of Humor
While I read through a newly released book about the “invisible” yet persistent activism that preceded the Arab revolutions, I shared some revolution humor from the same book.

Humor, graffiti and song are some of the first creative forms to emerge from revolutions. I have long forgotten Portugal’s revolution jokes, but I still recall graffiti images, and I can sing revolution songs from memory–including one played on national radio the morning of the military coup to signal certain army units that operations were going according to plan.

“The Invisible Arab”: As Not Seen on TV
This was more than a blog post. It was my first book review (published at the Huff Post as well), facilitated by Prof. Revkin who directed a review-request by Nation Books my way. “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions” makes the case for the “invisible” forerunners of the revolution, those who never gave up the idea of a free Egypt: from labor activists, including women, to intellectuals and community organizers. The book was particularly helpful to understanding the commonalities as well as the tense differences between countries across the Arab World—and how those dynamics are played upon by Western interests.

On a personal level, Bishara’s book gave me the opportunity to see the Arab World–and the Arab World’s view of the Western World–from the perspective of an Egyptian journalist, with very strong political insights, as well as bold opinions. The misunderstandings between the two worlds run deep–and both ways.

This was perhaps the greatest realization of my exploration: it is so easy to form opinions, but based on what? How much knowledge and information–what kind of information?—prepare us to understand another people, another culture? Having lived in three different continents for significant periods of time, including 27 years in the US, I can honestly say I often feel out of touch, whether in the US or in Portugal. In the US, because I arrived here an adult, and missed out on the cultural molding that takes place in the formative years. In Portugal, because I broke my links with the culture and now live in the past. As my own closest family lets me know every summer when I visit, I am like an echo from a lost world: with idiomatic expressions no one has heard in almost three decades; with long-dead assumptions about common values, etc.

Not least of all, it was exciting to see Marwan Bishara tweet my review of his book. I took that as a nod of approval.

Tunisia’s Media: Under Attack and Fighting Back
It truly pained me to acknowledge and write about violence against journalists and intellectuals in Tunisia. The violence was perpetrated not only by religious sects, but also by police. Perhaps this too is a Western assumption, but freedom of expression and freedom of the press seem like a natural first opening after a revolution. These events proved otherwise.

It was a very different time in Portugal, in 1974, but the radio, TV (two part-time channels only), and print media completely unleashed their voices and there was no stopping them! That was then, but just three years ago, a European-style socialist government engaged in tactics of propaganda and intimidation against the media, including wiretapping; blackmailed business leaders; sought to control elements of the justice system; and made veiled attempts to buy a major TV network, forcing out program directors and show hosts in the process. However, because of democratic mechanisms set in place, a parliament inquiry brought all to light. Implicated in this scandal, and others, and without the confidence of the parliament, the prime minister and his government would eventually resign and elections were scheduled before time.

Come Back to Egypt
While I set out to follow events in Egypt and in Tunisia—the two countries that had held elections following their revolution movements—at this point in the project I realized the folly of such ambition. Having written mostly about Egypt to date, I decided to narrow my focus.

The anniversary of the revolution was also time to take economic inventory of the wave of changes. The decline of the tourism industry—the country’s second largest—began in the early days of the revolution, and a year later the losses were at 28.5 percent. This too gave rise to divisions among the people, with youth activists ready for a diet of dates in exchange for their freedom, on one end, and families out of an income questioning the price of the revolution, on the other. But the same crisis has also inspired citizen ownership of national challenges; some Egyptians have turned to social media to promote international and national tourism. Revolutionary spirit?

Gangsters Terrorize Egyptian Village Near Luxor
Just as I finished writing about the positives of visiting Egypt during a time of political and social turmoil, there was this news of a village under siege by renowned criminals, near one of Egypt’s hottest tourist stops.

Egypt: Where are the women?
This post turned into an essay on a variety of women’s issues in Egypt. Considering the dominance of the subject across the project, I should explain that I have been close to issues of violence against women through my 9-year employment with a domestic violence agency.

The essay was prompted by the acquittal of the army doctor accused of performing “virginity-tests” on women activists arrested during a demonstration. This outcome highlights that Egypt’s widespread culture of sexual harassment will be a tough cancer to control. Men feel entitled to the behavior and blame women for it; even secular women will blame themselves for it; moreover, it is a government practice.

I come from a country where, in my teens, sexual harassment was widespread and a common social practice—even more so, after the revolution. And in my line of work, it is clear that violence against women comes in many forms, some more hidden than others. In recent months, some pretty awful things have been said about women in the U.S., by people seen as leaders in their fields. Like freedom of expression, women’s rights are not to be taken for granted.

The article also discusses hard-earned divorce and custody laws that protect the rights of women but are now under attack—at times by women, such as a female Member of Parliament with the Muslim Brotherhood who has decried such laws as Western-based and a violation of Sharia law.

There are many dissonant voices when it comes to women’s issues in Egypt, and much is at stake as the country begins to draw a new constitution. My favorite section of this essay has to do with the meaning of the Arab word for woman, “horma,” versus the Arab word for man, “dakar.” Basically, horma implies subordination; dakar inspires superiority. One Egyptian activist brings up these subtle meanings to question how women are to be defined in the new constitution. I couldn’t help but to make a connection with American history, namely, Susan B. Anthony’s defense before the courts of a woman’s right to vote, using the language of our constitution to make her case: “Are women not persons? […] Being persons, then, women are citizens.”

Egypt: Compromise or a Second Wave of Revolution 
More dissonant voices…disappointed youth activists are a predicted second wave of revolution. A respected Egyptian scholar and political analyst makes contradictory and questionable statements. He appears to say that civil liberties and human rights are a small compromise in exchange for stability and governance. He ends up blaming Mubarak for little more than his inability to provide for that stability. Never mind Western expectations versus those of Egyptians. Within Egypt alone, expectations couldn’t be more disparate.

The Fragrance of Revolutions: From Carnation to Jasmine
This post came to replace my original “About” page and explains the inspiration and trajectory that brought me to the project, as well as the research questions I planned to pursue.

Egypt: MPs, Writer’s Union Demand Consensus Constitution
Fourteen individuals—MP’s and other secular elements—resigned from the constitutional assembly to protest lack of representation for certain groups—including intellectuals–and demand a consensus-based constitution. I thought this was sort of spectacular— naive of me, as some politicians and analysts were quick to point out. Some worried that a constitution without wide support would make for a coup-prone Egypt in the future. But in the end, when Al-Ahzar University– the revered center of Islamist thought–withdrew their sole representative, urging an inclusive constitution assembly according to the true principles of Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood yielded 10 of their seats at the table to more liberal appointees.

Here we see the determination of some to continue to uphold, not only revolution and secular values, but a more moderate and inclusive kind of Islam.

“Women Making Democracy”: Tahrir Comes to Harvard Square
I came to know about this conference through a friend working at the Aga Kahn Program of the Harvard School of Architecture and Design. The program was a sponsor of the event. My friend, and some of her student-friends, took the pictures of the exhibit included in the post.

From the feedback I received from Prof. Revkin, this was one rare, truly blog-like post. Others tended to turn into columns or essays.

“Raise your head, Samira” And Other “Women Making Democracy” 
The conference,  made public via live-cast, was an absolute thrill, with one inspiring and bold panelist after another. Contrary to rumor, video of the conference is yet to be posted, so I relied heavily on tweets (#RadCon) and some notes to put this piece together.

The panelists made many revealing connections between women’s movements across the globe. Yet, and again, for all the common threads, in each country women are up against very different dynamics of power, and what is making progress in Bangladesh, will not work in Egypt, for instance. Perhaps most striking—more deconstruction of Western assumptions—were the Islamist panelists, all prominent female intellectuals, who do not see women’s rights as excluded by religion.

One Islamist panelist added that progress in men’s views of women is not tied to the secularization of society but around human development. Considering the resilience of certain, patriarchal views of women in Western societies, we may have to agree with her.

Questions for Egypt’s Christian Community 
Throughout the project, I attempted to establish contact with Egyptians via Twitter, Facebook, and even email. For instance, I sent two of the Egyptian panelists at “Women Making Democracy” a few questions after the conference, encouraged by one direct tweet and a few re-tweets—all to no result.

There was one more under-represented minority group I kept an eye on through a couple of blogs and small publications: Coptic Christians. I always found it fascinating that the Copts dominated Egypt for centuries, even after the Arabs took control. What does that mean in terms of retaining an identity as a minority that is often under attack? I had followed the blog of Jayson Casper, an American writer and reporter living in Egypt, who is also a professed Christian and writes often about the concerns of the Christian community. I contacted him about a Q&A, and he was most generous and insightful.

Again, even among a relatively small group—10 percent of Egypt’s population—there are marked differences in aspirations and in vision for the future of Egypt and the Copts.

Closing Thoughts

In recent weeks, news headlines in Egypt have been dominated by the presidential race—with scores of candidates disqualified by the election commission, and accusations of military interference in these decisions.  According to Egypt Daily News, there are now 13 presidential candidates.  With only a month before elections, a headline in the same publication asks, “Is Egypt headed for Islamist rule?” As it turns out, the article was written for CNN by Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. Coleman calls the race “a political roller coaster,” and goes on to point out that the greatest difference between candidates is in their visions for the role of Islam in the new Egypt.

Which leads me to think the bigger question might be, what will Islamist rule look like in Egypt?

The current presidential frontrunner Amr Moussa— whose advantage is helped by ongoing disqualifications of other candidates—is lenient toward and favored by the military, with an openly secularist agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood’s new candidate is a strong proponent of strict Islam and should appeal to Salafists as well. A third, leading candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, is a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, thrown out of the party for rejecting provisions that excluded non-Muslims and women from the presidency. His campaign focuses on justice and economic issues and his support appeared strongest among younger Islamists. But Saturday, to the puzzlement of many—and a slight to the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate—the Salafi Nour Party threw its support around this moderate candidate.

While the Muslim Brotherhood’s sweep of parliamentary elections has been attributed partly to their superior organization, the presidential election could yet strengthen the political gains of Islamist parties. However, as two Egyptian panelists at “Women Making Democracy” pointed out, there are other strong currents in the country: conservatism is larger and more deeply rooted than Islam (Heba Raouf), and Egyptians are not ultra-religious; they are moderate by nature (Shahira Amin).  Therefore, a rejection of secularism doesn’t necessarily mean the embrace of strict Islamist rule. In fact, all through this exploration, I came across more moderate and conciliatory voices than radical ones, and the revolution still seems to inspire nationalist sentiments.

Still, the picture remains confusing, and as Coleman defends, the consolidation of Islamist rule could result in a constitution less concerned with the rights of women and minorities. But the battle lines are everywhere, even for ascending Islamists, and conflicting visions divide even the smallest groups.

According to Egypt Independent, on Friday, April 27, for the second consecutive week, a number of groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, called for protests at Tahrir Square to demand the handover of power from the armed forces and the exclusion of former regime leaders from future political roles. The theme of this return to Tahrir was “saving the revolution.” But on week two, the Muslim Brotherhood never made it to the square. Present were a modest crowd of Salafists demonstrating for the implementation of Sharia law and a variety of groups and movements with creative names—“revolutionaries without direction” and “elections are a trap”—staking their stages around the square.

According to the same article, an Egyptian man visiting Tahrir for the first time had this impression of Friday’s events:

“Everything is muddled up, it’s very difficult for a clear vision to come from this. I can’t really form an opinion based on today.”

Based on a few months of virtual exploration—nowhere near Tahrir Square—I would not presume to form an opinion either. But confusion, uncertainty, instability—none are strangers to the aftermath of revolutions. And election results notwithstanding, Egyptians cannot dodge monumental economic and social challenges ahead.

The promise amidst the peril is that everyday Egyptians are invested in seeking a new vision for their nation; that, confused, they unite to resist the weight of the past; and that a handful of watchful, newly-elected political leaders are ready to stand their ground on behalf of under-represented Egyptians.

Opinions can wait, but a vote of confidence is now due.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I couldn’t ask for a more motivational and helpful thesis sponsor and instructor than Prof. Andrew Revkinthank you, Prof. A.! Sincere thanks to these additional contributors and collaborators: Jayson Casper, Ed Webb, Edna Van Saun, David McKay Wilson, and Carlos Filipe Roque.

A special thanks to the leadership of the Media & Communication Arts program–Prof. Robert Klaeger, Chair, and Dr. Maria T. Luskay, Program Director–for their openness to this “thesis-as-blog” experiment, reflecting Pace University‘s  commitment to innovation in education and communication.

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ADDITIONAL READING AND SOURCES

In addition to the the blog roll and links on my sidebar, here I list some favorite and recommended links and sources, by subject:

Revolution
The Egyptian Revolution: January 25, 2011 (video)
Egypt Burning
Egypt’s revolution: Interactive map
Egypt One Year On – Interactive

News and Developments
Egypt’s rival protests show divided opinions
Salafis seen as rising power in Egypt (video)
EgyptSource – Atlantic Council
BBC News – Egypt

Women
Women Come Out in Force for Egypt’s Elections (video)
Egypt’s defiant women fear being cast aside
Activist: Verdict has shamed military (video)
TEDxWomen — Shahira Amin (video)
The Sex Issue
Let’s Talk About Sex
Egypt’s women urge MPs not to pass early marriage, sex-after-death laws: report

Media
The Battle for Egypt’s Media: Report on Press Freedom After the Revolution (video)
Under Military Rule, Egypt Falls in Press Freedom Rankings

Youth
After the revolution, Egypt’s youth are still wandering lost
What After Egypt’s Youth Revolution?
The Unfinished Revolution: Youth Mark Anniversary, Call for More Changes
Egypt’s Youth Revolution: Building a New Future

Christians
Beyond the Walls of the Church
Is the Government-Church Alliance a “Coptic Marriage”?
The Heroic Struggle for Muslim-Christian Unity in Egypt (documentary preview)

Revolution Art
Satirist revolutionizes comedy in Egypt
An Emerging Memorial Space? In Praise of Mohammed Mahumd Street,
TEDxUNC – Poetic Portraits of a Revolution – Egypt and Tunisia in Stanza, Still Shot, and Stories (Video)
El Seed
 

Egypt: Where are the women?

“Where are the men?” was the cry of some 3,000 women textile workers striking at a Mahallah factory in December of 2006. With those words they shamed the men into action, growing the demonstration to 10,000. That cry is the title to a chapter in Marwan Bishara’s new book, “The Invisible Arab.” As he and others have noted, women activists played a decisive role in ushering the Egyptian revolution, and, at Tahirir Square, they were seen as equals—“There was no harassment, no ridicule, no intimidation, only appreciation for their courage and determination,” wrote Bishara, the senior political analyst for Al Jazeera English.

But they were also preyed upon and brutalized by security forces. When 18 women were arrested last March, seven of them endured virginity tests, allegedly as a way to ward off claims of sexual harassment while in police custody. The patriarchal rationale being…virgins can’t claim rape, and only rape constitutes harassment and/or assault.

So, where are the women, now?

A week ago, Ahmed Adel, the army doctor accused of performing so-called “virginity tests” on seven female protesters last Spring was acquitted by his own—a military tribunal. As reported by The New York Times, the trial and its verdict defy the rights of women, as well as the power of civilian authority—demonstrating, once again, the impunity and entitlement of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (S.C.A.F.). In fact, since the fall of Mubarak, and under SCAF rule, 12,000 civilians have been tried by military courts for exercising freedom of expression and association. While numerous complaints have been filed with military prosecutors against the army’s abuses of power, they have failed to make it to the courtroom—the Adel case being one-of-two rare exceptions, according to the same NYT article.

Where women are concerned, the virginity-tests in military prisons, along with the army’s brutalization of “the blue bra girl,” have come to epitomize the oppression of women in post-Mubarak Egypt. The latter, gave rise to a demonstration of historic proportions; the virginity-tests case—lead by Samira Ibrahim, the first victim to sue the military–exposed sexual harassment as more than the cancer of a patriarchal society: it is, has been, a government practice.

"The Egyptian activist Samira Ibrahim at a protest in Cairo on Tuesday." Source: Nasser Nasser/Associated Press, published in The New York Times, March 15, 2012

The Status of Egyptian Women in 2011,” a press release by The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) contrasts the world’s hopes for Egyptian women versus reality on the ground by pitting the image of “the blue bra girl” against Western media coverage of influential women activists. As an example, the agency cites Dr. Nawal El-Sa’adawy, ranked 16th in “The Guardian’s” most-important 100 female activists, in the world (a list put together in 2011 to mark the centennial of International Women’s Day).

The “social cancer” of sexual harassment in Egypt—as described by the ECWR—was brought to Western light when female journalists were sexually assaulted on Tahrir Square by mobs as well as security forces, but it came as no news to Egyptian women. According to a 2008 study conducted by the same agency, 98 percent of foreign female visitors and 83 percent of Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment. Sixty-two percent of men admitted to harassing women, and 53 percent blamed women for encouraging it. Some male respondents used even “boredom” as an excuse for harassing women; one respondent assaulted a woman wearing the “niqab” on the suspicion that she was hiding something desirable.

Thus, contrary to a popular belief—held by men and women, and often used to explain violence against women—the study also showed that the majority of victims dressed modestly and wore traditional headscarves. Perhaps most revealing, while Western women participating in the study had strong expectations of personal safety and freedom of movement, female Egyptian respondents did not—and many blamed themselves for the abuse. Reporting on the ECWR’s study, a BBC News article quoted:

No-one spoke about freedom of choice, freedom of movement or the right to legal protection. No-one showed any awareness that the harasser was a criminal, regardless of what clothes the victim was wearing.

Or, as Rasha Hassan, a researcher involved in the study, told Egypt Independent in 2011, “When we were working on our field study, people didn’t know what sexual harassment meant, and they thought it meant sexual assault.”

In this environment, attempts to criminalize sexual harassment—by NGO’s, such as the ECWR, and women activists, such as Samira Ibrahim—face more than the resistance of military rulers or the rise of religion-based politics. Significant numbers of secular and religious Egyptians, men and women, continue to align themselves with the oppressors, and to engage in the oppression of women.

While the beating of “the blue bra girl” caught on video drew what some historians called the largest, most unified demonstration of women—and men—to the streets, the acquittal of the army doctor has drawn relatively small demonstrations of mostly women. Following the trial, Samira Ibrahim took to Twitter and placed the burden for women’s rights squarely on Egyptians: “No one stained my honor. The one that had her honor stained is Egypt. I will carry on until I restore Egypt’s rights.”

As reported by The New York Times’ “Latitude” blogger, Sarah A. Topol—a Cairo-based journalist who experienced sexual harassment first-hand at Tharir Square—Egyptian women are indeed fighting back, at times with the support of men. Topol mentions a male cordon used to protect a women’s march last December, and Web sites to report harassment. But with a mere 9 women among 498 members in the newly elected Parliament, what are the chances that Egypt’s new constitution will protect such basic women’s rights?

The odds notwithstanding, according to Egypt Independent the controversial NGO, National Council for Women (NCW)—first established under Mubarak in 2000 and once headed by former first-lady, Suzan Mubarak—held a press conference on Wednesday, March 14, to demand that specific women’s rights be protected in the new constitution:

[…] guaranteed gender equality, criminalization of gender discrimination, criminalizing the incitement of hatred or contempt of women by all political parties and religious institutions and the adoption of temporary measures of affirmative action, such as women’s quotas, to ensure equitable representation of women.

On the issue of gender roles, one of the outlined demands called for recognizing motherhood as a social function rather than an exclusive responsibility of women.

Not surprisingly, the NCW has been under fire by Islamist Members of Parliament (MP’s), namely for the agency’s suggested amendments to family laws involving divorce and custody rights for women. Azza al-Garf, a female MP, has criticized the council for defending a Western model that violates Islamic Sharia.

The NCW also faced public protest at a recent lecture on the status of Egyptian women, attended by large numbers from the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom Justice Party. The FJP has criticized the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ for its February decision to reinstate the women’s council, excluding Islamic representation. An FJC report has accused the council of implementing laws that have devastated family and social life in Egypt. The NCW’s new head, Mervat al-Talawy, challenged the accusations and defended the council’s policies. Farkhonda Hassan, a former secretary general of the NCW, also insisted the role of the council was to propose laws, not to implement them, and that the opinion of Al-Azhar Islamic scholars had been solicited and informed the council’s proposals.

This backlash against the NCW was predicted as inevitable by Aliaa Dawood, a professor at the American University in Cairo, in a November op-ed in Egypt Independent:

Egyptian men are busy planning and implementing another revolution, but this time women will not play any role in it whatsoever. This is because it is a revolution against women’s rights.

Among those rights, she named attempts to abolish the “khula” law (a Muslim woman’s right to seek a divorce), reverse amendments to custody laws, and other women’s rights established by international treaties signed by Egypt. The organizations leading the backlash against the NWC–and the “Suzan Mubarak’s laws,” has they have come to be known–have names that suggest a need to save or protect the family. But one organization is simply called “Egyptian Men’s Revolution.”

Dawood breaks down the inevitability of the backlash:

(i) Suzan Mubarak’s laws were based on the first lady herself; her power was limited, and the media’s interest in the work of the NWC was more about the first lady than about women’s rights;

(ii) the state decided which, when and how women’s rights were to be addressed; Egyptian society was not called to the table, thus laws were seen as just another imposition by the regime and were met with the usual resistance;

(iii) some of the laws were presented as if taking rights from men to give to women; the tables turned when men began talking about being oppressed, and organizations formed to defend the rights of men—before the revolution.

After the revolution, the same men saw the fall of Mubarak as an opportunity to recover lost ground. Last month, the “Egyptian Men’s Revolution” staged a protest in front of the People’s Assembly accusing the NWC of being sexist, hostile toward men, and unconstitutional, on the basis of “discrimination.”

Women’s active participation in revolutions does not guarantee progress in women’s rights—as the Iranian revolution demonstrated. In the case of Egypt, a pertinent alternative to the question,where are the women, now, might be…

How will women define themselves or be defined (by men) in the new Egypt?

This past week, Egypt Independent published a fascinating op-ed by Marwa Sharafeldin, a rights activist and a PhD Candidate in the Law Faculty of Oxford University, titled “The ‘hareem’ of the new Egyptian constitution.”

Marwa Sharafeldin speaking at the Doha Debates, March 2011.

On her way to a recent march, Sharafeldin witnessed a telling exchange between two youths and an elderly woman. In brief, one of the young men cursed the day—and cursed all women—should he ever have to “take money from a woman.” When called on his cursing by a passing elderly woman, the youth set her apart by addressing her as “my mother,” a term used to show respect to older women: “Not all hareem [women] are like you, my mother,” he said. Sharafeldin explains the meaning of hareem, the plural of horma: “it means women, but it holds within it meanings of dependency, weakness and need for protection and concealment.”

The response of the elderly woman was cathartic: “I’m not a horma, I’m a dakar [man].” The author explains, that while the word “dakar” implies superiority, the word “horma” implies subordination. She makes the point that, while women are the main breadwinners in nearly a third of Egyptian households, the episode illustrates that men continue to show aversion to the idea of depending on women, or seeing them as equal. She fears this kind of thinking is particularly dangerous as Egypt’s new constitution begins to be drafted:

If the new constitution only recognizes the full “citizenship” of Egyptian men because they are the strong able citizens of this country, and discriminates against women, denying them full citizenship rights under a pretext of being subordinate hareem, it would be a catastrophe. “

The future law doctor goes on to uncover specific articles and language in the present constitution and discusse some of the pitfalls of such a framework—well worth reading! She ends suggestion a different kind of response to the young man who cursed all self-sufficient, independent hareem:

“I’m not a horma, I’m an Egyptian citizen!”

UPDATE: March 19, 2012

In 1872,  Susan B. Anthony, the co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association and pioneer of the women’s rights movement in the United States, was arrested and convicted of the crime of voting in the 1872 presidential election. The following year, when she was brought to trial, she delivered an historic speech before the court. As I happened to listen to that speech today, Marwa Sharafeldin’s quote came echoing at this point of Anthony’s speech:

The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.

“The Invisible Arab”: As Not Seen on TV

“They took everyone by surprise, including themselves,” reads the introduction to “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” an engaging new book by Marwan Bishara, Senior Political Analyst for Al Jazeera English. In a brisk, thoroughly reported narrative, Mr. Bishara traces decades of the social and political evolution of the nameless, invisible Arabs who dreamed and then willed the revolutions we have come to know as the Arab Spring. Acknowledging the vulnerabilities which still threaten the evolution of these movements, the writer yet declares them an irreversible break with the past.

Describing his book as an essay, Mr. Bishara—who is also the host of Al Jazeera’s “Empire,” a program on global powers and their interests—delivers a sweeping, provocative and at times entertaining tale, revolution jokes and all.

While recognizing the catapulting role of youth–60 percent of the region’s population—and their networking tools in bringing the people to the public square and toppling some of the world’s most notorious dictators in a matter of weeks, Mr. Bishara contends this is only the camera-ready part of the revolutions’ narrative.

Rising labor forces, women activists, community organizers—football teams!—and emerging Arab news networks are generously credited for their contributions to the Arab Awakening. At the same time, he scathingly exposes those who propped up, defended or cut deals with deceitful and influence-peddling rulers, allowing them to buy time with empty promises, slogans and peripheral reforms. Islamic groups—the big winners of the revolution–are also faulted for their lack of commitment to democratic principles.

International, regional and nationalistic interests and allegiances that justified and empowered repressive regimes across the birthplace of human civilization are wholly deconstructed. From Morocco to Iran, from Somalia to Turkey—skipping only the monarchy of Qatar—Mr. Bishara distills the complexity of the region into a succinct yet meaningful and insightful chronicle.

Western readers are in for an awakening of their own, as Mr. Bishara lays bare the stereotypes and misconceptions about Arabs—as people–which have kept them conveniently invisible to the world, feeding doubts about their appetite and capacity for democracy. He highlights the divide between the region and the West that he sees as amplified by Western media, and complicated by 9/11. Mr. Bishara does not hold back feelings, using strong, not-always-journalistic language to describe Western leaders, policies and world views. But for the willing reader, “The Invisible Arab” is a mind-stretching journey halfway across a cultural divide.

American readers are in for many a humbling moment throughout the book, particularly in a section titled “Manufacturing a Modern Day ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’” Former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is quoted crediting the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” with a role in the democratization of the Middle East. Cited in an interview with Fox News, former Vice President Dick Cheney makes a direct connection between the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. Needless to say, Mr. Bishara does not fail to contrast these claims with a 2004 visit to the Bush White House by Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, and President Obama’s visit with Hosni Mubarak, six months before the Egyptian uprising.

As the Arab revolution continues to evolve and unfold–and the West gasps at the electoral wins of Islamist parties—Mr. Bishara debates the way forward, juxtaposing what he terms the “two faces of the new pan-Islamic revival”: the Turkish model of “cooperation and coordination” between the secular and the religious (favored by the revolutionaries) versus the Iranian theocratic framework where, elected parliament and president notwithstanding, all yield to the Supreme Leader.

“Fasten Your Seat Belts,” is the title of a section on the colossal difficulties ahead. Mr. Bishara’s closing thoughts include a warning about “victims becoming victimizers”; a call to Arab intellectuals to transform “the social and political revolutions into a cultural revolution that affects all aspects of Arab life”; and a strong defense of “a civic constitution that enshrines human values” and “protects the rights of secular and religious alike.”

Released on February 1 by Nation Books, “The Invisible Arab” is an insightful and absorbing read for inquiring minds, and a valuable tool for students of the Middle East. As globally resonant events continue to unfold in the region, a sequel is clearly in order.

Egypt: The Revolution’s Sense of Humor

In reading about the heroes of the Egyptian revolution this past week, I came across the word “fatalist” several times, in the writing of Western commentators [example]. I was surprised by the qualifier and wish to offer some counter-evidence with an example of Egyptian sense of humor. I am in the process of reading “THE INVISIBLE ARAB: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” by Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera English Senior Political Director, published by Nation Books, 2012 (I will review it shortly). In it Mr. Bishara shares some revolution jokes passed around Tahrir Square. Here’s a short sample:

The interior minister asks Hosni Mubarak to write a farewell letter to the Egyptian people. Mubarak replies: “Why? Where are they going?”

Never far from Tahrir Square?