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Egypt: the transition to democracy needs women

Boots-on-the-ground often plays itself out in the transitional period after deadly conflict: predominantly male leaders grab or gain access to formal political and economic power and impose their agenda from the top down

Lesley Abdela
9 February 2011

The media report that Egyptian authorities are preparing to talk to opposition leaders, including - potentially - the Muslim Brotherhood. But where are the women? Watching BBC TV, Channel 4 and Al Jazeera it is hard not to be struck by the prominence of women in the squares alongside the men calling for democracy. When the going got tough, right in there Tahrir square were Egyptian women doctors tending the wounded. If Egypt and Tunisia want to convince the rest of the world the national tide flows fast towards democracy, what better signal than to make sure a transitional or interim government, or any Constitutional Committee, comprises at least 40% women and at least 40% men?

This balance between men and women in Parliament would not be mere tokenism. Across the political spectrum the region flows with women leaders. Egypt’s cornucopia of women leaders include Nehad Abul Komsan, Chair of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, lawyer Bushra Asfour of the Ghad Party, Dr Hoda Badran, Chair of the Alliance for Arab Women, Dr Laila Takla, President of Egyptian Federation of Women Lawyers, Member of Parliament Syada Greiss and many, many others.

Feminist and human rights activist Nawal El Saadawi, a former political prisoner and exiled from Egypt for years, has just returned to Cairo. She says, "Women and girls are beside the men and boys in the streets. We call for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy. We want a new Constitution. There must be no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians.”

The willingness to use brute force against the Egyptian people has been a hallmark of the Egyptian President for many years. The 1995 election was extremely violent and was one of the main factors preventing many women’s participation in politics as candidates or voters. I was in Egypt at the time conducting women’s leadership workshops. In my notes I wrote how one participant said, "It was the worst election we have had in Egypt since parliament began. The new element of violence in political life was unprecedented.” She said, “Violence came from the public and the police, armed terrorism and armed counter-terrorism. Those who killed so many people haven't even been tried in the courts." Throughout the workshop I was asked repeatedly, “How do you deal with violence and financial corruption in elections?” and “As a candidate how do you protect yourself from physical harm?”

Participants complained of massive financial corruption and ballot rigging. It was widely held that Election Returning Officers were bribed. Two former female MPs claimed they had been re-elected by voters but their opponents were announced the winner. One of them said “We won by democracy. We lost by violence. We witnessed fraud. There's no Party that could truly get 79% of seats.” It seems that rural Egyptian women vote in higher numbers than urban women because women from rural areas are rounded up and told how to vote. Egypt’s educated women are less likely to vote. They have lost trust in politicians of all parties. Fewer than 25% of registered voters in the 1995 election were female.

Egypt could learn a lot from South Africa about peaceful transition, using inclusive wide-reaching consultative processes. South Africa's Constitution, built on an acute awareness of the injustices of the country's past, is still widely regarded as one of the most progressive in the world. Notably, there were approximately an equal number of women and men on the Committee deciding on the Constitution. Women had also played a critical role in the dismantling of Apartheid. During the difficult and protracted end-of-Apartheid negotiations, each time the men wanted to quit the talks, the women insisted they come back and keep talking.

What now if Egypt’s people do overthrow the Mubarak regime? In common with many post-conflict regions – Kosovo, Aceh, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nepal - to transition from oppression into a modern, fully- functional state, Egypt’s people will urgently need security system reform of the police, prisons, the judiciary, as well as human security – freedom from fear as well as freedom from want by individuals and communities. The consultative and inclusive processes used in South Africa in the dismantling of Apartheid would be a good template. South Africa held widespread public consultations, specifically including the women. The active involvement of women in South Africa changed the focus of security system reform from a predominantly male technical debate (on issues of size, budget and types of weapons) to the larger issue of human security, the militarised state, and its political and social costs. Discussions resulted in a shift from traditional notions of security to a political framework that placed human security in the form of economic development, alleviation of poverty, access to food and water, education and public safety at the epicentre of the national security framework.

Unfortunately a balance between men and women deciding Egypt’s future in concert seems unlikely. More common is the situation of boots-on-the-ground that often plays itself out in the transitional period after deadly conflict: predominantly male leaders grab or gain access to formal political and economic power and impose their agenda from the top down. This predominantly male world, with its hierarchies and ranks is inhabited by existing or former political party and religious leaders, high-ranking military officers, government ministers, diplomats, Mafia types and businessmen who succeeded under the former discredited regime. From Colombo to Kathmandu and Israel to Northern Ireland, at the formal talks and negotiations on the future of their country, women leaders in civil society, community-based organisations, NGOs, advocacy groups and women’s wings of political parties, women leaders are like a Greek chorus heard faintly, calling out an alternative script from the wings. The downstream consequences of these separate universes are far-reaching, and the inability to fully include women in transitional justice is striking. 50% of all deadly conflicts recur within 10 years.

There could be a lesson for Egypt in one of the greatest of the UN Security Council Resolutions, 1325 ‘Ensure women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase their role in decision- making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution at all levels’. We have just passed the 10th anniversary of 1325. A similar Resolution was passed in 2000 by the European Parliament in support of 1325. A recommendation accompanying the EP resolution calls for at least 40% women’s representation in all levels of decision-making in peace–building. Elements of Resolution 1325 could be extremely opportune in bringing about a positive outcome to the street revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

The young Egyptian women’s rights activist Fatma Emam has called on women all over the world to show solidarity with Egyptian women: “Something that impressed me in this revolution, that made my dreams came true: I saw a feminist movement united, powerful, and engaging in the political situation. We are united for one cause, regardless of ideology, generation or political affiliation. Women showed a great example in this revolution; they were in the front lines: coordinating, strategizing and implementing. As my dear friend, Mozn Hassan said, we fought in the public and the private realm to claim our rights, and this is the core of our feminist struggle. A day will come when we will tell all the glorious stories of the Egyptian people. We will prove that no matter how long injustice prevails, one day it will always come to an end.“

Links:

1. http://www.abdela.blogspot.com/

2. www.southafrica.info/about/democracy/constitution.htm - Cached - Similar

3. Women’s Political Participation in Egypt http://www.iknowpolitics.org/node/9079

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