Authoritarianism, Women’s movements, and the Arab Spring: Room for optimism on International Women’s Day

A long history

In 1923 Huda Shaarawi became the first president of the Egyptian feminist Union. Although women’s movements and groups have flourished in the region since the Shaarawi’s time, there has been very little change in the actual conditions and status of women. As this 2011 Amnesty International Report highlights nearly a century later women in the Middle East and North Africa are still facing “discriminatory laws and deeply entrenched gender inequality.” Indeed, the report goes on to say that “Across the region, women generally have lower levels of education and higher levels of poverty, and are grossly under-represented in the corridors of power.”

Women’s movements under authoritarianism

Rather than religious interpretations or cultural norms, the most important reason for the lack of progress with women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa is that until the momentous events of early 2011, all the states in the region were characterised by authoritarianism (and most remain so). Totalitarian leaders dominated their societies so completely that women’s movements have been denied the autonomy and independence needed to push for a meaningful change in the lives of women.

Due to the nature of authoritarian politics women’s groups were not able to develop as mass movements with power bases and popular support but rather had to focus on advocating leaders, or even first ladies, to introduce reforms. In most cases, this enabled them to gain only small changes that were often little more than fig leaves for the problems faced by Middle Eastern and North African women.

Women’s rights under a dictator: The case of Egypt

Any changes that were made tended to benefit presidents and monarchs more than women. For example, in early 2010 Hosni Mubarak introduced a quota of 64 seats for women MPs (out of 508 – about 12%) in the Egyptian parliament. Though a positive step in itself, every single quota seat went to members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party which not only limited the effect of the reform but delegitimised the very notion of a quota for female MPs in the eyes of the Egyptian public.

Not only are such reforms limited but any gains they did achieve were inherently vulnerable as they are dependent on the goodwill of the leader and can be easily reversed if circumstances change. For example, in the 1970s lobbying of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s wife Jihan led to some minor reforms of the Egyptian personal code. However, when Sadat was replaced by Hosni Mubarak, ‘Jihan’s laws’ left with him. Thirty years later when Egyptian revolutionaries, many of whom were women, overthrew Mubarak, the reforms associated with his wife Suzanne are now under threat, tainted with being tied to the former regime and without a dictator to uphold them.

This dynamic was not only present in Egypt but in almost every state in the region. For example, in Libya Qaddafi’s domination (along with his daughter Aisha) of the women’s movement was so absolute that it has been referred to as ‘state feminism’ under which some progressive changes are introduced but entirely at the whim of the leader and his inner circle and often only for show. Similarly, Ben Ali sought to actively exploit Tunisia’s relatively good women’s rights record in order to provide international cover for broader human rights violations.

Trying to resist authoritarianism: The case of Morocco

This is not to say that women’s movements in the MENA region have not tried to overcome this problem. In 2000 a coalition of women’s groups in Morocco launched a million-signature-campaign to introduce a new family law (moudawana) in the kingdom. In order to avoid reinforcing the authoritarian nature of Moroccan politics, they presented their petition and proposals to Morocco’s elected parliament. However, the plans were blocked as parliament lacked the ability to carry forward the reforms in the face of conservative opposition. The lesson learnt was that there was no point in the women’s movement seeking to mass mobilize and introduce reforms through democratic channels.

Four years later, the same coalition decided to bypass parliament and presented the reforms directly to the king, Mohammad VI. Within two months a slightly diluted version of the proposals became law “in the name of the king”. The reforms, and the women’s movement as a whole, were now dependant on and indebted to Mohammad VI. A victory had been won but at the cost of a powerful women’s movement that could continue to push for and maintain women’s rights autonomously – including the constant application of the new law.

Half a revolution?

With the changes that have taken place in the region over the past year, there has been much disappointment with regards to women’s rights. In fact, there are far less female MPs in Egypt now than there were under Mubarak, women have been largely excluded from the Transitional National Council in Libya, and women have made little gains in Tunisia.

This is largely due to the fact that the respective women’s movements lack the power to take advantage of the political vacuum created by the fall of regimes during the Arab Spring. It should come as no surprise that women’s groups have been slow to effectively organise in the aftermath of the revolutions as under former regimes organising was either not permitted or redundant.

As a result of the nature of authoritarian politics women’s groups were pushed into strategies of concentrating on advocating authoritarian leaders as this was the only realistic means for achieving reforms. As such there was little incentive, let alone opportunity, for mass-mobilization or building-power bases.

Optimism for the future?

Nevertheless, following the Arab Spring revolutions, there is hope that this pattern can be broken and in the long term real changes can be made in the transitional states. In Egypt, for example, women have shown that they can be mobilized en masse, with vast numbers of women coming out to vote in Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections.

With authoritarian regimes removed, women’s groups can now mobilize popular support behind their causes and, once democratically elected governments become dependent upon their support for re-election, there is finally the possibility that real and meaningful changes will be introduced.

For this to happen it is essential that civil society organisations, and in particular the women’s movements and women human rights defenders, are given the space to campaign freely, effectively, and independently for women’s human rights. This is why it is so important to ensure that the new regimes respect freedom of association and the rights of activists.

AIUK event

Want to show your solidarity with women’s human rights defenders in the Middle East? Come to Amnesty International UK’s panel event on 20th March at 7pm to hear activists from Egypt, Libya, and Iran speak.


Four reasons why Egypt’s liberals should not fear an Islamist victory

As the results of the first round of Egypt’s first free and fair parliamentary elections are announced, it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was by far the most successful securing almost 40% of the vote. This coupled with Salafist parties gaining about 20% of the vote means that Islamists are likely to dominate the upcoming parliament. Indeed, Islamists look to have gained 120 of 168 seats in the first round dwarfing the results of the strongest liberal grouping, the Egyptian Bloc.

Turnout, at around 70%, demonstrates the vast support that Islamists enjoy in Egypt.

Following these results, many liberals (a term which has become so inflated in Egypt it now covers practically any group that is non-Islamist) have expressed anxiety and over the prospect of an Islamist dominated parliament. Here are four reasons why they shouldn’t:

1. The Best Team Won
Democracy is about who is the most popular. However, popularity is often less about the intrinsic merits of political platforms and more about who is the most organised and best connects with voters. The MB and the FJP vastly outperformed its liberal opponents in both these regards. Its message resonated with the Egyptian masses, it had more electoral banners, provided better information, and had a higher presence in the streets both before and during the elections.

Its victory should not be feared in the way that say a military coup by the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) would be but congratulated, admired and learnt from. It was a fair, professional, and democratic victory. The best team won.

The scale and manner of the defeat should provoke Egypt’s liberals into rethinking their strategy and ideas and force them to engage more with ordinary Egyptians. This will be a positive thing in the long run.

2. It’s Not an Easy Time to Govern Egypt
Though the FJP will hold the most seats in parliament, it faces an uphill task in governing Egypt. The MB’s time-honoured slogan of ‘Islam is the solution’ will truly be put to the test. With the devastating economic problems that Egypt is suffering from, it will be nearly impossible for the government to make the vast improvements to public services that poorer Egyptians need so badly and many expect from the next parliament.

Curing Egypt of the systematic corruption inherent in its economic and political policies, paying off its mounting debts, and revitalising the struggling tourism sector are all huge tasks that will take years.

By the time the Egyptian economy does begin to pick up again it will be time for the next elections with the MB having had to make difficult, and often unpopular, policy choices. Islam alone cannot provide a solution to Egypt’s huge social problems and as the MB led parliament encounters difficulties so will its popularity. This will, if they organise effectively in-between terms, give Egyptian liberals a good chance at making significant gains in the next parliamentary elections.

3. An Elected Parliament Will Provide an Alternative to SCAF
As seen in Tahrir Square over the past two weeks, the main concern for many liberal activists is opposing military rule and calling for a transition to civilian rule and democracy. An elected parliament is a significant step towards this even if liberal parties only have a relatively small number of seats.

The next parliament immediately provides an alternative source of legitimacy to the SCAF. This legitimacy, if used to pressure SCAF into withdrawing from politics, will be the best chance Egypt has of securing genuine democracy in the long term.

The large MB presence in parliament means that liberals will have a strong ally in any disputes with the military. The MB may have stayed out last week’s protests (in preparation for elections) but it would not do so if, for example, SCAF tried to undermine parliament.

Thus liberals, if they have a genuine commitment to democracy, should welcome the new parliament regardless of its internal make-up as a means to secure Egypt’s democratic future.

4. Egypt is not Iran
The points raised previously assume that there will be free and fair elections for the next parliament and that the MB itself has a commitment to democracy.

Since the preliminary results and the scale of the Islamist victory were revealed, many commentators have seen fit to draw analogies with Iran and once again highlight the danger of Islamists hijacking the revolution.

This fear is largely unfounded. Firstly, times are different. Islamism in the late 1970s was very different to the Islamism of the 21st century. Decades of being persecuted and excluded from politics has taught Islamic movements the importance of inclusive democracy and as we can see in Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey, there is a global trend towards the democratisation of Islamist movements. The times when fears of an Islamist electoral victory constituting ‘one person, one vote, one time’ are behind us.

The MB has shown itself to be politically pragmatic. It has played by the rules of the game and resisted from imposing its will, consistently negotiating with both other parties and the SCAF.

The MB is also very aware of the need for image management, especially given the resources and investment that Egypt will need to accept from the West to rebuild its struggling economy. As such, there will be no forced wearing of the hijab or imposition of medieval punishments that were seen in Iran. Egypt is another case entirely from the Islamic Republic.

Even if the MB (or more likely, the sizable Salafist minority in parliament) wanted to pursue such an agenda, it is unlikely that they would be able to. The parliament will be relatively weak and have little scope to introduce radical policy changes with most powers retained in the hands of the SCAF, at least until the forthcoming presidential election. This coupled with a large number liberal activists ready to risk their lives to protest against any infringement of their civil liberties makes the chances that Egypt will follow a similar revolutionary path to Iran extremely unlikely.

In sum, Egyptian liberals should embrace the results of democracy rather than lament the electoral failings of liberal parties. If they set themselves a well thought out long-term strategy, organise effectively and connect with ordinary Egyptians, they will be well placed to capitalise on the inevitable difficulties that this parliament will face.

Though there will be inevitable struggles over legislation and the constitution, overall an elected parliament, even if dominated by Islamists, is a good thing for Egypt and potentially even a good thing for Egypt’s liberal parties.

When there’s blood on the streets … buy stun-guns.

Walking from the heart of Islamic Cairo, which contains some of the holiest sights in Islam, towards Downtown has always been a noisy affair. The perpetual Cairene traffic jam provides a backdrop of constant car horns and frequent outbursts of road rage, the scene only interrupted by the occasional call to prayer.

Recently, another sound has begun to dominate all others. As if walking into a nest of crickets, as Downtown approaches the air soon becomes full of the startlingly loud buzzing of Cairo’s latest must-have product. The streets are lined with blue flashes as salesmen attempt to catch the attention of passers-by. Beside the usual impromptu stalls selling everything from kitsch children’s toys to imitation designer wallets, stun-guns have pride of place.

A short video can be found here:

Easily found throughout Cairo, all the stun-guns I saw were Chinese made and most of them by a company called Kelin. The most popular are the mobile-phone-size 916 type and the longer baton-esque 801 type, both retailing for between 100 – 200 Egyptian pounds (approximately between 10-20 GBP) making them affordable to most Egyptians.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the revolution salesmen seeking to sell such dangerous products would only have done so underground and at considerable risk to themselves. They now do so openly and in broad daylight with police officers round the corner, unable or unwilling to prevent such activity. Not only do policemen not intervene but some of them are actively involved. One seller, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that he has sold 60-70 stun-guns through a policeman friend of his, for a tidy commission of course.

The emergence of stun-guns is not only due to the ability of salesmen to operate –but also the ever-increasing demand. As this Gallup poll shows, in post-revolutionary Cairo many people feel less safe and they are turning to these weapons to defend themselves (and, inevitably, for more sinister reasons). At the same time as launching a multi-million pound campaign to convince potential tourists that the country is back to normal (see the advertisements on London’s tube), Egypt’s government is failing to convince its own people. One seller, Mohsin, told me:

“sadly after the revolution there are a lot of ‘Baltagia and ‘Haraamia (thugs and thieves) and these [stun-guns] are the best way to stop them.”

Business is booming and our conversation was regularly interrupted by new customers. Mohsin said he’s making much more money than he did from the shirts and mobile phone cases he used to sell before the fall of Mubarak. The customers I saw were from all stratas of Egyptian society: both young and old, rich and poor, male and female. One man bought 5, telling me that he wanted one for all his family.

Mohsin attempted to assure me that the devices are legal and have even been recommended by the police for self-defence. Ever the salesman he even said that if the police do stop me I should give them his number and he would ‘sort everything out’. A policeman I spoke to a few hundred yards away laughed at the suggestion of stun-guns being legal but when challenged said that they didn’t intervene because the ones being sold are ‘imitations that just give off sounds’. This claim was soon disproved when a salesman in his early teens I was speaking too accidently shocked himself as he was packing up his products. His wincing and shaking of his hand was met with his mother shouting ‘that’s because you’re stupid’ (I resisted the urge to suggest it was because she was making her son sell dangerous weapons).

The implications of this perceived decline in public order are potentially huge. Many are convinced that it is a mo’aamara (conspiracy or plot) by the ruling Supreme council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to make people yearn for the return of a strong (i.e military) leader to restore order. Indeed, I’ve heard this view from many a cab driver who expresses (perhaps imagined) nostalgia for a time-gone-by when adequate traffic policing limited congestion on Cairo’s roads. Others see it as a proof that the SCAF is unable to run the country and further cause for the continuation of the revolution until power is transferred to democratic civilian rule.

Either way, with Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 10 days, the perception that the revolution and subsequent SCAF policies have made Egypt less safe could prove vital in determining the country’s future. As could an increasingly fearful and armed and populace.

This blog post was republished by Think Africa Press at

A story of flags in Tahrir Square

Yesterday marked the first mass protest in Tahrir Square since the start of Ramadan over a month ago. The military abandoned the square for 24 hours to allow the demonstration, promising to re-seize afterwards. Making the most of this window, activists labeled the day ‘gomAa taSHeeH al-masaar’ (the Friday of the correction of the path’), alluding to their hope of reclaiming a revolution that many believe is slipping out of their hands, if it hasn’t done already.

Walking into Tahrir Square, past the activists checking bags and IDs, you’re struck by a distinct lack of police (in uniform anyway) and a mass of waving flags. Most of these are Egyptian flags waved defiantly yet still joyously by revolutionaries. However, it’s the other flags present that provide insights into the disparate groups to be found in the square. Showing that even without the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, Egyptian revolutionaries are a vast and heterogeneous group.

Flags of the other North African revolutionary states were evident with many Tunisian and the new (old) Libyan flag. Indeed, one man had both of these flags with the Egyptian one on one pole because, he said, he saw them as ‘one revolution’. There were also a small band of men waving the old UAR flag that represented the union of Egypt and Syria and were chanting Arab nationalist slogans whilst holding up photos of the former president and champion of Arab nationalism Gamal Abdel Nasser. There were also Saudi Arabian flags on sale but it seemed that none of these had been bought, maybe the seller wasn’t aware that the Salafists had planned to stay at home.

As well as national flags there were various banners of domestic associations and groups, particularly youth activist groups. The most prominent of these was the banner of a white fist against a black background of the April 6th movement that was inspired by the Serbian anti- Milošević movement Otpor! Talking to activists you got the sense that they were angry that the revolution had not been completed but were confident that it would be. Many of their members expressed the traditional left-wing sentiments that many supposed were dead in the Middle East, describing the revolution in terms of class warfare and the rise of the oppressed against their oppressors. Indeed, one activist eagerly asked me whether the revolution had been an inspiration for the London riots and expressed disappointment when I confessed that I hadn’t seen any Egyptian flags present in London last month. He then stated that he would support any means necessary of ensuring that the state ‘did was it was supposed to do’ for the people of Tottenham and Croydon. He didn’t say whether the same applied to Egypt.

One activist expressed her concern about protest days such as this as the need to be seen to be involved ‘prevents groups from actually doing anything’. However the level of unity and common purpose between the groups was admirable and seemed important given the obstacles they’re facing. Indeed, most of the people present were wearing stickers ‘No! I’m against military trials of civilians’ in Arabic in reference to many thousands (estimates are at 12,000) that have been tried in recent months.

Two of the other most prominent flags were those of arch-rival football groups the Ultras of the Al-ahly team and the White Knights of competitor club Zemalek. Interestingly enough, given their long history of hatred, these groups seem more like allies than enemies. At their most recent match the Ultras had got into a fight with the police and were then aided in their scuffles by the White Knights. Thus a new friendship was born, one that had been unthinkable before. As one ultra put it, it is ‘like seeing Jews and Muslims dancing together in the street.’

Which leads to the last type of banner present, those reflecting the marked anti-Israeli sentiment. There were many signs criticizing Mubarak’s policy towards Israel and when one speaker called for the suspension of the sale of gas to Israel the crowd cheered with approval. There was even a banner stating in English that ‘Israel does not exist’. Such sentiment does not only represent the outrage felt throughout the Middle East at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians but also a rejection of the former regime’s foreign policy, or lack thereof. Mubarak was seen as a puppet of the USA and Israel and it would be expected that revolutionary voices would reject such a model, particularly as it was built on a liberal capitalist economic policy that most of them so strongly reject.

The protests then moved on with various marches towards the Ministry of the interior and the Israeli embassy. We were told that it wouldn’t be safe for us to take part as there were persistent rumours that Western spies were in the midst of the protestors seeking to pervert the revolution. We took the advice of our Egyptian friends. Sadly what followed was a level of violence that had seemed unthinkable during the day. In the now infamous riot outside the Israeli embassy another flag was introduced to our story, as protestors tore down the Israeli flag from outside the embassy and several others were burnt. The state of alert that has been imposed makes the revolutionaries hopes of ‘correcting the path’ seem further away than ever.