A warm welcome to Egypt, even in difficult times

I have been in Egypt for only 2 and a half days, and I have already been embraced with open arms. Despite the frustration and anguish of Egyptian people – particularly since the most recent news that the SCAF is basically undermining a democratic outcome of the elections by wrenching legislative and military control – I have found nothing but kindness, warmth, and hospitality from all Egyptians I have met.

Times are tough here in Cairo. Many people are tired, hungry, and struggling to get by in a fractured infrastructure. Tourism has plummetted and people are divided over Morsi vs Shafiq. Yet everywhere – in the streets, on the crazy roads and motorways, Egyptians smile at strangers, reach out to help each other at every opportunity, and laugh together.

Everywhere I look as I step outside and ride around in taxis, there is something incredible to see. I find myself snap-happy with my camera, desperately trying to capture the weird and wonderful atmosphere of the place as I pass by. I’ll upload some of my photos as soon as possible.

I’m also so frustrated that I’m unable to film any protest sites, or anywhere where security forces are present, to document what is happening. I passed by an endless row of military tanks last night that I could never have filmed amid rumours of ‘foreign spies’ disrupting the peace and fomenting revolution. It’s really stifling my journalistic appetite!

What continues to amaze me, though, as I’ve expressed, is that the people of Cairo remain unified despite adversity. It’s been such a long battle, yet the Egyptian spirit is strong and not vengeful.

I really hope I can continue with all the filming I have arranged and that the tensions will not make this impossible; I’m so attached to this documentary and to challenging many Western stereotypes of women in the Arab world. I can’t wait to meet so many different types of women (and men) and gaining so many different insights into life for women in Egypt.

Forever sidelined?

Tensions in Egypt are reaching boiling point. Egyptians are understandably outraged by the verdict in the trial of Mubarak and his government associates, which has absolved members of his government of blame over the killing of around 850 protestors. Although Mubarak has been sentenced to life imprisonment, many Egyptians feel he should have been given a death sentence.

This takes place against the backdrop of continuing civil unrest over the election results. Many Egyptians feel cheated, as they are now forced to choose the lesser of two apparent evils: either take the risk of returning to Mubarak-style government under former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, or gamble on theocracy from the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Mursi. By the time I arrive on June 15, I anticipate widespread protest (which is more than likely to turn violent) and a very tense atmosphere as the election run-off takes place on June 16-17.

Mursi has assured that, if he is elected president, the MB will retry Mubarak and his associates – a potential vote-winner that may distract people from apprehensions over the possibility of repressive theocracy under an Islamist government. Moreover, incentives for those Egyptians seeking change to vote for Shafiq are rapidly dwindling as he maintains his support for the Mubarak verdict and dismisses calls for his removal from the race on grounds of his ties to the old regime.

The battle for justice and for a political settlement that satisfies all Egyptian citizens is unifying men and women of various ages in protest. However, as noble as this defiance may appear, it concerns me that the social, cultural, personal and political rights of women in Egypt are once again being sidelined as the above controversies take centre stage.

Questions like ‘will there be more women in parliament under a MB government?’ and ‘will the MB condone or even support a resurgence of female genital mutilation if they come into power?’ are no longer attracting the same amount of attention now that more pressing questions, such as ‘how serious will Egypt’s civil unrest get?’ and ‘will young revolutionaries boycott the elections?’ take priority. This is understandable. Yet women are central to every political development taking place. As Mariz Tadros notes: “the political battles over who reigns over Egypt are not only being fought over presidential and parliamentarian seats, but also over who can claim more control over a woman’s body.”

I fear recent history looks set to repeat itself:

1) Egyptian women will protest alongside Egyptian men.

2) When the heat dies down, men will wrench control away from women, turning their hopes for equality to dust.

Despite feeling nervous about embarking on my documentary, as events unfold, I become evermore confident that I am taking part in something critical to Egypt’s future: the fight for gender equality after decades of discrimination and various forms of abuse, and the battle to make women’s voices heard as the struggles between men take centre stage. Moving commentaries like this one from Lorna, a belly dancer who will feature in my documentary, on the situation for Egyptian women from different social classes fuel my determination to do justice to this very pressing issue.

What happened to our revolution? A documentary on women in Egypt

In exactly three weeks, I’ll be travelling to Cairo to film my documentary on life for women in Egypt since the 2011 revolution. I’m nervous, excited, and wholeheartedly committed to producing a unique insight into this critical issue.

From the outset, I sought to produce a piece that was multidimensional and inclusive rather than focusing exclusively on a small cluster of Egyptian women’s rights activists or victims of discrimination. I wanted to feature an assortment of characters who would reflect the genuine diversity of women in Egypt. By using this strategy, I have secured a wide array of interviews with belly dancers, artists, writers, politicians, campaigners, legal professionals, and more. My only concern at this stage is fitting in so many fascinating people in such a short space of time.

Inspiration

Part of my inspiration for this project was Mona Eltahawy’s piece, ‘Why do they hate us?’, published by Foreign Policy. I found the forthright way she articulated her attitudes to be bold and daring, and it led me to seek different perspectives on the topic. I quickly became confident that this issue, though covered by international media, is certainly worthy of more in-depth analysis, as so many voices remain unheard.

This emphasis on untold stories made specifying my target audience easy: Unreported World felt like a perfect fit. Finding out that my application for a summer internship with Unreported World had been successful sealed the deal, as the internship in July will help shape my editing process in August.

Despite the bitter hatred directed at Mubarak’s regime from women during the protests, female representation in parliament has actually seen a drastic drop from 12% to 2% since his fall from power. This is a far cry from the gender equality and fair representation hoped for as women fought alongside men for change in January 2011. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces repealed a parliamentary quota that designated a minimum of 64 seats to women allegedly due to suspicion that it was manipulated under Mubarak to ensure women of his ruling party would be sworn into power. Sadly, the removal of this quota has led women to sit in only 9 out of 508 seats in parliament.

In terms of physical and sexual abuse, in March 2011, Samira Ibrahim brought a case against Dr Ahmed Adel for carrying out so-called “virginity tests” on women protestors. These tests were invasive, degrading procedures which violated women in order to prove that only unclean, promiscuous women camped out with men during the demonstrations. Although a court ruled these tests to be illegal in December 2011, the charges against Dr. Adel were dropped in March 2012 due to several witnesses retracting their statements at the last minute. This occurred in spite of the confession of a senior general that these procedures definitely took place.

These are just two examples of the whole-scale discrimination that faces women in Egypt and is provoking a tidal wave of resentment that is continually gaining momentum. If the new government fails to satisfy increasing demands for gender equality, renewed violent protests could well be on the horizon.

Progress

Virtually everyone I have contacted has offered been supportive, and has responded positively to my relentless pursuit of further contacts; I appreciate it must be a little annoying to be incessantly asked: “do you know anyone else who may be interested in participating in my project? Do you know how I may get in touch with X?”

As interviews began piling up, I realised I faced a new concern: narrowing the focus of my piece. In how much depth should I explore the role of Islam, and the different attitudes of women towards Islam as a liberating or oppressive force in their lives? (Check out this piece on MP Azza al-Garf for a fascinating insight into this debate.) How deeply should I analyse the historical context of women’s rights in Egypt? Should I focus more on women in Egyptian politics or victims of physical and sexual abuse?

Given the contemporaneity of the presidential elections, I’ve decided to place emphasis in my piece on what implications the newly elected government could have for women in Egypt. This does also encompass the issue of physical and sexual abuse, since this problem of systematic misogyny reaches far back into the Mubarak era and is still a political issue, given the fact that it is Egyptian police who have carried out abuse against women protestors since the revolution.

I received some great news a couple of days ago. Deb Bergeron of Rainlake Productions, based in New York, has asked to hire me to film shots for the company’s upcoming documentary on transitioning democracies in the Middle East while I’m in Cairo. Furthermore, I’ll be working with Fair Observer on my documentary, writing articles for the platform to log my experiences and observations.

Every day new developments prompt new observations and responses in blogs, features, and analyses across the web. I’ve offered a small sample of some fantastic links below – do check them out if you have a spare couple of minutes.

I’ll be posting regular updates about the progress of my documentary on this blog, so stay tuned.

What happened to our revolution? Women in Egypt

With flights booked and interviews provisionally arranged, it’s on. I’m going to Cairo.

I’ll be taking risks and digging around for answers to the questions women in Egypt are asking: after fighting alongside men of Egypt in the revolution of 2011, how come women are now being left in the cold? How can anyone justify the discrimination against women – particularly female protestors – and their freedoms seen most recently in the Abbaseya protests? Why is sexual assault of women by police going unpunished?

The well-documented “virginity tests” carried out by police against female protestors last year have received widespread media coverage and have been condemned by women’s rights groups. Yet in March the military court passed a sentence clearing Ahmed Adel, a doctor of charges of carrying out virginity tests on women activists, indicating that violations of women’s human rights are remaining unpunished in the region.

More recently, the National Egyptian Women’s Council has come under intense criticism for its decision not to support female protestors detained after anti-military demonstrations last week. 11 activists and one soldier were killed in clashes between anti-military protestors and soldiers outside the defence ministry in Cairo, with hundreds more injured. Among those detained were numerous women, who allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of police during their incarceration. The Council’s announcement that it would not support the women provoked widespread condemnation of a body many women feel to be unrepresentative of their concerns and well-being.

With presidential elections rapidly approaching, military authorities remain apprehensive of the potential for further violence as citizens express their rejection of martial law. Following last week’s conflict, a city-wide curfew was enforced, resulting in a relative lull of tension. Yet with the prominence of Islam in politics looking set to increase in the upcoming elections, women’s fight to secure civil rights and live free from gender-based discrimination could soon escalate. Misogynist attitudes severely limit the chances of Bothaina Kamel, Egypt’s first female presidential candidate, securing the public vote, and from other female MPs from gaining fair representation for women in Egypt’s political future.

In my documentary, I will investigate these pressing concerns as extensively as possible. I’m under no illusions about some of the risks this will involve, and I’ll take necessary caution to stay safe and avoid angering the authorities. I’m nervous, daunted, and so excited. Everyday I’m securing more and more interviews with such a diverse range of men and women with different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences with gender-based discrimination. So far, these include feminists, bloggers, belly dancers, academics and more. I’m even having good fortune in finding men to interview, which I thought I’d be hard-pressed to achieve! I’ll keep a record on this blog of all the developments. Watch this space.

Bad omens for Egypt

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The unrest in Cairo is making me uneasy. First and foremost, a very close friend of mine, who also happens to be a budding journalist, has just jetted off there, and I have visions of him doing vox pops amid a mob of angry protestors wielding flaming torches through the streets. Secondly, there is the obvious observation that violence now could put a thorn in the side of social and political progress in Egypt. I really, really want the Arab Spring to have positive consequences for all countries who took/continue to take part in it – but is this too naive? Can it ever really be as simple as overthrowing one leader to enjoy a new, utopian society?

These things go through cycles. Throughout history, people have obeyed and rebelled, then obeyed, then rebelled. All over the world, we have sworn loyalty to a new way, a new regime, only to see it darken over time, and then we tear it down with a vengeance. This principle stretches from the downfall of New Labour to full-blown civil war, to regicide against Charles I, and so on and so forth. It’s sad, but it’s true – and I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon.

The situation in Egypt is following a common pattern. A leader is overthrown; a nation celebrates, unified by the victory. Then comes the vying for power between the religious, military and political/civil ranks; in Egypt, we have the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the revolutionaries. I think it’s too soon to say whether the political dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood is a good or bad thing. For a Brit such as myself to judge one way or another would be to impose our model of a secular society onto a country with entirely different cultural roots, which is not a good idea.

But with conflict infesting itself across the capital, it seems to me that the situation is going to get worse before it gets better; people are disappointed that one year on from those jubilant celebrations life has not really improved, and I don’t see those people becoming any less angry anytime soon. I could be wrong – this could be a blip in the road to recovery. I hope I’m wrong. And I hope my friend will stay safe and unadventurous until things die down a little.

The darkening Arab Spring

Today’s BBC headlines on the protests in Tunis turning nasty, as conservative Islamists fight to be heard prior to the elections for a constituent assembly next week, indicate a worrying potential parallel between the futures of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. The prospect of a peaceful, unified future seems increasingly under threat across all three countries, as sectarian divisions and tensions with security forces grow stronger.

Syria, meanwhile, remains trapped in the throes of brutal government repression of the revolution, with new figures pronouncing the protest death toll at 3,000. The suggestion that Syria is heading towards full-scale civil war has already been made. What is more concerning in the long term is the fact that the Syrian National Council – Syria’s version of Libya’s National Transitional Council – includes within its many component groups a banned Islamic political party: the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The inclusion of an Islamist group in Syria’s post-revolution government could be very divisive and could jeopardise Syria’s external relationship with Europe and its internal peace. Also included within this fractured coalition is a bundle of Kurdish factions and tribal leaders; the parallels with Libya are clear, and the threat of total disunity in post-revolution Syria (assuming that the revolution does actually succeed, and President Bashar al-Assad is removed from power) is potentially very dangerous.

The Arab Spring has certainly turned ugly. Hopes of a brighter post-revolutionary future seem to be fading fast – but what do you think? Do you remain optimistic for the long-term consequences of the uprisings? Please leave your comments below.

P.S. Here’s an interesting, short video on the economic impact of the Arab Spring. It offers food for thought in terms of the outlook for Libya and Syria in particular.