The last five days in Egypt have been quite remarkable. The protests at the anniversary of Morsi’s election on June 30th were always going to be big, but few expected the tens of millions that descended on the streets; but with over a quarter of population of Egypt signing the Tamrood (rebellion) declaration demanding Morsi’s resignation, it was clear that something significant was in the offing. By the evening of 3rd July, his presidency was over – not a “military coup”, but a welcomed change in management which can allow women to eventually move to the final stage of the revolution.
The events of 2011 which got rid of Mubarak was remarkable. A seemingly undefeagable leader who had run Egypt for over 30 years was brought down by the determination of the people to see him go. A combination of rising dissatisfaction among the youth with an elderly dictator; the greater access to the internet, which Mubarak had unwittingly installed throughout the country and the growing evidence of state corruption and torture combined to draw people to Tahir Square on 25th January. Eighteen days later, on 11th February, Mubarak resigned from office, handing over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
The army were initially deployed on the 28th January, as the Mubarak government simultaneously withdrew the police from service and allegedly released a substantial number of known violent prisoners – it would seem to escalate the violence, and to discredit the protestors. An order by Mubarak to use live ammunition was disregarded by the army, while the official curfew imposed was not enforced, however over the next few days, the army continued to be at least notionally loyal to Mubarak until finally the vice president, Suleiman, announced that the army was taking over and that the country would be run by an interim army council until new elections could be called. The celebrations in Tahir Square which met the news that Mubarak had finally gone were mired by a serious sexual assault on the CNN reporter Lara Logan, in a portend of what was to come.
In the 16 months that followed the downfall of Mubarak until the inauguration of Mohammad Morsi, the Army Council went some way to dismantling the Mubarak regime. The pace of change however was slow, and it was punctuated by conflicts between protesters who felt that the revolution had been rerouted into a seizure of power by the Egyptian Army which – with its substantial funding, including $1.5 billion per year from the US, and extensive business interests which sees it operate a number of manufacturing entities through the country – maintaining a mini-state within the Egyptian one. Fifteen serious incidents of state violence and a lack of security, coupled with the revelations that the Egyptian army had systematically raped female protesters after arrest and the subsequent exoneration of one of the perpetrators demonstrate that the 16 months of SCAF rule was not without its issues.
SCAF handed over to the elected president, Mohammad Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party – the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under the Mubarak Regime, the Brotherhood had been heavily suppressed, with many of its supporters in prison, regardless – unlike the opposition, the Brotherhood was the most organised political force in the post-Mubarak era. That coupled with the fact that the Brotherhood played a significant role in the first revolution, saw it garner a level of respect, which translated into votes against a fragmented opposition. Once gaining power however, they sought control over more and more areas of civil society, nepotistically assigning key roles to members of the Brotherhood. The inflation and tax increases which beset the poorer sections of the Egyptian community angered a population who had envisaged social justice as a key part of the revolution, while Morsi’s acceptance of an IMF loan spoke of a loss of the new country’s economic freedom.
The Muslim Brotherhood have pushed Islam to the fore in Egypt, a country in which approximately 25% of the population is Christian, and hosts the head of the Coptic Church, and has done so in a very specific interpretative framework. The Brotherhood in Egypt has not only called Shi’ite muslims infidels, but also anyone who does not follow the Brotherhood’s interpretations. This politicisation of Islam dismayed many muslims, which while adherent to their faith demanded the right to political freedom within it. Approaching 4pm, as the army deadline on Morsi ticked away, there was very prominent praying in Tahir Square – a visible reminder that Islam is not the Brotherhood and the Brotherhood is not Islam.
The main victims of the first revolution, however were women. The sexual harassment which first started arising in Egypt around a decade ago, received a welcome break through the first revolution, after the fall of Mubarak however it accelerated at a frightening rate. The celebration of International Womens Day was mired with groups of men verbally and physically harassing women, and the sexual harassment, assault and rape of women at political protests became widespread. A number of prominent Egyptian writers have posited that this violence against women is not random, but is organised and systematic political violence – designed to keep women off the streets and force them back to their homes in fear. The Shura Council blamed women for the attacks, implying that they had no business at protests and with a similar disregard for women’s safety and security the Muslim Brotherhood condemned a UN resolution on Violence Against Women as “unislamic”.
During the first revolution it was estimated that no more than 10-15% of the protestors were women, this time round the proportion appears to have grown significantly to between 25-30%. Spokeswo/men for the opposition, who appeared on national television telling everyone to get on the streets and let their voices be heard, specifically encouraged women to do so, and the Tahir Bodyguards, established to provide a level of safety for women in the protests, were on hand dealing with incidents which were still numerous, but less serious than has been seen on some other occasions, with only one rape reported. In Mahalla, the protesters established a women and children only area to facilitate women with childcare responsibilities and those who did not feel confident either taking children or themselves joining the main protest,to participate.
Just prior to the 4pm deadline, Sissi – the Head of SCAF – drew together not only representatives of the opposition, but also the Grand Mufti and Head of the Coptic Church into negotiations about the future of Egypt, to gain consensus about the future direction of the country What was missing was the voice of women. When Sissi did announce the statement, naming Mansour – the head of the Constitutional Court – as interim president until elections that evening, there were no women present on the platform. And when the opposition gave their response to that statement, there were no women there either. That’s not a revolution; that’s a change in management.
But what this change of management does do is allow space and time. Under Morsi, Islam was increasingly politicised; religious minorities were marginalised and above all women were suppressed. The fact that women’s participation in the second revolution was greater than in the first is a testimony to Egyptian women gaining the confidence to actively challenge, including establishing one of the first prototype alternative power structures in the Tahir Bodyguards. The challenge now in this interim period is both to develop a unified and credible political force which reflects the desire for the people for self-government, and also more importantly develop the structures which can diffuse the power away from the elite and into the hands of ordinary Egyptians.
A fundamental task is the restructuring of the military. This “military coup” might well have aided that cause considerably. The Egyptian Military is heavily funded by the US, who are very cauciously condemning it, but are careful not to officially name it as a coup, which would debar them from continuing to fund it, and remove the ongoing influence that the US enjoys. Should the US withdraw funding, a substantial restructuring is inevitable, and given the considerable business interests of the military and its political influence, kills several birds with one stone. Although substantial numbers of women are employed by the military, and indeed hold office within it, frontline soldiers, senior army commanders and the military high brass are all entirely men. With no directly vested stake in the military, yet comprising a substantial number of its non-military workforce, women are in the best position to restructure it in line with the wishes of the Egyptian people rather than the whims of its US funders, including as a defensive force, enabling women to serve in the protection of their country against external enemies – as they did remarkably during the Tripartite Aggression.
Egyptian women are critical in realising the fundamental aims of the ongoing revolution: the diffusion of power coupled with social and economic justice throughout Egyptian society. Despite the high level of political violence directly aimed at women to neutralise their role, they have both remained active and grown stronger, and the development of the Tahir Bodyguards and other similar initiatives have demonstrated that personal security and safety can be managed outwith the state. These womens’ initiatives – sometimes meeting with open hostility from oppositionally aligned men – provide a concrete demonstration of the ability of the people to self manage their own affairs, and are a source of inspiration for the ongoing revolution in Egypt which has just been given a new lease of life.