Late Night: Women’s Voices on Egypt

Picture circulating on twitter: Wael Ghonim holds the mother of Khaled Said, the man whose brutal murder in June by Egyptian police inspired the "We are all Khaled Said" facebook page by Ghonim, that in turn served as a catalyst for the current-day protests.

Hello all, Wonk here with some reads I’d like to share with the late night crowd. Tonight’s theme is going to put a spotlight on what women have to say about Egypt. Normally I’d start out with a youtube or quote from a protester or an Arab woman, but commenter Pilgrim e-mailed me a fantastic piece by Canadian columnist Linda McQuaig that I thought spoke volumes. It’s called “Arabs love democracy, but do we?“:

The fact that the Arab world is awash with dictators has long been a key piece of evidence used to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment in the West.

Surely all those dictators are proof that Arabs don’t love democracy the way we Westerners do, that they are culturally, religiously and perhaps congenitally attracted to tyrannical strongmen as leaders.

This widely held view will be difficult to sustain here now that wall-to-wall TV coverage of the Egyptian (and Tunisian) uprisings has exposed the truth: Arabs don’t like tyrants any more than we do.

In fact, they love democracy — so much so that hundreds of thousands of them have risked serious harm by taking to the streets to defy a regime that for decades has been a leading practitioner of repression and torture of dissidents.

That’s just the beginning. Check out the rest of McQuaig’s column for more.

Now, let’s turn to my go-to Egyptian source — Mona Eltahawy. On Tuesday afternoon, Mona put out the following tweets. First this:

As excited as I am at media coverage of #Egypt revolution I am disappointed at overwhelmingly male experts they turn to. Where r women?’

..and then this:

We keep hearing “Where are women of #Egypt revolution?” I want to know where are women analysing Egypt revolution? #Jan25

In her follow-up she made it clear that her point wasn’t to ask “where are the women” but to draw out the intellectual and analytical contributions of women:

I know women are taking part in #Egypt revolution. My point is different: where women analysing it, speaking as experts! #Jan25

Mona got quite a few tweets pointing to women’s voices pouring out in response, and I’d like to highlight some of them.

First, an Egyptian woman that Mona Eltahawy highlighted herself — Magda Sharara, who has posted the following entry– “Fearless Egyptians: A message of love and respect” — on (The Mag of Egypt). An excerpt:

Until January 25th 2011, most Egyptians were their own fiercest critics, seriously or jokingly. They railed against their lack of democracy, between a Sheesha and a coffee, and whined about their repression and the corruption surrounding them. Their glorious past slipping and almost forgotten. Sometimes nostalgia, and other times chaos seemed to guide them.There was anger in the Egyptian streets, frustration, and a feeling of irresolution and drift. No wind of stability was blowing their way, for a very long time.

But today, millions of Egyptians are standing up for their rights, fighting, screaming, chanting with joy and sorrow, and some are bravely dying for an indisputable democratic and free country in the middle of Tahrir square. They have forever changed the way the world perceives them.

They are recharged, and their revitalization is contagious. They are the heroes of a modern revolution, they are the fearless Egyptians that death does not scare.

They deserve to be respected, encouraged, honored, saluted, thanked, loved and remembered.

It is not death that we should fear, but a life not lived in dignity; that is the real tragedy.

Magda’s message really deserves to be read in its entirety.

Next up… Sunita Rappai, a British Indian journalist living in Cairo. She has a wonderfully refreshing take on Egypt, which balances competing perspectives on what’s going on in Egypt. In her blog piece from earlier today, “O Revolution, where art thou?,” Sunita concludes:

From an outside point of view, the ‘revolution’ is in danger of failure – if it hasn’t failed already. Mubarak shows no signs of relinquishing the presidency, the emergency laws are still in place and the constitution remains the same. While the regime has been engaging in (unprecedented) talks with the opposition – including the banned Muslim Brotherhood – its grip on power, and the accompanying state security apparatus, is tighter than ever. Insiders at the talks suggest that the government’s mood is hardline, with few real concessions (I heard from one good source that Suleiman’s contribution at one meeting was to read out a pre-prepared statement – when he was questioned on one point, he read out the statement again).

But inside Egypt, the mood is slightly different, at least for the moment. Many feel that real gains have been made, with Egyptians finally sending a clear message to the government, and the world, that they are ready for democracy and willing to fight for it, if necessary. The idea that they have broken the ‘fear barrier’ and the political apathy that dogged them is a powerful one. They trust that Mubarak will fulfil his promises, which will one day pave the way for real democracy and constitutional reform. It is a process that will take time and they are prepared to wait for it.

The country is moving again, but no one knows where it’s heading. In some ways, everything has changed. In other ways, nothing has. It all depends on who you ask.

Sunita’s piece is another one that I recommend reading in its entirety, to get the full effect of her social observations on what’s going on in and around Tahrir square. I also enjoyed her latest post — “10 reasons why a foreigner like me loves Egypt…

The twitter handle “Mahagaber” was also tweeted to Mona as “one of the women in Egypt covering the revolution.” Scanning through Maha’s latest tweets, the one that has caught my eye straight away is this:

@JohnKingCNN: Do you realize if Mubarak leaves it will be the first time in our history that Egypt will have a “FORMER” President #jan25

That says so much in so few words.

Another handle tweeted to Mona, sarahshakour, had this to say on Tuesday evening, in response to a tweet from CNN trying to prop up the White House:

More like flip-flopping to me RT @CNN White House getting ‘specific’ on Egypt tone – (via @RT PoliticalTicker)

Thrillingham left this note to Mona, mentioning the wonderful Dima Khatib and another name:

@monaeltahawy honestly, twitter has much better analysts than anything i’ve seen on tv. you @Dima_Khatib @Rouelshimi and others are great

Got to add Rouelshimi to my twitter feed!

Here’s one from Dima in the afternoon:

PEOPLE’s POWER in action: Watch & remember: When a nation walks the streets, it heads towards history #jan25#egypt

“When a nation walks the streets, it heads towards history.” I like that a lot.

…and the latest from Rouelshimi:

@CarlosLatuff The govrmt started a rumor that protesters in Tahrir were getting bribed with free KFC meals to be there. It’s a popular joke.

So funny I forgot to laugh. Mubarak should really quit his day job and become a stand up comedian already.

Another person reports to Mona from Holland and says that there have been “three women (Stienem, van Boon, and Samuel) each discussing Egypt with great knowledge” on a talkshow. A similar comment from Finland, that a woman named Sanna Negus has been doing the Finnish national coverage on Egypt.

Last week Leah McElrath Renna posted an article called “Obama’s Egypt #FAIL?” on Huffington Post. A brief teaser:

President Obama and his Administration appear to have made a familiar deal with the devil in response to the popular pro-democracy uprising in Egypt.

Here’s a tidbit from young college graduate Rana Salem (scroll down under the New Castle section):

Rana Salem, a young graduate of Alexandria University, explained the emergence of the remarkable popular movement in recent weeks. She spoke of both the authoritarianism of Mubrak’s regime and the economic problems – unemployment, insecurity, poverty – driving the revolt. She said of the Egyptian people, “they really are making history – it’s not just a saying”.

Interview with political science professor Mona El-Ghobashy, on the Rachel Maddow Show, Feb 7 (starts around the 1:37 mark):

Slate’s Double X blog already highlighted human rights and democracy activist Ghada Shahbandar and Dakinikat frontpaged that story last week, but a very informative link in reference to Ghada popped up in response to Mona’s query — “Egypt: We Are Watching You, Three Egyptian Women Use the Internet to Promote Democracy“:

Meet the trio: Engi Haddad, a chain-smoking, husky-voiced marketing manager; Bosayna Kamel, a well-known TV news reporter; and Ghada Shahbandar, a university professor. Against the backdrop and momentum of the Kifaya (Enough!) protest movement, these powerful women came together to found, a Web site and on-the-ground effort to witness and record the reality of the Egyptian first multi-party election. As journalist Boysana says, their goal was to bring the “real” news to the people, not “their” news.

There are some documentary clips there, too. Give it a look if you have the time.

Over at The Berkeley Blog, anthropology professor Rosemary Joyce has an interesting read up called “Of people and things: Egyptian protest and cultural properties” in response to the idea that we need to protect artifacts in Egypt because they are a “shared global heritage”:

Cairo isn’t Baghdad: the people of Egypt are seeking rights we all cherish, and even as they do, they are trying to protect those things that the rest of the world is too easily elevating over the safety and rights of people.

As an archaeologist, I will regret any losses. But as a human being, I will not agree that we should make the mistake of treating people as less valuable than things.

An interview last week with another anthro professor, Farha Ghannam, called “The rich symbolism of the square in Cairo.” The article opens with the following:

When she first traveled to Cairo for fieldwork in 1993, Farha Ghannam recalled, Tahrir Square was mostly used as a bus depot.

Today, it’s the battleground on which the future of Egypt is being fought – a space rich with symbolism and meaning, held and defended by protesters at the cost of some lives.

“There’s this feeling [among demonstrators] that ‘if we lose at Tahrir Square, we’re going to lose the fight,’ ” said Ghannam, an anthropology professor at Swarthmore College who studies the use of public space in Egypt.

A few more meaty and intriguing reads real quickly (see excerpts in the comments):

The dignity of Egyptian youth” by Azza Karam
Myths of Mubarak” by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd
Egypt: Days of Anger in the Age of Terror” by Sarah Ghabrial

Many more names showed up on Mona Eltahawy’s twitter. I tried to gather as many as I could together in one place to give you a sampling of other women’s voices on Egypt you might want to check out:

Naglarzk (economics)
ShahinazAhmed (development)
Maha Azzam via ChathamHouse
Adhaf Soueif (reporting from Tahrir square)
Mona Zulficar (legal)
Felmansy (13 year Egyptian girl living in the US and aspiring to be a reporter)
Missroory (16 years old “Masriya in SF” who wants to follow in Mona’s footsteps)
Sarah Carr

Well, that’s it for me right now. What are you late-nighters and early morning people reading?

14 Comments on “Late Night: Women’s Voices on Egypt”

  1. Fannie says:

    Wonk, this is fantastic……….I’d like to hear what the women say about the relation between the army and the police.

    I’ll be reading the links in the morning, very tiring day.

  2. Had to fix a broken link (Sarah Ghabrial’s “Days of Anger in the Age of Terror”) — it should work now.

    If there are any more broken links, let me know.

  3. I didn’t want to make the top post too heavy, so here are some more excerpts…

    From the Azza Karam (“Dignity of the Egyptian Youth”) link above:

    “Al-Sha`b, yuried, isqat al-nitham”
    [The people / want / the downfall of the regime]
    —Motto of the Egyptian protesters


    The youth bulge in the Arab world (where nearly 60 percent of the population is under thirty years of age) has produced a dividend of human dignity across the region and way beyond. Regardless of what actually transpires, priceless milestones of social awareness, political savvy, cultural pride, and creativity have arisen. A deep yoke of humiliation—from a fear born of oppression and injustice, from a silence created by decades of clinking chains and printed lies, and from the combined pains of hunger, sexual frustration, and the stigma of poverty—has been thrown off. The process that the youth have engineered and chartered has unfolded with an integrity, dignity, and efficiency that impressed even the country’s toughest institution—the army. From the army emerged the Free Officers movement, which led Egypt’s first revolution against British colonialism in the middle of the twentieth century. Then, as now, the Free Officers stood shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s youth and civic activists. Then, it was an army-led revolution. Today, the army is—ostensibly—protecting the youth of the nation who are leading its people in revolution.

    Egyptian youth have organized, deliberated, coordinated, and effectively built—almost overnight—a movement for change. What are the specific demands of the youth? Not only the President, but the entire regime “has to go.” As the motto above makes clear, radical change is required. But the commas, or pauses, separating the various segments of this short motto are not coincidental. In fact, the way the motto is being articulated is itself a declaration of change in action. The people have found their voice, and they announce themselves. Their want, their demand, is not just a matter of a verb or a matter of course; it is the act of making this demand in and of itself that is critical. Finding and speaking their voice and making their demand are part of a revolution that is reversing a long silence and humiliation. And what are they asking for? The downfall of the regime. Not a change of head, not even a transfer of power, but rather nothing less than a radical, comprehensive, and speedy change—the downfall of a way of being.


    Development as freedom is what Arab youth are claiming, and what has to be the roadmap for all policy makers.

    The concrete policy implications of this roadmap are as follows:

    If the United States wishes to maintain its credibility among the next generation of Egyptian—and Arab—people, then now is not a time to sit on the fence and appear diffident. Sustained pressure from the Obama administration has to be exerted to ”convince” Mubarak to step down—and to do so now. Every moment lost in removing the strongest symbol of oppression is causing not only loss of life, not only mounting internal dissent, confusion, and violence, but, critically, every moment Mubarak remains in power is an opportunity for those calling on God to dominate the emerging scene. There is already a culture of appealing to God (and those who speak in his name) when there is a sense of helplessness. The Egyptian youth who have been fashioning—with their lives—a new discourse of change over the last eight days, without resorting to Islamist discourse of any kind, but with dignity, with passion, with love for their country and their heritage, must not be let down now. If they are, we will have to accept responsibility for allowing the forces of Islamism to step in as the people’s liberator.

    I highly recommend clicking over. It took me forever to decide which parts to excerpt and emphasize, it’s all so good.

  4. From the Elizabeth Shakman Hurd/Myths of Mubarak link:

    Yet we could tell a different story about religion and politics in Egypt. Today Egypt is being challenged over the fundamental structure of the field in which the secular and the religious have been defined. The structure of this field under Mubarak served to legitimize and de-legitimize certain parties, institutions, and forms of collective identification. It allowed certain kinds of political practice, such as vigorous anti-terror laws and violent repression of opponents of Mubarak’s regime, while disallowing others, such as full political participation by parties designated by that regime as ‘religious.’ These distinctions were enacted legally: revisions to Article 5 of the Egyptian constitution enacted in 2006 prohibit political activity based in any way upon religion, effectively banning the Muslim Brotherhood from formally participating in politics.

    The United States has stood forcefully and famously behind this state-instituted and highly securitized secular-religious oppositional binary as a means of defending its interests in the region, defined primarily as ensuring Israeli security, pursuing the war on terror, and guaranteeing access to oil. In a 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo, Condoleeza Rice remarked: “our goal here is to encourage the Egyptian Government, within its own laws and hopefully within a process and a context that is ever more reforming, to engage with civil society, with the people of Egypt for elections that can be free and fair. But we have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and we don’t—we won’t.” According to Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, the Bush administration further hardened this position after Rice’s visit. After Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections, in which the MB gained one-fifth of the seats in parliament, U.S. pressure on the Mubarak regime decreased and then ceased entirely after Hamas’ victory. Washington remained silent as the Mubarak regime arrested hundreds of Brothers and transferred dozens to military courts.

    Today the Egyptian people and a powerful anti-Mubarak coalition are overturning this entire structure of domination, upheld by Mubarak and aided and abetted by the Americans and the Europeans for decades. The future is up for grabs. Rami Khouri, the eminent Lebanese journalist, has described this momentous change as “the unraveling of the post-colonial order that the British and French created in the Arab world in the 1920s and 30s and then sustained—with American and Soviet assistance—for most of the last half century.” It is unclear whether decision-makers in the United States and Europe will recognize the potential of this moment for Egyptians and others in the region to open up and remake the political playing field along participatory and democratic lines, or whether they will cling to the familiar securitization of secular/religious politics in the name of regional security and order.

    Events may impose a new worldview. As Philip Weiss observes: “the danger to America and Israel is that the Egyptian revolution will destroy this false choice of secular dictator-or-crazy Islamists by showing that Arabs are smart articulate people who can handle real democracy if they get to make it themselves.” Mohamed ElBaradei likewise describes the idea that Islamic fundamentalists are set to take over Egypt as “a myth that was sold by the Mubarak regime—that it’s either us, the ruthless dictators, or . . . the al Qaeda types.”

  5. Sarah Ghabrial, “Days of Anger…”:

    As much as Egyptians may have surprised themselves and their neighbours, no one seems more caught off guard by this recent turn of events than members of western mainstream media and political officials. The western media appear bewildered, their commentary halting and unsure. Perhaps this is because, for so long, news agencies have stacked their rolodexes with analysts on the Middle East whose area of expertise lay primarily in terrorism and religious fundamentalism. They now seem ill prepared to comprehend this past week’s events, which have been so free of religious rhetoric, much less offer any insight on what the world may expect to come next. More than one commentator has remarked on the possibility of an Islamist take-over in Egypt and elsewhere, as though for lack of anything else worthwhile to say. Some appeared at a loss as they reported that protesters were not shouting “Death to America.”

    The response to civil unrest in Egypt has been strangely unlike the response to the Iranian would-be “Green Revolution” of 2009. Because Iranians were standing up to a long-hated Islamist regime, their struggle was immediately embraced in the west across the political spectrum.

    By contrast, western observers in the cultural mainstream have been hesitant about the Days of Anger, as they lack a clear and ready-made approach for identifying and understanding Arab discontent. This is probably due in part to the ostensible “secularism” of these regimes, and because instability in the Middle East is seen as a breeding ground for terrorism. Ironically, most terrorists out of Egypt are largely a product of the Mubarak school of stability — imprisonment, repression, and torture. But apparently the alternative is more horrifying: a scenario in which Egyptians may choose their own government. One can picture the Egyptians who populate the imagination of policymakers and journalists: a pious and incorrigible bunch, impelled in the direction of fanaticism as though by gravity.

    This narrow and irrational view of civil unrest in the Middle East reflects the paradigm that informs western foreign policy as well. Noting the “Tunisia effect” rippling through Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Lebanon, Germany’s defense minister, Karl-Theodor Guttenberg, made reference to a sinister “infectious momentum,” adding that, “We are looking very closely, we are concerned, that’s for sure.” Members of the Obama administration like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden stated their abiding support for “reform,” but delicately avoided any use of two crucial D-words: democracy and dictator. When put the question directly, Biden told PBS News that he “would not define [Mubarak] as a dictator.”

    Shortly after Mubarak’s non-resignation speech, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his own message, in which he issued stern reprimands to Mubarak and his security forces and a warning to put political will behind his promises of reform. The teeth behind this warning was a “re-evaluation” of the nearly $2 billion the Egyptian government receives annually from the U.S. in (mostly military) aid. But the message itself strayed little from the script of American foreign policy toward its friendly dictators in the Arab world. For the past 10 years of U.S.-Egyptian relations, calls for slow reform have been volleyed and received, volleyed and received, in a comforting ritual. As others have noted, the Obama administration clearly felt caught between the “freedom spreading” foreign policy objective and appeasing a crucial ally and friend of Israel in the region; a classic choice between democracy and “stability.” And in this instance they chose the latter.

  6. affinis says:

    Noticed these articles about Suleiman on Al Jazeera tonight.

    Suleiman: The CIA’s man in Cairo

    “Mubarak knew that Suleiman would command an instant lobby of supporters at Langley and among ‘Iran nexters’ in Washington – not to mention among other authoritarian mukhabarat-dependent regimes in the region. Suleiman is a favourite of Israel too”….

    “In Egypt, as Habib recounts in his memoir, My Story: The Tale of a Terrorist Who Wasn’t, he was repeatedly subjected to electric shocks, immersed in water up to his nostrils and beaten. His fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks. At one point, his interrogator slapped him so hard that his blindfold was dislodged, revealing the identity of his tormentor: Suleiman. Frustrated that Habib was not providing useful information or confessing to involvement in terrorism, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a shackled prisoner in front of Habib, which he did with a vicious karate kick.”….

    “A far more infamous torture case, in which Suleiman also is directly implicated, is that of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi…Under torture there [Egupt], al-Libi “confessed” knowledge about an al-Qaeda–Saddam connection…. al-Libi’s “confession” was one the central pieces of “evidence” presented at the United Nations by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to make the case for war. As it turns out, that confession was a lie tortured out of him by Egyptians….Al-Libi was eventually sent off, quietly, to Libya….Al-Libi’s death coincided with the first visit by Egypt’s spymaster Omar Suleiman to Tripoli…..By the time Omar Suleiman’s plane left Tripoli, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi had committed ‘suicide'”.

    Cables: Suleiman favoured by Israel
    “Preference for Egypt’s new vice-president to succeed Mubarak disclosed by leaked documents obtained by WikiLeaks.”

    • Thanks for adding those links here, affinis.

      Cables: Suleiman favoured by Israel
      “Preference for Egypt’s new vice-president to succeed Mubarak disclosed by leaked documents obtained by WikiLeaks.”

      Big shocker there (not)

      The West seems to think this is about their preference when it is really about the Egyptian people’s preference. The Egyptian people not only do not “prefer” Suleiman but from everything I’ve seen they consider him no change at all from the current regime which they are protesting. And as Azza Karam writes so eloquently–the people want the current regime and the way of being it signifies to cease.

  7. AJE interview with Protester Mona Seif in front of the parliament building at 4 am Cairo time:

  8. Mohammed Khan / AJE:

    Who’s afraid of the Muslim Brothers

    Western fears of ‘Islamism’ have been aided by Arab autocrats seeking to prolong their iron-fisted rule.

  9. Sima says:

    I really enjoyed this post, and am reading the links as I have time.

    Once, long, long, long ago (almost 35 years!), I travelled to Egypt. I was only 14 and very impressionable. I have to admit, I hated it. I was molested in an elevator and nearly raped in a store. I was there as part of a school study group. The supervision was not good, obviously, but I didn’t realize that at the time. All I knew was the men were acting like animals and at 14 I didn’t know how to handle it.

    When we left the government decided to use our school group (perhaps all American tourists, I don’t know) as a bargaining chip. We weren’t allowed out of the country. Our hotel rooms were gone, so we had to stay in the airport. I spent 24 hours there. It wasn’t bad and, besides the pyramids, was the best part of the trip. The women’s loo was down a flight of stairs, and right outside was one of the places men gathered for prayers. You can imagine the gauntlet you had to run to get a pee! Once in the loo, we had to pay for toilet paper (a common practice in Europe too at that time, and not a big deal). I paid a kind old lady for mine. There were no doors, only curtains. I sat down on the pot, treasured square of paper clutched in my hand. Looked down, looked up when I felt something strange… there was a goat, peeking under the curtain, eating my square of tp!!! I laughed so hard. Maybe that’s where I learned to like goats come to think of it.

    Reading these links, listening to these voices, watching the women in Liberation Square, let me know how much Egypt has changed. The focus on Egypt in the last two weeks has forced me to revise my decades old opinion and I’m grateful for it.

    • Sima, your comment here is very moving…reminded me a little of Shirley Sherrod’s story of overcoming what happened to her father. Thank you for sharing your reflections.

      Sima wrote:

      Reading these links, listening to these voices, watching the women in Liberation Square, let me know how much Egypt has changed.

      Yes, and *we* have changed with the Egyptians. Where others see protesters who missed their moment to instantly depose Mubarak, I see an Egypt that is slowly but surely laying to rest the myth that they are any different than Lady Liberty’s “tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” That myth belongs to a world that no longer exists, though the old guard is still trying to hold on.

  10. Altmuslimah:

    Civic participation
    Women take an active role in Egypt protests


    Having previously lived in Cairo, she “didn’t expect many women to be at these protests,” and she was surprised by the involvement of women in the protests. “Women were leading the chants and men were responding which I didn’t expect to see in Cairo,” she said.

    Women’s role in the protests wasn’t limited to their activity on the street, they were also involved in the online campaigns that led up to the protests. The New York Times reportedon Asmaa Mahfouz who used social media to help spread the message of the protests.

    That’s not to say women were the majority of the protesters. “If you look at the pictures, it’s clearly mainly men,” Day said. “But for the society of Egypt, the number of women at these protests and their role, they were at the front with tear gas and everything, their role was not something I expected to see.”

    “Women and girls are beside boys in the streets.” — Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi