Alaa Al Aswany: Egyptian citizens must take their fate into their own hands

I’m pleased to see that Alaa Al Aswany, the author of the iconic The Yacoubian Building, is blogging for World Affairs Journal. He has only written two articles so far: here and here. They are insightful calls for action, urging the Egyptian people to start actively resisting Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. Passively submitting to the abuses of the current regime will, Aswany points out, only lead to more abuse. Unfortunately, however, this has been the general approach for most Egyptian citizens:

Generations of Egyptians have grown up in the firm belief that submitting to injustice is wise, and that kowtowing to those in power is the best way to protect oneself from harm. Egyptians have long believed that objecting to the authoritarian system is sheer folly and will never change things for the better, and that those who resist injustice will be detained, tortured, and even killed. Egyptians have believed that coexistence with the authoritarian regime will save them from the harm it can inflict, trusting that the vast apparatus of repression which the state possesses only goes into action to crush those who stand in its way.

In the second article, Aswany focuses on election fraud in Egypt and how the police and other officials refuse to acknowledge the ways that this type of fraud violates Islam. This is “because the books on Islamic law, all written well before elections existed, do not mention elections or election fraud.” Such prescriptive following of religion, Aswany warns, is dangerous when it is the foundation for societal action:

Civil and political rights advance only in two cases: when the society recognizes religion as a promoter and defender of basic values — truth, justice and freedom, or when a society bases itself on an ethical concept whereby the collective human conscience is the ultimate arbiter which sets the criteria for virtue and honesty. However, in countries where religion is detached from human values — talents and resources go to waste, dooming those societies to falling behind in the march of civilization. Those who define religion and piety as set of procedures lead their followers to a false formal piety and undermine the natural sense of conscience, and right and wrong itself. Indeed, it can drive a man to behave appallingly while confident of his goodness, which has been unwisely determined by his correctly performing prescriptive religious obligations.

Such impassioned criticism and calls for resistance are much needed in the lead-up to next year’s elections. Without some concerted effort to resist Mubarak and the culture of corruption and impunity that characterises his regime, the abusive status quo will undoubtedly remain. Depressingly, even with an active effort to resist Mubarak, there is a good chance he will remain in power. But that should not stop people from working to generate much-needed change in Egypt.

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Force Feeding of Girls in Mauritania

I am horrified to learn that girls are force-fed in Mauritania because “fat is beautiful.” Girls are locked away and forced to eat up to 16,000 calories a day. They are literally human foie gras. There are a number of articles on this topic, such as one by the Guardian (here) or Child Rights Information Network (here) or Marie Claire (here).

It is horrifying what women are forced to endure in order to conform to societal expectations of beauty. I clicked on the initial story with a headline about “big is beautiful in Mauritania” because I thought it would be an uplifting story celebrating the beauty of women’s curves (in good contrast to the promotion of skeletal female bodies in the US and UK etc). No such luck!

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Daily Sexual Harassment in the Streets of Cairo

I have just moved back to Cairo and I am finding it hard to adjust back to the constant sexual harassment on the streets. I have been here for a month now and have been spat at 3 times (once directly in the face by two 10/11-year-old boys) and groped 4 times (including being pushed against a wall this evening). I am lucky if I can walk five minutes without hearing the word “fuck.” I wear an ipod whenever I remember: when I forget my headphones, it is a nightmare and a constant barrage of insults and suggestive comments.

I wear conservative clothes (long skirts, long-sleeved tops and scarves around my neck) and I’m not generally out late at night. The harassment happens from 7am to 9pm and in crowded streets. The times I’ve been groped and spat at, I have been surrounded by people and nobody said a word to reprimand the boys/ men who were harassing me and nobody asked if I was alright.

The situation is, quite frankly, disgusting. I cannot understand why the harassment is so pervasive and why the men are allowed to get away with it. I’ve been told to avoid walking in the streets — but I don’t want to be pushed out of the public realm and made to hide. This is exactly what these men want…. to have their male power reinforced and to have women cowering in the privacy of the home. That said, walking anywhere is draining and upsetting and I will inevitably turn more and more to using taxis and to staying inside.

The uncontrolled sexual harassment in Egypt has been well-documented. Two good articles can be found here and, most recently, here. The latter articles points out:

“In 2008, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) released shocking statistics that stated that 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign women in Egypt reported exposure to sexual harassment. …
We have conducted several studies that have proven one thing above all else: Sexual harassment occurs regardless of age, dress or time of day. Women are victims simply because they are women,” said ECWR chairwoman Nehad Abu Al Komsan. …
More than 60 per cent of the respondents — including females — suggested that scantily clad women were most at risk. But the study concluded that the majority of the victims of harassment were modestly dressed women wearing the hijab. Contrary to expectations, the male perpetrators made little distinction between women wearing a veil and those who were not. “We found that a veil does not protect women as we thought,” says Abu Al Komsan. “More than 75 per cent of women in Egypt are veiled but are still harassed.”

What is it about Egypt that makes this harassment so aggressive, so sexual, so pervasive? It’s a very ugly side to the society that needs urgent and focused attention.

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UNDP Report: Egypt Excluding Youth from Political Participation

The new UNDP report on youth in Egypt is described here, in an article pointing out that “the Egyptian government is at a crossroads: either it can include its youth in the political and economic system and advance, or stay on its current path of repressing the young and push a generation into apathy or extremism.”

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Really? Egypt’s Not so Hot on Gender Equality??

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center and written up in The New York Times emphasises the virulent sexism in Egyptian society (something women walking in the streets of Cairo have to experience and battle every single day). Here are the highlights of findings from Egypt:

  • Overall, in every country except Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Indonesia and Nigeria, more than 75 percent backed gender equality;
  • A solid 60 percent of men said boys were more entitled to that education;
  • Half or more of those asked in Egypt say a university education is more important for a boy;
  • There is a “strong belief” in Egypt that men have more right to a job than women (particularly when jobs are scarce);
  • Only in Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan did fewer than 80 percent of the respondents say that women should be able to work outside the home. But even in those three countries, a majority said they supported women’s right to work.

(The poll on gender equality was conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with the International Herald Tribune in 22 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Britain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey and the United States.)

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Egypt’s Unchallenged Dictatorship

It is dismaying that so little international pressure is being exerted on President Mubarak to hold free and fair elections as Egypt heads into a year of important votes. Parliamentary elections will be held in the autumn of 2010 and Presidential elections in 2011. But, as the Shoura Council elections a few weeks ago emphasised, the elections will very, very likely not be open or fair (Mubarak’s party won 74 of 88 seats for the Shoura Council).

A number of good articles have been published over the last few weeks criticising Obama’s lack of action: See here for an example (Washington Post) and here (Time).

It’s hard to see how things will change unless the US takes a firm stand (the US is Egypt’s most important ally and source of $1.3 billion in annual military aid). But wherever the pressure comes from — internally or externally — the people of Egypt will never have the government they truly want (whether Muslim Brotherhood or another type) unless they are given free access to the polls.

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Some Questionable Comments on Women’s Rights from Recent African Commission Meetings

I have heard some memorable comments during both the Ordinary Session of the African Commission in Banjul a few weeks ago, and during the African Training in Senegal this week. Here are some of my favourites:

  • State Representative from Swaziland during a discussion of human rights:

“I am a big defender of women’s rights. These are the rights of my mother. These are the rights of my sisters. I love these women and will protect them. But also, Madam Chairperson [of the African Commission], these are the rights of my wives. Yes…. Wives! As you, Madam Chairperson, well know, I have a number of wives. Since I last addressed the Commission, I have taken a fifth wife. And I don’t see any of those women complaining about their rights …. (smile… wink, wink to audience)”

  • State Representative from Libya, questioning Article 56(1) of the African Charter that allows individuals who submit complaints to the Commission to remain anonymous from the State Party:

“Why should individuals have the right to remain anonymous? This just allows people to make unfounded allegations against the State. What is the purpose of anonymity? In any case, the complainant will have to provide his name to the Commission so the State can ultimately find out where he lives…”

  • State Representative from Algeria, referring to the fact that two women were sitting opposite him in a mock submission on merits (I was one of the women):

This is not fair! There are two people sitting opposite me. And they are both women! Is this some type of polygamy? We have this practice in my country.” (lots of laughing)

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