This guest post from Oxfam’s regional director for the Middle East, Olga Ghazaryan (right), was also published today on the Guardian website.
Having lived through a number of revolutions in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe I should have known that revolutions are notoriously hard to predict. There is a messy chaos between the hope, euphoria and promise and the stark reality of what comes after toppling a hated regime and before building a new future. What I saw on my week -long trip in Egypt in April was a revolution in need of intensive care.
The place was full of “noise”. The distraction around processes and procedures (disbanding the constitutional committee, disqualification of candidates for the presidential elections on 23 May) combined with the personalisation of politics (the debate is about who the Presidential candidates will be rather than what they stand for) means that there is worryingly little discussion of issues of substance – what democracy or the constitution mean for Egypt, the platforms of the parties or candidates, what kind of country Egypt should become and how it should manage its serious challenges in the foreign policy, economic and social spheres.
There is still a palpable sense of hope, enthusiasm and a mushrooming of association and self-organisation, but no real sense of a vision for the end game. The discourse is dominated by a social conservative agenda; Islamic ideologies seem to have become a force shaping this new history, using democracy as a pretext for introducing the “diktat of the majority” to restrict personal freedoms. Whether this agenda spills over into public life will be determined by who wins the “religious state versus civil state“ argument.
All policies in Egypt seem to be under scrutiny, with a risk of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” – women’s rights seem to be the ones thrown out first. There are only 8 women MPs in the parliament. Tellingly, the Freedom and Justice party has fielded a socially conservative woman as MP who has come out publicly against women’s freedoms. There is also a perception that policies “imposed by Suzanne Mubarak have given women more rights than they deserve” and the hardliner Salafist discourse under the disguise of Islam has triggered increased encroachments on women’s rights – one example is the re-emergence of voices in support of female genital mutilation – a practice that is officially banned in Egypt.
In Ben Saef region some women told me that families have been paid money by groups (they refused to specify which groups) with strings attached – “keep your women at home and under control”. There seems to be opposition to these new trends from religious minorities, liberals and a wide-ranging set of actors that consider themselves religious but reject attacks on women’s rights, but they are not yet organised enough to speak with one voice. I visited one fascinating attempt to engage positively with the religious discourse in the shape of a partner organisation that has found innovative ways to involve Al Azhar University scholars to promote a moderate and progressive interpretation of Islam to a number of preachers – the partner started with where the scholars were (in terms of their understanding) and worked with them from within their beliefs and faith to develop a moderate message on women’s rights – we need to support and amplify these kinds of efforts.
There are a number of amazing civil society organisations in Egypt – diverse, brave, determined. Over the years many of them have used the funds and support of international actors including Oxfam in their work for human rights, fighting poverty and injustice and to raise their voices against repression. In a place like Egypt, at a time full of vibrant self organisation and civic activism, civil society at least deserves to have a proper law on freedom of association and a space to act. Unfortunately even after the revolution they have neither – the restrictions against civil society and the smear campaign against international NGOs and foreign funding of national NGOs have created an atmosphere of fear. Some national NGOs now try to keep their distance from western donors and NGOs, fearing accusations of promoting “sinister” foreign agendas – something that is fast becoming a favourite trick across diverse dictatorships in different parts of the world. The national and international civil society community are attempting to organise and fight for an alternative law on freedom of association and an alternative narrative to counter the smear campaign.
The revolution in Egypt continues, it is far from over and may unfold in unpredictable ways. At the moment it is in need of intensive care to live through this dangerous and yet immensely exciting phase and fulfil its promise. We all want to be there with the people of Egypt, helping them to make it happen.
Olga Ghazaryan is Oxfam’s Regional Director for the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Union States