The Morsi Alliance and the Red Line Drawn for Egypt’s Women

As the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL), a coalition of parties and movements supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi, continue to call for protests, they have done so under the guise of various banners.  On November 7, the alliance issued its 128thstatement calling for more protests, this time under the slogan of ‘Egyptian Women are a Red Line.’ They called on Egyptians to rally against the “flagrant violation of Egyptian women’s rights.” On first reading, it sounded like a cause many could rally around at a time of extreme polarization, and on an issue of paramount importance. The elimination of violence against women belongs to no political party or ideology, and for that reason, this could have, or should have, been an inclusive movement. Protection against women’s rights abuses should not be dragged into the Egyptian political mud, even if the perpetrators of such abuses are politically motivated. The NASL’s statements and protests themselves did just that.

In its call to protest in support of women’s rights, the NASL goes on to say that, “Egypt’s Anti-Coup, Pro-Legitimacy National Alliance affirms that these repressive practices [by the State] most clearly indicate the failure of the coup, [and] that is has no popularity whatsoever.” This is where the call for the protests clearly becomes less about women’s rights and protection against violence, and more about a political stance. By proxy, it becomes an exclusive protest for those with the same political motivations. Bringing the fight for women’s rights into the anti-coup fold blurs the important message of protecting women’s rights against abuse and violence.

This begs the question, how many Egyptian men and women who care about women’s rights, as well as the multitude of apolitical women’s rights organizations that campaign year round to stop violence against women, would have been deterred from supporting the protest because of its obvious political affiliations and symbolism? It is for this very reason that the fight for human rights and women’s rights cannot be adopted by political factions, because politics is inherently divisive, but human rights are a concern for all.

On the day of the protests, the official Twitter account of the Anti-Coup movement posted pictures of various protests across Egypt, using the hashtag #FreeWomenofEgypt alongside their standard hashtag: #AntiCoup.

Their Twitter accounts were flooded with Tweets like the one below:

The choice of words, and their order, belied the real purpose behind the protest, and it had little to do with women’s rights, with the protection of women against violence becoming nothing more than an afterthought. The protest was rebranded an ‘Anti-Coup March,’ to use their own words, and the ‘Free Women of Egypt,’ were mentioned in order of importance. The way in which the protests were marketed was just as politicized as its participants. Pictures posted on the Anti-Coup Alliance Twitter account showed large crowds of women, holding pictures of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi, carrying yellow flags bearing the four-fingered Raba’a salute associated with the August 14 massacre of Morsi’s supporters. Women may have been protesting, but this was not a protest about women’s rights, as Statement 128 suggested.

Manipulating the fight for women’s rights poses a threat to the overall movement for several reasons. In Egypt, whether under Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or Mohamed Morsi, violations against women has been a common thread in each regime, used as a means of intimidating and suppressing opposition to their governance. For years under the Mubarak regime, female protestors were targeted through sexual harassment by Mubarak’s security apparatus or hired hands – the strategy being that limited participation by female protestors would keep protest numbers small and consequently keep Mubarak’s regime safe. More recently, in March 2011, the interim SCAF government conducted the now notorious virginity tests on female protesters. Samira Ibrahim was the only one to come forward and publicly accuse the military of the practice, but the military doctor who allegedly performed the tests was acquitted. These targeted abuses against women cannot be ‘owned’ by any one political faction, and for this reason, no political group should use women’s rights abuse as a platform to build on their political discourse. 

The Anti-Coup movement may defend its stance by citing the targeting of women by the military-backed government in an attempt to crack down on their protests. While the attacks on women who support Morsi and the Brotherhood are likely politically motivated, their decision to mix politics with their Friday protest for women’s rights was a mistake. The protests, heavily dominated with political symbolism alienated anyone who does not share their political beliefs, and so the protests themselves remained small in comparison to what it would have been if it was apolitical. Could apolitical women’s rights organizations have participated in the protests? The short answer is no.

Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood are a part of he Anti-Coup movement– the same Muslim Brotherhood that has made its views on women’s rights apparent, particularly in its response to the UN declaration on women’s rights. That is not say the Anti-Coup movement and the Muslim Brotherhood are one and the same, but the Brotherhood is nevertheless a member. This once again poses a problem for how apolitical women’s rights organizations could have become involved in the protest. Not only would they have been drawn into a specific political discourse, they would also have found themselves protesting for women’s rights with a group that does not share their vision for women’s rights.

The biggest danger the anti-coup protests posed was that it took a major issue and degraded it to political manoeuvring. The progression of women’s rights already faces countless socio-political challenges, and because of the fluid and dramatic changes in Egypt’s political paradigm over the past three years, women’s rights organizations have remained on the periphery. Former first lady Suzanne Mubarak’s involvement in women’s rights, for example, was a detriment because of her obvious political affiliations, and, partly as a result, women’s rights groups have consciously avoided attaching themselves to one political ideology or loyalty.

Egypt’s own history of blurring the lines between women’s rights and politics provides a valuable lesson. In 1920, with the encouragement of Saad Zaghlul, the head of the Wafd Party which spearheaded the national movement against the British, leading women’s rights activist Hoda Shaarawi created the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee (WWCC). The WWCC rallied Egyptian women to fight alongside the Wafd Party against British colonialism. With nominal independence achieved in 1922, women’s rights were consequently marginalized in the 1923 constitution, with women’s suffrage discarded. Shaarawi saw that when merging women’s rights with the political motivation of a party, women and their rights were used only as a platform for political gain. As a result, she dissolved the WWCC and created the apolitical Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. This took place almost a century ago, and the Anti-Coup movement would do well to remember that any form of violence or abuse against women should be condemned – political discourse is neither necessary nor appropriate for its condemnation. 

Ahmed Kadry is a Ph.D. Researcher and Lecturer at the Department of Language and Cultural Studies at Imperial College London, where his research focuses on Egyptian sociopolitical feminist discourse after the 1952 and 2011 Egyptian Revolutions.

Image: Photo: NASL