The Real Fight to Come: For Egyptian Activists the Revolution Has Just Begun

Posted on 29 March 2011 by

The Egyptian people have made their voices heard and succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak from power, giving hope to millions in the country for a better, freer future. However, the work to ensure human rights for all and build a true democratic system is at a critical juncture. Many a revolution has resulted in the replacement of one repressive regime by another—with the new regime posing a greater threat to women’s rights in a worrisome number of instances.

March 18, 2011, Tahrir Square (cc) Erik - parked in Cairo these days

Last week, WLP spoke with our partner in Egypt, Enas El Shafie, Executive Director of WLP Egypt/ Forum for Women in Development, about the rapidly changing environment in the country, and the work her organization is doing to fight for a secular democracy where the rights of every citizen are honored.

Our call took place a few days after Egypt held an important national vote on the constitution. On Sunday March 20, Egyptians voted on whether to accept the changes that the interim military council had made to the constitution and go forward with parliamentary elections this year, or replace the existing constitution with an entirely new one. Progressives, civil society organizations, women’s rights activists, and youth groups launched a Vote No campaign, believing that the proposed constitution would benefit the conservative religious party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and former President Mubarak’s Party, the National Democratic Party. It is then no surprise that Mubarak loyalists and Islamists were out in force to push Egyptians to vote yes on the referendum.

FWID’s approach, Enas explained, was to educate the public on the Constitution and explain why a new constitution would better serve the cause of democracy in the country. To this end, FWID has launched a program to help civil society organizations throughout the country to form a unified vision and strategize ways to advance democratic values during this critical phase in Egypt’s history. The program commenced the week before the March 20 vote with a workshop on constitutional change, and included participants from NGOs based in eight different governorates. The group came away from the workshop energized and with a sense of solidarity, but also a recognition that the fight for a secular, just, and open democracy was going to be extremely hard.

Enas explained that religious leaders across the country had informed the public that it was their duty to vote yes, both for religious reasons and to bring stability to the country. She went on to say that many people did not have a proper understanding as to why the military-proposed constitution would be detrimental to the development of democracy. People living in poverty have been greatly affected by the economic instability that has come along with the revolution, she explained, and many want things to settle down as they consider their livelihood to be threatened.

“Things are moving so fast,” said Enas. And with the sudden ability of people to publicly express views that only weeks before would have landed them in jail, “people are saying the strangest things! People—even journalists—are expressing support for radical religious views. They are talking about Khalid Islambouli (former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassin) like he was a hero.”

While in the lead up to the vote, progressives understood that the expected outcome was not in their favor, they were disheartened with the large public support for the referendum–supported by 77% of voters. However, the approach of those advocating for either side could not have been more different. Religious conservatives gathered around people waiting in line to vote at polling stations across the country insisting that it was their Islamic duty to vote yes. Enas described her organization’s approach as raising public awareness about the need for a new constitution and advocating for people to make their voices—without telling people how to vote. “You cannot push people. You just put the light on and let people choose.”

Enas and progressives throughout the country remain both optimistic and anxious about the country’s future. Though progressives were quite disappointed with the result of the vote, Enas insisted that they have not lost the fight. And, in reality, this is just the beginning.

This week, FWID is holding another workshop, “Towards a New Social Contract,” which will bring together activists from NGOs in fourteen different governorates to help progressive civil society strategize on how to best fight for their values in this rapidly changing environment. FWID is ramping up its work with youth and its geographical reach throughout the country, with WLP trainings on leadership and political participation. And, in this next phase of its WLP work, for the first time FWID will be conducting trainings on how to use information and communication technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook, for political advocacy. Importantly, it will also continue to work in coalition with NGOs across the country to push for democratic reforms, women’s equal rights, and the rights of all Egyptians.

Enas recognizes “It is going to be a tough fight.” The recent decision by the cabinet to outlaw “some” forms of protest and workers’ strikes—those deemed to disrupt the economy while the 44-year state of emergency* is still in effect—is a sad illustration of how tough this fight is going to be. But Enas insists that civil society organizations, activists, and youth are determined stay organized and continue to do the hard work needed to realize their dream of living in a free society where the rights of all are respected, and the government derives its authority from the people.

*A state of emergency has been in affect since 1967, with a 18-month break in 1980.

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