CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)–Sheesha and cigarette smoke fill the air in this downtown Cairo coffee shop, lending a hazy glow to the harsh lighting illuminating the room, which overflows with tables and chairs. Half the patrons are out on the sidewalk.
This could be any number of tiny ahwas, or coffeehouses, tucked away in the capital’s ubiquitous nooks and crannies.
But the Wust el Balad Cafe (Downtown Cafe) is the symbolic headquarters of the April 6 Youth Movement, a civil society and labor rights group established in 2008 that is credited with orchestrating the beginnings of the Jan. 25 revolution. On most nights members gather here to discuss campaigns, meet with other activists or brainstorm ways to challenge the military government still at Egypt’s helm.
A year after the historic 18-day revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, the group is also forced to mull the degree to which two Islamist parties–the ultraconservative Al-Nour party and the Muslim Brotherhood’s more moderate Freedom and Justice party–are benefiting from the democratic transition.
Despite hours of planning, protests and grassroots campaigning, the young activist patrons don’t see gains for human and women’s rights, media liberalization and personal freedoms.
"We feel we have gone a year back and not a year ahead," says April 6’s co-founder Amal Sharaf. "It’s getting worse and worse… This is the start of a new revolution. We’re starting from scratch, zero. Instead of fighting [President Hosni] Mubarak, we are fighting the military, which is worse. They hijacked the revolution with the Islamists."
Egyptian women’s rights activists emphasize different objectives, but the overall agenda includes promoting female literacy and repealing family law provisions that discriminate against women in marriage, divorce, guardianship, custody and inheritance. Many activists look forward to passing laws to protect women from domestic violence and sexual harassment crimes.
Enforcement of the country’s 2008 ban on female genital mutilation is another typical priority. A 2005 government health survey found 96 percent of Egyptian women who had ever been married had undergone the procedure. Only One Minister
The post-revolutionary decline of women in the upper echelons of the government, however, does not bode well for such efforts. Only one female minister is in the cabinet, down from three in the Mubarak era. There are no female governors across Egypt’s almost 30 governorates.
Nor have women made much of a mark in parliament, where members of the upper and lower houses will choose the 100-member task force slated to write Egypt’s new constitution. Women are just 1 percent of the lower house and it’s likely that will be mirrored in the upper house once the ballots are counted.
The April 6 movement is far from bowing out. It is running three concurrent campaigns to get their 10,000 members–of which between 20 and 30 percent are women–in the streets and talking to people.
Not only are they informing them of their rights as voters, they are also hoping to get them actively involved in writing the new constitution by asking their views on how they would change Egypt’s charter.
April 6 joins moderate secularists in other countries in the region–such as Morocco and Tunisia–in facing a growing Islamist political opposition.
In Egypt, the trend is particularly pronounced.
Islamist party members claim more than 70 percent of the lower house of parliament, principally responsible for writing and passing legislation. At least a quarter of those seats were won by the ultraconservative Al-Nour party, representing the Salafi sect that wants to implement religious, or Sharia, law by banning alcohol, banking with interest and entertainment that sexualizes men and women. Their messages have resonated with lay Egyptians, many of whom say they are comfortable marrying Islam and politics.
Secular groups Al-Wafd and the Free Egyptians Party each won 9 percent.
A Video Warning
A woman’s group in Iran last year released an online video warning Egyptian women that religious government’s like their own, which came to power after its 1979 revolution, often restrict personal and religious freedoms, if left unchallenged.
But challenging these groups will likely prove difficult due to the liberal movement’s challenges in mobilizing support.
Sharaf says new liberal political parties simply do not have the organization, history or relationship with the community as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was formed in 1928.
"They are so-well organized, have been around for decades and have lots of money. They also give people services. We don’t have those resources," says Sharaf.
Many pro-democracy organizations, who had pledged to form coalitions with similar groups, were unable to agree on demands, leadership or internal structures, leaving them fractured.
At the same time, suspicions circulate here that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi organizations are benefiting from foreign funding provided by Islamist governments in the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, which would benefit from closer governmental ties with Egypt.
Both groups have publically denied these claims, as has the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Egypt.
Liberals and secularists are also seen with suspicion by regular Egyptians, says Sharaf. Left-leaning politics can be associated with Western powers, like the United States, which gave heavy financial support to the Mubarak regime and have become increasingly unpopular in the wake of the revolution.
Tensions between Washington and Cairo are also ratcheting up after Egypt’s government began investigating foreign members of certain pro-democracy organizations and threatening them with possible arrest. Security forces ransacked 17 offices of pro-democracy organizations in December, including the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and the International Republican Institute.
"People say we’re not patriots, we’re traitors," says Sharaf.
Voter Focus Missing
Twenty-five-year-old Lamia Hassan, a freelance journalist and film student, is active in the Free Egyptians Party, started by business tycoon and Egyptian Copt Naguib Sawiris.
She says many other party members seem more concerned with complaining about the success of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party than winning voters’ loyalty.
"I am disappointed… I feel that ever since the party was established, they have been [using people’s fear of] the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of the Islamic parties as a way to get people to join their liberal party. But, it’s not a matter of who joins your party; it’s a matter of who will vote for you," she says.
Hassan dismisses the idea that Islamist parties–by virtue of their longer track record–were positioned to do better in the election, since the Salafis are also relative newcomers, politically speaking.
"You cannot keep complaining that it’s an unfair game to compete against the Muslim Brotherhood, while at the same time the Salafis who started with you did a better job than you," she says.
Hassan doubts whether women’s struggles will be made any harder under Islamists than under the military rule of Mubarak.
"We shouldn’t just sit and say we are scared they will take our rights," she says. "Instead, we should voice our concerns and make sure we will not let anyone step on our rights. Women’s rights in Egypt were, and will always be, threatened by the male-dominated society."
Like many here, she also draws a distinction between the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and more conservative Islamists such as the Salafis.
"I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a real threat when it comes to women’s rights, but the Salafis might be if they try to turn Egypt into another Saudi Arabia. But, I don’t think that people are naïve enough to let them do that," she says.
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Jessica Gray is a Canadian journalist reporting on the Middle East from Cairo.