Egypt: Slightly edgy new peace marks high hopes of a golden era for women
Sunday Magazine ~ May 15, 2016
After the Arab springBy Vaishna Roy
'Egyptian women were the secret behind the success of the last two revolutions'. Evenings come alive at the Khan el-Khalili souk in old Cairo (Vaishna Roy)
A hundred days into its new Parliament, and Egypt seems to be settling down into a slightly edgy peace tempered by pragmatism and lots of sheesha
Dalia Youssef is wearing a midnight blue sari and bangles that look like gunghrus. She has just been recognised as a “woman of substance” at a function held at the Indian Embassy in Cairo by Ambassador Sanjay Bhattacharyya. Youssef is one of a record 89 women in Egypt’s new Parliament, which has just completed 100 days. “This is a golden era for Egyptian women,” she says at an interview later that evening, sparkling with enthusiasm. Not many of her compatriots might go so far, but one still smells the sweet fragrance of hope in a country battered by dismal economics.
There’s a foreign currency crunch and ballooning fiscal deficit, but the most obvious face of the crisis for visitors is, of course, the dramatic decline in tourism. Giza on a weekend is deserted; shop fronts are festooned with forlorn belly-dancer outfits and dusty galabiyas; and in Cairo Museum we can spend all the time we want with King Tut. Accounting in 2010 for almost 12 per cent of GDP at USD 13 billion, tourism is now a mere USD 6 billion. Political clashes, the murdered Italian student Giulio Regeni, and finally the crash of the Russian plane in Sinai; they’ve all played a role.
But Egypt is fighting back, looking at Bulgaria, Latin America, India and China for arrivals. Adel El Masry, director, International Tourism Department, says he wants to boost Indian arrivals by 30-35 per cent. Already, we see straggly Indian and Chinese tour groups, the latter incessantly striking profile-picture poses. Egypt loves Bollywood, so Indians are greeted with a familiarity bred in movie halls. Salmaniac fan clubs are legion, Indian soap stars I haven’t heard of are household names, and 3,000 Egyptians play Holi each year.
The Desert Road from Cairo to Alexandria is flanked by giant hoardings of stylish women in off-shoulder evening gowns sipping mango juice or buying insurance. The sands have been reclaimed for miles on end by warehouses, factories, Carrefours and housing estates. This massive infrastructure investment and urban expansion helped Egypt limp back to a 4.2 per cent growth in 2014-15; double that of the previous four years.
This is perhaps why everyone from taxi drivers to journalists to shopkeepers is still keeping faith with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, their sixth president, who might rule with the proverbial rod but who has brought much-needed peace after the two revolutions of 2011 and 2013.
‘Stability’ is the magic mantra. It has convinced many citizens to overlook the absence of some essentials of a liberal democracy that could otherwise have made them restive. In the week leading up to April 25, the date celebrating the liberation of Sinai from Israel, there was palpable unhappiness and some protests against the return by President Sisi of two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. Dissidents and journalists were, however, arrested in a pre-emptive exercise, with only the weekly Al-Ahram gently criticising this silencing.
There were rumours of a demonstration on April 24, but when we, a band of visiting journalists, walked up to Tahrir Square, it was just another balmy evening with children buying balloons and families drinking kahwa on the grass. We sat down with our own glasses. But we had been seen filming and talking with locals, and suddenly a posse of policemen descended and whisked us off to a courtyard two streets away where a senior officer sat drinking tea. It took much talking and displaying of government invitations before we were let go, albeit with a shadow who tailed us through that evening. The government is clearly skittish, but the anxiety that the rag-tag opposition might yet fuel another millioniya (million-man march) is shared by most citizens, and they rationalise that the President is just being “careful”.
There’s a general sense of wanting to give Sisi a fair shot at getting Egypt back on the rails. Mohamed Elmasry, writing in The Egyptian Gazette, talks of how power cuts and queues for bread and fuel have practically disappeared, and the streets are safe again. Hassanein Mahmoud, a student of History and a guide, explains, “We wanted to give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to rebuild Egypt. But they kept talking about Paradise. We want a government that shows us material difference now; the hereafter will take care of itself.”
Religion, he continues, is between him and god. “Let the government worry about roads, industry and jobs.” It’s significant that this is being voiced in a country which has a considerable number of Salafists, and which gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, which in turn spawned dozens of Islamic fundamental groups. But within Egypt, such groups have always been forced to live underground. When they did surface, as in 2013, it didn’t last long. Youssef says, “I think our culture is repulsive of fundamentalism.”
Women like her are pushing the envelope further. In 2014, Egypt got a new Constitution, which unequivocally states that men and women are equal. Previously, they were held to be equal if it did not conflict with the Shariat. The victory was followed by another this year, when Egypt enacted one of the most remarkable reforms in the Muslim world granting women the same right of divorce as men. Only Tunisia in the region allows both men and women to end a marriage.
According to Youssef, Egyptian women were the secret behind the last two revolutions, and came from all walks of life mothers, wives, students and businesswomen. “It was Ramadan. I remember we would go down to Tahrir Square and we would sit on the pavement and share our food. The cause drove us. Even women who would never participate, women from high society, even they came,” she says, eyes glittering with emotion.
Youssef ran for elections from a village 60 km north of Cairo in the Monufia governorate, becoming the first woman from her district to win. This year, Egypt initiated a one-time coalition arrangement under which men, women, youth and disabled people fought under one banner, thus creating an extremely diverse Parliament. But diversity brings its own problems: with 19 parties, 361 independents and no simple majority, there are in effect 380 different agendas, with much debate and little consensus. Clearly, they are still trying to find their feet. As Youssef says, “We have over 100 parties but none of them yet has the confidence of the street.”
Despite these teething troubles, one thing comes through clearly. Egyptians are fiercely proud that they threw out fundamentalism, seeing their country as a sort of last stand against extremist Islam. You see couples wearing tight jeans and cuddling along the Nile. You can wander the streets at midnight and eat feteer from a streetside kiosk. Men and women smoke sheesha endlessly in the crowded coffee houses, and the fashionable party till 4:00 am. al-Qahira, the victorious city, is alive and awake well into the night.
The writer was in Egypt by invitation of the Egyptian tourism department.