Women are more outspoken in their support than ever, and yet have not become a real challenge to the government's crackdown on dissidentsImage: Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance
Egypt: Crackdown stokes women's solidarity
January 21, 2022
Persecution, prosecution and public shaming have led to a new wave of solidarity among women in Egypt. Could this kind of grassroots movement gain enough power to change the difficult situation on the ground?
Every morning, Mona Eltahawy posts the same message to her followers on Twitter: "Starting my day and sending love and solidarity to you all."
Displaying solidarity with her predominantly female followers has become essential for the Egyptian-American social media activist,who is among the leading figures when it comes to supporting Arab women in their fight against emotional or sexual harrassment, discrimination, public shaming and persecution.
It also didn't take Eltahawy long to side with the 30-year-old Egyptian teacher Aya Youssef, who found herself widely bashed on social media after a video clip went viral that shows her belly dancing on a Nile cruise.
As a consequence of this public shaming, Youssef lost her job as an Arabic teacher, and her husband filed for divorce.
"I heard of Aya following the huge attack which left her isolated, jobless and divorced," said Nihad Abu al-Qumsan, the head of the prominent Cairo-based Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. "As a lawyer, I was able to help her on a legal level, and I offered her a job. But personally, I wanted to signal support and show her that she is not alone," al-Qumsan told DW.
For al-Qumsan, it was equally important that Youssef know "she didn't do anything wrong, she expressed joy and this is not a mistake."
After ongoing support online and by al-Qumsan, Youssef's case was eventually revisited by the authorities, and she was offered a position at a different school.
Another recent example of women supporting women — albeit without such a happy ending so far — followed the renewed conviction of the women's rights defender Amal Fathy by Egypt's Court of Cassation earlier this month.
Nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups and women such as Mona Eltahawy furiously took to the internet to condemn the decision.
In 2018, Fathy had criticised the Egyptian authorities for not protecting women from sexual harassment. In turn, she was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for "spreading false news with the intention of harming the Egyptian state" and "public insult."
While the Egyptian government has been cracking down on dissidents for years, over past months it has upped its repression in response to increased outcry.
And meanwhile in an Orwellian twist, this year's national strategy for human rights, dubbed "2022 Year of Civil Society" by Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, seems to curb solidarity movements even further.
Anatomy of a crackdown
While the internet has become the main outlet for individual opinions, it is by far no safe space for supporters of views not aligned with those of the government.
Particularly in the past two years, many women have been targeted with arrest and harsh sentences, often under the pretence of having harmed "morality" or having committed "public indecency." The government also regularly accuses dissidents of receiving money from abroad, which it frames as making them seditious foreign agents.
"Since 2015, I have been repeatedly arrested, they froze my personal accounts and those of my law firm," prominent lawyer Azza Soliman told DW. She is among those who are accused of having received international funding.
In 2016, her case was moved to criminal court, and she is expecting a verdict in mid-February this year.
"One of the reasons why I am still smiling is that I have received thousands of letters of support," Soliman said, adding "I know I am not alone and have supporters behind me."
One one occastion in 2017, she was released within hours after being arresting due to pressure from supporters. Before the hearings at court, supporters had gathered outside the building to signal solidarity.
"While this is absolutely amazing, my assets are still frozen and I need to ask my son for money when I want to buy something more expensive," Soliman said. Her accounts were frozen based on the allegation that she'd received foreign funding.
She is also concerned that clients may develop a negative perception when they see her depicted in the media as someone who works against the government.
Grassroots feminism blossoming
"The Egyptian feminist movement, especially the younger feminists, seems to be taking great strides forward," said Habiba Abdelaal, a fellow of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and an expert on sexual and gender-based violence in Egypt.
"Particularly on the grassroots level — with young women inventing new forms of activism to draw attention to sexual violence that affects them both in their homes and the street," Abdelaal continued.
A popular example is the organisation#SpeakUp, which has gathered 337,000 followers on Facebook and 37,000 followers on Twitter in less than 1 1/2 years.
The group defines itself as a "feminist initiative to support victims of violence," working to highlight individual cases.
Another example is the Instagram page "Assault Police," with 346,000 followers. The group fiercely campaigns against the "personal status law," or #guardianshipismyright.
In early 2021, the Egyptian government approved a personal status bill that requires women to get the consent of a male guardian to get married, to register a child's birth, or to travel abroad. The draft law also favors fathers in child custody matters, whereas currently, mothers are given priority.
The bill has been under review for the past year, and has not yet been formally presented to parliament for ratification.
This week's decision by the senate to limit the number of times a woman may take maternity leave to a maximum of three is also sure to generate controversy, as women continue to fight against governmental interference in their private lives.
Rage or real power?
However, the growing numbers of grassroot supporters, along with a dozen renowned organisations, have not become a real challenge for the government. One likely reason is that their voices are so far unaffiliated with any organizing body.
Beyond this, a significant portion of the population supports el-Sissi's increasingly conservative line of thought.
Yet another reason is how human rights defenders have recently had their wings clipped by the highly controversial "NGO law" that compelled organizations to register with a government database by last week. Signing up includes a pledge to not criticize the government or work politically.
In turn, the renowned Arabic Network for Human Rights suspended its activities "in the absence of the bare minimum of the rule of law and respect for human rights."
Soliman believes that "El-Sissi thinks about the international audience, not about Egyptians."
Therefore, she doesn't have much hope that the situation for women's rights activists will get any better in the coming years, despite the growing solidarity.
"In Egypt, politicians talk about the strategy of human rights, and at the same time, I am still under a travel ban, so what is the signal being given?"
In light of stepped up government repression and an increasing trend toward implementing fundamentalist worldviews, it seems clear that human rights organizations and activists will not be able to continue their work as before.