by Marissa Dearing:
On Tuesday afternoon, Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy spoke in Luce Hall about the challenges facing the Arab revolutionary movements in the wake of the Arab Spring. A self-proclaimed “liberal Muslim,” Mona Eltahawy is a widely respected columnist, committed feminist, and international speaker on issues pertaining to the Arab world. In a talk presented by the Council on Middle East Studies, Eltahawy expressed her greatest concern as being the struggle ahead for women, Christians, gays, and other minorities to successfully assert their voices in the rapidly evolving political landscapes of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.
Focusing largely on Egypt as a case study, Eltahawy explained that “the revolution” has not happened; it is happening, and it must continue happening and strengthening for the region to see lasting, beneficial change. Without sustained popular pressure, the Egyptian revolution might, in the end, leave Egypt with a military-backed, nominally civilian government, whose public face is the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Eltahawy acknowledges that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has changed over the past few decades (renouncing violence, using more pluralistic language, and stepping back from its former outright rejection of the possibility of female presidential candidate), she believes the party “continues to employ words and phrases that are not democratic,” and continues to act in discriminatory ways, especially toward women. She contrasted the Brotherhood, which denies women a real role in its decision-making body, with Nahda, a successful Islamic political party in Tunisia in which women play a significant role. Alarmingly, like the Brotherhood, most parties in Egypt “are just paying lip service to women’s rights” because “when it comes to being out there and forming alliances . . . it’s always men at that podium.”
Further, Eltahawy worries that an overly compliant Muslim Brotherhood (which she predicts could take 30-35% of parliamentary seats in upcoming elections) would allow the military to maintain autocratic control over the country and effectively stamp out the possibility of real democracy for Egypt in the near future. Although she praises the revolution for the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak, she asserted that, “we’ve replaced one Hosni Mubarak with 1,800 Mubaraks,” referring to the “military junta,” or “supreme council of Mubaraks” as she terms it, now ruling the country. If public pressure slackens over the next few months, the January 25 Revolution might fail in one of its principal demands – the return to civilian rule after decades of “emergency” dictatorship.
Eltahawy is also anxious about the roles and rights of various minority and opposition groups in Egypt, especially given the ongoing military trials in the country. At least 12,000 Egyptians, “from petty thieves to the so-called thugs who protested in the eighteen days of the uprising, as well as bloggers,” are now facing military trials. In addition to the obvious threat such flawed judicial practices present to the democratic future of Egypt, Eltahawy presented the situation of one jailed blogger, Michael Nabeel, as a “sort of litmus test” of Egyptians’ willingness to stand up for the protection of viewpoints with which they disagree. Although Egyptians have reacted strongly to the imprisonment of other anti-military bloggers like Nabeel, his alleged Christianity and pro-Israel stance have made him largely unpalatable to the Egyptian populace: “most people are simply not willing to stand up for him.”
Still, Eltahawy sees the reaction of Egyptian minorities to continued discrimination as a source of hope. Christians, for example, “are speaking out in unprecedented ways” now that Mubarak has stepped down. Other Egyptian minorities like Bedouins and Nubians have asserted their legitimacy in a new political atmosphere that no longer accepts the government spin that if anyone rejects his or her state-issued identity, the state will fracture and self-destruct. Rising conservatism over the past decades swept LGBT and women’s issues under the carpet but, according to Eltahawy, Egyptian society is now witnessing unprecedented conversations about traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. “People joined the revolution as Egyptians, but also under many other hats,” she said, citing the story of a young Nubian activist who joined the January 25 protests in part because the state education under the old regime ignored Nubian language and culture entirely (he had never heard of the Nubian language until a British tourist asked him if he spoke it). The story of another young Nubian activist, who defied her deeply conservative family’s ban on joining the protests, showed Eltahawy that “the revolution was not just in Tahrir Square, it was a revolution in every Egyptian home. This was a revolution against patriarchy . . . This was a revolution against the Mubaraks in our heads.”
Under the heading of “other troublesome aspects in Egypt and the region,” Eltahawy named Saudi Arabia as “the darkest counterrevolutionary force in the region, followed as a very close second by the U.S. administration,” saying of American foreign policy that “the hypocrisy is just astounding” (she cited Bahrain as one example of this hypocrisy, among many others). Toward the close of her talk, Eltahawy joked that, given her sharp criticism of the United States, “I’m a dual citizen, but I’m not sure how strongly the U.S. would fight for me” if she were imprisoned abroad.
Looking forward, Eltahawy will be returning to Egypt this month for the elections, travelling to Tunisia in January, perhaps visiting Libya, and then flying back to Egypt in time for the January 25 anniversary: “People are hoping it will give a great boost to the revolution, if not a second revolution, the redux.” Against a backdrop of excitement, change, and extreme fluidity in the Arab world, Eltahawy said that the revolutionary process is far from over in any country, and if the people of these fledging societies are not vigorous participants in the formation of the new order, the revolution might sink back into the intransigence and intolerance witnessed by the region for so many decades.