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What's going on? Sex and coups and democracies in Egypt

Egypt's revolutionary moment must not be rewritten by critics who are invested in their own power, writes author.

Last Modified: 21 Jul 2013 11:38
Zillah Eisenstein

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past thirty years. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.
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Volunteers formed a safe zone between men and women to prevent sexual harassment in Cairo, July 3 [AP]

Millions took to the streets on July 3 and demanded that Morsi step down. In defiance he used his democracy trump card to defend his right to remain in power - as though being elected is synonymous with being democratic. So, many who made the revolution of 2011 felt they lost a lot when Morsi was elected. By 2013 they were sure that they were losing everything.

Whether it is a coup, or a "revocouption" as Juan Cole would have it, or a revolution it does seem that Egypt is struggling to establish a democracy that works for more of its people - and maybe, especially its women - than it did under Morsi.  It is important to stay with this thought and recognise the amazing spectacle of millions of people risking their bodily selves for a chance at a democratic life. Whatever happens in these next months, even the horrific deaths of members of the Muslim Brotherhood - this initial massive action by the Egyptian people is an amazing and incredible feat.  And as accusations and demonising charges abound on all sides, I continue to wonder what is really happening in Egypt just now.

Although acts of sexual violence and rape have been used to intimidate and "terrorise" women from taking part politically in public spaces women have defied this assault and remain a sizable part of the pro-democracy activists in the streets. In spite of the way they have been targeted for sexual violence they have remained a huge part of the demonstrations demanding freedom and equality for everyone.  Their defiance and sheer determination begins the real making of democracy.

This - the active presence of men and women of all kinds demanding their rights to food, and jobs and freedom to choose a hijab or not - is the true threat of Egypt at the moment. This activism, rather than quietude of the masses, makes real democracy dangerous to those who define it for the powerful, rather than for ordinary citizens.  So, be careful to think about whose democracy you are protecting when Egypt is criticised for its "coup".

Traditional political language is not helpful here. A coup? Maybe - but probably not...critics say that the military is not an elected body. But neither are the corporations that run much of the world. Maybe one's person's checks and balances is another's coup.

This massive movement made up of hugely differing identities and interests may not find a way to organise themselves quickly enough, but they are trying. And it may be that the military will not do their bidding for them in a way that moves things forward progressively.  But this is the initial intent and this intent needs to be applauded. Whatever happens next should not negate the unique offering that the Egyptian people have created.

Women, sexual rights and democracy

If you look at photos of pro-Morsi factions they are predominantly men.  In most of the coverage of Morsi street demonstrations I have seen it is all men. Pro-democracy demonstrators have tons of women present - in hijab and not; in Western clothing and not. There are more women present in the 2013 actions than 2011 having been mobilised by Morsi's anti-women's "choice" stances.  Many of these newly mobilised women are from rural areas and Upper Egypt and many are Coptic Christian women.

Mariz Tadros calls the new wave of sexual assaults against women "targeted sexual assaults". Tadros says that they use sexual violence to clear protest spaces, as in Tahrir Square.  Most anti-violence and women's groups say it is pro-Morsi forces that condone and use these methods.  They encircle women for gang rape and form human walls to keep anyone from preventing the raping.  These sexual assault victims do not fall along a simple fault line of men and women although women are especially targeted and in greater numbers. 

The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist networks and their TV channels repeatedly say that the protestors are hooligans and out of control men who don't respect their women and commit violence against them. Others think that the Morsi government is complicit in the use of violence toward women and that this strategy has been used during the past year and a half that he has been in office.  Life has become harder for almost everyone in Egypt under Morsi, but especially for women.

In a joint statement by activist groups: Nazra for Feminist Studies, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, New Woman Foundation, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, Tahrir Bodyguard and Women and Memory Forum, they speak out against the brutal sexual assaults of  January 25, November 2012 and June 30, 2013. 

They reject the mind-set that blames the women for being "responsible" for their rapes because they brought the circumstances upon themselves for being where they do not belong. The Egyptian Ministry of Health is charged with "negligence and unprofessionalism" in their treatment of assaulted women.

These organisations think that incidents of sexual assault in 2011 and 2013 are used to "smear the opposition movement" - and to "punish women for their presence in the public space". The Egyptian authorities use sexual assault as a political tool against the opposition, in an attempt to portray them as a group of prostitutes and `thugs'. Sexual Assault is used to "stigmatise women demonstrators" and with it the democratic opposition and is a violation of international human rights law.  

Meanwhile more than 100 women were brutally raped and beaten and many were hospitalised. And yet, women have returned and remain boldly in the demonstrations - disallowing violence to their bodies to be the arbiter of where they belong, where they can go, what they can do. Women have defied those who use them as political fodder. They are there in hijab and not and demanding democracy. Their insistence and determination to remain part of the pro-democracy movement should be recognised as an important move towards democratic life.

Nawal el Saadawi, who some call the mother of Egyptian feminism, has fought for women's rights and against colonialism for her 80 year life time. She is a medical doctor who has spent years in prison for her commitment to a life of freedom and justice for all. She has famously fought to de-veil the mind along with the body. She demonstrated in 2011 and has been in the streets in this recent confrontation. In personal emails she has denied that this movement can be simply seen as a coup and instead argues that it is a people's revolution.   

She writes on July 4: that the revolution in Egypt is winning and that it is a historical revolution of all peoples in Egypt. She says it is wrong to call this massive action a "coup". And, she also does not want the US government playing out their "foreign aid" hand because she says that US aid has simply continued colonial relations of poverty and corruption. She says her country needs fair trade, not imperial aid.

Reform or revolution, again

Things moved to the right and the economy hit bottom after Morsi's election. Moves to the right and a worsening economy could describe anywhere today, including the US.  In some ways I am jealous of the Egyptians. Their government became intolerable to them and they came out in force to demand something different -young and old, men and women, Muslim and Christian and Jew, gay and straight. What does not look like democracy here?

Street demonstrations are participatory democracy especially when it's a wide swath of one's country representing all kinds of people...Why is mass protest not the first step towards democracy? The ordinariness of the ordinary citizen taking action is both potentially revolutionary and democratic.

The mass demonstrations lay the possibility for a new participatory politics that is not bound by misogyny, patriarchy, global capitalism, and the racist formations of colonialism. This kind of democracy may not look familiar or friendly to power brokers outside Egypt but that hardly invalidates the possibility that it might be so.

Traditional political language is not helpful here.  A coup? Maybe - but probably not. It is not totally known what the military will do in the long term or who its constituency is this time around; and maybe it's the million's strong dedicated to the 99 percent. Critics say that the military is not an elected body. But neither are the corporations that run much of the world. Maybe one's person's checks and balances is another's coup. What about the Bush-Gore election when the Supreme Court chose the US president? No one votes for the Court in the US. 

Western critics say that the Egyptians should have waited for the next election and then voted Morsi out. That democratic process demands that the public stand down and act rationally and use their vote as their voice. Egyptians respond that they have waited and too much has worsened around them and that something must happen, now.

Street demonstrations are participatory democracy especially when it's a wide swath of one's country representing all kinds of people.  Morsi was failing pretty much everyone - with bread, and freedom and social justice. Rising food prices and mass unemployment is undemocratic if you are suffering.  So why not take to the streets to keep this kind of bad "rule" and "rulers" in check? Why is mass protest not the first step towards democracy? The ordinariness of the ordinary citizen taking action is both potentially revolutionary and democratic. 

Elections appear to be offered as an alternative to activist participatory politics. But what of the repressive Brotherhood regime who has refused to listen? Mass participation deepens and clarifies democracy; elections very often do not.  What about the elections that authorised Chilean dictator Pinochet? Elections are not automatically democratic in their process or their outcomes.

This recent 2013 uprising in Egypt can also be seen as a process - one that started in the streets in 2011 according to Mona El-Ghobashy - and then diverged with the election of Morsi. In 2013 it has taken hold again to enforce an inclusive democracy of all the people, including the Brotherhood but not rule by them or any one segment.  Maybe Egypt is ahead of all of us just now. 

I wish we could get 20-30 million people out in our streets - in Texas, or Ohio, or North Carolina where the right wing Republicans are doing everything they can to create an untenable anti-democratic world for women and girls. They are trying to make abortion impossible to get if they cannot make it totally illegal.

Let the name-calling stop. The US is a democracy that is under grievous assault. The NSA (National Security Administration) spies on just about everyone; Guantanamo detainees are wrongly detained and forced fed; the court guts civil rights laws for blacks; millions of people have no health care; other millions have no jobs; women's rights to their bodies are under horrific assault by the Republican party. The US public votes - but almost as many do not vote as do vote.

We do not usually demonstrate in great numbers in the US today although we have had a few big demos in Wisconsin and Texas as of late.  And I am pretty sure that waiting till the next election will not help most of us out. I am watching Egypt and especially their women for now. Let us not have this amazing revolutionary moment be rewritten by critics who are invested in their own power. 

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past thirty years. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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