Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mixed Progress on Egyptian Civil Rights

Activist welcomes steps towards free expression and political engagement, but notes little real change on women’s rights.
By Daniella Peled
  • Egyptian rights activist Dalia Ziada. (Photo: D. Ziada)
    Egyptian rights activist Dalia Ziada. (Photo: D. Ziada)

Civil and political rights in Egypt have seen both progress and setbacks since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak just over a year ago. In an interview for IWPR, Dalia Ziada, Egypt director of the American Islamic Congress, discussed the challenges still facing the country.

What progress has been on civil rights over the last year?

There has been some progress regarding civil rights issues. Initially, there was a better space for freedom of expression and religious tolerance, at least among the young people who participated in the revolution. However, a few months later, tensions rose again, partly because of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] and partly from the negative attitudes in society which were inherited from the previous regime – especially hostility towards Copts and Bahais.

Political participation has been encouraging, too. Between April and September last year, the American Islamic Congress ran a nationwide campaign, “Fahem Haqi” [“I know my rights”] to encourage youth, grassroots communities and women to become more interested in politics.

In the past this was taboo, first of all because it was not relevant to most people, and it was more important to worry about how to feed your family and look after your children; and secondly because people were simply scared.

Now it’s different. In the parliamentary election, we saw long lines of people proudly participating. This signalled a new momentum.

Online, freedom of expression has been growing bigger. In the Mubarak era, the internet was not blocked – but we used to joke that we had freedom of expression, but not freedom after expression. I was on the brink of arrest and detention several times for things I had written.

What are the major areas of concern that remain?

We have just carried out research into the top needs in Egypt, and we found these were women’s issues, religious minorities and individual rights.

Unfortunately, women’s rights weren’t improved by the revolution, apart from the glory days of the uprising itself. After that, women were purposely marginalised because of the patriarchal mentality which holds that a woman’s place is in the home, and that men need to take care of democracy before women’s rights. It takes a lot of work to change people’s mentality, and the problem is also how women perceive themselves.

The elite is educated and participates in business or politics, but the grassroots majority of women who live in rural areas or in Upper Egypt are less educated and raised to be always submissive to male family members and to believe that their place is at home. This is very dangerous, as they are responsible for raising the next generation. They were happy the revolution took place but they don’t think they have a role to play afterwards.

So it’s not just down to the military and the Islamists – it is also a responsibility for women themselves.

What are the implications of the continuing investigations into non-government organisations, and the charges brought against over 43 of their staff?

It’s not only that the government is cracking down on the NGOs – there was a campaign against them even before the revolution. There is a grassroots belief that they are a tool of foreign influence. So the arrests have some public support, at least indirectly.

It wasn’t just American NGOs that were targeted – more than 400 NGO workers were interrogated, and the majority were believed to be from Egyptian NGOs.

What are the immediate priorities now facing Egypt?

We need change first on a governmental level, and to have a new president and a new government that will work hard on creating a solid constitution which respects civil rights and empowers women and religious minorities. Once we have a constitution, then we can work to enforce it.

The parliamentary elections were a very good thing. I stood as a candidate and I was so proud to see people turning out to vote. Although I didn’t win a seat, I consider this a real victory for me.

But the results were not as good as I had expected. The elected majority were not the civil rights activists who were actually involved in the revolution. Now we need to get those people involved so we can write a proper constitution.

The military council keeps changing the date, but the presidential election is now set for the end of March or the beginning of April. The timeline that the military has promised for the transfer of power is very tight and is not realistic. The constitution should have come first.

Another issue of concern is the rise of the Islamists. The actor Adel Imam has been sentenced to three months in jail, after an Islamist lawyer brought a claim that he had defamed Islam in his films. This is a new form of dictatorship – not autocratic and bureaucratic, but militaristic and theocratic.

Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian rights activist, blogger and award-winning journalist, honoured by Newsweek as one of 150 most influential women in the world.

Interview conducted by Daniella Peled in London. 

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