Women and Rural Communities in Egypt

By: 
Manal Omar

Following longtime leader Hosni Mubarak’s departure, USIP’s Manal Omar traveled to Egypt in early April to assess how the recent turmoil there has impacted rural communities and women.

April 7, 2011

Following longtime leader Hosni Mubarak’s departure, USIP’s Manal Omar traveled to Egypt in early April to assess how the recent turmoil there has impacted rural communities and women.

What specific challenges do women in Egypt face during this transitional period?

There are two immediate challenges facing women. First, is to ensure that they are part of the process. Women were clearly part of the revolution, and played a distinct role in Tahrir Square. The main issue is to make sure they remain at the decision making table, and as part of the ongoing negotiations with the military. Already there is concern over language introduced for constitutional reform. The most cited was the fact that the language assumes the president will be male. The second challenge is recognizing the possibility of women's rights sliding backwards, and proactively working to ensure that does not happen. In the last few years, the laws passed promoting women's issues are tied directly to former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. Meanwhile, there is a fear that monolithic interpretations of Islamic law will be introduced by some of the more extremist viewpoints in the Muslim community.

There is already a growing fear of a "Salafi" movement inside the country, with stories of attacks on women across the rural areas. During my trip, an announcement was made in Menia that there would be a day of Salafi protests, and acid would be thrown on any uncovered woman. No incident materialized, but the announcement was enough to leave women feeling threatened and pull girls out of schools. In the current environment, perception is reality, and the rumor mill is in full swing. In addition to rumors, there have been several incidents, such as a woman being accused of dishonorable acts in Sadat City and her house being burned down. There haven’t been investigations or interference into such incidents by the Military Council, thereby fueling a climate of fear for women.

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The uprising in Egypt has been seen in the West as a largely urban phenomenon. How is it affecting rural areas?

The rural areas across Egypt are sharing with their urban patriots a strong sense of pride and nationalism. They echoed youth in Cairo's statement that they are feeling a return of Egyptian nationalism, and reclaiming their role as citizen in the country. For example, each village formed impromptu local community councils during the days of protest to fill the security vacuum that threatened to take over the country. And now, there is a stronger desire to become aware of the constitution -- both historically as well as the new reforms that are being introduced.

However, there are three distinct areas that were highlighted during my meetings with local women's committees, farmer and fisherman collectives, and community-based organizations.

First, they pointed out that they are the most vulnerable of the population. The smallest economic impact could ruin farmer’s and fishermen’s livelihood for an entire season. They expressed deep solidarity with the protestors in Tahrir square, and feel through this solidarity they were part of the movement. Yet many pointed out that they physically could not participate in the protest because of job commitments, needs of the land, or in some cases they simply could not afford the transportation cost. There is also a sense that now during the transition, they continue to be the most vulnerable because the steady rise of costs (there is no longer any government control of agriculture products (seeds, fertilizers, etc.) as well as the increase in day to day cost of living is potentially going to create a sense of resentment over the revolution. This is also true in the sense of a growing feeling of a lack of local policy and security within the villages. There is a growing concern that security will continue to deteriorate, and that villages far away from the city could become easy targets for local crime.

Second, the rural areas acknowledge the challenge that a large percentage of the population are illiterate. This challenges their ability to participate in the transition process, especially with the upcoming discussions over elections and constitutional reform. The main request during my meetings was to deliver the message to Cairo to slow down. The revolution gave birth to a strong sense of civic duty and participation, and people feel frustrated that they are not able to be completely aware of the process. Their worst fears were validated during the referendum process. Many people expressed confusion over the referendum. Some women indicated they had believed they had voted for a President, and were surprised it was actually a referendum on constitutional reform. One young woman from the village of Tayyibah outside Media expressed her deep desire to fully follow the debates over the constitution. She explained she has never seen the constitution, but as a result of the revolution felt a responsibility to be aware of what was going on. However, the debates and discussions are bypassing the majority of the population. Over and over, Egyptians from the countryside emphasized that although they may not have formal education, they have crucial insight into the success and failure of the country. For many, they felt specific laws directly threaten their livelihood (such as the 1995 land policy), and that their opinions should be factored into the reform process. The issues were not just a matter of freedoms and democracy, but changes that would reflect in tangible improvement of their daily life.

The third issue is tied to the challenge of illiteracy and limited education. There was a strong sense of awareness that this challenge coupled with a fast forwarded political process would make the rural areas vulnerable to religious institutions. There was an acknowledgment that religious institutions are the only ones organized to reach out to the grassroots. Many people admitted to voting in the referendum simply as they were instructed because there was not enough time to get a better sense of the debate. They felt a strong dedication to participate by voting, but had no real knowledge of what to vote on. Many community based organizations felt the referendum highlighted a real threat of growing sectarian tensions - especially between the Muslim and Christian populations. The spirit of Tahrir square was one of religious tolerance, but the tension around the referendum reflected the potential for a very different scenario. The popular perception was that all Muslims should vote yes, and Christians/secularists/leftists would vote no.

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What are the expectations of Egyptians today about how the transition will affect their lives? What will the consequences be if their expectations are not met?

 

The expectations are limitless. People are eager to see changes in their lives, better access to income, health, education, and government. Already in the rural areas frustration was expressed because nothing tangible has changed. Many Egyptians were genuinely surprised when they learned of the large amounts of foreign aid that were coming into the country, and the fact that it clearly never reached the population. People are now expecting that aid to improve standards of living. They also expect a process that will result in a leader selected by the people, and a constitution that protects people’s ability to hold the government accountable. This notion of seeking accountability is a key indicator of a new Egypt. If people do not begin to see the immediate change, there is a strong chance that they will become politically apathetic.

Once more, this is an important lesson from the referendum. Youth in the rural areas were already talking about how the revolution has been "hijacked" by the military and religious institutions. The process forward will need time and will be a difficult one, hopefully build on negotiations and dialogue. It is important that civil society and youth groups spend time in managing the expectations, and helping communities through dialogue to establish realistic goals and map it out over a long period of time. The biggest request is for the process to be transparent.

One older Egyptian farmer pointed out that since the country has been waiting for change for 30 years, they are willing to wait a few more years -- as long as the goals for the future are clear and the milestones for getting there are shared.

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April 7, 2011
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