Political analysts writing on Egypt have tended to focus on the missteps of President Mohamed Morsi. Others are engrossed with how (un)well Egyptians are faring in dealing with frustration of what they are sure will amount to dashed hopes. The problem here is that all angles of critique fail to pick out what may be going right or, if not, offer up any tangible solution. Part of this inability is I think a persistent obsession with the State, especially the Islamist kind, and with street activity. To be sure, Egypt is at a juncture. It can plummet into chaos irreversibly. But it can also transition into some form of democracy. However, unless the main actors behind the transition (and what they are doing) are recognized, I do not see how any solution put forward without them will work.
Firstly, a transition in Egypt did not start with protesters in January 2011. The demands those protestors took to the streets were borne out of a movement that was actually long in place. But, it is hard for most of us wound up in the story of a precarious Islamist State and infuriated young liberal revolutionaries to imagine that it could be something so apparently apolitical. It is centrally women in Egypt that birthed the protests – both secular and Islamic women. This is absolutely critical to understand because they will pose the key determinant if a transition to democracy will, in fact, truly happen.
Few women in Egypt participate in ‘hard’ politics. Instead, women address everyone’s immediate concerns – through teaching crucial skills or mitigating harsh economic circumstances. Above all, many approach their daily tasks through a mothering role. They are in the very arenas political analysts often decree to be outside politics. And so, their activities probably seemed boring if not inconsequential for the political analyst obsessed with acts of dominance and overt reaction. But, acts as basic as helping children acquire positive values or others in their communities acquire reading skills contributed developing the consciousness of dignity, rights and wellbeing. Significantly, consciousness precedes action.
I have seen the impact first-hand. Women who previously could not read told me now their husbands can no longer refer to the Qur’an to limit their choices. These women can read for themselves now. These women do not need to ask others to guide them – they now access information and offer it. Some no longer sell baskets of vegetables; they educate women, their own children – I sat in on a class with formerly illiterate women teaching men how to read. Becoming aware of oppression and then experiencing empowerment has direct consequences. It produces a political attitude of ‘I have unmet needs’, ‘I have rights’ and most importantly, ‘I can’ in the endeavor of addressing needs and rights.
But it is not only empowerment that women gain and extend that motivates the right consciousness into the street. Through their activism, they grow in civil capacities. So many of the women underscored how their activism enabled them to learn the required patience in dealing with people of completely different ideological orientations and ways of thinking. This is the type of inner capacity that sustains an ability to tolerate, cooperate, reciprocate and trust a little more – the core parts of being civil in one’s thinking and acting. There is absolutely no other way of moving forward from a consciousness of mistrust, polarization and fear without a capacity to be civil. In fact, without civility we should rather speak of an Egypt spiraling downward to incivility, chaos and violence.
Women are no small force. It is mostly women who participate in civil society. In a few poor neighborhoods, quite a good number women stated this is because so many of the husbands were lazy or simply always drunk, and from their perspective women had but no choice to innovate and depend on one another. A few elite women said they had the extra time to do something useful with their lives and felt guilty not using it more wisely. All a part of the movement, but otherwise, many men and women from all strata clearly expressed that women have greater capacity for activism – while men could have greater ability to hold down two jobs. In other words, women’s feminine nature of mothering and nurturing better equips them to give of themselves relentlessly. As an outcome, their participation in activities that produce change is much higher and enduring. Walk off the street into pretty much any of the multitudinous Islamic charities and note the ratio. In number and ability, women are key to change.
Thus, women matter enormously to a transition to democracy. However, the only strategy at this point that is workable is one that includes a) developing a consciousness of civility and b) enabling women to decide how to, as well. Women must also be included in ‘hard politics’ because a masculine approach currently dominating decision-making circles seems to be offering more problems than solutions. I am afraid that future peace, stability and security rest on the ability of women to not simply do the same but to be in the forums discussing strategy and policy, too.
Wanda Krause is at the Public Policy Program, Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar and is author of Civil Society and Women Activists in the Middle East: Islamic and Secular Organizations in Egypt