By Khaled Diab
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
In the early days of the Egyptian revolution, Tahrir Square provided a tantalizing glimpse of what the new Egypt might look like if differences of class, religion, gender and age melted into insignificance. Muslims and Christians mingled; the old followed the young’s lead; men and women became comrades.
“The social problems that have plagued Egypt for years seem to have dissolved in the solidarity and egalitarianism that have become the defining characteristic of the community of peaceful protesters in Tahrir,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, an Egyptian activist who spent weeks in the square participating in the protests that eventually brought down President Hosni Mubarak.
But today, the question is whether the Tahrir model can spread through society as a whole and transform Egypt into an egalitarian meritocracy where youth and gender are no barriers to advancement.
While Egyptians have managed to redefine the country’s political landscape, the revolution so far has failed to grapple with some of the deeper socio-economic changes the country needs to confront if it is to escape the oppressive grip of the past.
While the authoritarian president may be gone, many Egyptians are still ruled by “mini-Mubaraks”—men who run their families, businesses and universities using the same iron-fisted tactics made popular by the former president.
The main victims of this are the young and women, two relatively disenfranchised groups who played a pivotal role in the revolution’s success, but who are now slowly being sidelined by men from an older generation.
“Men and women stood together, hand-in-hand, as Egyptians, regardless of their gender, and won the battle against corruption,” said Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger. “Now, the revolution is over and everything is back to normal. The attitude towards women has not been impacted by the historic victory.” She pointed to what happened to women who rallied in Tahrir Square to mark International Women’s Day in March.
“They were attacked,” she said. “Men chanted slogans against them like, ‘Men want to topple feminists,’ and ‘since when did women have a voice?’ They were asked to go home and obey God.” She doesn’t have much hope for gender equality in the near future.
“Patriarchal values, religion, and traditions are not as easy to topple (as Mubarak),” she said.
Still, there’s hope that the spirit of the Arab Spring, which promised to give individuals more control over their daily lives, will eventually affect relations between the sexes as well.
“If you can’t control your income, the fate of your family or the politics of your country, then you will try to control what you can,” said Aida Seif el-Dawla, one of Egypt’s leading feminists, explaining why men continue to dominate their wives and families.
The best hope for Egyptian women likely lies in their acquiring greater economic independence, coupled with a more open, post-revolutionary political arena where they can finally abandon their fear and reservation and stand up en masse for full equality.
“Change will only happen when women have more faith in themselves, get a better education, have goals and interests other than men, and become more involved in the community,” Rakha said.
Khaled Diab is a Jerusalem-based Egyptian journalist who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization in London that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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