Women and the Arab Spring

Hopes for freedom in Egypt remain unfulfilled.

As Egyptians prepare to go to the polls on 23-24 May and vote in the country’s first properly free presidential election, many of their expectations for a liberated Egypt remain unfulfilled. The scenes of men and women marching alongside one another during mass protests to topple President Hosni Mubarak last year had raised hopes that a post-revolutionary Egypt would offer greater opportunities for female empowerment. Instead, over a year later, women face a growing number of threats.

“The revolution was supposed to improve things for women, in fact the situation appears to be changing for the worse,” said Irine Zareef, programme director at the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR).

It is a grim picture. Women today make up just 2 per cent of MPs in Egypt’s new parliament. An unprecedented 984 women ran for parliamentary seats, but only nine were successfully elected after a Mubarak-era 12 per cent minimum quota for women was scrapped. “Nobody fought for the retention of the quota," Zareef said. “Even liberal parties did not take on the issue of protecting women’s rights.” In a further setback, the only female candidate for president, Bothaina Kamel, failed to gather enough signatures of support to qualify for the race.

The impact of this lack of political representation is already being felt. In recent months conservative Islamist MPs have proposed a number of alarming amendments to the laws safeguarding women’s basic freedoms. One MP tried to revoke a law that allows women to obtain a divorce through the courts if her husband refuses to grant consent, effectively destroying a woman's right to divorce. The proposal was later rejected.

The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has called on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which holds the largest share of seats in parliament, to clarify its stance on women’s rights after some of its MPs – including at least one female MP – made controversial calls for cancelling laws against sexual harassment and allowing a law that would legalise rape within marriage. Azza Garf, a Brotherhood MP who has been described as Egypt’s Michele Bachmann for her views on women, believes the ban on female circumcision should be withdrawn. Some hardline Salafist MPs have also argued for abolishing the minimum age for marriage.

The threat to women has not just come from Islamists in parliament, but from the ruling military council too. Dozens of women have been beaten, abused and threatened by the army over the past year. The image of a veiled female protester who was dragged through the streets last December and stripped, exposing her blue bra, became a symbol of army brutality against women, while the acquittal in March of a military doctor accused of carrying out virginity tests on female detainees has increased a lack of faith in the military.

On 4 May, during clashes near the defence ministry in Cairo, Aya Kamal, a junior doctor who was treating injured protesters, was among 15 women arrested by the army. She told a parliamentary committee that she and other female detainees were beaten, groped and spat on by soldiers who threatened them with sexual assault.

Women who braved tear gas and live rounds to fight for freedom last year appear to be paying a heavy price for the revolution. “Women became stronger after the revolution, but they are up against greater threats,” said Heba Morayef, an Egyptian researcher for Human Rights Watch. “There are some difficult battles to fight and a very challenging time ahead”.

An anti-military protestor in Cairo (photo: Getty Images)
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Emmanuel Macron's "moralisation of politics" comes at a heavy price for his allies

"Fake" jobs in French politics, season 3 episode 1.

Something is rotten in the state of France. No political party – at least none that existed before 2016 – seems immune to the spread of investigations into “fake” or shady parliamentary jobs. The accusations sank centre-right candidate François Fillon’s presidential campaign, and led to Marine Le Pen losing her parliamentary immunity in the European parliament (and proxy wars within her party, the National Front). Both deny the allegations. Now the investigations have made their way to the French government, led by Edouard Philippe, Emmanuel Macron’s Prime Minister.

On Wednesday morning, justice minister François Bayrou and secretary of state for European affairs Marielle de Sarnez announced their resignation from Philippe’s cabinet. They followed defence minister Sylvie Goulard’s resignation the previous day. The three politicians belonged not to Macron's party, En Marche!, but the centrist MoDem party. Bayrou, the leader, had thrown his weight behind Macron after dropping his own presidential bid in April.

The disappearance of three ministers leaves Emmanuel Macron’s cross-party government, which includes politicians from centre left and centre right parties, without a centrist helm. (Bayrou, who has run several times for the French presidency and lost, is the original “neither left nor right” politician – just with a less disruptive attitude, and a lot less luck). “I have decided not to be part of the next government,” he told the AFP.

Rumours had been spreading for weeks. Bayrou, who was last part of a French government as education minister from 1993 to 1997, had been under pressure since 9 June, when he was included in a preliminary investigation into “embezzlement”. The case revolves around whether the parliamentary assistants of MoDem's MEPs, paid for by the European Parliament, were actually working full or part-time for the party. The other two MoDem ministers who resigned, along with Bayrou, also have assistants under investigation.

Bayrou has denied the allegations. He has declared that there “never was” any case of “fake” jobs within his party and that it would be “easy to prove”. All the same, by the time he resigned, his position as justice minister has become untenable, not least because he was tasked by Macron with developing key legislation on the “moralisation of politics”, one of the new President’s campaign pledges. On 1 June, Bayrou unveiled the new law, which plans a 10-year ban from public life for any politician convicted of a crime or offence regarding honesty and transparency in their work.

Bayrou described his decision to resign as a sacrifice. “My name was never pronounced, but I was the target to hit to attack the government’s credibility,” he said, declaring he would rather “protect this law” by stepping down. The other two ministers also refuted the allegations, and gave similar reasons for resigning. 

Macron’s movement-turned-unstoppable-machine, En Marche!, remains untainted from accusations of the sort. Their 350 new MPs are younger, more diverse than is usual in France – but they are newcomers in politics. Which is exactly why Macron had sought an alliance with experienced Bayrou in the first place.

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