Sharaf's resignation is not enough for Egypt

With a military monopoly, neither political commentators nor ordinary Egyptians are willing to predi

It's not the first time since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February that demonstrators have returned to the streets, but this latest wave of protests, and the authorities' violent response, is by far the most significant. The crowds are more numerous and angrier, the crack-down more bloody than on previous occasions, and the timing is crucial: parliamentary elections are scheduled for 28 November.

On Monday, the cabinet led by Prime Minster Essam Sharaf tendered its resignation to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). SCAF has yet to accept, but the resignation of the civilian government is unlikely to appease the protesters on the streets of Cairo and other major cities. Their real target is the military, accused of human rights abuses and of concentrating political power in its hands, and with every life lost the demonstrators' position becomes more entrenched.

The trigger for the protests, which began on Saturday, was the publication of a draft document outlining the principles of the constitution, under which the military and its budget could be exempt from civilian oversight. But since February, concern has steadily mounted that the military (which after all has played a crucial role in Egyptian politics since the fifties) is monopolising political decision-making, and anger has built over continuing human rights abuses -- an Amnesty International report released on Monday concludes that Egypt's military leaders' human rights' record is worse than that of the Mubarak regime.

Heba Morayef, a researcher for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, described the atmosphere in Cairo on Monday night as "very raw and very angry." Regardless of whether or not the cabinet's resignation is accepted, "it's not going to make people go home," she says, as the chants in Tahrir Square called for the resignation of SCAF head,gu Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Despite calls by the US on Monday for the parliamentary elections to go ahead as planned, Morayef believes that it is more important that the military comes up with "confidence building measures, such as ceding power to a national unity government composed of representatives from across the political parties, or a presidential council." The elections may have to be delayed to allow this to happen, she believes.

For Morayef, the latest clashes may have been tragically violent, but they aren't necessarily destructive for Egypt's transition process. "It can only be good because things have been so bad so far. This wasn't planned for, but it is forcing a confrontation over military rule. I'm happy at the sustained in anger in a way, because the military thought it could just keep things ticking along as it was", she says.

In Alexandria too, the atmosphere is "very angry", according to English teacher Mohamed Ansary, although he is keen to emphasise that outside the demonstrations life is going on as normal. The response to Sharaf's resignation has been positive, but he agrees it is not enough. "People are happy, because the people on Tahrir Square expected a lot from Sharaf, but he was just a tool for the military. But the main issue is not Sharaf, it's the Supreme Council and they want it to leave."

He fears that unless the government regains control or delivers real concessions, they will have a "big problem" on Friday, traditionally the day that has seen the largest anti-government demonstrations. He has yet to take to the streets, although he may do if the "situation deteriorates". Unlike Morayef, however, he is suspicious of any attempt to delay elections, suspecting that the current unrest may have been deliberately stoked by secularists afraid of a potential Islamist victory.

Having been outpaced by events on the street, neither political commentators nor ordinary Egyptians are willing to make any predictions, and it's still not clear how the SCAF will react to the latest events. It's rare that the political future of a country is decided in hours rather than months or years, but today is one such occasion. The demonstrators may be forcing a change to the political agenda, but just as in February, Egypt's future and its hope for democracy depends on the military's response.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.