Morsi has betrayed the Egyptian revolution

Worsening safety for women, breakdowns in the rule of law, crackdowns on cultural activity and police abuse - the Arab Spring wasn't meant to end like this.

As the first anniversary of President Morsi’s transition to power in Egypt draws closer, the 15 million signatures on a petition calling for his resignation loom large. Feted, then widely mocked, as the runner-up in Time's 2012 Person of the Year poll, his presidency being questioned by massive national protests scheduled for the end of this month. Egypt is expected to come to a halt with many expecting violence between Morsi supporters and the indefatigable pro-democracy movement. Throw in the possibility that thousands of Egypt's anarchic 'ultra' football fans and the thugs known as 'baltagaya' may join either side and these protests could turn out to be very nasty indeed.

There is a sense of anger among many at Morsi for belying the democratic ideals of the revolution. Civil society groups in particular are concerned. The conviction of 43 NGO workers, including 16 Americans, at the start of June for receiving foreign funds and operating without a licence, and the closure of Freedom House and other NGOs linked to the defendants, have sent jitters through the sector. Egypt’s activists and human rights researchers, forcibly muted under Mubarak, were an integral part of the revolution and have energetically created a space for research and discussion since his departure. They are now waiting to find out their fate, faced with a restrictive law currently with the Shura Council (Egypt’s senate) that may suffocate their existence.

Under this proposed law, a coordination committee will be put in place to determine issues relating to foreign funding. The committee will then need to give permission to groups before they can receive funds from overseas. It will include officials from the security and intelligence agencies as well as government ministries and civil society.

Those human rights organisations who have reported on the dark underbelly of the revolution, including torture, gang rapes and abuses by the Special Council of the Armed Forces, will be in a particularly difficult position. The committee will have absolute discretion to block access to foreign funding without a requirement to justify the decision. This gives the government arbitrary powers to extinguish projects with which it does not agree.

"We do not know what will happen to NGOs if the NGO law is passed", said Chaimaa Tayssir of Cairo-based Nazra for Feminist Studies, an organisation that has contributed substantial research into the rapes of women in Tahrir Square. "Funding for NGOs has traditionally come from outside Egypt since the Mubarak era. There is a sense that wealthy Egyptians giving to the NGO sector will be disadvantaged in future business deals if they give."

A whispering campaign in the media has also begun, seemingly attempting to portray NGOs in Egypt as spies or as recipients of money from western governments intent on destroying Egyptian culture. This is having a particular impact on organizations focusing on women’s rights, the interpretation of which is becoming an increasingly divisive topic in Egypt. Attacks on female protesters in Tahrir Square and the harassment of women on Egyptian streets seem to indicate resentment in some sectors towards women participating in public life.

The worsening safety for women in Egypt’s public spaces, breakdowns in the rule of law, crackdowns on cultural activity and recent reports of alleged police abuse under have seen the electorate turn away from the Muslim Brotherhood in droves. Twenty eight year old Mohammed El-Gindy was reportedly tortured to death by police after several days of protesting in Tahrir Square in January this year, while in the same month a video from the Associated Press surfaced showing protestor Hamarda Saber being beaten by riot police and dragged naked through the streets.

As Cairo residents and those in other major Egyptian cities prepare to take to the streets again, pro-democracy supporters say they are digging in their heels for the long game. Having overcome so much since it all began in January 2011, they are not going home now. Cairo activist Hicham Ezzat who has attended the protests from the beginning is reflective. "Thoughts of myself were transcended when I watched people next to me get shot and die in Tahrir. We fought for our human rights and Morsi has not respected them. We must now write a new page of Egyptian history, this time with an elected government that respects the human rights space the Egyptian people have fought so hard for."

Charlotte Allan is policy and advocacy officer for CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

An Egyptian man holds a placard as hundreds of anti-government protesters shout political slogans against president Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square. Photograph: Getty Images.

Charlotte Allan is policy and advocacy officer for CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.