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Egypt rights activists seeing hopes dissolve

Women and minorities had wanted guarantees of equal rights, but that goal seems out of reach now that control of Egypt has shifted to an Islamist president.

October 07, 2012|By Reem Abdellatif, Los Angeles Times
  • An Egyptian woman in Cairo chants slogans last week criticizing the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting a new constitution.
An Egyptian woman in Cairo chants slogans last week criticizing the Islamist-dominated… (Nasser Nasser, Associated…)

CAIRO — Eman Mostafa, a village girl from southern Egypt, was shot and killed last month when she dared to spit in the face of the man who groped her.

Ramadan Salem told authorities he mistakenly shot Mostafa, 16, after she cursed him. It is uncertain whether Salem will be convicted: The only witness willing to testify — Mostafa's friend, Sahar Mamdouh — has been threatened in a society that often blames women and girls for provoking sexual crimes against them.

After an uprising toppled President Hosni Mubarak early last year, women and minorities hoped for a nation that would guarantee long-denied equal rights. But their pleas have gone unanswered as Egypt has shifted from military control to the conservative designs of a new Islamist president. Mostafa's death symbolizes for many women the prospect that civil rights would be further jeopardized by a new constitution.

Scores of Egyptians, with the support of 33 women's rights organizations, protested outside President Mohamed Morsi's palace last week against the proposed constitution, particularly Article 36, which says the state is "committed to providing all measures to ensure the equality of women with men, as long as those rights are not contradicting the laws of Islam," or sharia.

Overwhelmed by Islamist domination in the assembly drafting the constitution, liberals and moderates have repeatedly threatened to resign because they say the political body leans toward radical political Islam. A previous assembly was dissolved this year for failing to represent Egypt's diverse society, and a court decision expected Tuesday could again disband the body amid charges it has ignored women, Christians, youths and other groups.

Yet Islamists are the country's main political force, and they will probably control the tone of a constitution in what has become a pivotal battle between liberals and Islamists who run the gamut from ultraconservative Salafis to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. The struggle is tilted in favor of the Islamists because women's groups and liberal parties are often divided and disorganized.

"Equality should be a given, with no conditions. This [article] is strictly meant to hinder the women's rights movements and the way women express themselves. It is meant to target basic rights that women fought for decades ago," said Dalia Abdelhameed, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

When Morsi was inaugurated in June, he signaled to the United States and the international community that personal freedoms were important in a "new" Egypt. Though he made big promises abroad, Egyptians say little changed at home as charges of blasphemy have increased and radical clerics have become more vocal. Morsi marked his first 100 days in office Sunday and his government has yet to calm social and economic turmoil while trying to appease fellow Islamists.

"If this constitutional draft is passed, it is not only going to be a blow to the women's movement in Egypt, but it will be another obstacle for the labor movement and other social and rights campaigns," said Doaa Abdelaal, a human rights advocate and researcher.

Egypt's Christian leaders have repeatedly expressed fears and condemned the assembly. Similarly, the nation's Nubian community has decried discrimination and exclusion.

Last month, Manal Tibi, a prominent human rights activist who represented the Nubians in the assembly, resigned. She said she could not be part of a group that is trying to "entrench" a religious state rather than represent Egypt's people.

"When I first entered [the assembly], I was told that we would all drop our political beliefs and ideologies and work strictly toward drafting a constitution for our nation. These were all nice words ... but later this all changed," Tibi said on Al Nahar, a privately owned Egyptian satellite channel, after her resignation.

Tibi said she had hoped to add a clause against all forms of racial discrimination to guarantee equality, but the assembly snubbed the idea.

"They accused the Nubian community and myself of wanting to split from Egypt completely when I proposed this," Tibi said. "Instead of discussing social justice or how to guarantee citizen rights, we found ourselves discussing issues that should have already been closed hundreds of years ago, like changing the legal age of marriage for young children."

Islamists have repeatedly denied taking control of the assembly, stating that the constitution belongs to all Egyptians. "This is a very serious attack on our honorable assembly," said Hossam Gheriany, the assembly speaker who is recognized as an independent judge.

Egypt does not yet have a parliament, and it cannot hold elections until the constitution is drafted. So the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party — which is angling for a majority of parliamentary seats — is eager to come to an agreement and complete a draft constitution.

Leftist groups and liberals, on the other hand, hope the current assembly is dissolved, paving the way for a more fair, representative body.

Tibi's resignation from the assembly and the threats of others to walk out have signaled a need for new strategies and greater cohesion among rights groups.

"We need to develop our civil society arguments," rights advocate Abdelaal said. "This should have been happening a year and a half ago after the revolution, but it's not too late."

Abdellatiff is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman contributed to this report.

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