Operating from the Margins: Women’s Rights Organizations in Egypt
On March 8, 2019, Egypt as well as the rest of the world celebrate International Women’s Day. Usually, on that day, like many cities around the world, Egyptian women and activists across the political spectrum unite and demonstrate issues pertaining to women and minorities. In Egypt, however, this symbolic celebration is muffled for the fifth year in a row as a result of the crackdown on the Egyptian civil society that was further enhanced after passing the restrictive NGO Law no. 70 of 2017. Aside from the demonstrations orchestrated by the Egyptian regime to show support for President Al-Sisi, the last few women-led protests were in 2014, some of which were organised by the anti-coup movement, a movement born in the wake of the Rabaa massacre in 2013 where over 800 supporters of the deposed former president of Egypt Mohamed Morsi were killed.
Today, being part of the once active Egyptian civil society, women’s rights organisations have been carrying the toll of closing up the political and public sphere in Egypt. Prominent women’s rights organizations and groups have found themselves operating from the narrowing margins; some closed down their offices such as Nazra for Feminist Studies, minimized their activities due to the lack of funds due to red tape, freezing the assets of the founders, or informal security interrogations of staff and members.
Over the past decade the women’s movement in Egypt has managed to impose its goals and make them part of the national agenda. Issues like sexual harassment, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), child marriage, maternal custody, women’s economic and labour rights, education for girls are now part and parcel of the public debate and are discussed with greater cultural, societal and political awareness. The movement was able to stir global debates on a national level and continues to push women’s issues from the margins to the forefront of public policy making. The years 2017 and 2018 attest to how Egyptian feminists and activists engaged with the #metoo movement to shed light on practical challenges that face them in the Egyptian and Arab contexts, particularly within leftist and progressive political camps, where protecting the reputation of such camps is often considered a priority in authoritarian contexts. Those activists raised questions about how leftist parties and groups handles internal investigations in incidents of sexual harassment, which in the process, exposed them to harsh criticism.
Today, Egypt’s repressive political climate threatens the very nature of civil society and the right to organize, and more importantly it impedes women’s organizations and groups from achieving their mission in a country still struggling with gender equality.
 The only exception were the 2016 subsidised baby formula protests and the 2017 subsidized bread protests which were predominantly made up of women. See: “Egyptians protest in Cairo over shortages in subsidized baby formula,” September 1, 2016, AlAhram Online, available at: http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/242159/Egypt/Politics-/Egyptians-protest-in-Cairo-over-lack-of-subsidised.aspx; Ruth Michaelson, 'We want bread': subsidy cut sparks protests across Egypt,” The Guardian, March 8, 2017, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/08/egypt-protests-we-want-bread-subsidy-cut
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Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
Middle East Women's Initiative
The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research. Read more