Women in the Arab Spring Uprisings: Egypt March 27, 2023
In this research series, we analyze women’s role in the Arab Spring uprisings since 2011 and how their participation in the protest movements of the last decade impacted their gender roles status. We use case studies from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan to analyze women’s activism and the current debate on women’s rights and status in the region. All case studies are derived from secondary sources. Egypt is the fourth case study in our research series. Here, we analyze Egyptian women's civil and political activism since the 2011 January Revolution and the challenges the women’s movement faces.
The Arab Uprisings in 2011 marked a year of change–or at least, of hopes for change. Primarily, the uprisings resulted from Egyptians’ dissatisfaction with President Hosni Mubarak, the strong-arm leader who gained his post after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Throughout his presidency, Mubarak angered younger generations of Egyptians due to his continual violation of human rights and failure to develop economic opportunities.
At the beginning of his presidency, he implemented a state of emergency that continued until he was ousted. This situation restricted many Egyptians’ basic rights such as freedom of the press and expression and gave significant power and control to security forces. The growing dissatisfaction among Egyptians eventually led to Mubarak’s ousting within 18 days after 30 years in power.
While Mubarak created laws that limited multiple aspects of Egyptians’ rights, paradoxically he also introduced laws that appeared to support women’s civil and political activism. His tenure saw the first female supreme court judge appointed; the Child Custody Law, which transferred custody to fathers, was amended; and a parliamentary quota for female members was created. This was, however, little more than paying lip service to women’s rights. The laws were there in word but not in deed. This prompted many people, particularly women, to complain that he sought only to garner support from the public. Consequently, during the Arab Uprising in 2011, women of all backgrounds took to the streets to protest Mubarak’s presidency.
Egypt’s protests began on National Police Day, January 25th, 2011, and led to one major development: ousting of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11th, 2011. The demonstrations, which later became known as the January 25th Revolution, were indelibly linked with one major figure, Khaled Saeed. Surprisingly, a pleasant, sociable 28-year-old with a love of cannabis and the Internet served as the catalyst for Egypt’s revolution. In an act reflective of President Hosni Mubarak’s police state, two police officers had beaten Khaled Saeed to death in 2010 at a cybercafe in Alexandria. News of this brutality spread in wildfire. His photos were shared online through social media and caught mass attention, fanned by Wael Ghonim, a prominent revolutionary figure, who helped organize a Facebook page devoted to the atrocity and utilized social media to rally protesters. In a truly modern twist of revolutionary history, social media became the primary tool for inspiring and motivating Egyptians from all political parties and religious beliefs to rally en masse.
Other figures also became indelibly connected with the January 25th Revolution: Salma el Tarzi, Gigi Ibrahim, and Layla Marzouq Al Sayed. Again showing the power of modern media, Wael Ghonim was a Google executive living in Dubai when he created the Facebook group “We are all Khaled Saeed.” Wael Ghonim’s group helped rally millions of Egyptians for change, and Wael joined his followers to protest in the streets of Egypt.
Women were also prominent: first, the former film director Salma el-Tarzi, who became one of the leading voices of hope for a democratic Egypt; second, Gigi Ibrahim, who became the face of the revolution as a journalist and activist and was one of the 17 Egyptians pictured in Time Magazine’s feature on the Revolution; and third, Layla Marzouq Al Sayed, the face of motherhood grieving her son Khaled Saeed, whose death had spurred revolt.
Although many Egyptians had no experience engaging in social movements or running political parties, women were among the significant actors who led Egypt forward, focusing on the major issues of equal rights, protection from sexual harassment and violence, and women’s representation in politics. It was their initiative that led to the creation of the Harass Map, an app designed to help identify and stop sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Unfortunately, revolutionary euphoria did not last, and hopes for change were largely illusions. Consequently, some women’s organizations were shut down in 2013 due to the government’s crackdown on social media.
The women’s movement also regressed after losing representation in office. For instance, in 2010, women occupied 60 of the 508 parliamentary seats, but in the first democratic election in Egypt’s history, held in the spring of 2012, women won only 8 of the 508 seats, a development that may have aided the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
With the Muslim Brotherhood, we arrive at other significant players in Egypt’s history before, during, and after the 2011 Arab Uprisings. The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and largest Islamist organization in Egypt with the goal of implementing Islam into society through religious laws, values, and morals. Frequently banned as a political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant part of Egypt’s history due to the support it gained following Mubarak’s ousting, and a member of its group became Egypt’s first freely elected president in 2012.
While the group received significant popular support in 2012, Egyptian female activists criticized the Brotherhood’s stance on women. Reham Afifi, Projects Manager of the Free Egyptian Women’s Speak Up Group, stated in 2013 that the “Muslim Brotherhood has long had the desire to curtail rights that Islam actually guarantees women.” The Brotherhood continued to consolidate power and gain support from Egyptians until the overthrow of its president later that year – reflecting some Egyptians’ limited support for women’s rights and political activism in the country.
The Freedom and Justice Party was formed in May 2011 and promised Islamic principles while maintaining a civil state instead of a military or theocratic rule, guaranteeing freedom of expression, and supporting women's rights by passing legislation that criminalizes favoritism towards men. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood promised freedom of belief and worship for Muslims and non-Muslims.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood promised they would not have a presidential candidate in 2011, Mohammed Morsi ended up running for president in 2012, defeating Ahmed Shafiq in mid-June of 2012. The group’s victory was short-lived: just as they finished drafting Egypt’s constitution. Morsi’s critics rallied protesters and attacked the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The protests did not stop the constitution from being finalized, but on June 30th, 2013, protests erupted calling for Morsi’s resignation. On July 1st, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued an ultimatum for Morsi to resign if he could not quell the protesters. Two days later, the military removed Morsi, arrested many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and shut down TV stations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The removal of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood by General Sisi led to larger protests and government crackdowns. On July 8th, 2013, security forces killed at least 50 people including women protesting outside a military base in Cairo. Estimates released state that hundreds of thousands of Egyptians rallied to the streets on behalf of Sisi, but in response, security forces killed around 100 Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
2015 Onward: Crackdown on Protestors
The Brotherhood was left with no other option but to protest in a climate characterized by exclusion. Violence, whether from the state or armed militias, has become the dominant political language in the nations that experienced the Arab Spring revolutions, and Egypt was no different. Up until 2018, Egyptian authorities increasingly used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts to unjustly prosecute journalists, activists, feminists, and critics (including the Muslim Brotherhood) for peaceful criticism. The 2015 counterterrorism law increased the detention time of journalists and activists, whether they were from opposition parties, or just journalists and human rights activists.
The years after the Revolution saw increased human rights violations. Egyptian courts have sentenced thousands of men and women to prison or death at politicized mass trials. One case alone included more than 100 women including activist Hend Nafea. She has been beaten and tortured by army officers, imprisoned at home by her family, and judged as being a shameful woman by her society. In 2015, she was sentenced to life in prison by an Egyptian judge known for his harsh rulings.
Apart from Nafea, 229 others were sentenced to life in prison, including the well-known activist Ahmed Douma, for protesting outside a government building in 2011 and demanding an end to military rule. Two days before this mass conviction, 183 people were sentenced to death. While both men and women were victims of these mass trials and sentenced to life in prison or death, women seem to be victimized more as they are often shamed in their own homes and brutalized by security forces.
Amal Fathy serves as another example of repression against women. She is a women’s rights defender who was arrested in May 2018 after posting a video on her Facebook page in which she criticized the Egyptian authorities’ failure to protect women from sexual harassment. She was sentenced to two years in prison, a judgment upheld on appeal, but released on probation in December 2018.
Amal Fathy and Hend Nafea are not the only women to be imprisoned for speaking out against the Egyptian government and calling for more protection against sexual harassment. Ruthless prison and death sentences were handed down in 2018 after unfair mass trials stained the reputation of Egypt’s highest appeals court and cast a dark shadow over the country’s entire justice system. A number of these death sentences, most of them decreed by terrorism courts, were commuted to life imprisonment. Since General Sisi was elected president in 2013, many human rights organizations continue to urge him to commute some of these death sentences and direct his government to halt Egypt’s escalating use of the death penalty.
2018 Elections and Women in Parliament
President Sisi won re-election in 2018 and tightened his grip on the country, making him arguably the country’s most autocratic leader since Egypt became a republic in 1953. His consolidation of power, marked by wide-scale repression and targeting of opponents, continued to grow in his second term. Prior to the election, Sisi courted Egyptian women, saying, “There has been increased interest in women since I became president, as they now constitute 15% of the parliament and 20% of the government,” compared to 12.7% in the 2010 parliament and 1.7% in 2012.
Figure 1 below shows women’s parliamentary representation throughout the years including the years before the Arab Spring. The progress over the years indicates an increase in women’s political activism and empowerment, but barriers to winning seats in parliament still exist: barriers such as women’s secondary role in the dominant societal culture and the dominance of Islamist rule.
Even though women make up 25 million eligible voters in Egypt, or 48.5% of the overall voter population, their lower voter turnout for the 2018 elections means fewer women are represented in the total overall voter percentage. Although in 2014, women’s participation reached 55%, and 54% of all votes cast settled the presidential race of 2014 in favor of Sisi, the mass sentences for women and other activists between 2014 and 2018 explain the reduced female turnout in 2018 elections.
Increased Government Repression
In early 2019, Egyptians voted 88.83% in favor of the constitutional referendum. However, the voter turnout was only 44% of all eligible voters. The approval of the referendum allowed Sisi to change the constitution, extending the term length of the presidency from 4 to 6 years and expanding the role of the armed forces by granting military jurisdiction to prosecute civilians who "carried out crimes in buildings and facilities protected by the armed forces." According to Human Rights Watch, these constitutional amendments allowed the government to use the guise of fighting terrorism to torture, arrest, and kill citizens who were against the President.
In turn, these amendments inspired more protests after the abuse and mass arrests of citizens by security forces in September 2019. From 2017 onward, Sisi imposed a continued state of emergency decree, giving security forces unchecked powers that they continued to abuse. Yet another major factor inspired protests: the accusation of government corruption. Heading the protests was Egyptian actor and construction worker Mohamed Ali, who posted a video that circulated on social media and led the government to accuse him of "high treason and spreading false news to mislead public opinion." Ali's videos reached over 1.7 million views on Facebook and led thousands to call for Sisi's resignation.
The subsequent protests initially led to an estimated 500 arrests, including that of human rights lawyer Mahienour al-Massry after she represented five of the detainees. The US intervened shortly after, and Egyptian authorities released three activists and journalists, including Mahienour al-Massry and Esraa Abdel-Fattah. The latter became a political target for Egyptian authorities due to her past activism, which had been crucial to Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. In October 2019, it was reported that the authorities had arrested 2300 people, including 111 children.
This state of repression characterized 2019, which brought about dramatic reform in Egypt, including strict laws on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the country. The new law, which prohibits NGOs from conducting field research, surveys, or opinion polls without government approval, went into effect in August of 2019. Human Rights Watch states, "It also prohibits cooperating with foreign organizations or experts, or participating in any 'political' activities or activities perceived to undermine national security." The law goes further by imposing fines of one million Egyptian pounds for NGOs operating without a license.
Meanwhile, the government continued arresting human rights activists and journalists, cracking down on freedom of expression. Further, over 600 news, political and human rights websites, social media sites, and secure communication applications were banned.
Yet again, women's movements were a significant factor in the 2019 protests. The massive reforms gave the president the power to crack down on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups; as well, groups designed to protect women from violence and female genital mutilation (FGM) were squelched. Women’s rights were furthermore hindered by a law created in 2013 banning ten or more people from gathering without government approval.
Two prominent figures for women's rights were Mozn Hassan, who was the head of Nazra for Feminist Studies, and Azza Soliman, who led the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance. The draconian laws, constitutional amendments, and atrocious human rights violations went so far as both to prosecute activists and ban them from leaving the nation. With many others, the government would allege they were political activists joining terrorist groups like ISIS. From 2013 to 2019, over 60,000 people were arrested or detained for allegedly being members of the movement.
2020: Egypt and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Sisi's authoritarian practices heightened in 2020. Thousands of opposition members, journalists, and human rights defenders remained imprisoned on political charges. Government authorities frequently detained peaceful activists on terrorism charges and harassed their relatives abroad. As an integral part of the crackdown operations, the Interior Ministry’s security forces and the National Security Agency (NSA) forcibly disappeared, arbitrarily arrested, mistreated, and tortured opposition members, including women and children.
Efforts to suppress free speech further widened the detention campaign. Shaima' Samy was one of the female journalists that were arrested and held incommunicado on charges of "spreading false news on the COVID-19 pandemic."
The COVID-19 outbreak, which started in February in Egypt, worsened the already deplorable detention conditions. The government cut off all means of communication for detainees, including consultations with lawyers. Insufficient physical and mental health care resulted in the deaths of dozens of political detainees. Women were also impacted by the exacerbated conditions. In particular, the burden of unpaid work at home has increased dramatically.
Growing responsibilities regarding elderly care, childcare, and household chores posed challenges for women. Because of the gendered gap in labor, women were exposed to job losses more than men. Considering that female labor represents a disproportionate share of the informal economy in Egypt, about 25 percent of the labor force, millions of women already lacked essential protections and employment benefits. With COVID-19 severely hitting the informal sector, the livelihood of female informal workers was disrupted.
The pandemic interrupted access for women to support services and shelters for personal, domestic, and gender-based violence victims as well. Thus, the measures implemented during the lockdown, alongside economic hardships, increased women's vulnerability to domestic abuse. One study conducted by Moawad et al. (2021) found that there was been a surge in gender-based violence during the pandemic, including emotional abuse and physical and sexual violence. The most common offender was the husband at 43.9%, followed by a male family member at 25.1%. However, more than half the number of abused women (53.8%) did not take any action
Meanwhile, grassroots feminists, particularly young women, invented new forms of activism to draw attention to domestic and sexual violence. In August, a feminist group, The Speak-Up Initiative, was launched by Gehad Hamdy, a 27-year-old dentist, in response to the increase in sexual harassment and violence. The initiative has garnered much attention from across the country and now has nearly 60,000 followers on Twitter and over 450,000 followers on Facebook. With a motto of "Girls Support Girls," Speak-Up exposes sexual abusers, rapists, and perpetrators of other crimes, encourages victims to speak up, and provides legal and emotional support when needed.
Its platform has become the number one destination for victims of gender-based violence in Egypt to turn to for perpetrator exposure, psychological support, and legal guidance – which has eventually resulted in arrests and accountability. Another example of such an initiative is the Instagram page Assault Police, with over 330,000 followers. Founded by Nadeen Ashraf, a university student, the page is full of testimonies of young girls and women who share their stories of sexual assault.
The posts and testimonies of victims and survivors of sexual violence online, particularly women who were abused in a scandal at the Fairmont Hotel, triggered a new wave of the Egyptian #MeToo movement, which led to a number of arrests by authorities. In September, Sisi approved a law that guarantees anonymity and protection of the identities of victims who disclose sexual assault and harassment. The law was approved as part of a national campaign to combat sexual violence and encourage women to report sexual crimes without fearing retaliation. The National Council for Women has urged victims and witnesses to cooperate, but lawyers have voiced concerns that the law does not provide protection for witnesses.
On September 20, a wave of protests was set ablaze to demand the end of the Sisi regime. The protests attracted national attention with thousands of protestors demonstrating in several cities. With the purpose of challenging the government, Arabic hashtags, translated to #WeDon’tWantYou and #GoOutOn20September, were trending on Twitter. Known as the "Friday of Rage," protests continued for a few weeks over issues such as the unstable economy, human rights violations, and mishandling of the pandemic.
The government responded with brute force, including batons, birdshot, and live ammunition to disperse the protestors, and arrested nearly 1,000 people, including 71 children, some as young as 13. Laila Soueif, an academic and activist, and her daughter Mona Seif were among the many women who were arrested as well. However, despite this challenging environment, Egyptians, and women in particular, remained committed to creating a space to voice their concerns and experiences.
2021-2022: Years of Whitewashing
Throughout 2021 and 2022, women continued to fight for equality and rights but also continued to be arrested and jailed for doing so. In 2021, Egyptian courts sentenced at least four female social media influencers to two to five years in prison for morality-related offenses for their online videos and posts. In March 2021, women launched the social media campaign #GuardianshipIsMyRight to oppose the government’s proposed amendments to the Personal Status Law, a change that would have added to deeply entrenched discrimination against women.
September 2021 marked a new step toward greater state accountability with the national human rights strategy; however, the wholesale campaign of repression against critics did not ease. While the authorities released many detainees, they arrested many others. Sexual violence and harassment remained a pervasive problem despite the approval of harsher penalties for sexual violence by the Egyptian parliament in July of 2021. The ratification increased the penalty for sexual harassment from one to five years. However, the government lagged behind in enforcing the law.
There was an outcry following the three-year penalty for actor Shady Khalaf, who was accused of sexual harassment and the attempted rape of seven women in February 2022. Meanwhile, hundreds of activists remained detained and subjected to longer prison sentences for their peaceful activism.
In May, Prosecutor General Hamada al-Sawy said his office had halted investigations into the 2014 “Fairmont” gang-rape case because of“insufficient evidence” and ordered the release of the four accused men.
Sisi declared 2022 as the “year of civil society,” but key civil society actors remained detained and faced travel bans, and their assets were frozen. Unlawful criminal investigations continued. NGOs still faced severe registration restrictions following the increased regulations applied to the 2019 NGO Law, tightening the extensive government interference.
Authorities dropped investigations into various civil society organizations for receiving foreign funds. TV presenters Hala Fahmy and journalist Safaa al-Korbagy were arrested in response to their criticism of the government and remained in pretrial detention without justification from the authorities. Several other women journalists and activists faced charges for “spreading false news” and were detained unlawfully.
Despite the dire human rights conditions in 2022, Sisi continued to heighten the repressive campaign against critics and curtail basic freedoms. In an effort to improve the country’s image in the international arena, the government carried out a whitewashing campaign without enacting real reforms or enforcing the ratification of human rights and women’s rights. To this day, the government has shown no sincere political will to end systematic human rights abuses against wide segments of society, including women and children.
Women have been on the frontlines of the 2011 revolution and the protest movements after that, calling for social justice and equality in Egypt. Today, Egyptian women enjoy the highest levels of political representation in parliament (28%) since Egypt became a state. However, women's struggle in improving the gender sensitivity levels of political institutions still continues. Hundreds of women's organizations and civil society groups continue to work on enhancing the status of Egyptian women in multiple spheres of life and narrowing the existing socioeconomic gender gaps.
Egypt has made substantial gains in terms of gender equality through the ratification of international gender equality standards throughout the years. Conformity with these standards, however, falls behind. Laws are still behind when it comes to protecting women from violent men. While some laws for protection may exist, sometimes authorities are unwilling to prosecute these crimes.
Serious gaps remain in Egypt's Code of Criminal Procedure regarding sexual violence and the treatment of survivors, including a weak definition of rape and the absence of comprehensive legislation addressing violence against women. The UN Development Program has ranked Egypt 108 out of 162 nations with regard to gender inequality based on health, economic opportunities, and empowerment. In order for the law to catch up, society must be more vocal about women's rights.
Currently, parliament does not have a specific committee dedicated to gender equality, but establishing one could enable oversight of initiatives and legislation addressing gender issues in order to contribute to the empowerment of women. Political parties have also yet to fully commit to the promotion of equal representation. Gender-focused and gender-sensitive institutions, therefore, are needed to achieve social justice and gender equality.
Sisi, on the contrary, moves to restrict women's rights even further. The government has eradicated nearly all venues of civic and political engagement, limiting the women's movement. Nevertheless, Egyptian women continue to find alternative venues, such as the iconic #MeToo movement's social media presence.
The future of the Egyptian women’s movement is not all rosy, but it is not entirely gloomy either. Defiant female voices are definitely in the air, and they are much louder than they were prior to the 2011 uprisings.
Orion Policy Institute (OPI) is an independent, non-profit, tax-exempt think tank focusing on a broad range of issues at the local, national, and global levels. OPI does not take institutional policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions represented herein should be understood to be solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of OPI.