For Egypt's Women, the Arab Spring Does Not Spell Freedom

They hold only two percent of seats in the new parliament, compared to 12 percent during the Mubarak era.

Dr. Nihad Abu al-Komsan has no doubt that Egyptian women have lost in the revolution. For all of a month she served as chair of the Council for Women established by the Supreme Military Council, until it became clear to her that the council was nothing more than window-dressing aimed at presenting an illusion of equal rights but in fact had no power or budget. Abu al-Komsan resigned with a great deal of accompanying clamor and turned to running a public struggle for women's equality in the new constitution, which is now waiting to be written.

"Women went out to the demonstrations in order to obtain a better future. We have been surprised to discover that after the revolution we have regressed by decades if not by centuries," said Abu al-Komsan in an interview to the Elaph Internet site. Indeed, in 2009 then-President Hosni Mubarak established a quota of 64 women in the parliament, but in advance of the parliamentary elections held about a year after his fall, the Supreme Military Council revoked the quota regulation and only required every list of candidates to include at least one woman.

Cairo soccer fans protesting after a lethal riot told the women in their ranks to go home at night.

The result is that all the lists - secular, liberal and religious - consigned women to low places, ensuring they would not be elected. Currently there are only nine women among the 508 members of parliament, less than two percent compared to 12 percent in Mubarak's time. The number of women in the government has also gone down from three to two. Even in Sudan women hold 36 percent of the seats in parliament and in Tunisia, 28 percent.

Ostensibly, there were good intentions behind the cancellation of the quota for women in parliament. In Mubarak's day the ruling National Democratic Party used women lawmakers to increase its power and demonstrate its support for women's rights. The appointee responsible for the status of women was the president's wife Suzanne Mubarak, who headed the National Council for Women.

"We had tough struggles with Suzanne Mubarak," says Abu al-Komsan. "She had a backward worldview. She is a traditional woman even though she studied at the best universities. She preferred to stay home and look after her children when all of a sudden she found herself in the position of being the president's wife. She didn't do a thing for women. The only thing we achieved came as a result of the struggles by women's organizations. Did she do anything to wipe out illiteracy among women, which amounts to 40 percent?"

Women go home

It turns out, however, that not only the new military regime and the religious movements led by the Muslim Brotherhood are treating women's rights as a burden on their agendas. For several weeks the Ultras, as fans of the Al-Ahli soccer club are called, held a sit-down strike in front of the parliament building, demanding an investigation and punishment of those responsible for riots at a February match in Port Said in which at least 74 people were killed. According to the Ultras, security forces loyal to Mubarak set off the brawl as revenge against Al-Ahli fans active in toppling the Mubarak regime. And for the first time, women and girls joined the sit-down strike and shouted slogans with the men and boys against the new regime, which has taken its time with the investigation. During the strike, women made signs and composed chants when suddenly they were stunned to see a sign posted in the tent camp the fans had erected, reading: "Women may participate in the sit-down strike only between the hours of 8 A.M. and 10 P.M. After that they must go home."

"How can we complain about the religious movements' exclusion of women when the forces of the revolution are following the same policy?" said Omar Ahmad, a prominent member of the Egyptian Women's Union.

About two weeks ago a public opinion survey found that a majority of Egyptians want the new regime to have a strong president and a relatively weak government - which seems a reversal of the sentiment early last year in Tahrir Square. Asked whether a woman could serve as president, a majority of respondents predictably answered in the negative.

So political rights for women in Egypt are still not viewed as an end in itself. As in Mubarak's era, or in the regimes of Jordan, Iraq or Sudan, women's candidacy for government is often a means to avoid giving them real power while strengthening the ruling parties. However, compared to Morocco or Tunisia, where women's rights have become an integral part of the political tradition and are seen as essential to societal and economic progress, in Egypt the big concern now is how the religious movements view the matter.

The Muslim Brotherhood proudly showcase women's participation in the movement and in its Muslim Sisterhood auxiliary as proof of its commitment. However, it is exactly this that worries Abu al-Komsan and her colleagues.

"The religious movements want to weaken women in order to control society," she says. "They are prepared to tolerate the woman as a symbol, but only as a symbol of men's religious control."