Friday, February 11, 2011

Peaceful transition in Egypt? Women and the South African template!

If Egypt and Tunisia want to convince the rest of the world the national tide flows fast towards democracy, what better signal than to make sure a Transitional or Interim government, or any Constitutional Committee, comprises at least 40% women and at least 40% men?

Mubarak has gone! It looks like the Military Council may act as midwives en route to democracy. How will they make sure women are included from the start in any transition Government? Watching BBC TV, Channel 4 and Al Jazeera it is hard not to be struck by the prominence of women in the squares calling for democracy alongside the men. When the going got tough, right there in Liberation (Tahrir) Square women doctors tended the wounded.’

A balance between men and women in Governance of Egypt would not be mere tokenism. Across the political spectrum the region flows with women leaders. Egypt’s cornucopia of women leaders include Nehad Abul Komsan, Chair of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, lawyer Bushra Asfour of the Ghad Party, Dr Hoda Badran, Chair of the Alliance for Arab Women, Dr Laila Takla, President of Egyptian Federation of Women Lawyers, Member of Parliament Syada Greiss and many, many others. Feminist and human rights activist Nawal El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, exiled from Egypt for years, has returned to Cairo. She says, "Women and girls are beside the men and boys in the streets. We call for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy. We want a new Constitution. There must be no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians.”
A glimpse behind the curtain at previous Egyptian elections helps explain why so many people do not trust the siren calls of ‘Democracy and Equality… (but not yet)’ from Mubarak’s regime. No-one believes the regime can be trusted to run free and fair elections. Between 1995 and 2000 as follow-up to the UN 4th United Nations Conference in Beijing I helped run a series of workshops in Cairo for Egyptian women in politics in partnership with the Arab Women’s League and with the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights. The workshops were sponsored by the British Council.and a German Foundation. Participants complained of massive financial corruption and ballot rigging. At the time I wrote in my notes, ‘one participant said, "1995 was the worst election we have had in Egypt since parliament began. This new element of violence in political life is unprecedented.” She said, “Violence came from the public and the police, armed terrorism and armed counter-terrorism. Those who killed so many people haven't even been tried in the courts."’

‘Throughout the workshop I was asked repeatedly, “How do you deal with violence and financial corruption in elections?” and “As a candidate how do you protect yourself from physical harm?”’

Two former female MPs claimed they had been re-elected by voters but their opponents were announced the winner. One of them said “We won by democracy. We lost by violence. We witnessed fraud. There's no Party that could truly get 79% of seats.”’

‘Egypt could learn a lot from South Africa about peaceful transition, using inclusive wide-reaching consultative processes. South Africa's Constitution, built on an acute awareness of the injustices of the country's past, is still widely regarded as one of the most progressive in the world. Notably, there were approximately an equal number of women and men on the Committee deciding on the Constitution. Women had also played a critical role in the dismantling of Apartheid. During the difficult and protracted end-of-Apartheid negotiations, each time the men wanted to quit the talks, the women insisted they come back and keep talking.’

‘What now if Egypt’s people do overthrow the Mubarak regime? The consultative and inclusive processes used in South Africa in the dismantling of Apartheid would be a good template. In common with many post-conflict regions I have worked in – Kosovo, Aceh, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nepal - to transition from oppression into a modern, fully- functional state, Egypt’s people will urgently need security system reform of the police, prisons, the judiciary, as well as human security – freedom from fear as well as freedom from want by individuals and communities. South Africa held widespread public consultations, specifically including the women. The active involvement of women in South Africa changed the focus of security system reform from a predominantly male technical debate (on issues of size, budget and types of weapons) to the larger issue of human security, the militarised state, and its political and social costs. Discussions resulted in a shift from traditional notions of security to a political framework that placed human security in the form of economic development, alleviation of poverty, access to food and water, education and public safety at the epicentre of the national security framework.’

The young Egyptian women’s rights activist Fatma Emam has called on women all over the world to show solidarity with Egyptian women: “Something that impressed me in this revolution,I saw a feminist movement united, powerful, and engaging in the political situation. We are united for one cause, regardless of ideology, generation or political affiliation. Women showed a great example in this revolution; they were in the front lines: coordinating, strategizing and implementing.”

‘We have just passed the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. A similar Resolution was passed in 2000 by the European Parliament in support of 1325. A recommendation accompanying the EP resolution calls for at least 40% women’s representation in all levels of decision-making in peace–building. Elements of Resolution 1325 could be extremely opportune in bringing about a positive outcome to the street revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

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