Women’s Rights and the Hope for Egypt with Dalia Ziada

Dalia Ziada, one of Egypt’s leading human rights activists and Executive Director of the Center for Middle East and East Mediterranean Studies, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below for full prepared remarks.


Full Remarks


Dalia Ziada: Good morning. Thank you for the introduction, and thank you for the UN watch for having me here. It’s really a big privilege to speak after a very inspirational man who opened our conference today, Dr. Irwin Cotler. And actually, he mentioned Dr. Saad Ebbin Ibrahim, who is the founder of my organization, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and my mentor for so long. We’ve been always talking about you in the Center and Egypt, about the important role you’ve played, in not only saving Dr. Saad Ebbin Ibrahim as a political prisoner and standing beside him, but also helping with pushing forward the movement for democracy in Egypt. So thank you.

Back to Egypt — or let’s start by… I thought I will be the last one in the panel, but it’s good to start with this very important topic, because I think, unlike most of the people that I’ve met here in Europe [who] are somehow pessimistic about what’s happening in Egypt, and they are

not very well aware about what is really going on. But I’m here to assure you that what’s happening in Egypt now should bring a lot of optimism, not only for Egypt, but for the whole region. 

Finally, after struggling for more than 15 years, we are on the right path towards this democracy. 

Of course you’ve seen recently the big confusions that happened in the whole world about whether what happened on June 30th in Egypt is a coup or a revolution. And the whole world,

including the UN, unfortunately started to get preoccupied with this concept without really paying attention on how to make sure whatever it was — coup or revolution, or I mean it’s not the same

to debate. But the issue is how make sure that basic human rights, especially for vulnerable groups like women and religious minorities, would remain as they are, and even advance for

the better. 

What is happening now in Egypt says that it’s somehow advancing to the better. How’s that? I will start by speaking about the constitution. Recently we have finished writing our constitution, which for the first time gave unprecedented rights — or, that were not mentioned in any other constitution in our whole history — for three main groups that were very vulnerable in Egypt over the past 50 or 60 years, which are women, religious minorities, and civil society. 

Speaking about women; for the first time in decades, as I just mentioned, we have a constitution mentioning clearly that men and women are equal, without putting any additional provision to the word “equal.” Before, in the constitution of 1971, for example, we had this amazing sentence “men and women are equal,” preceded by the words, “if it does not contradict Sharia.” When the Muslim Brotherhood came in power immediately after the revolution, they also tried to make a similar statement in the constitution. And when women rights and women fighters tried to oppose this, they canceled the whole article, and it was not even mentioned. And the only thing that was mentioned in the constitution of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 about women was simply her role as a mother and her role for childbirth. So her biological role, not her social and political role.

I’m very passionate about this part because actually I myself was involved in politics. And I know, of course, not only for social change, but also I co-founded the political party with some of my colleagues — revolutionary colleagues — after 2011, and we tried to prove ourselves as political leaders, not only social changers. And we were faced by so many misunderstandings by our community and also marginalization by our government – or those who were in power then, because it was a transitional period. 

Before the other Mubarak time, women’s rights was mentioned a lot, that’s true, but it was mentioned simply as a way of decorating the regime to give it a good image in front of the world and give it a fake legitimacy without actually addressing women’s rights and supporting it. Under the Muslim Brotherhood, it was also mentioned for the same reason. But while they were speaking to the West, for example about equality of women and so inside [Egypt], they were lobbying for making laws that call, for example, for early marriage of girls, supporting FGM (female genital mutilation), even depriving women from custody to their children, and so on. 

So there was a duality in the message that was delivered to the West and here. 

But now, after women have proved themselves by participating in the two revolutions that happened recently — and I know it’s somehow weird to say that I belong to this generation that was able to do two revolutions in less than three years — I think it’s something good to tell this to my children later on. But, so far it’s actually, it showed the world and showed the Egyptians as people and also as governments, how women are determined to making change, not only because they are the leaders of any community in the world, but also because they were vulnerable for so long. They were a fragile group for so long. Now, for the first time in our history we’re having activists speaking about equality for women and speaking about having her as a decision-maker, not only as an object. 

Another very important fragile group in Egypt is the Coptic Christians, who form the majority of religious minorities in the country. We have Baha’is, we have Jewish community, but they are very, very little; we have Shia even, but also very little. However the religious Coptic Christians are the majority of religious minorities. They reach up to 15 million of our population of 19 million people. Also, for so long they have been marginalized, and they have been told by their Popes and churches to stay away from politics, not to participate. But it was amazing to see them participating heavily in 201, the revolution of 2011, and then later, in the revolution of 2013. Which actually gives the message that vulnerable groups, that everyone here in the UN and everyone in the West should pay attention to and should be making sure to support till the very end, are the most makers for change and the best guarantee for this change. 

While I’m very optimistic about everything that’s going on in Egypt, I’m still worried about another big, big issue that is actually causing major problems now, which is the division or polarization, state of polarization that I’m seeing, among average Egyptians. Not the elite — I’m not speaking of course about the elite, or the government – but the people whom we are dealing with day on day. I’m speaking about the grassroots people who started to be divided into two groups. Either, supporters of Islamists or supporters of the new state, the new secular state that they want to see coming. It is normal that this happens after of course all the disturbance that we had over the past three years and all the fights that were happening between those who wanted to get power one on one side or get it on the other side, and different political parties that did not care much about the grassroots audience, the grassroots people. And so, this is what caused this division and this state of polarization. And for this to be removed, we need to apply transitional justice and national reconciliation. And this is actually one of the things that my organization is working on and leading. We are working very well with young people from different political backgrounds, and we are trying to bring them to conflict resolution sessions, train them on conflict resolution. Sometimes we even introduce them to the government including police forces, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, to find a way and a dialogue between them. 

But what is stopping us and making it very difficult for us is that justice was not applied yet. And by justice, I mean those who committed violence and committed acts of terrorism against our government, against our people, against even the vulnerable groups that I was just speaking about — women and religious minorities — over the past few months, are not held accountable. 

And for those of you who have learned about transitional justice and national reconciliation, it’s impossible to make reconciliation happen if the victims are not confident that the perpetrators are punished or justice is there, and they can get justice with those perpetrators. So far, unfortunately, the West is ignoring this, the UN is ignoring this, Europe is ignoring this, and this is increasing the threat of violence and the rising of terrorism, inciting violence all the time. 

One of the statistics that may be shocking to you, for example, is we have recorded 95 attacks on churches in Egypt by Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters over the past six months. Keep aside, of course, other numbers that includes direct injuries practiced by attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood on ordinary Egyptian people simply because they went out on June 30th and said “we don’t want this government.” That came up to 1,740 injuries because of those attacks, and 124 people were murdered in less than six months. And they were not murdered by the police forces, or the defense, or whatever, they were murdered by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters in direct attacks on churches, state facilities, and even individuals, grassroots people. 

So, if I may make some recommendations that you can take with you while planning how to work on Egypt in the next phase in order not to turn it into another Syria, or another Libya, or Yemen, or one of those tragic stories in the region, I would urge you very much to work with not the normal civil society community of NGOs that you’ve always been working with, but also with individuals on the ground, especially from women and religious minorities. And this can happen very easily through social media, which is now accessible to everyone in the country, including poor people, because, you know, we have very good technology access in Egypt. And also to find a way to understand what the people really want, regardless of what the rules or the ideal rules are. Eventually we will get there to where democracy, human rights, and freedom is. But to get there, there are things that need to be done first. And the people who will tell you really how to do this are the grassroots people, the ordinary people. 

The second thing is actually about civil society. And I think civil society now in Egypt is having a very good relationship with the new government. Now they are taking our advice, unlike before by the way. They are coming to us, they are asking us to help with different things. Whenever they want to take an act, they ask us to come and monitor it. So I think you can take advantage of this too, by making programs through civil society in Egypt that will help improve the performance of the government. And one of the projects that I would very much encourage those interested among you to start with is security sector reform, and I think the state will be very willing to do this. 

Ok, this is a very quick image about what’s happening in Egypt. I hope I’ve helped you understand what’s going on, and I look forward to hearing your questions after the panel.

Thank you. 


Speakers and Participants

Dalia Ziada

Egyptian activist fighting for human rights and civil freedoms in the Arab World


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