After more than a year of regional unrest, the Arab Spring has bled into a winter of chilly relations between citizens anticipating change and authorities clinging to a tenuous thread of control. Across the Middle East it’s been a tumultuous time of moderate dissent, bloody riots, military crackdowns and tentative elections.
For nearly three weeks — a blip in the tenure of a 29-year Egyptian dictatorship — the crowd and their demands swelled and grew in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. What was remarkable about this rising tide was that it represented such a cultural shift in the Arab world, with men and women demonstrating side-by-side for change.
That spirit of the genders as acting one — as Egyptians — transformed the atmosphere and the nation, according to journalist Randa Fouad. "I felt that time had stopped," she said. "I would have never thought that this would happen in my country."
Fouad is well-travelled and widely respected Egyptian journalist, a member of both Egypt’s International Economic Forum, and the London-based Arab International Women’s Forum. For once, she found revelation close to home. She spoke to Arabic Knowledge at Wharton recently, after an appearance sponsored by the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Despite her outspoken views now, at the dawn of the Arab Spring Fouad had an outlook that was fairly typical of middle-class, middle-aged Egyptians: No amount of marching was going to bring down a strong-arm leader. When Fouad’s son, whom she describes as an activist, announced he was going to join the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Fouad felt obligated to offer a dose of historic reality.
"I told him, ‘What’s going to happen?’ I was telling him, nothing is going to change. This was my perspective. We let things go. This was our generation. But this (in Tahrir Square) was young men and women who succeed in 18 days to cause the president to step down."
After early clashes between protesters and supporters of the Hosni Mubarak regime seemed to particularly target women, later marches morphed into women-only affairs. So much hope had burbled up, Fouad said, that she was inspired to join a women’s march.
"The good thing was that the women were moving, and around them were the men, protecting them," Fouad said. "That shows the solidarity between men and women. Women from all religions, women from the rural areas, from the urban areas; activists, non-activists, housewives. Everybody."
The march’s peaceful outcome was its own remarkable benchmark of the change that swept Egypt.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, there were and would be a variety of templates for how deposed dictators should be dealt with. In Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile to Saudi Arabia. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi was summarily and bloodily executed, his final moments caught on a cell phone camera. Egypt, Fouad is proud to say, forged another way.
"The revolution was a kind of ‘white revolution’," she said. "Of course there were people who died, but at the end of the day, this president stepped down, stayed in his country. He did not run away. They did not kill him. He is now on trial, very civilized. We are a civilization of 7,000 years. Our mentality – Egyptians — is not the brutal mentality."
The removal of Mubarak left a leadership void that created a marketplace of competing ideas as to how this new-old nation would be run. While nature abhors vacuums and financial markets flee from uncertainty, Fouad would rather embrace this time as a period of necessary creative tension.
"I am optimistic," Fouad said. "I see it as an opportunity. I wasn’t that optimistic before. Now, after the elections, they went very smoothly. The people, instead of being afraid to go down to vote, they saw that everything was going as normal. They went and voted – millions and millions. It never has happened before. This is a positive point in itself."
But even now, with Mubarak awaiting trial, and a new national constitution being written, Fouad sees signs that not all change has been as she and other women would have hoped. While Egyptian women won the right to vote in 1956, and it was the first Arab country to elect a woman to parliament, the following year, there is, as Fouad described it, "the law (and then) the way people live."
"Law is not everything," Fouad said, adding that nuance is everything. "We have a law, like any other country, but you have to have the enabling environment."
Women had no representation to speak of, either in the religious or liberal secular parties. Strategically, women’s groups had to decide how to proceed, how to coalesce around the gains gleaned from the protests. Some argued that the wide net of democratization would serve to empower women along with everyone else in Egyptian society. Others argued that advances that came during the heady days of protest had receeded and they must keep the pressure on.
What had happened last January and February, Fouad said, was that the women of Egypt wanted their voices acknowledged, not just in protest, but in history: To be publicly heard as well as seen, in contravention of ages-old Arab cultural practices and beliefs.
"When we went to Tahrir Square, it was to send our voices very loud to the military council and to all the parties, old and new, religious or liberal," Fouad continued, "that women will have to play a role in the coming phase, there is no doubt about that. We are not going to give up on our role."
"The reaction of the military council was amazing. They apologized to women, this was the first time it happens. They apologized to the women of Egypt for any action taken before — at the same time, making a statement to the women of Egypt — you are part of the development that is going to take place. That’s why we are not going to leave this. This is our right."
This is where Fouad’s expertise comes into play. The Arab Media Forum, of which she is president, intends to serve as a guiding light for the coverage and discussion of women’s issues in Egypt’s urban and rural areas.
"We hope, we hope," Fouad said. "This is our work. We can do something. We advocate for different ideas and creating dialogue and debates." She added: "We work on the minds of people."
In the new Egypt, the traditional role of media itself is evolving in the new Egypt. Its position as watchdog has been enthusiastically taken up by social media. "People are watching," Fouad said. "Nothing can be hidden."
So the role of media institutions will evolve, to apply pressure to decision makers, but also as a forum for the creation of ideas, and the encouragement of dialogue and debate.
As with democracies everywhere, victory goes to the best-organized party. In the historic Egyptian parliamentary elections of 2011, that was the Muslim Brotherhood, which had, as Fouad noted, a running start of many decades, compared to its opponents. "There were several new parties that did not take enough time to grow," Fouad said. "You have the Muslim Brotherhood who were working for the past 80 years, and working on the grassroots level.
"They were working, helping the people on the ground. We cannot deny this. We have a result and we have to work with it."
And there is the place where it all began.
"If they fail, there is always Tahrir Square," Fouad said. "Nobody will be forcing anything on the Egyptian people. Tahrir Square, it’s there and it’s always going to be there. This is what we are all telling each other.
"Egypt belongs to the Egyptians now. It does not belong to any regime. We want the best for the country. This is what we want."