The 18 days of revolution beginning on January 25, 2011 united Egypt. A wide range of citizens, men and women, veiled and unveiled, young and old, middle-class and working-class, stood behind the goals of ending the 30-year rule of Husni Mubarak and stopping the planned succession of his son to the presidency, as well as winning bread, freedom, social justice and dignity. The military supported this national consensus and pushed its aims forward.

In contrast, the events of the summer of 2013 signaled a major schism over the direction of the post-Mubarak transition. Muhammad Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, became so unpopular that hundreds of thousands (some say millions) rallied on June 30 for early elections to remove him. On July 3, the army staged a coup, provoking equally massive sit-ins defending Mursi’s legitimacy as president and demanding his return. The events that followed — Mursi’s detention incommunicado, the arrest of key leaders of the Society of Muslim Brothers on fabricated charges, the closure of Islamist satellite TV stations — suggested an anti-democratic counterrevolution. The main political forces switched their presumptive positions: Liberals wavered in their affection for electoral politics, denouncing the democratically elected president as an autocrat and an instigator of terrorism. Backed by the army, they called for law and order. Mursi and the Muslim Brothers emerged as staunch defenders of the democratic process that gave them five victories at the ballot box in two years and brought them to power. The result has been the reversal of gains in civil liberties alongside the promise of incremental movement toward social justice.

Large numbers of women are active in both camps in this new struggle for power. This fact has contributed to the return of the Mubarak-era discourse pitting secularists who claim to be liberal but in fact support military rule against Islamists. Both sides are keen to use themes of gender in the service of their broader agendas.

The State Tokenism of Old

On July 3 Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, supreme commander of the armed forces, announced that Mursi was ousted and that an interim government would be formed. At his side on stage were Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate prominent in the opposition to Mursi, the head of the salafi Nour Party, the sheikh of al-Azhar, the pope of the Coptic Church and Sakina Fu’ad, a venerable journalist who sits on the National Council for Women. (The Council is the state apparatus that claims to represent Egyptian women but effectively bends their gender agendas to satisfy the needs of the state.) It was classic, Mubarak-style tokenism — a show of inclusivity to deflect attention from the exclusion of not only mainstream Islamists but also representatives of the economically struggling majority. Many secular women supported the toppling of Mursi, who had appointed only two women to his cabinet. If they expected better representation in the new government, they were sorely disappointed. When the interim ministers were introduced, there were only three women among them: Layla Iskandar, minister of state for the environment; Maha al-Rabat, minister of health; and Durriyya Sharaf al-Din, a respected television personality and member of the National Council for Women, who is now minister of media. The choice of Iskandar continued the old practice of appointing a Coptic woman minister so as to count her twice—as a representative of both Copts and women. Sakina Fu’ad was named presidential counselor for women’s affairs, a post created by Mursi during his year in office.

The military-led government underlined its lack of commitment to having women in politically important positions with the last-minute withdrawal of Inas ‘Abd al-Dayim’s name as minister of culture. ‘Abd al-Dayim is former chair of the Cairo Opera House. She was fired by ‘Ala’ ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, minister of culture in the last Mursi government, who said he would supply the reason later. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was already regarded by the Egyptian cultural establishment as an outsider and Muslim Brother sympathizer. From his very first day in office, they had launched a vicious personal and professional campaign against him. He retaliated by dismissing several Culture Ministry officials. Of ‘Abd al-Dayim — a French-trained flutist — he said she was fired because the activities she organized at the Opera House were examples of the Ministry elitism that he was determined to reform. He further claimed that her cultural events were poorly attended and did not generate much revenue. Unfortunately for him, ‘Abd al-Dayim had made widely acknowledged attempts to expand the scope of the opera’s work, hiring Egyptian and international artists to appeal to different audiences. She was also a successful manager, and Ministry employees joined major authors in an occupation of the minister’s office in solidarity with her.

When ‘Abd al-Dayim was announced as the new minister of culture, the cultural establishment celebrated an apparent victory against the Muslim Brothers’ narrow cultural perspectives. But, hours before she was to be sworn in, ‘Abd al-Dayim received a phone call explaining that the post would be offered to someone else. The Nour Party had vetoed her nomination because she is “a woman, an artist and someone who promotes dance and music.” [1] The salafis’ objections were not surprising, but it was disconcerting that the prime minister was unwilling to spend political capital in defense of women’s rights and the liberal cultural politics with which ‘Abd al-Dayim is associated.

The interim government did break new ground with its appointment of a woman as media minister. Women have usually been assigned portfolios of minor political importance, such as scientific research or social affairs. The environmental and health posts are likewise peripheral, but the Media Ministry is close to the center of power at a time when a serious propaganda campaign is being waged against the Muslim Brothers. Durriyya Sharaf al-Din is emerging as the soft face of these repressive policies. She suspended Ramadan programming — not just on state-run stations, but also on private satellite networks — in order to televise the demonstrations answering al-Sisi’s request for a popular mandate for the “war on terror,” the euphemism for state violence against the pro-Mursi sit-ins. [2] It was an explicit return to the discredited public relations model of the Mubarak and Mursi governments. The interim government initially accepted protesters’ right to hold sit-ins at the Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya mosque and al-Nahda Square, but then decreed that the gatherings must dissolve. Sharaf al-Din spun the decision as necessary “in order to protect national security, the higher interest of the country, social peace and the safety of the citizenry.” [3] The order to disperse was followed by the declaration of a state of emergency and the imposition of martial law.

In the ensuing confrontation, the women supporters of the Muslim Brothers took on the familiar role of foot soldiers: They showed up in large numbers with their families, contributing to the numbers game played by both sides regarding whose demonstrations were larger. They provided for the daily needs of the camps. They talked to the international media about the legitimacy of their demands and vowed to fight on. They placed themselves at the front lines, between male protesters and security forces, to forestall provocations. As a result, they were the earliest victims in clashes: Three women demonstrators were killed in the Delta city of Mansoura. [4] Spokeswomen for the Islamists decried the killings as evidence of police brutality and called for a full investigation. For their part, liberals condemned the killings, but did not place the blame on the interim government, instead accusing the Muslim Brothers of failing to protect women and children. They even alleged that the Brothers were using women and children as human shields. Had an Islamist government killed liberal women at a demonstration, the women would have been heroines to liberals, but because the dead demonstrators were Islamists, they were accorded no such respect or agency. [5] It should be noted that during the 18 days of the January 25 revolution the fact that women brought children to Tahrir Square was hailed as valuable political education for future generations. [6] The National Council for Women remained silent on the Mansoura killings.

Meanwhile, Mervat al-Tallawi, minister of social affairs under Mubarak and president of the National Council since the 2011 revolution, declared the Rabi‘a sit-in a source of social disgrace. She went so far as to claim that the sit-in’s organizers had kidnapped women and coerced them into sexual service of the male protesters in a practice described as “jihad intercourse” (nikah al-jihad). The Saudi Arabian cleric Nasir al-‘Umar used this term in a fatwa regarding the conflict in Syria. At such times, he suggested, it was permissible for men and women to have sexual liaisons that ordinarily would be illicit. Thus could the morale of male and female fighters get a boost. [7] Before the sit-ins, Egyptian men and women alike had joked about going to Syria to engage in this practice. [8] In July al-Tallawi and anti-Islamist male commentators employed the term to discredit the sit-ins and to demonize male Islamists, whom they considered no different from thugs and rapists. Interestingly, she granted no agency to Islamist women in consenting to “jihad intercourse” — not to mention initiating it. As far as she was concerned, the women in the camps were victims. The sit-ins themselves were a “violation of the authority of law and the dignity of women.” [9]

Symbolic Spaces

Neither the area of the Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya mosque nor al-Nahda Square is some lawless backwater. Both are located in metropolitan Cairo, the first in the upper middle-class district of Nasr City and the second in an equally affluent neighborhood in Giza. The choice of the Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya mosque was influenced by the fact that prominent Muslim Brothers, such as General Guide Muhammad Badi‘ and financial tycoon Khayrat al-Shatir, own apartments there. Al-Shatir has several real estate investments in the vicinity. It is safe to assume that the patrons of the mosque’s construction were Brothers. [10] The leading Brothers fit in, but the rank-and-file supporters who camped around the mosque or were bused in every day did not. Eventually, Nasr City residents grew angry at what they perceived as the degradation of the neighborhood and agitated for the sit-ins to end. The encamped thousands, in turn, scorned the residents as frivolous people who did not understand what it would take to realize the sit-in’s lofty goals. It was a rare indicator of the class divide between the leadership and the rank and file. No such confrontation occurred in al-Nahda because the area is not residential, with few houses or apartments among the buildings of Cairo University, the botanical gardens and the zoo. Opponents of the sit-in nonetheless made condescending remarks about the supporters of the Brothers, accusing them of doing irreparable damage to the gardens and “Nahdat Misr” (1928), the famous Mahmoud Mukhtar sculpture in the square.

It is important to note that the two urban spaces where the sit-ins took place are connected to constructions of women’s history, new and old, Islamist and liberal, intended to win hearts and minds. The Brothers promote a biography of the woman after whom the Nasr City mosque was named that is designed to appeal to their social base. Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya was the fourth daughter (al-rabi‘a) born to a poor family in eighth-century Basra. Her early life was tribulation, as she was sold into slavery in the wake of a severe drought. There are two narratives of what happened next. Some claim flatly that her master freed her when he saw how deeply religious she was. A more complicated view holds that freedom from slavery left Rabi‘a with no option but to earn a living through singing and less virtuous pursuits. She then came to realize that slavery was bondage, not just by chains, but also by false and primitive needs. To be truly free, she chose a life that was guided by divine love, a devotion to God for its own sake, not out of fear as early Sufis had emphasized. This choice was the beginning of her journey to personal and social salvation. It entitled her to become an Islamic role model for Muslim men and women. [11] Rabi‘a is generally acknowledged as contributing to the rise of an individualistic Sufi form of Islam.

The Brothers are clearly not interested in this view of her legacy. In the post-Mubarak period, they ejected Sufi groups from their ranks for their deviation from Sunni orthodoxy. The Brothers’ construct Rabi‘a instead as an everywoman who sought to be judged by the strength of her faith and service to God. In the short-lived parliament of 2012, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brothers, tried to distinguish its gender platform from the secular feminist one by focusing on the basic needs of the average Egyptian woman. This aim clashed somewhat with the party’s minimalist neoliberal economic agenda. The FJP took credit, for example, for a law providing female-headed households — some 30 percent of Egyptian families, according to statistics — with health insurance. These households can use the coverage, of course, but the more pressing need for most women is to find better and higher-paying jobs. In any case, the Islamist emphasis on the plight of less privileged women allowed the Brothers to claim the moral high ground from secular feminists, who are accused of being elitist. It was an argument similar to that made by the culture minister, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, when he fired Inas ‘Abd al-Dayim and cut funding to the ballet.

There are gendered historical narratives associated with al-Nahda Square as well. Just outside the gates of Cairo University, the square is dominated by the “Nahdat Misr” statue, which was moved to its present spot from Ramsis Square in 1955. “Nahdat Misr” is Mukhtar’s sculpture of an Egyptian peasant woman, one arm resting on a sphinx and the other holding her head cover (tarha) away from her face as she looks confidently toward the horizon. [12] At the same time, she is embracing the ancient past and distancing herself from old customs. In the 1920s, when the sculpture was first installed, peasant women were celebrated because they worked side by side with men in the fields. It was impractical for them to wear the face veil that upper- and middle-class women donned in public, but they adhered nonetheless to the social rules of modesty behind the concept of covering the face. The sculpture, in effect, predicted that these rules would disappear. Abolition of the veil was a major preoccupation of urban women, a key index of modernization and the renaissance of Egypt (nahdat Misr) promised by the 1919 revolution. Indeed, one of Mukhtar’s patrons was Huda Sha‘rawi, the revolutionary activist and leading feminist who advocated for abolition of the veil and women’s education.

Cairo University is linked to the modern history of women in another way. The idea of building a national university gained widespread liberal support in 1907. By 1914, the project was running into economic difficulty. Princess Fatima Isma‘il stepped in to become the university’s largest benefactor, donating the land that is now the campus and selling jewelry to raise funds for construction. By 1928, when the Mukhtar sculpture was unveiled, the university was admitting female students with the support of university president Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, a leading liberal of the time and a believer that equality between the sexes would come through education.

To the Society of Muslim Brothers, established in 1928, these al-Nahda narratives posed a challenge to Islamic cultural identity. The recovery of religious justifications for modest women’s dress was central to their own modernizing project. The tarha resembles the hijab they encouraged women to wear — it covers the head but not the face and its form predates the introduction of Islam to Egypt. Yet the sculpture is silent about Islamic history, going so far as to suggest, with the peasant woman’s embrace of the sphinx, respect for the Pharaonic polytheism abhorred by Islam. The defacement of the sculpture during the sit-in might be said to show disdain for ancient Egyptian artifacts.

The burning of the Rabi‘a mosque and an adjoining clinic that treated many victims of the crackdown on the sit-ins showed a parallel lack of respect for the other side’s cultural sensibilities, representations and artifacts. Rather than leave the ruins of both buildings as testimonies to the violence visited by the military and police on the Islamists, the army corps of engineers was assigned the task of rebuilding the mosque and the clinic. The mosque will now accommodate more worshipers. It will have a new water fountain and a plaque to memorialize the violent approach used to establish “the unity of the army, the police and the people.”

Women attended the al-Nahda sit-in in large numbers, as they did in Nasr City. An important marker of the demonstrations’ success was that so many women accepted the Muslim Brothers’ “Islamic” definitions of gender roles, which put religious faith ahead of wealth, education or professional achievement as the primary measure of goodness in a Muslim woman and the basis of her social recognition. The mass presence of women at the sit-ins helped to spread these ideas even further. Still, the state-run and liberal media preferred to see the Islamist women as dupes of the male leadership or would-be human shields. The gap between liberal and Islamist women has widened greatly as a result, with neither camp learning from the experiences of the other.

Return of the Patriarch

Field Marshal al-Sisi is something of a political chameleon — his ideas shifting to match his ambitions at any given moment — but his ideas about gender are distinctly conservative, if not counterrevolutionary. Al-Sisi was one of the younger members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by Field Marshal Muhammad Husayn Tantawi that took charge of the political transition on February 11, 2011. The slogan “the people and the army are one hand” echoed in the streets. But the SCAF’s relationship with the revolutionaries was fraught: Officers lectured the young men and women protesting in the streets and mocked them as they endured systematic brutality. The head of military intelligence, al-Sisi kept a low profile as he handled negotiations with the Muslim Brothers. In August 2012, President Mursi dismissed Tantawi and made al-Sisi commander of the armed forces and minister of defense. It turned out that Mursi and al-Sisi shared ideas about gender. It is a logical inference, for example, that al-Sisi was the anonymous source who defended the army’s egregious “virginity tests” to intimidate and humiliate women marking International Women’s Day on March 9, 2013. These young women “were not like your daughter or mine,” the source said. “They were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters.” [13] Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, met with al-Sisi and cited him adopting the “paternalistic view that Egyptians would expect the army to protect soldiers from claims of rape by women.” The Brothers likewise declared that Tahrir demonstrations were rife with licentiousness and sexual assault, in contrast to the wholesome, family-friendly sit-in at the Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya mosque. A senior Brother said that victims of sexual harassment, whether veiled or unveiled, must have done something to provoke their assailants.

There has been speculation that al-Sisi is an Islamist sympathizer ever since he became defense minister. It was said that Mursi chose the general because he prays and his wife and daughters wear the hijab. After the July 3 coup, a professor who knew the Sisis when he studied at the US Army War College in 2006 wrote that one daughter wore the hijab and the other wore the niqab covering the head, face and body. [14] If true, it means little. In present-day Egypt, most Muslim women wear various forms of Islamic dress and their choice of head covering does not necessarily carry a political valence. Several icons of the 2011 revolution wear the hijab: Asma’ Mahfouz, whose YouTube video exhorted young men and women to descend upon Tahrir Square; Isra’ ‘Abd al-Fattah, a founder of the April 6 movement; and Samira Ibrahim, who won a lawsuit decrying the “virginity tests.” And there is the woman the Egyptian public dubbed sitt al-banat (the most honored of girls): “the woman in the blue bra” who was viciously beaten on Muhammad Mahmoud Street in December 2011. She was wearing the black robe associated with the niqab before the soldiers tore it off.

In the late 1980s it was rumored that Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Ghazala was told to retire because his wife put on the hijab. This notion was based on the assumption that the army command governed the decisions of officers’ wives about what to wear and overlooked the fact that the wives’ attire could reflect their personal preferences. Many wives of high-ranking army commanders wear the hijab, in fact. It no longer serves as a marker of Islamist sympathies, as is clear from al-Sisi’s decision to overthrow Mursi and end the rule of the Muslim Brothers. The marshal says he turned against Mursi, less than two months after his appointment as defense minister, because he was seated next to Tariq al-Zumur at the ceremony commemorating the October 1973 war. [15] Al-Zumur was a member of al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya who played a role in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat on October 6, 1981.

Al-Sisi has tried to appeal to the Egyptian public with his military comportment and relative youth. At formal events — his appointment as defense minister, the ouster of Mursi — he has shown up in full dress uniform, his chest festooned with ribbons and medals. He donned fatigues and sunglasses to clamber over a tank during an inspection of a military unit before an audience of reporters, prominent authors and movie stars. In a rambling speech, at once personal and political, he said he was honored to serve “the people” though his critics charged him with humbling himself to their level. Outsiders claim that he is an overly emotional man, he continued, but they do not understand army culture — words hurt more than bullets. He insisted that he is not antagonistic to the media, but the armed forces must consider an insult to the commander to be an insult to the institution. “If the army were to go into the streets,” he warned, “it would not be possible to talk about Egypt for the next 30 to 40 years.” [16] It appears that the price of army intervention on the side of liberals is the sacrifice of democracy.

Many comparisons are drawn between al-Sisi and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the young army colonel who led the 1952 revolution and became the beloved president of the country. Like the great patriarch Nasser, al-Sisi has asserted his personal pride in serving the people and his commitment to protecting Egypt. The marshal said the army supported the will of the people on June 30, 2013 just as it did two years earlier. And on July 26, after ordering the dispersion of the pro-Mursi sit-ins, he called the citizenry into the streets to give him “a command to face down the violence and terrorism that might ensue.” [17] July 26 is the date of the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, an act that earned Nasser the adoration of the public. It was no coincidence, many commentators noted. Al-Sisi aimed to fulfill the general desire for a strong leader who can restore law and order and some degree of security.18 He embodies the return to personalized authoritarian politics that the national consensus prior to the January 25 revolution rejected.


[1] Al-Ahram Weekly, July 30, 2013.
[2] Al-Misri al-Yawm, July 26, 2013.
[3] New York Times, August 1, 2013.
[4] Al-Misri al-Yawm, July 21, 2013.
[5] Thanks to Martin Beck for suggesting this important addition.
[6] Nesmahar Sayed, “Mummy, What’s a Revolution?” al-Ahram Weekly, February 10-16, 2012.
[7] Hamdi Rizq, “Are They Fighting or Screwing?” al-Misri al-Yawm, August 31, 2013. [Arabic] [8] Sahar al-Mawgi, “The Screw of Jihad,” al-Misri al-Yawm, April 1, 2013. [Arabic] [9] Al-Tahrir, August 1, 2013.
[10] Al-Misri al-Yawm, August 24, 2013.
[11] ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi, The Martyr of Divine Love: Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (Kuwait: Wikalat al-Matbu‘at, 1978), pp. 8-29. [Arabic] [12] Sahar al-Mawgi, “Here Is Nahdat Misr,” al-Misri al-Yawm, December 23, 2012. [Arabic] [13] New York Times, August 2, 2013.
[14] Sherifa Zuhur, “General al-Sisi at the US Army War College,” August 3, 2013:
[15] New York Times, August 2, 2013.
[16] Al-Misri al-Yawm, May 12, 2013.
[17] Al-Misri al-Yawm, July 25, 2013.
[18] Al-Ahram, September 3, 2013.

How to cite this article:

Mervat Hatem "Gender and Counterrevolution in Egypt," Middle East Report 268 (Fall 2013).

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