In the two years since the Egyptian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has become the dominant force in Egyptian electoral politics. The U.S. government and other international actors have attempted in good faith to work with Muslim Brotherhood government leaders and with the group’s affiliated Freedom and Justice Party to remedy the array of political, security, and economic crises that require immediate attention in Egypt. But the Brotherhood’s views on the role of women in Egyptian society and recent efforts to codify these views into law are an increasing threat to the country’s nascent democracy.
Ensuring the rights of women should be a top priority for U.S. policy in Egypt since Egypt serves as a linchpin of the Middle East and a weathervane of progress for similar uprisings across the region. The Center for American Progress has continually said that U.S. policymakers should take a long view of the events in Egypt and help Egypt move toward a prosperous and pluralistic democracy. As U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson clearly stated in February, “To build the future Egypt deserves, Egypt will need its entire people, regardless of their faith, ethnic background, or gender.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s position on women’s rights was most recently displayed in the group’s harsh response to a U.N. declaration on the elimination and prevention of all violence against women, which included provisions on reproductive rights, access to proper sexual health services, and efforts to reduce the economic marginalization of women. The Brotherhood contended that the document would serve as a “destructive tool meant to undermine the family as an important institution [and] would drag society back to pre-Islamic ignorance.” The Brotherhood urged all Muslim countries to reject the document, despite the fact that Egypt and most other Muslim countries signed the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The Brotherhood’s statement is not a change in policy by the group or the Freedom and Justice Party, but it is the first publicly articulated statement on many of their long-held beliefs about gender roles. The Brotherhood’s statement, for example, argues that women should not be allowed to file legal complaints of spousal abuse against their husbands, nor should women be afforded the same inheritance rights as their brothers or sons. According to the statement, accepting the U.N. declaration’s basic human rights and civil liberties for women would “lead to the complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries.”
Days after the Muslim Brotherhood made its announcement, a group of 15 senators led by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) delivered a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to denounce the Brotherhood’s statement and ask Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to “rebuke those who dishonor women by denigrating their status in Egyptian society.” The senators urged Secretary Kerry to “continue [his] efforts to make women’s rights a global priority, especially when working with our allies in the Middle East.”
Though no longer officially part of the Brotherhood or the Freedom and Justice Party, President Morsi remains close with both organizations. Most of his key political advisors are Brotherhood members, and he campaigned as an executor for the Muslim Brotherhood’s platform. The Morsi administration tried to distance itself from the Brotherhood’s statement but did not reject it outright.
While the Morsi administration’s rhetoric on women’s rights is not as disconcerting as the Brotherhood’s, his presidency is failing to respond to several critical women’s issues, most notably the disturbing rise in sexual assaults against women in Egypt. Statements by administration officials and members of parliament suggest ambivalence or even outright hostility toward the victims of sexual assault.
When asked about the 18 reported cases of sexual assault during protests this January in Tahrir Square on the two-year anniversary of the uprisings, a Freedom and Justice Party lawmaker responded, “How do they ask the Ministry of Interior to protect a woman when she stands among men?” Another stated, “A girl contributes 100 percent to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions.” Instead of criticizing the lack of security in Tahrir Square or blaming the attackers, conservative members of the Shura Council—the upper house of the Egyptian parliament—blamed the victims. The Muslim Brotherhood criticized the protest organizers as well for failing to separate men and women, thus enabling an environment for sexual assault.
The new Egyptian government also failed to offer specific protections for women’s rights in the new constitution. This causes concern among human rights advocates that the new constitution leaves too many opportunities for interpretations of the law that restrict civil liberties for women. Article 10 of the constitution, for example, says: “The State is keen to preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family, its cohesion and stability … and enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.” Human rights advocates argue that this clause is a not-so-subtle way of saying that women should be kept in traditional roles.
The Egyptian government also failed to incorporate women into the new political reality of Egypt. Female representation in parliament sharply decreased from 12.5 percent in 2010 to 2 percent after the 2011 elections, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces removed the quota on female parliamentarians during the transition to a civilian government. Despite the growing desire among Egyptian women to participate in politics and vote in elections, 85 percent of women said no political party accurately represents their views and opinions, according to a recent survey.
The popular protests in Tahrir Square that brought an end to Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade reign as president were a call for a government founded on democratic principles and responsive to the needs and aspirations of all Egyptians. Women were at the forefront of this fight for an open, inclusive democratic government, and they played a critical role in sparking and sustaining the revolution. The global community rightfully expected a greater role for women in a new Egypt, yet over the past two years as a new government was elected and a new constitution ratified, the hopes for increased women’s rights diminished.
Promoting women’s rights isn’t just an issue of values; it’s an issue of Egyptian national interest. The hopes of a modern, successful Egypt cannot be realized if half of its population is denied basic rights.
The importance of women to the success of Egypt is particularly true in the economy. Economic opportunities for women declined in Egypt more than any other country last year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s yearly report. Egypt cannot afford to have a female unemployment rate of 28 percent, which greatly exceeds the overall national rate of 13 percent. In a country facing an annual budget deficit of $27 billion and dwindling foreign currency reserves, Egypt needs the benefits of full female participation in the labor force. If Egypt could raise female employment levels to those of their male counterparts, the country could see a 34 percent increase in their gross domestic product, according to a new study by Booz&Co. For Egypt, empowering women is about economic survival.
But the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on women’s rights may just be one symptom of a larger and much deeper problem. The Brotherhood’s increasing power through the presidency and through the Freedom and Justice Party in the Egyptian parliament, alongside even more conservative groups such as the Salafist Nour Party, is raising concerns about a backsliding toward the authoritarian tendencies and tactics of the Mubarak regime. President Morsi’s administration and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood took a majoritarian approach to governance, demonstrated most clearly in Morsi’s November 22 decree granting himself sweeping powers in the controversial process of drafting and ratifying the country’s new constitution. This approach to governance does not lay the foundation for an effective and politically legitimate government, and it raises serious concerns about the Egyptian government’s respect for the interests of political minorities, the rights of women and religious minorities, and civil liberties.
Respecting the rights of women, religious minorities, and other vulnerable groups represents one of the fundamental pillars of U.S.-Egyptian relations, in addition to playing a constructive role in regional peace, ensuring political legitimacy, and establishing an open, competitive economy. As Ambassador Patterson said last month, “While elections and constitutions are a necessary part of democracy, they are not enough. For Egypt to complete its transition to a free democratic nation, it needs much more.”
The U.S. government should more clearly articulate the value it places on women’s rights, and all civil rights for that matter, and that it will not ignore fiery rhetoric from an ally that actively conflicts with our values. The goal of helping Egyptian women is part of a larger effort by the United States to empower women and advance their rights around the world—an effort prioritized under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and one that should remain a priority under Secretary Kerry. As a first step in Egypt, Secretary Kerry should ask President Morsi to publicly denounce the Muslim Brotherhood’s statement on the U.N. declaration and pledge to address the most pressing issues of concern to women in Egypt such as sexual assault and economic disenfranchisement.
The United States is a global leader as an open and free society that promotes the rights of all individuals, regardless of gender or minority status, and we need to call out countries when they do not respect these rights, even when they’re our allies.
Annie Malknecht is a Research Associate with the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Ken Sofer is a Research Associate with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.