Azza Hilal Suleiman’s story of experiencing violent brutality shocked us when we met her in Geneva, in June 2012. And since then, it seems the situation in Egypt has not improved much. Jacqui True and Vanessa Farr interviewed her in Cairo, on life after the revolution and its impact on women’s rights.
By Vanessa Farr and Jacqui True
While we were in Cairo in the second phase of WILPF’s MENA Agenda 1325 project, we took the opportunity to catch up with Azza Suleiman. You might remember reading her compelling personal testimony about being beaten into a coma by army officers when she protected another unarmed female protestor during an attempted peaceful protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in December 2011.
Azza looks a lot better than she did when we saw her in July in Geneva. Then, you could still see bruising on her head and neck and she was exhausted and more-or-less constantly in pain. “The bruising has finally healed”, she said, “but some of my very deep injuries are still surfacing. Hard tissue and blood clots still cause me discomfort and pain and my head injuries still make me very tired and dizzy.” Her doctors think it will take about two years to fully recover, but, she said, “I do feel better, and I’m happy to tell you I feel less pain than before.”
We were saddened to hear, however, that her court case has shown no signs of movement. “My lawyers continue to work on my case pro bono, but the courts have now started the legal process from the beginning claiming there is evidence they need and do not have. Amnesty has placed Azza’s case on their urgent action list. “They are doing this with a lot of cases from the time of the uprisings; it’s clearly a delaying tactic. I feel very sad but I still cling to my belief in justice. I continue to receive lots of sympathy from outside,” Azza said, “but I feel much less support from within Egypt. I feel that there’s very little hope left.”
Azza and other Egyptian women’s human rights activists believe there is an implicit agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, exactly like the one that existed in Mubarak’s time. “The Brotherhood and salafists have their own deal with the armed forces now, and for all of those awaiting a court case, hope is minimal” she said. “Officers who were supposedly kicked out for using violence against unarmed protesters have not only been reinstated but received rewards. It seems human rights are even more fragile now than they were before: with military impunity, the torture is also continuing.”
Azza also talked about the continued economic exclusion of poor people, which was one of the major reasons for the uprising against Mubarak’s regime. “People are still poor, taxes are still high,” she said. “Indeed, the ruling party wants more money from us. And where is that to come from? The Brotherhood don’t have any fiscal policies or plans, they don’t know how to run our economy. It’s likely that what’s happening in Jordan with the fuel riots will happen here soon too.”
Another new challenge is that there is a rise in media censorship. “If anyone speaks out against the Brotherhood, they lose their job and can’t challenge it. Every legal avenue now seems to favour the Salafists. They have taken over the political structures, they dominate every decision and people are really feeling the effects.”
The latest Israeli attack on Gaza was scaling up as we flew into Cairo, so we also discussed regional issues and their possible impacts on women’s solidarity. “This is difficult too,” said Azza. “Now we’re seeing different groups with different fights inside Egypt itself. We have to try to understand their competing demands and we still have to deal with everything in between like the new Israeli war on Gaza. A lot of Egyptians are saying this really cannot be a national priority while we have so much to do for ourselves. They think we need our government to take care of us and fix things here, not to spend all their time and energy on Gaza. But we can also see that the Egyptian leaders probably won’t do anything significant. Hamas relies on them because they share Brotherhood values, but Egypt needs US money so that is probably what they will focus on safeguarding.”
Azza sees a long struggle ahead. “The Brotherhood government isn’t convincing us it knows how to lead”, she argues. “It doesn’t have previous experience and lacks capacity, money and plans. It doesn’t know how to build infrastructure or to develop the country. It may know how to be Islamist but it doesn’t know how to govern. There are hopes of a second rising, but that’s all we have left right now. It seems a second revolution is going to be necessary. But the general mood is that everyone is tired, people want stability and resources, not more change.”
In such a bleak environment, we asked Azza what she was focusing her activism on now. She told us that her attention remains on women’s and girls’ rights, which are being rapidly undermined. “Some Salafi clerics are calling for the age of marriage to be reduced to 9 years old”.
“There are religious women attacking girls who are not wearing hijab – including those who like me, are Christian. Our culture doesn’t find anything bad in the culture of forcing girls to veil. A teacher recently attacked two girls who were not veiled, forcibly cutting their hair. The other parents approved of her behaviour.”
“We have an already conservative population and this linking of women and extreme religious interpretation is more of the same to them. What’s worse is that anyone who makes a scientific argument to try to counter this extreme control of women and girls is called blasphemous or tainted by foreign ideas.”
In a failing political economy in which jobs are increasingly unprotected as the unions come under attack, and with religious extremism demanding that women be excluded from public participation in government and the economy, “women have a huge fight on our hands.” If women are prevented from contributing to Egypt’s economic and political life, activists realize that the country’s recovery will take much longer. “We need to be creative in the upcoming period,” Azza urges. “We need to narrow our scope and not get distracted from our human rights agenda even though there is so much going on.”