Egypt’s ‘revolution of the mind’

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Her well-manicured hands gesturing passionately despite casts on both broken arms, Egyptian-American journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy defined a vital dimension of Egypt’s ongoing revolution Thursday evening.

“We’re also having a parallel revolution of the mind,” Eltahawy told a crowd at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She was sexually assaulted and badly injured by riot police in an arrest last November, a high-profile example of widespread abuses against the civilian population.

“That is a social, cultural and also sexual revolution that we need in Egypt. Unless it happens in tandem with the political revolution, our political revolution will fail," she said.

The conversation was framed as an evaluation of Egypt’s continuing transformation, and included a great deal of criticism for Egypt’s ruling military junta and its police force. Eltahawy was joined by GlobalPost executive editor and co-founder Charles Sennott and Harvard professor Tarek Masoud in a panel moderated by The Daily Beast / Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown.

The vigorous discussion, which also highlighted the journalistic work created by 17 Egyptian and American fellows who traveled to Cairo in October with GlobalPost and Open Hands Initiative, generated optimism that young Egyptians — including many women — have stepped up to help guide Egypt through a painful transition.

"They are saying, 'We're here to tell parliament that we are here, we will continue to be here, we see you and we will continue to hold you accountable the way we held Mubarak accountable,'” Eltahawy said. The newly elected parliament opened sessions last month, tasked with helping to architect a new Egypt even as the country remains in violent flux.

Many Egyptians have put the burden of responsibility for Thursday’s deadly soccer disaster in Port Said, which killed 74 people after home team fans attacked visiting supporters, on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the security forces who largely stood by as fans were stabbed and crushed at the stadium.

"You have a military and you have a police that are not interested in securing people's safety,” Eltahawy said, also addressing the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and assault committed by Egyptian men against the country’s women. “That is Egypt today."

Most of the victims were members of Ultras Ahlawy, die-hard fans who often served as “shock troops” in the early days of the revolt against Hosni Mubarak and his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and who have a longstanding vendetta against the police.

“It is a security vacuum that many people in Egypt believe is deliberate,” Eltahawy said. SCAF has pledged to hand power to civilian authority by the end of June, but is now exploring the possibility of moving up the deadline.

Masoud offered context: “One of the prerequisites of democracy is that you have to have coercion, but it has to be legitimate coercion," he said. He agreed with Sennott’s suggestion that Egyptian leaders rename and retrain the country’s police force as a necessary step toward restoring legitimacy.

Eltahawy sees the beginning of a true representative democracy in Egypt, albeit with years’ worth of work yet to do.

Egyptians elected Islamist politicians — representing the longstanding Muslim Brotherhood and the newer and more conservative Salafists — to more than 70 percent of the seats in parliament. Parties that arose directly out of the revolution won just a handful of seats and women make up 1 percent, a distinctly different composition than that of Tahrir Square in the revolution’s early days.

"The elections were not free and fair,” she said. “They were a mess. But they were our mess. And the next time around there will be a better mess. That's hope."

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