In all of her prestigious posts, Fayza Abul Naga has always been the first woman to hold them. Her most recent appointment by President al-Sisi as his national security advisor this past November is no exception.

In all of her prestigious posts, Fayza Abul Naga has always been the first woman to hold them. Her most recent appointment by President al-Sisi as his national security advisor this past November is no exception.

Supporters of the present regime boast Naga’s appointment as a step forward for women yet Naga cannot be considered a democratic figure. She has a long record of hostility towards civil society organizations. In her testimony about the case filed against American nongovernmental organizations operating in Egypt in 2011— in which Egyptians and Americans were implicated— she accused the organizations accountable for spreading chaos and disorder in Egypt. She viewed the matter as a struggle for national sovereignty and that “the Egyptian nation refuses to be treated as a worthless commodity used by powerful groups.”

However, she did not object, for example, to the smuggling of the accused American citizens who were held in custody pending the results of their investigations, which had been viewed as an unjustified breach of the rule of law. That violation led to the resignation of the investigating judge in the case, apparently in protest against that action.

Naga no champion for women’s rights

Additionally, Fayza Abul Naga, throughout her entire service, has never contributed to the cause of Egyptian women’s rights contrary to the attitudes taken by other women in power including feminists Mervat Tilaway or Hikmat Abu Zayd.

Abu Zayed, for example, sponsored a number of projects, including initiatives for rural women and families. She also took up the issues concerned with the rights of women in the Articles of the Charter with Egyptian leaders like Abdul Nasser and other men of power.

Mervat Tilaway adopted laws strongly upheld by the feminist movement for years including anti-female circumcision, divorce, appropriate nursery ages and children’s education. She also entered into disputes with state agencies about the appointment of women to public offices, especially the judiciary. In contrast, Fayza Abul Naga, advocated to restrict the right to organize,  including feminist activists.

A loss for women?

Can then Naga’s appointment be viewed as a complete loss for the feminist democratic struggle? My answer is no. The presence of a woman in a position, not yet held by a woman, has some advantages, even if she was an enemy of the feminist movement and is affiliated to a higher social class that exploited the lower classes.

Women still face obstacles in assuming certain posts and vocational promotion, and their presence in these new posts reveal many problems that need to be highlighted and handled. For example, Egyptian women from different social echelons have long suffered from regimes that prevented them from putting an end to failing marital relationships. But, educated higher and middle class women often had the upper hand in the struggle against these laws and the biggest opportunity in breaking them.

In practice, however, poor women had greatly benefited from the laws relating to divorce as they had nothing to lose from abandoning the marital relationship. One such advantage was the ruling enacted by the Constitutional Court under which the decision previously enacted by the Interior Minister, which gave husbands the right to control wives’ travel, was abolished. The story of a senior female employee who worked in Dubai and whose travel was banned by her husband had positively benefited other working class women who needed to travel abroad for taking on less senior posts.

Feminists and the re-distribution of power

The feminist movement struggles to achieve the rights of women in employment, education, political contribution and individual life. The movement believes that there will be no social progress unless society’s second half is liberated from the shackles from which it suffers. However, women in general have legally and equitably benefited from the rights taken by the movement and recognized by the state and society whether they were ordinary workers, capitalists— reactionary or progressive.

High ranking women in government have attained more benefits from the gains achieved by the feminist movement than have women working in grassroots organization. The actual implementation of the principles is vested in the hands of those who have power and influence.

For example, the feminist movement and its democratic organization advocates fought for the adoption of the principle of positive discrimination in the Constitution of 2014. But, the ruling authority and the influential social forces created the new parliamentary law, which made the electoral list absolute, irrelative and consequently only women included in the stronger list can join the parliament (the list associated with the regime and the influential people who rely on capitals and partisanship).

Therefore, the question often posed is whether the feminist movement has toiled to extract benefits for women as a whole or for a limited monopolizing group. It is in fact a mistaken question and has a lot of extortion. The question is not about gain, but about the existing balance of power. The problem in fact applies to the quota of Copts, workers, peasants and others, as well as the entire electoral process.

Another similar extortion is faced by the feminist movement when a regime like the present ruling regime in Egypt takes some positive steps towards women’s rights including the amendment of the legal articles relating to sexual violence and introduction of units to combat violence against women in addition to increasing the number of women in the parliament. For such gains, the movement has fought for many years and the regime will approve them at a particular time – and may even attribute them to itself – for a number of reasons. This happened very often throughout history with the non-Islamic authoritarian regimes such as that of Bourguiba, Abdel Nasser or Mubarak in the second half of his term.

Some believe that the trial of girls’ rapists at Tahrir Square in January 2013 and June 2014 has come as a result of President el-Sisi, but this trial was produced by the anti-sexual violence movement under successive regimes. It is a fruit generated by the government’s benefit from the efforts exerted by certain democratic movement parties (Human rights organizations, for example) in this trial. These organizations are threatened to be shut down because of unfair laws which Fayza Abul Naga and others like her have always defended and will continue to justify both at home and abroad.

Women who keep other women down

Tahani Jabali was the first female judge who assumed that post after a long struggle for women empowerment to join the judiciary. She, however, adopts positions hostile to democracy and women’s rights. She called for granting illiterate people half a vote in the elections although more than two thirds of illiterate individuals in Egypt are females. She also supported many repressive practices. Islamic males used Tahani Jabali to distort the right of women to join the judiciary.

However, the democratic movement’s relationship with feminism has always been confused although the feminist movement is considered part of the broader democratic movement. There is much to be done for the struggles to merge to get rid of the shackles of the blackmail exercised by the reactionary forces which describe women’s achievements as overpowering tools.

Many democrats, for example, were gratified with Hala Shukrallah’s victory as head of the Constitution Party in 2014, considering that triumph as a sign of democracy and a significant step toward gendering the democracy movement and its affiliated organizations. But what are the mechanisms adopted by the party to recruit and train young female cadres?

The democratic parties demand positive discrimination in the parliamentary lists, but they seldom incorporate these demands into their statutes. In addition, the feminist movement demanded – and was supported by the democratic parties – a privileged position for women at the proportional lists to enable women from various political mainstreams to join the parliament. However, the ruling authority unexpectedly enacted a law that makes participation in the lists an unattainable demand. Will the democratic parties which compete for individual seats nominate enough number of women?

In order for the feminist movement to steer clear of this extortionist policy, it must first of all confront the attempts by the women within the ruling echelon to exclusively speak on behalf of Egyptian women and hijack the movement without which they would not otherwise have attained to these positions.

Secondly, the movement must consider itself an integral part of the broader democratic movement, given that an enabled and energetic feminist movement can attain effective gains, only if it considers itself an integral part of a strong democratic movement. Thirdly, the feminist movement must endeavor to cause the democratic movement to support women’s causes and promote women’s roles within their respective organizations, i.e. to gender the movement itself so that women’s empowerment and liberation is not confined to the despotic authority and its influential women.