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Are Women Worried About New Egyptian President?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we look at another significant decision from the Supreme Court that might have been overshadowed by the ruling on immigration enforcement. The justices said life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders is cruel and unusual punishment. We'll talk with law professor Paul Butler about what that means for young people behind bars in this country.

But we want to start the program today in Egypt. This past weekend it was announced that the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi was voted the first democratically elected president of the post-Mubarak era. Many people consider him the first in the country's history. There are a number of questions facing the new president-elect, such as what actual authority he will have and whether he will work with a reinstated parliament.

The constitutional court stripped some of the president's powers and dissolved parliament just days after the voting. But we also have questions about how Egypt's first Islamist president will rule and we are particularly interested in his and his party's views on women and minorities. So we've called upon two women observers in Egypt that we've gone to from time to time, and they're with us once again.

Rawya Rageh is a correspondent for Al Jazeera English. Also with us, Yassmine El Sayed Hani. She is a masters student at Cairo University. She was a regular protestor in Tahrir Square last year and we've been checking in with her, also, from time to time. Ladies, thank you both so much for speaking with us once again.

RAWYA RAGEH: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Rawya, let me start with you. The headline on a number of Egyptian newspapers yesterday read: Mohammed Morsi: First Civilian President. Could you talk a little bit more about the significance for Egyptians?

RAGEH: Indeed, this has been a very significant moment. After all, this revolution - this election, rather - was meant to be the grand payoff of the Egyptian revolution, the moment, the election that will bring the first president after 30 years of autocracy under former president Hosni Mubarak.

(unintelligible) just how important that moment was, irrespective of what powers this president was going to have. This was highlighted in all the headlines of the newspapers that made a point to say Mohammed Morsi is the first civilian president for Egypt after, of course, 60 years of being ruled by presidents affiliated to the military establishment.

The (unintelligible) independent newspaper, for example, made a very important point, saying the revolution's finally arrived at the presidential palace. That in terms of the significance of this for all the Egyptians, but also a very specifically significant moment for the Muslim Brotherhood.


RAGEH: Arguably, a moment they've waited for, for 80 years. The group was outlawed at one point in time and suffered 80 years of repression and crackdown and under all the presidents who ruled Egypt. This is certainly a very huge, psychologically significant moment for the Muslim Brotherhood, as well.

MARTIN: Hmm. Well, to that end, Rawya, there is concern or question about what his presidency will mean for women. Now, I want to mention that we put the question to Nasaiba Ushruf(ph). She is a spokesperson for president-elect Mohammed Morsi. We actually invited her to join us but the schedules didn't match up, but this is what she had to say about that question.

NASAIBA USHRUF: We are believing that women should have an important role in the social life, and in political life she is an integral part of the society and she can make a lot of differences and changes and development in Egyptian society.

MARTIN: So, do most women take the Muslim Brotherhood at their word on this?

RAGEH: Well, surely there is a lot of concerns about what exactly the Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency would mean for all sorts of minorities - not just for women, for Christians, as well. And particularly, given the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had made previous promises before and reneged on them, goes to the heart of this mistrust that people have toward the Brotherhood, specifically (unintelligible) and leftist camps in the revolutionary and protest movement.

RAGEH: But what we can say for sure is that Mohammed Morsi has exerted every effort - president-elect Mohammed Morsi has exerted every effort to reassure women and Christians. In pretty much every speech, he reassures that women will continue having a role, that there's no such thing as going back in time or forcing women to stay at home, that women's rights to work, there's no question over that.

And in fact, in a very specific speech before the election's results were announced, he said the issue of dress code is not even an issue for him. Those women who would like to put on a head scarf, that's their right. Those who don't want to, it's also their right. He has also said, more than once, that he would have several vice presidents, and in fact, news emerging today is he is being quoted as saying that indeed he will definitely have a female vice president as well as a Christian vice president.

And as many as four other vice presidents from political groups outside the Muslim Brotherhood.

MARTIN: Yassmine, what do you think about this? I just want to remind our listeners that you protested for weeks for Mubarak to step down.


MARTIN: I want to ask your perspective on all this.

HANI: Yeah. I think that the gender issue, OK, was originally raised or originally got to this place on the social issues, the matter of social issues, because of the ultra conservatives.

MARTIN: Oh. Mm-hmm.

HANI: OK? And since there was an electoral alliance and political alliance that one has been there between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservatives, so people started to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of having the same discourses and the same perceptions adopted by the ultra-conservatives regarding the gender issue. They should not have any concerns about this issue.

MARTIN: Hmm. Yassmine, I understood you to say from what you were talking about just now, is that you are not as concerned as you were initially about women's rights. I mean, from what I heard you say, that, you know, the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservatives made a lot of people worry.

And there were also a series of bills in the Islamist-dominated parliament, including legislation that would have lowered the legal age for marriage, that would have rolled back custody rights, for example, and divorce rights. OK. So I understand you're not as concerned about that. What are you most concerned about now?

HANI: Yeah. Of course - of course I'm afraid that I'm very much, of course, concerned about these issues but I understand that these issues were raised within a very critical time that Egypt was having. But I did not expect that the same kind of laws are going to be passed, or even going to be proposed, in the next parliament.

I would like to tell you that the political map and the political classification and distribution of forces and political organizations and theoretical thinking is very much complicated in Egyptian society. So I would tell you that I'm not a leftist and I am not a liberal. I do not affiliate with any of the leftist parties or any of the liberal parties and this protestor, I'm wearing veil.

I am accused by the liberals and the leftists to be Islamist. I accused by Islamists to be a liberal and a leftist. So it's very much complicated. And I would like to tell you another thing: that the political polarization before the election took place was very much tough and it extends to almost every home.

So I am saying that my father, my sisters, they voted for Mohammed Morsi. Myself, I didn't vote for him. I didn't. I boycotted the elections. My mother also boycotted the elections. So the polarization was very much tough and was very much widespread along and across the Egyptian society. So by classifying the political forces and their stances, this is very much an oversimplification of what has been taking place.

It was a very complicated thing and as you just said, it was voting against someone instead of voting for someone. So you can't classify. You can't say that the ADA should vote for B and B should be voted accordingly for C. No.


HANI: It was not like this.

MARTIN: I understand. I understand. Well, thank you for that. Rawya, a final thought from you?

RAGEH: I'm very much aware it's not a matter of who boycotted - was labeled as a liberal or a leftist, I just was referring to the fact that the main call for boycott, the group that called themselves The Boycotters, who gave themselves such a label, mainly came from the liberal and leftist group.

To me, you asked, Michel, a very important question. If the main concern is not about specifically the rights of women and the rights of minorities, what are the main concerns? And to me, if you ask me, the main challenges facing president-elect Mohammed Morsi is, of course, the issue of the declining economy. He's inheriting an economy that's in very bad shape and one of the very first things that people are going to hold him to account over is the issue of - how is he going to be able to deliver on those tough economic questions and the increasing role of the military and how much will Mohammed Morsi be able to tread this very fine line in balancing his relationship with the military and the standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood, that he belonged to at one point, and the military.

HANI: But, to me, the most important question is that of the constitution. The process of writing the constitution is really the most crucial thing facing Egypt now.

Mohammed Morsi is an important aspect, but there's a lot of talk about whether this is going to be an interim presidency, as in he's going to stay for two years, or even if he served his entire five year term, in the five year term, in the best picture, he is a stage in this transitional process.

But the one binding thing that's going to remain with Egypt, arguably for decades unless there's another revolution, is the process - writing the constitution, and that constitution that's meant to be the preeminent guiding document for this transitional process.

MARTIN: Very important. Thank you so much. Thank you both so much for speaking with us. This is very interesting and I appreciate you both for speaking with us during such a busy and important time.

Rawya Rageh is a correspondent for Al Jazeera English. Yassmine El Sayed Hani is a masters student at Cairo University and she was one of the people protesting in Tahrir Square for weeks on end last year and they were both kind enough to join us from Cairo.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

RAGEH: You're welcome, ma'am. Thank you for having me.

HANI: Thank you.


MARTIN: Coming up, key parts of Arizona's immigration law weren't the only thing tossed out by the Supreme Court yesterday. Justices said it is illegal to give mandatory life sentences without parole to juveniles convicted of murder. We'll talk about what that means for teenagers behind bars and possibly others. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.