On Thursday 28 June, an internet-based group of women organised a meeting between politicians from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and hundreds eager to meet them. The evening was well-organised and well-attended - or so it seemed!
Six women from the FJP as well as two organisers comprised the panel and hundreds of women and some men waited to begin a conversation that they have long longed for. However, all the elements of a classic case of conflicting interests were in place. The panel was there to charm and impress while the audience was waiting to challenge and attack!
The majority of the audience were there to speak, not listen. They had grievances, frustrations, fears and enough misinformation to take up the whole evening. They were mostly upper middle-class Cairenes eager to stand in the face of the seismic cultural and social changes anticipated by a Muslim Brotherhood president and Islamist-dominated (albeit dissolved) parliament.
The women were both professionals and housewives, old and young, but mostly they were unveiled, fashionable and well-to-do. Their interest in attending what was supposed to be a question-and-answer session is testimony to the continued political engagement of women since the revolution. But their anger, rowdiness and agitation point to the persistence of fractures amongst women.
The session started with presentations from the invited panellists. They each chose to share their struggles, hopes, dreams and experiences. They told personal stories about their decisions to join the Muslim Brotherhood and to become politically active. The common thread in all of these stories was intimacy and dedication. They emphasised their roles in Tahrir Square in 2011 and of it being a place of solidarity and equality. This was the spirit that they wanted to inspire and recreate between themselves and this unfamiliar audience. One of the speakers, a gorgeous young woman; poised, strong, intelligent and calm, spoke of her wish to become Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs. Another told us of her recollections of life in the US and how she wanted to be a congresswoman. All had positive, personal, but deeply political messages to give.
Such charm may have worked wonders with a foreign audience. It may have gone down very well with people (particularly from the West) still under the impression that Islam oppresses women, that the veil clouds the mind or that only secular politics empower.
But this mostly Egyptian audience needed a different approach. They rumbled, grumbled and showed their consternation. The women in the audience had also been in Tahrir Square. They each had stories. And they all have hopes and dreams. They are not strangers to the virtues of faith nor are they foreigners in their own country. They wanted to transcend the niceties and get down to the points of difference and conflict.
The evening descended into chaos as the audience attacked these impressive speakers and the organisers tried to shame the attackers into silence. It did not help that all the questions to the speakers had been grouped together and filtered and that the filtering was not well thought out. The result was the inclusion of many silly questions, for example: "Do you think men and women are of equal intelligence?" At one point some women from the audience took the microphone and began to tell the unruly ones off for their rudeness and intolerance. Try telling fans at a rock concert to be quite and listen!
The really important issues that should worry the minority who did not vote for the FJP in parliamentary elections nor for Dr Mohamed Morsi for president were not broached during this debate. They didn't speak on the position of the party on minority rights and the extent to which, once in power, these rights will be protected.
I am here not referring to special interest groups, but to all those men and women who do not hold similar beliefs to the new power structures. Unfortunately, power in the modern world implies an obligation to protect, even if that means protecting those with whom you differ or with whom you do not identify.
We must protect the right to freedom of expression and opinion. It is an ugly right that sometimes breeds chaos or contempt, but still, it is an important one that creates transparency and mandates that we take responsibility for our words and actions.
We should also guard the right to diversity and difference. It is scary to hear revolutionary voices speak the language of numbers and assert that whoever looks and acts like the majority is somehow better, or more entitled than those who beg to differ. This is really akin to throwing away the baby of freedom with the bathwater of ballot box politics.
Egyptians who are moneyed, marginal, Westernised, gay, radical or apolitical exist and are also important. Their importance lies in that they are creating a space for diversity and difference. They have to continue to exist and persist in keeping the right to dissonance and difference. Fashionable and idle stereotypes should not rule the politics of Egypt, but neither should the will of conformity and exclusion rule the day.
This confrontation is not an insignificant one. It is emblematic of a new dynamic in which political and personal conflicts and freedoms are once again elided into a norm or political correctness. There is a search for consensus that threatens to negate contests, discussion and dialogue. The shamefully snide comments of some concerning Morsi's wife provide another example of this problem. Although awful and elitist, these comments are only opinions. Those who hold them also bear the shame of having such a misguided view of dress and appearance. There is, therefore, no need to silence or excise them from public forums. Mrs Morsi has tens of millions of proud supporters and needs no further defence. I repeat: terrible comments shame the commentator, but are no excuse for popularly exercised censorship. In this fair contest, the winning majority must be able to tolerate dissent and divergence or else they will be yet another oppressive elite, like that which preceded them.
Thursday's fiasco was all about identity, dress and class. It will not impact very much Egypt's near future, but it is noteworthy for what it signals in terms of the future of political and social life. It is unfortunate that all things female are reduced to silly or pathetic. The audience and panel differ in style, taste and in some opinions, but these differences are exaggerated by the manner in which they are addressed and managed. Political positions on questions of equality, sanctity of the body, freedom, citizenship rights and voicing of opinions are much more important than artificial distinctions.
Finally, a salute to the women who organised this event! They are to be thanked for their great effort and respected for taking this initiative. The fact that it went awry at times may reveal that they needed to either engage more seriously with the issues by, for example, including non-FJP members on the panel and engaging in a substantive debate or by using a much lighter touch and inserting some humour or light-heartedness to the evening, rather than employing the dour and angry protection of the panellists while putting down the audience!