The Cry for Human Rights: Violence, Transition, and the Egyptian Revolution

In January 2011, Egypt and, indeed, the world witnessed something immense and unprecedented: millions of people from every sector of society took to the streets to overthrow their dictator. As known scholars and activists involved and interested in Egyptian politics, both authors of this essay were approached to comment on the momentous events and/or speak about them at public forums. Various media outlets sought out Atef Said, an Egyptian human rights lawyer and sociologist living in the area. The questions they asked, however, were disconcerting and followed a similar pattern: “What if Islamists take over? What about the fate of minorities and women?” Nadine Naber had a similar experience. From Facebook conversations to events at the university at which she taught, U.S.-based audiences consistently asked Naber about the potential for an “Islamic takeover” and the consequences for “women’s rights.”

Since January 2011, the revolution has taken many turns and much has transpired: the formation of new political parties; strikes by doctors, lawyers, and professors; grassroots funeral processions for newly declared martyrs; conflicting efforts to draft a new constitution; continued battles over public space; the formation of new feminist coalitions; the launching of massive campaigns against sexual harassment; the election of a new president; public protests and a military coup ousting that president; and a subsequent backlash against the briefly empowered Muslim Brotherhood—to name just some highlights. Yet despite these dramatic upheavals and ongoing changes, the primary questions we are asked by media or public audiences remain the same: what will happen if/when Islamists take over, and what about women and minorities? Speaking at a policy briefing for the United Nations in 2013, Nadine Naber cautioned audience members against reductive Islamophobic analyses that simply blame “Islam” for attacks against women’s rights in Egypt. She urged the international community to take seriously the impact on women’s rights of state-based corruption, sexual violence, and economic violence. But still, one audience member insisted on asking: “Do you think it [Islam] is going to spread throughout Africa?”

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About Nadine Naber

Nadine Naber is associate professor in the gender and women’s studies program and the Asian American studies program at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is co-founder of Arab and Muslim American studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and author of Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (New York University Press, 2012). She is co-editor of the books Race and Arab Americans (Syracuse, 2008), Arab and Arab American Feminisms (Syracuse, 2010), and The Color of Violence (South End, 2006).

About Atef Said

Atef Said is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He practiced human rights law in Egypt from 1995 to 2004. His current book in progress is entitled The Tahrir Effect: Protest, Revolution, and Counterrevolution in Contemporary Egypt. He has published articles in Social Research and International Sociology, and has written for U.S. Amnesty Magazine, the ‘‘Immanent Frame’’ blog of the Social Science Research Council, and Jadaliyya.