Justin Ahmed, Laura Saiki Chaves, and Tchi Sogoyou are second-year MA students who recently traveled to Cairo, Egypt as part of the International Development Practicum.

The Arab Spring took hold in Egypt on January 25, 2011, when tens of thousands of individuals stormed Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to the corruption, injustice, and economic stagnation crippling the country. Within 18 days, this protest had steamrolled into a revolutionary movement, ousting the 30-year-old Mubarak regime and exhibiting the political will of a new generation of Egyptian activists. Five years later, however, Tahrir Square stood empty. Gridlock traffic had engulfed downtown Cairo, prompting our taxi to stop before the infamous landmark, where we hesitated to pull out our cameras. As the deafening sound of car horns pierced the hazy din, it appeared to us that the taps of the revolution had run dry, leaving the desolate Square and a broader set of social fissures apparent in its wake.  

The revolution had highlighted issues of gender inequality and women’s empowerment, both in private and public spaces. Sexual harassment and assault were unfortunately common themes at public protests throughout the revolutionary struggle, giving the impetus for a wide range of initiatives directed towards their end. With the support of grassroots movements and regional civil society organizations (CSOs), these topics were propelled to the foreground. In fact, it was at Tahrir Square that Egypt’s first anti-sexual harassment movements and organizations were born. Men and women rallied around this common cause, standing together to deter harassment from taking place in public areas – whether through workshops, open-source incidence mapping, or direct intervention. Ultimately, what had once been a taboo subject mentioned only in hushed voices in passing became headline news. This wave of awareness forced government officials to take notice. 

“Before the revolution, sexual harassment wasn’t recognized openly as a problem,” one female activist in Cairo explained to us. “There was such a high tolerance for it that victims did not want to bear the stigma. As it happens, the word that was used for this implied ‘flirtation’ instead of ‘harassment.’” It took three years of hard work but CSOs and advocacy groups were successful in lobbying for constitutional amendments that explicitly addressed sexual harassment. While a robust achievement given the present political atmosphere, it is clear that limited legal reform is just a starting point in addressing gender-related constraints faced by Egyptians on a daily basis. On the backs of research such as the Promundo-led International Men Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), organizations have broadened the range of stakeholders whom they aim to bring into the fold of gender-based programming.  “Men, for example, are part of the equation too,” a CSO leader stated. “We can’t make progress until we involve men in the conversation and bridge the gap that divides these two genders.”

Optimism initially ran high in the years that followed the Arab Spring and talk of gender mainstreaming and gender equality started to become prevalent. However, under the administrations of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, CSOs began to face growing restrictions on their advocacy and programming efforts. Many organizations were forced into inactivity and others had to limit the degree of community involvement. Despite this crackdown, most CSOs have remained resilient - adhering to government policies despite the limitations they face.

UN WOMEN has assisted CSOs in a coordinating role, supporting and expanding upon the complex system of organizations that advance women’s rights and opportunities. Through one such program supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), UN WOMEN aims to expand the capacity of organizations so that they may adopt gender-based advocacy, programming, and research. This is particularly true for organizations that work among segments of the population that are less commonly provided with such services. We had arrived in Cairo to support that very project – to map and take stock of the organizations active and working with both men and women on gender issues. After interviewing over 19 organizations we were struck by how passionate and hopeful CSOs had remained, undeterred by the political hurdles (still) placed in their paths.

Yes – Tahrir Square stands empty, in stark contrast to January of 2011. Political regulations have all but banned street protests, and the gridlock traffic seems to mirror the political situation of the day. However, thanks to activists including those whom we had the good fortune to meet and learn from, attitudes and practices are in shift. The civil society in Egypt, to which we bore witness, is a testament to the winds of liberation and resistance that remain despite the current political climate. 

PHOTO CREDIT: Author photograph, by the Egypt practicum team.