A Vital Voices staff member shares her experience from Cairo during the violence on October 9. All names and identifers have been changed to protect the safety of those mentioned below.
In February, at our Policy Advocates Workshop in Amman, Jordan, held only eight days after the Revolution began in Egypt, our Policy Advocates team from Egypt shared their excitement and hope for a new democracy in their country, where everyone would be treated as equals. They decided to create a gender platform for the new government structure, creating a women’s agenda that would include the opinions of Egyptian women of all ages, regions, religions and backgrounds in the upcoming parliamentary elections, as well as in any political, social, and economic decisions which would affect Egypt’s future.
In the past few weeks, team leaders Sarah, Zeinab and Maryam* have told me that, although they and many other women stood side by side with men in Tahrir Square, women have all but disappeared since the Revolution. Women are not only absent from post-Revolution leadership, but leadership in the judiciary, academia and key ministerial positions. Additionally, the military government abolished the Mubarak-era quota that mandated 64 seats in Parliament be reserved for women.
I arrived in Egypt to meet with the Policy Advocates team this weekend and was scheduled to meet Sarah and Maryam at my hotel at 6 p.m. on Sunday, October 9. Sarah warned me that she might be late because of heavy traffic due to a Coptic demonstration at the Maspero television station, which was about a mile from my hotel. The Copts had planned a peaceful protest against the demolition and burning of a church in Aswan and against the discrimination that Copts face throughout Egypt.
At 6 p.m., I spoke to Sarah by phone and she said that she was stuck in her car in traffic and that “bullets were flying.” The army had started firing live ammunition on the demonstrators and several were dead and wounded, but instead the Egyptian media and television newscasters reported that members of the army were being attacked and killed by Copts. They encouraged civilians to go out on the streets and “defend the army.”
When I next reached Sarah by phone at 8 p.m., she was coughing heavily and could barely speak from being tear gassed. She had been beaten by one of the “thugs” that came out to defend the army. Maryam had also been beaten by a member of the army in nearby Tahrir Square. Sarah told me that she would be ok physically – she was used to the beatings – but that her heart was broken. She was worried for her friends who were at the demonstration and were now missing. No one knew if they were dead or alive.
When I asked what I could do, she told me to tell everyone the truth: that the army was shooting and killing civilians, driving tanks into crowds of people, and that the media was lying. She also said that they needed ambulances badly. There were hundreds of civilians wounded and not enough ambulances to help them. I promised to tell everyone I could and asked her to keep me informed of her safety.
That evening, as I listened to gunshots outside the hotel, I watched, horrified, the videos posted on Twitter and other sites that showed army tanks crushing civilians and army soldiers shooting into crowds, and could only pray for the safety of our women and the rest of the civilians. Sarah and I communicated on Skype and Twitter late into the night, and the next day she was able to find her friends, though one of them was severely injured.
When I met Maryam, Sarah and Zeinab on Tuesday, Maryam and Sarah said that their physical wounds would heal but their emotional scars will last much longer. The enthusiasm and hope that they had in February for a different Egypt has been replaced with some trepidation, as no one knows what to expect or what the future holds. Yet, as I write this, my Twitter feed just updated me that Sarah is heading back to Maspero and Maryam is training a group of young women to run for Parliament. Women may have disappeared from the post-Revolution leadership in Egypt, but these women are certainly continuing their fight.