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Interview: Hoda Elsadda: Biggest conflict facing Constituent Assembly is the violent rivalry in the streets, on TV and the sharp division of society

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Freedoms and Rights committee head in the Constituent Assembly, Hoda Elsadda, affirms that criminalisation of discrimination is a must

Dr. Hoda El-Sadda (Photo by Aaron T. Rose)

Dr. Hoda El-Sadda
(Photo by Aaron T. Rose)

You are known for your academic work concerning women, and your founding of (Women and Memory forum), what is the difference between academic work, since there is a belief that academic work does not change on-ground reality, and your work in the constituent assembly?

I always define myself as a “researcher activist”, and I see that there is no conflict between both. I am a specialist in Literature, women’s writings, oral history, and I am concerned with the idea of integration of gender with Arab Cultural history, and I see that those things that may seem as unrelated to politics, is in the heart of politics. In the end, I hope that I am contributing in producing an alternative knowledge that is different than the mainstream, and to produce that, we should look back at history, and what it says about women. There are research questions that delve directly into feminist activity. For example, one of the most important questions that was researched by feminist researchers in the world is where do women stand in history. This was a question asked by the global feminist movement to respond to the claims that women are not present [in history] because they did not do anything. They [denied] these claims, saying that that there are many women who [had many achievements], but history marginalises them, intentionally and unintentionally, because of the supremacy of masculine culture.  Academic questions are often posed [to address real life concerns.] I am very concerned with the idea of producing knowledge that supports women’s liberation and feminist movements in Egypt, and I can say that strong research is the backbone of any strong [social] movement. This happened in all social movements; for example, the African American civil rights movement in the US was basically supported by a very strong research activity in Western universities, especially American ones. All liberation movements worldwide were supported by post-colonial studies. I see a direct relation between social movements and change, and producing a culture that supports this change.

What about your work in the Constituent Assembly?

I think that the step between public work and politics is a very small step, and we need to remember that before the 25 January [2011 Revolution], NGOs were the only open field for political work. The idea of limiting political work in Egypt through political parties before 25 January was wrong. Don’t forget that after 25 January, many feminist activists enrolled in political parties, which they considered as new open fields for political work. If you look at the party map in Egypt, you will find many new political players who originate from NGOs and Human Rights associations. So there is either no step, or it is very small.

How do you view the Constituent Assembly? What do you expect the end-result to be? How do you see the new constitution or the package of constitutional amendments?

I am aware that we are in a difficult situation. We are writing a constitution while there are people clashing on the street and dying, and with that in consideration, the assembly is better than I expected. There is no perfect thing in life, but it surpassed my expectations, not because I am a member of it, but because I see it more expressive of the Egyptian people than the previous assembly (in 2012), which had been dubbed “elected”. I believe that our battle in the upcoming phase is probably defining the terms we use, [since] what happened is an unnatural marketing of faulty ideas. [That said,] I feel that this assembly is nearer to the concept of “being elected” than the previous assembly. For example, syndicates’ heads are in the assembly because of their positions, and they are elected. 40 members were either elected as heads of their entities, or as representatives of them in the assembly, which is expressive of the diversity in Egypt. Ten members, the public figures, only were chosen by the office of the prime minister, but forty members were elected. I do not wish to comment on the choice of public figures, but they were chosen to balance some issues in the assembly. I see it as elected, and by all means better than the previous one. Whether we write a new constitution or just amend [the 2012 version], I do not care about the terms. The 10-judge committee presented an amendments draft; some of the amendments were radical, and that is the assembly’s starting point. The assembly has the absolute freedom to add, amend or remove articles, and the result of these efforts will surely be something new.

Once you knew that you were chosen as an assembly member, what were the first things that you hoped to see in the constitution?

I hope that we will write [our dream Constitution], one that befits what we have done in 25 January, and then in 30 June. We all hope for a country that we live happily in, see our children grow within its borders happily. We need to write a respectable constitution that expresses the hopes and ambitions of the Egyptian people. What is in our minds, naturally, is a response to fears that we find in reality. Our history is full of bad experiences. I would love to clear our relationship with security entities; we must have articles stating the citizen’s right not to be tortured, that his freedom or dignity will not be violated, and that he will not be tried in front of exceptional courts. These are clear issues for me, and I believe that these are the people’s demands. The second thing I want to focus on is discrimination, [which Egypt suffers from.] We have discrimination based on gender, against women. This is an old problem. The provocative speech against women did not start in the last year; what changed that it was on live TV, in our faces, in a surprising way. I hope to have an article that criminalises discrimination. Provocative speech against Copts is also present, but we [choose to] close our eyes, then we also saw it on live TV. These are very important issues that need to be discussed in the constitution.

What do you think about the number of women in the assembly? Do you see that the participation of five women is unjust?

Of course, the regime did not change after the [25 January] Revolution. Nothing has changed; there is only a blocked door that we are pushing against for three years now. Nothing has really changed, including the mentality. It is unjust, so the important thing is not only a criminalisation of discrimination, but I also hope to adopt that the state becomes committed to founding a policy of standing against discrimination. Let there be a public commissioner against discrimination that has similar powers to those of the general prosecutor. We do not need any advisory entities; the National Council of Women does a great job, but it is only advisory. We need an entity that has powers to face these societal disasters.

Dr. Hoda El-Sadda (Photo by Aaron T. Rose)

Dr. Hoda El-Sadda
(Photo by Aaron T. Rose)

How do you see the status of women in Egypt? How can that change by the constitution?

I was asked once if we can put an article in the constitution against domestic violence. [However], we need laws, not a constitutional article. The constitution should guarantee specific rights; it is the social contract between the people and the state so that if a conflict occurs, people can sue the state. What we need are clear concepts such as equality, non-discrimination and state’s justice. If it is totally in my hands, I would adopt an article about [affirmative action], but it will cause huge disputes, for many reasons. What I mean is temporary procedures to decrease the margin between a faction in society that was marginalised and the rest of society. So to save ourselves the fight, what we need is for the state to takes the necessary steps to ensure justice.

Can the constitution stop phenomena like underage marriage and sexual harassment?

The constitution has an important role; it can have clear articles guaranteeing children’s rights, articles [denoting] childhood as extending for 18 years, and articles against human trafficking so we can stop the misery of underage marriages. We need clear laws and constitutional articles; for example, currently a law concerned with violence against women is being discussed, presented by a large number of feminist groups. The law is aimed at strengthening the penalties for violence against women and to criminalise such violence, whether it is within the family or political. If this happens, it would be great. The constitution can support it by providing the general principles that would allow such a law to come to light. The constitution is all about general principles. There are many ways of writing constitutions; some people think it should be short, while some say that we should explain every article clearly no matter the length. There is some sense in writing articles that are responsible for facing specific problems.

Of Egypt’s minorities, some are highlighted, such as Copts and Sinai Bedouins, and some are not, such as the Amazigh in Siwa and Bahai’s? How can we guarantee rights for these minorities?

There is an agreement between a certain group in the assembly that discrimination has to be criminalised on the basis of origin, gender, geographical location and culture. This criminalisation [begins to address how we] think about minorities, as there is a clear move toward the creation of an article criminalising discrimination. What will happen in the issues of Women, Copts, Nubians and Bedouins is still open for discussion.

What are the obstacles that face the Constituent Assembly that would prevent writing a respectable constitution?

We have just started, so we still do not have concrete obstacles. Until now, the process is running smoothly. We have settled on a list of regulations organising the work of the assembly. As I previously said, we are writing a constitution during one of Egypt’s worst phases. We had a great achievement in 30 June; [we were going through misery], and we got rid of it quickly – but in fact, not totally. They always say that when you are writing a constitution, there should be a national consensus. I do not know how such a thing will happen, [since there is currently a great deal of conflict in] society. The biggest conflict that faces the assembly is the violent rivalry in the streets, on TV and the sharp division of society. The hate speech is on all levels, and between all people. I have seen people talking in a way I have never imagined. We are passing through a difficult situation, our nerves are tired, and the people have strong fears, to the point that they talk out of instinct, not reason, and this is a huge problem.

What about the 60-day-duration of the assembly?

It is surely a short period, but we are not writing a constitution from scratch. Efforts were [already] exerted, so we do not [need to] think about how to [start writing a new constitution]. Aside from the draft presented by the 10-judge-committee, Egyptians have been working on writing a constitution for the past two years. For example, we have great work done by human rights activists and groups, which have been there for two years. It was presented to the previous assembly, but only a few of those suggestions were approved. It was also presented to 10-judge committee. For example, the general commissioner idea I mentioned earlier has been there for a year, which makes work easier. The duration is short but we are not reinventing the wheel.

You were previously elected as the rapporteur of Rights, Freedoms and Rule of Law sub-committee in the assembly. What can we expect in that constitutional chapter?

We have a great committee, member like famous poet Sayyid Hegab, Mohamed Salmawy and Massaad Abufajr. We have human-rights specialists, so this is excellent. We discuss the chapter, then present our suggestions to the general assembly, and then to the wording committee. My opinion, for example, is that articles concerning education and health should be included in the Rights and Freedoms chapter, as they are considered human rights. The draft guarantees the freedom of belief, opinion and speech. The committee’s role is to think about articles that guarantee those rights.

Some reports said that you banned journalists from attending the committee’s meeting; is that true?

Nobody banned them, what happened is that we stayed for a day and a half to settle on the regulations list, which said that all deliberations should be transparent and available for media. This is for our own good as assembly members. The general assembly will be aired on TV, but the committee is a workgroup; we are 10 members, and if the backup members attend we will become 15. There, we discuss the articles whether to add, amend or remove. These deliberations need a quiet environment, so we decided that sub-committees meetings will not be attended by journalists. That day, many journalists came in, so I told the journalists to allow us to work without them and we would tell them what happened in the meeting later. I thought then that the issue was over, and so I was surprised when I got home [to hear] reports saying I kicked the journalists out of the meeting, which did not happen. The committee decided that it will publish its deliberations after its meetings. So we just ask journalists to understand the circumstances of our work, and that we need to finish a lot of work in a short time.

What can we expect regarding the military trials for civilians?

My personal opinion is that no civilian should be tried in front of a military court.

  • sam enslow

    Egypt has signed many international treaties concerning human rights, women’s rights, rights of children, freedom of the press, etc. Under international standards, treaties carry the same legal weight as constitutional law. Egypt would do well to include these treaties, agreed to, in its constitution. This would leave out the “except fors” that many want to place i it. It will be a struggle and require much work to realize these goals, but they can be reached. Even in the US we still fight to expand human rights against popular passions of the moment and to cover ALL citizens under the protection of The Constitution.

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