- Smoke and Mirrors:State-Sponsored Feminism in Post-uprising Egypt
in 2012, i carried out my first round of interviews with women in Egypt. I was then studying their experiences in the 2011 uprising that led to the ousting of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The aura that surrounded the interviews at that time was marked by cautious optimism, hope, and a belief in a better future. This aura, however, was short-lived, and soon came to an end with the resurgence of gender inequality and the failure of democratic transition in Egypt. Themes of despair and disappointment became fundamental features of my interviews in 2014, and more intensely in 2017, as female participants reflected on their experiences and their expectations for change following the uprising. Participants described the sense of feeling "worthless [belā qīmah],"1 "exhausted [ta'banah],"2 and "depleted [mu'damah]."3 However, whenever I asked if that was the end of change and reform, they hastily responded: "Not yet."
Activists often asserted that the experience of collective action had changed them and that "things" cannot return to the "old days."4 However, as other participants asserted during my interviews and as is still the case at the time of this writing, "things" seem by far worse in comparison to the "old days," which leaves unanswered the [End Page 365] question of what has really changed. The answer is that the agenda of women's rights did shift in the evolving political landscape that followed the 2011 Egyptian uprising, specifically with the revival of state feminism under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Al-Sisi's regime has sought to contain women's groups through policies of state-sponsored feminism, meaning the different ways in which the regime moves to offer limited advancements in women's rights during periods of economic development (Hatem 1992). In exchange for these limited rights, the regime sanctions independent feminist initiatives while it actually restricts their autonomy (Hatem 1992). Except for the brief period immediately following the uprising, state-sponsored feminism throughout Egypt's modern history has marked and governed gender politics, ostensibly laying essential foundations for improving the lives of women. However, in the absence of a strong independent feminist movement, this foundation was vulnerable to regressive backlash as soon as the political structure changed (Kato 2017).
Unlike the "first lady syndrome" (Elsadda 2011) associated with former Egyptian regimes, characterized by the first lady and her clique intervening on behalf of women's groups and championing women's rights, the president himself, in what I call "al-Sisi Syndrome," has personally taken on that responsibility. His policies have yielded significant developments and advancements but also challenges for women's rights in Egypt, including the populist discourses embraced by the regime to control the agenda of women's rights and to discredit independent feminists.
The backlash against women's rights in Egypt following the 2011 uprising underscores the ways in which state-sponsored feminism as a political opportunity is a "fickle friend" (Tarrow 1998, 89). It constantly shifts and changes and can eventually turn against members that contributed to opening this space and benefited from it. I prefer the term "flickering" to "fickle" because it encompasses the possibility that even if state-sponsored feminism does not outright turn on its members, it nevertheless engenders mixed outcomes and [End Page 366] disappointments. It creates a unique set of opportunities and challenges for the women's movement in Egypt. These opportunities and obstacles condition the development of the movement, the resonance of women's rights discourse, and the access of different women's groups to decision-making and political participation.
The policies of state-sponsored feminism under al-Sisi bear great resemblance to the gender policies of Mubarak's regime yet also entail new articulations. It is fruitful, therefore, to compare the historical and current contours of the policy and examine how the interests, identities, and strategies of different actors changed following the uprising. Doing so reveals the limitations of state-sponsored feminism in renegotiating the relationship between state institutions and civil society organizations. Such analysis also highlights the potential of state feminism to challenge gendered social norms and perceptions...