Egyptian Feminist Nawal El Saadawi on Bush’s 'Democratization' of Middle East: “We Were Fighting For Years…They Deprive Us of Our Struggle”

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Amid growing street protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has called on parliament to change the constitution to allow opposition candidates to run for president. We speak with famed Egyptian feminist, psychiatrist and author, Nawal El Saadawi. She has been jailed, threatened with death and now plans to run for president. [includes rush transcript]

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called on parliament last month to change the constitution to allow opposition candidates to run for president. Under the current system, Egyptians vote for president every six years, choosing “yes” or “no” for a candidate approved by parliament. Mubarak has ruled since 1981 and will seek a fifth six-year term in September. If Parliament approves the political reform, Mubarak will face opposition for the first time.

The surprise move came amid unprecedented protests in the streets of Cairo. A coalition of political groups composed of Islamists, Nasserists and secularists, have joined forces to stage the public demonstrations opposing the renewal of Mubarak’s presidential term. The coalition is named the Egyptian Movement for Change, more commonly known as the “Kifaya”–or “enough”–movement.

A few days ago, 500 protesters gathered outside Cairo University for what is being called the largest anti-Mubarak demonstration ever. Egypt has been under Emergency Law for over 20 years and public demonstrations are banned.

Among the Kifaya movement’s demands are modifying the constitution and opposing the succession of Gamal Mubartak–the president’s son–who many say is being groomed to replace his father. They are also calling for the release of, what they say, are 20,000 illegal detainees from prison. Among those detainees is Ayman Nour, a leader of the new opposition party El Ghad–or “Tomorrow.” He was arrested for allegedly forging signatures to secure a license for his party.

We turn now to Nawal el Saadawi, an internationally known feminist, human rights activist, psychologist and writer who is planning a run for the presidency of Egypt. For decades, El Saadawi has worked tirelessly on behalf of women in Egypt and the Middle East. Her novels and books on the situation of women in Egyptian and Arab society have had a deep impact on successive generations of young women. She is the founder and current leader of the Arab Women Solidarity Association, which was closed by government decree in 1991.

Her writings and activism made her the target of public condemnation and even imprisonment. Former President Sadat put her in prison and she was not released until one month after his assassination. El Saadawi was forced into exile in the mid-1990s after state suppression of secular thinkers forced her abroad to work.

She is a winner of several national and international literary prizes and has lectured all over the world. Her books have been translated into 30 languages. She is currently teaching at Scripps College in Claremont, California where she joins us on the line.

  • Nawal El Saadawi

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: She is currently teaching at Scripps College in Claremont, California, headed back to Egypt this weekend. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Nawal El Saadawi.

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Welcome to you. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to speak to you again. Can you talk about the announcement of Mubarak to have elections, and how you decided that you will run for president?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: I decided because, you know, I live in Egypt. I come here for just one semester or half semester. So at my home in Cairo, many young people who are unemployed, you know, that university graduates, men and women — there’s a high rate of unemployment in Egypt. And they come to me because they know that I travel so they tell me, 'Can you find a job for us outside?' So their only hope is to immigrate. And then I told them, 'If all young people immigrate and the university graduates immigrate, who will stay and fight?' So they told me, 'So why don't we fight?’ And then they told me, 'Why don't you fight?’ So I tell them, 'Well, I'm writing, I’m fighting.’ They said, 'You should run and be the president of Egypt.' So, it was just something that I never thought about, and then we discussed it, and then I was convinced, and I am running. And I know that maybe 99%, I will not win because of the Constitution, because of many other things, but still, it’s symbolic and it’s just breaking the taboos that ordinary people can run for the presidency, men and especially women. So, that’s why I did it.

AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, what is your response to those who say now that President Bush is making democracy break out through the Middle East, elections in Iraq, in Palestine, now Mubarak announcing he will hold elections.

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: This is, in fact, a joke, ridiculous, and it makes me furious, because they deprive us of our struggle. First of all, George Bush is not democratic. He is a global dictator. He is even a dictator here in the United States. I have a lot of friends here in the United States who did not elect him and, in fact, democracy even — democracy in the United States is questioned, because it’s not democracy. What do we mean by democracy? Is democracy just to go and vote, or is it that all people from all classes can really govern themselves? So we have to understand what’s democracy. George Bush cannot bring democracy to the United States, so he cannot bring it to other countries. That’s number one. Number two, we cannot have democracy and freedom under foreign occupation, and we suffered under the British. I was young at that time. So now we have the American Empire. So these elections in Palestine, in Iraq, in any country is just a joke, ridiculous. It’s a big lie. If we come to Egypt, I think what Mubarak said, because of the internal pressure, we did a lot of demonstrations. Last December, I was in the streets with the people in demonstrations, and the demonstrations in the last few months were continuous. And we were collecting signatures to change the Constitution. So we were fighting for years. And then they come and tell us, that’s because Condoleezza Rice made a pressure on Mubarak or George Bush made a pressure on Mubarak. This is — I call this is a new type of imperialist, because they do not take our resources, our oil, our materials, so they take also our efforts, our struggle for freedom. They take it and rob it of us, and they say that they are bringing us democracy and freedom. This is a big lie.

AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, you’re going to be returning to Egypt in a few days. What do you make of the Kifaya movement, translated as “enough.” This, a coalition of Islamist Nasserist secularists who are joining in these unprecedented public demonstrations opposing the renewal of Mubarak’s term, also calling for the release of political prisoners.

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Yes, I think this is the natural development, because we have been living now under Mubarak since 1981, since the assassination of Sadat. So this is a process that the Egyptian people, men and women, were angry, were fed up, and they wanted a change. And that’s why the word “kifaya” means “enough.” Enough is enough. And, in fact, the founder — the demonstration was organized, in which I participated, was organized by the Enough group. And we have the left group, we have democrat — the progressives, we have the liberals, we have the — even some of the capitalists. We have the Islamic progressive groups. Many, many groups are in this popular movement, and that’s the new development that gives us hope, in fact, that changes will happen in Egypt. But in relation to what Mubarak said, I think that we need three things. Number one, that they should do it now, because Mubarak declared a few days ago that it’s a process, and it will take time, because the elections will be in the autumn, in November. So if they are delayed, then it has no meaning. Then, the two-thirds, because in order to be a candidate, two-thirds of the members of the parliament should approve of me or any candidate. So if the two-thirds is not omitted from the Constitution, then nobody can run the elections, because, you know, the party of the government, they own 90% of the members. The other thing, all laws in Egypt, including the emergency law, the martial law, the law of parties, the law of N.G.O.s, should be changed so that the people in Egypt could organize from now. Because, you know, our organization was closed down illegally by the government. The law of organization inhibits people and puts limitations on people to organize. So how can we have free elections if the people cannot organize themselves?

AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi is our guest. Nawal, what keeps you going? I mean, you have been threatened with death a number of times. What gives you the courage to speak out in the way you have and also take on very sensitive issues like women and sex?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Well, I do not — women are half the society. They are affected by war. They are affected by unemployment. You know, most of the young women in Egypt are unemployed, graduating from universities. So women are half the society. Anything affects the society affects women, so I do not separate whatsoever between the struggle to liberate women and the struggle to liberate our country from colonialism, from economic domination, from anything. So it’s natural. You know, I am a medical doctor. Why should I speak about politics or — I do not separate between health and politics, between poverty and politics, between the World Bank and the I.M.F. and the struggle for democracy. So, it’s all connected. And I am a novelist. Why should a novelist, you know? So I look to life as something very much connected and integrated, and I have to be in Egypt. It’s my country, my family, my children, my daughter, my son, my husband. The members of our association that was banned are still there waiting so that we can bring it back if the law is changed. So, this is my life. I have to fight there, and I come here just because I cannot teach in Cairo, you know? I told them I’m ready to teach in Cairo University without a salary, but they don’t allow me to teach in Cairo, so I teach in Europe and in other countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, the discussions going on about the release of Ayman Nour, the leader of the new opposition party, El Ghad. Can you tell us who he is?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: In fact, I have never met him, but I heard about him, that, you know, he is one of the people who are struggling, and he started his party. It’s very difficult to start a party in Egypt. I wanted to do a political party. They told me, women are not allowed to have a political party. So now when I go back, I will try if the law is changed to start a party. So he was very, very effective when he started his party. So he should be encouraged not to be put in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, in this Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day coming up, what message do you have for women not only in Egypt, but here in this country?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Well, I tell them what I tell myself: Nobody is going to liberate anybody. We have to liberate ourselves. Women are going to liberate themselves. The working class are going to liberate themselves. You know. So nobody replaces anybody, because some women will say, we’ll wait — especially in our region — we’ll wait for men to liberate us. No, we have to liberate ourselves. Our countries have to liberate ourselves. Democracy, freedom comes from the inside, from the people themselves who are suffering. Women are suffering from double oppression, triple oppression, so they have to start and to have to fight for their freedom and for independence, at all levels, not only the sexual, not only the cultural, the political and the economic, and at the global and local level. I like very much the word global, because it brings — we live in one world. I’m very much against those people who say we belong to the third world. This is an insult. We live in one world, and we have to fight globally, locally and globally.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much, Nawal El Saadawi. Have a safe trip back to Egypt. Plans a run for the presidency of her country.

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