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Egyptian Feminist, Playwright and Activist Nawal El Saadawi Defies Threats to Speak Out for Women’s Rights, Democracy in Egypt

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Renowned feminist, psychologist and writer, Nawal El Saadawi, joins us in our firehouse studio to discuss Egypt’s recent constitutional amendments, the Muslim Brotherhood, and she is facing a political and religious campaign mounted against her by the authorities at Al-Azhar. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: In Egypt, voter turnout for a controversial referendum on amendments to Egypt’s constitution was just 5 percent, according to human rights groups, far lower than the 27 percent reported by the government. Last month’s vote was boycotted by opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

While the Egyptian government billed the amendment package as a democratic reform, the changes are widely seen as securing President Hosni Mubarak’s hold on power. The amendments add powers to the Constitution that would allow the president to more easily dissolve Parliament and give him free rein to suspend civil liberties and imprison anyone deemed a terrorist threat. The changes also ban political activity based on religion and water down judicial supervision of elections. Amnesty International described the amendments as “the greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Egypt meeting with President Mubarak a day before the referendum. Rice was not highly critical of the changes. She said, “The process of reform is one that is difficult. It’s going to have its ups and downs.” Egypt receives just under $2 billion a year in aid from the United States.

Joining us today is one of Egypt’s most renowned human rights activists, Nawal El Saadawi, well-known feminist, psychologist, writer, former political prisoner in Egypt. She lived in exile for years due to numerous death threats made by several organizations. Nawal El Saadawi joins us in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s wonderful to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you start off by talking about this referendum that took place? What’s its significance?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Well, it is going back to dictatorship under democracy, and that’s exactly what is happening globally, not only in Egypt. So Mubarak is just imitating what George Bush is doing: more dictatorship under democracy — deception.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the human rights groups saying 5 percent of the people came out, the government saying something like 27 percent of the people came out to vote?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: They’re lying, you know. People in Egypt are 50 percent under the poverty line — 50 percent under the poverty line — because of globalization and neocolonialism. So people, in fact, are not in politics. They just look and laugh, and, you know, the Ministry of Interior, they put figures — 27 percent, 50 percent, 99.9 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you describe the president, Hosni Mubarak?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Well, he’s following in Sadat policy — following the Sadat policy, and Egypt became an American colony. Going back to dictatorship under democracy, to poverty, underdevelopment, you know, everything is upside-reversed. It’s publicity, the media, but when you go there, you find unemployment increasing, poverty increasing, women oppression increasing, veiling of women increasing, fanaticism, religious fanaticism. And Condoleezza Rice comes and goes to Egypt and say, “OK, OK,” you know, or sometimes some criticism, you know, paving — paving the ground for more dictatorship and more poverty and more neocolonialism.

AMY GOODMAN: You are facing threats right now, a political and religious campaign mounted against you by the authorities of Al-Azhar. Can you explain who they are and explain the play that has generated this controversy?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: You know, Al-Azhar, my father graduated from Al-Azhar as an Islamic scholar, and he was against the education, the Islamic education, in Al-Azhar. He was critical because they were teaching Islam in a very backward way.

AMY GOODMAN: Al-Azhar is the most famous Islamic university.

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: The Azhar University, it is the highest Islamic institution in Egypt, in the Islamic world, like the Vatican to the Christians. And, in fact, they spoiled Islam. They educated people Islam in a very distorted way.

And my father graduated and then started to rebel against Al-Azhar. And they collaborated with the British colonialism. While we were students fighting against the British and against the king, they were collaborating with us — with the British and with the king. So their history is black.

And they fight any intellectual, any writer that is a bit critical. And, you know, what I did in my play — my play, the title is God Resigns at the Summit Meeting. And it is, in fact, the conflict between two conceptions of God. My grandmother, who came from the village — illiterate woman — she told me when I was young, “God is justice, and we know him by our brain. God is not a book.” God is not scripture that people differ in interpretation and then kill each other, like Sunni and Shia in Iraq and Christians and Muslims, etc. So I understood Islam in a very, very, you know, liberal way, that God is justice. We fight for justice. If we fight for justice, we are more religious than those who go to pray. So Al-Azhar didn’t like my play, because it’s against the education of Azhar in the university, and they don’t want people to understand that God is just justice. They want only the scripture, you know, the Qur’an, the book, the Bible.

AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, you are leading a campaign for children to be able to take their mother’s names. Explain the context of this and why.

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: You know, in fact, it’s my daughter who’s a writer and a poet. Her name is Mona Helmi. And she is a columnist in a weekly magazine in Cairo called Rose El-Youssef. On Mother’s Day, she said, “What am I going to give my mother, a present? A shoe or a dress? So my present to my mother is to carry her name.” So her name will be Mona Nawal Helmi.

And she said this will solve the problem of two million illegitimate children in Egypt. You know, in Egypt, according to the law and according to Islamic law and to the legal law, if a child has no father, he carries the name of the mother, but he is considered illegitimate with no human rights. But if we give back the owner to the mother and the child can have the name of the mother, then he can have human rights, and we can really omit the word “illegitimate” from our law.

So the country was divided: 50 percent with her and 50 percent against her. And some Islamic scholars were against her. But, of course, Al-Azhar and the traditional Islamic institutions and the political institution were against that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the recent visit of, really, the number two man in the U.S. Congress in the House, Steny Hoyer — Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker’s right-hand man — meeting with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, apparently at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Egypt? The significance of this? The U.S. congressmember meeting with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood at the home of the U.S. ambassador in Egypt, Cairo.

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Yes. Well, the history — if we go back to the history of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, they were supported by the British colonialism, and they negotiate with the American neocolonialism. You know, we know their history. You know, we know the history of the Muslim Brothers. And they work for power, for power, at any expense. And they can — since they collaborated with the British, why not — with the British colonialism, why not collaborating with the American neocolonialism?

AMY GOODMAN: They are currently banned in Egypt?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Well, sometimes banned. I can say semi-banned.

AMY GOODMAN: Though tolerated?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Semi-banned, tolerated. Like, you know, usually I say George Bush and bin Laden are twins, you know. The Muslim Brothers and neocolonialism are twins, like George Bush and bin Laden.

AMY GOODMAN: And what role do they play in Egypt? And what kind of repression do they face?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Well, they use Islam. Under the name of Islam, under the name of God, they can do anything — you know? — deceive people; do some services, superficial services, to people in order to brainwash them, you know; create a conflict between Christians and Muslims; veil women. So women, instead of being really fighters against political oppression, they veil their heads. So it’s a lot of deception under the name of religion, which is very dangerous, because the veil of the mind is very serious in Egypt now, veiling the mind of women and men by the Muslim Brothers.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think it’s most important for Americans to understand? What is most important for Americans to understand about Egypt today?

NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Well, they should know it’s useless: They cannot colonize Egypt. They cannot, economically or politically. And even Iraq. America, U.S. government, in a mess in Iraq now, even more than Vietnam. So they should know that it is impossible to invade a country against the will of the people, even if the people are not organized.

The problem of Egyptians, they are not organized. We are prevented from political organization. Our association, which was a women’s association, was banned by the Egyptian government in 1991, because we stood against the Gulf War of George Bush, the senior, the father.

So, in fact, the U.S. should know — I mean the U.S. government, not the people, because I like the American people, like you, fighting with us. So, the U.S. government, George Bush administration, should know it’s useless. They have to come out of Iraq [inaudible]. They have to come out of Egypt politically and economically, because the people will win.

AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, too little time, but thank you so much for being with us, renowned Egyptian feminist, human rights activist, writer, former political prisoner and presidential candidate. She will be speaking tomorrow night, Thursday night, in New York at the Brecht Forum at 6:30, which is at 451 West Street in Manhattan. Thanks so much for being with us.

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