A group of young men in white t-shirts lock hands to form a cordon, keeping dozens of cheering and ululating women away from presidential hopeful Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he approaches a podium to address his female supporters at a conference in early May.
The women’s conference was organized as part of Sisi’s campaign, in which he met with women representing different sectors from across Egypt’s governorates. This was the candidate’s first popular meeting, according to his Facebook page.
“I will take a picture with each of you, it is my honor,” Sisi told the cheering attendees. As the women continued to relentlessly chant, “We love you Sisi,” he responded jokingly that they would “create problems with the men at home.”
After around six minutes of Sisi pleading with the women to settle down, asking them to allow him to talk to them because he “needs their help,” and after one of the organizers instructed the audience that “when the leader speaks, everyone should be quiet,” the candidate continued.
“No one can scare Egyptians,” he assured. “Chivalry, love, generosity and benevolence mean that no one is frightened, especially Egyptian women.”
The conference is only part of Sisi’s interaction with Egyptian women during his campaign. A large number of the marches held to support his candidacy across the country have been exclusively women’s marches. Last week, former MP Margaret Azer organized a women’s march in support of Sisi, using 30 boats covered in Sisi banners, in which over 800 women participated.
The media has been rife with flirtatious content centered around Sisi’s virility, masculinity and handsomeness.
After ridding the country of Muslim Brotherhood rule, Sisi became seen as the savior and protector of Egypt. A widespread rhetoric of “chivalry, generosity and benevolence” made women an important part of his campaign, not necessarily as beneficiaries, but as sympathisers with his masculine appeal.
Women’s rights activists blame him, his campaign and the overall political context for these circumstances. They see that Sisi’s speeches and interviews address women as housewives, mothers and sisters. Rarely does he allude to them as more than catalysts, and he generally refuses to acknowledge that they are political players in society, as part of the work force, for example.
In his first television interview as presidential hopeful earlier this month, with hosts Lamis al-Hadidi and Ibrahim Eissa, Sisi called on Egyptian women to help him by “encouraging [their] husbands and children to work … and saving electricity by going around the house and turning off the lights.”
The former field marshal said he is confident he has the support of the Egyptian woman, since she is “the calm, soft and rational voice in the house.”
“I am talking about the Egyptian woman who maintains her household, turns off the heater and the stove,” Sisi said in the interview. “I’m asking you now to preserve our bigger house — Egypt.”
In the same interview, he briefly tackled the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women, not by proposing solutions, but by reasserting his appreciation of Egyptian women. “On a personal level — and I hope no one misunderstands me — I love Egyptian woman,” he said, “All Egyptian girls will be my daughters.” He added that it “pains” him to see people hurting Egyptian women in any way, and that it contradicts the principles of chivalry.
The rhetoric of chivalry is not limited to Sisi and his supporters, it is also an extension of his image as an alternative to the president he ousted last year. Much of Sisi’s support today is still based on this moment.
“Sisi has eased into the position of charismatic heartthrob with the help of commentators and propagandists. Much of this positioning hinges on molding and remolding masculine and feminine traits and roles,” says Sherene Seikaly, professor of history and Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo.
“Around a year ago, adoring followers gushed over Sisi's status as ‘ragel’ (man) for taking on the big bad Muslim Brotherhood wolf. The celebration of Sisi as ‘handsome,’ as subjective and misguided such an assessment may be, comes in direct juxtaposition to Morsi's cross-eyed awkwardness; his penchant for suits just a size too small and a tone too shiny, and his bad luck that those moments of self-adjustment were caught on camera,” she adds.
The question of women in Sisi’s campaign seems to stop here. Hoda Badran, head of the Arab Alliance for Arab Women, blames this mainly on a campaign that should have pushed Sisi to learn more and be more concerned with women’s issues.
“The campaign’s view of women is skewed, and that’s why they cannot relay it to Sisi,” she tells Mada Masr.
The women’s conference didn’t reach out to civil society and women’s organizations, she says, adding that they would have done a better job of relaying women’s issues to the presidential hopeful. She also laments the absence of female leaders from the conference and the lack of transparency, as no one knows who the women in Sisi’s campaign are.
As for television appearances, Badran criticizes Sisi for speaking about women as if they don’t have any demands. “[He] didn’t even sit with women who could truly express the demands of various different women in society,” she says, with the disclaimer that there is no one person who can represent women and that women’s issues cannot be lumped in one basket.
Even for the purpose of raising his support, Badran says Sisi would have been better off liaising with female civil society. “Each organization could produce at least 25,000 votes for him.”
Badran believes the presidential hopeful should know what women want in return for their votes. “Civil society organizations can not only gather votes, but they can also urge the working woman to work an extra hour with no extra wage, to buy local products … Women can offer many things that can help him in his campaign,” she says. But they’re not just a queue at polling stations,” she adds.
Others say wider circumstances are not conducive to improving women’s rights. Dalia Abdel Hameed, gender and women's rights program officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, sees a larger contextual problem. For her, so long as there is no revolutionary movement, there can be no real improvement of women’s issues in Egypt. And this is where a Sisi presidency holds no potential for tackling women’s issues. “Sisi’s intentions are clear and show that he is against any kind of movements or protest,” she tells Mada Masr.
“The women’s movement is part of wider social and revolutionary movements. If the latter is regressing, then it will cause the former to regress as well,” she explains.
She predicts that Sisi will follow in the footsteps of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, whereby he will seek to nominally support women’s rights through minor legal steps, which will not impact on women’s lives in reality, because they are not radical enough.
For her and for Badran, the military background of presidents essentially stands in the way of meaningful state support for women’s issues.
“The only women in the military are nurses,” Badran says. “Sisi is not used to seeing working women, so it is his campaign’s responsibility to bring his attention to them.”
There is also a danger for women lying in the “militarization of society,” according to Abdel Hameed. The military reinforces all the stereotypes of the domestication of women, he says. In this context, even sexual violence is somehow normalized.
Few women remember the controversy that shrouded the former field marshal when, in March 2011, he justified the virginity tests conducted on protesters detained when the military violently dispersed a sit-in. The former head of military intelligence defended the practice to Amnesty International, saying it had been carried out on female detainees to “protect” the military against possible allegations of rape.
For Seikaly, the issue is even deeper than a military regime versus a civilian one. One feature of Morsi’s rule and one likely to carry on into Sisi’s regime, as showcased by his campaign, is trading politics for identity.
“Sisi's fluency in this rhetoric and these codes share at the end of the day a common thread with Morsi's fumbling persona. Both men, both regimes, sought, and relied on, the performance of identity as a substitute for politics. Both men, both regimes were obstinately focused on defining what it means to be Egyptian and the limits and exclusions of that category. The discussion on the fundamentals, like state brutality and economic injustice, fell comfortably to the wayside,” she maintains.