The view from the 26th floor of Nawal el Saadawi's apartment in Shoubra Gardens, a working-class neighborhood in east Cairo, may once have been spectacular. But as I sit in a rattan chair in Saadawi's sunroom, enjoying a cool breeze and a view of the nearby Nile through the haze of a Cairo afternoon, I notice the rooftops below us are awash in trash and dusty satellite TV dishes. Like so much of Cairo, the tall modern buildings constructed during the heyday of Egypt's post-independence rush toward the future have seen their sheen since dimmed by decades of neglect and haphazard growth.
Saadawi, Egypt's most famous feminist and a political activist since that more optimistic era, sits on a couch in her well-kept, book-filled living room, giving an interview to a pretty young reporter from Al-Dustour. The paper, an independent newsweekly banned in 1998 and reconstituted in 2005, is among the most important opposition media in Cairo, and its revival was a sign of a new spirit of openness that had seemed to be blowing through Egypt since late 2004, ultimately culminating in the first multi-party presidential elections in Egyptian history last September. Saadawi, who is also a novelist and physician, understands the risks inherent in such moments and in being part of the movements that try to make them happen - she was imprisoned for 22 days during Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's notorious 1981 crackdown on feminists, intellectuals, and Islamists. She also understands the power of less obvious forms of social control. The young reporter wears a headscarf, but Saadawi, a thrice-married secularist, lets her own chin-length white hair tumble freely in soft waves above her blue-striped button-down shirt. After the reporter leaves, Saadawi tells me she is trying to convince the young woman to give up her scarf.
At the ripe age of 74, the woman who first broke barriers as Egypt's director of public health in 1972 - and then was ousted for her political views - has once again placed herself at the center of Egyptian political and social reform. Last spring and summer, she stood against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the presidential elections, running on a platform of women's rights and democratic reform before ultimately boycotting the elections. Now Saadawi is working to revive the Egyptian Women's Union, a coalition of feminists and women's civil society institutions she hopes will be able to win real reforms over time, but which was shuttered under pressure from Mubarak in 1991. With the winds of change at her back, Saadawi is gambling that the environment in Egypt may finally be open enough to organize again. "We were trying to establish the Egyptian Women's Union since 1999, but they obstructed our efforts up to now," she explains. "But we are gaining more members and power so maybe we will succeed this time."
The past two years have seen an unprecedented opening - and now, quite possibly a closing - of an era of political possibilities in Egypt. On December 12, 2004, a pro-democratic reform movement held what Islamica Magazine has called "the first explicitly anti-Mubarak protests in 24 years." The group sponsoring the protests, the Egyptian Movement for Change, became known as Kifaya for its simple slogan: "Enough!" Saadawi calls them "my good friends." Though its supporters numbered only in the hundreds, the group's impact was immediate. Mubarak came under pressure from US leaders who had grown temporarily interested in pushing for democratic reforms among authoritarian US allies. After Ayman Nour, the leader of the liberal opposition al-Ghad or "Tomorrow" Party was arrested, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a planned visit to Egypt in March 2005. Mubarak promised reforms and set a date for the first multi-party presidential elections in Egyptian history that fall. Nine candidates ran against him in September, though by then, Sadaawi had withdrawn from the race. "I was against Mubarak, and I had a program against his program," Saadawi tells me, having joined me in her sunroom overlooking the Nile. But she boycotted the elections in the end. "It was no democracy," she says. "It was dictatorship under the guise of democracy, so I boycotted."
Mubarak won re-election with more than 88 percent of the vote, and today Nour is again in prison convicted on forgery charges he claims are trumped up. By spring 2006, Kifaya protesters had become a regular feature of life in Cairo, using cell phones and text messages to organize small protests of 15 to 50 people who would rapidly distribute leaflets before melting back into the dense metropolitan population of more than 16 million. From an American perspective, such tiny gatherings would hardly seem a threat, but more formal protests of less than 200 people held in late April and mid-May in support of two judges on trial for their refusal to sanction rigged elections were met by thousands of riot police - armed with plastic shields and long, bark-covered sticks - who beat and arrested male and female protesters alike, as well as journalists. With America's regional power dwindling because of the Iraq War, and with the Bush administration distracted by the confrontation with Iran, Mubarak once again feels authorized to wield his authoritarian power roughly. At press time, those arrested during the late April and early May protests remain in prison.
Saadawi attended some of the early Kifaya protests, as well as anti-Iraq War demonstrations in the United States and Europe. But she is focused on building what she hopes will be lasting independent nongovernmental organizations. It's a challenge in a state where even the mosques are licensed by the government. A previous successful organizing effort in 1982 led to the creation of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association. It's still active internationally, but the group foundered in Egypt in the early 1990s, when its Egyptian branch was shut down along with the Women's Union. The risks that the new grass-roots organizing efforts will also be cut down are high. "If we become very powerful and threaten the status quo and the government, of course they will try to close us, as happened because we were 3,000 members in 1991," says Saadawi. "If we become 3,000 members and active, then they will close us. So it's a struggle."
Meanwhile, Saadawi the writer remains in high demand, with interviews stacked up one after another even on a Saturday, a brisk schedule of international appearances, and a new novel in the works. After being forced into exile from Egypt in 1992 by Islamists who placed her name on their death lists, the acclaimed author of Woman at Point Zero and more than 20 other books became a global star, appearing at conferences and marches around the world. She spent four years living in the United States, teaching courses on feminism and dissidence at Duke and other universities, before finally being able to return to Cairo. Now she splits her time between Egypt and overseas teaching appointments.
A secularist who so enjoys thumbing her nose at the restrictions of the Salafists that she offers me a beer mid-interview, Saadawi is also trying to warn Egyptian women that the Westernized mores they are adopting may be no more liberating than the traditions they are leaving behind. She decries makeup as a "post-modern veil," which leaves women just as focused on male ideas of female self-presentation as the headscarves Muslim women wear. And, while female circumcision was banned by decree in 1996, the practice remains widespread; a 2000 US Agency for International Development-funded survey "found that the practice is nearly universal among women of reproductive age in Egypt," declining to "only" 78 percent among those under age 20.
Such facts of life make the position of Egyptian women even more confusing as they negotiate a path between the overt visual sensuality of pop stars like the midriff-baring Ruby - Egypt is, with Lebanon, one of the two major producers of pop culture and music in the Arab world - and the growing prevalence of the ultra-conservatives' facial veils and thick black gloves and hose, which leave no part of the body exposed to air. Saadawi would consider it a major achievement if Egyptian women could even win equal inheritance rights, let alone real freedom. But that will require more than her individual action. It will require two things Egyptian reformers lack: real support from the West for democracy and freedom of association in Egypt, and not just for individual speech. "We have some democracy, but so long as I am alone," she says. "So long as Nawal el Saadawi is alone and I am not organizing women."
Garance Franke-Ruta is a senior editor at the American Prospect. She was previously a senior writer at The Washington City Paper, D.C.'s alternative weekly newspaper. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Monthly, The New Republic, Salon, Legal Affairs, Washington Business Forward, Utne Reader and National Journal. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1997 and has lived in Mexico, New Mexico and New York City.