An afternoon with Mona Makram Ebeid

April 04, 2011 By Sankalita Shome / Photos by Faris Hassanein
Mona Makram Ebeid has many claims to fame - a member of parliament from 1990-1995, advisor to the World Bank for the MENA region, professor of sociology and political science at the American University of Cairo and an activist for women and human rights, are just to name a few. More recently, she was part of a group of women that were invited to meet with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to offer suggestions and insights on the current situation.

“To ignore the street is to ignore moral sensibility at the expense of the wise conduct of politics.” These words penned by Ebeid in the year 2009 sound prophetic in light of the recent events, but Ebeid insists that she could see it coming since the situation in Egypt had become “unbearable; the gap between the have and the have-nots had widened and the conditions were reminiscent of those prevailing on the eve of the revolution in the year 1952.”

However, what epitomizes Ebeid is her fearlessness in speaking her mind, which has, on occasions, got her into trouble. Like the three times when her candidature for ministerial posts was cancelled or the time when her stint in Parliament came to an abrupt halt. “I was considered to be too independent-minded and as one who could not take orders,” says Ebeid.

Her foray into politics can be considered to be a natural progression; she is the granddaughter of the illustrious Makram Ebeid Pasha, who was a leading figure of the struggle against the British mandate in 1919. As a child, she loved sitting at his feet and hearing him recount his experiences in exile. “My grandfather would always describe me as ‘the girl with personality’,” she recalls fondly.
Community Times spoke to Mona Makram Ebeid on a range of issues afflicting the nation at this point of time, and she offered her opinion in her trademark fearless and outspoken manner.

Building Blocks of Democracy

Even though it looks that the hardest part has been accomplished with Mubarak’s departure, but the real challenges lie ahead. Amending the constitution and holding elections are only part of the story. Ebeid agrees that this is the most difficult phase and says that the need of the hour is to build and strengthen institutions so that individual rights can be protected; as well as to build credible alternative opposition forces to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

The Threat of a Theocratic State

Elaborating on the power enjoyed by the MB, Ebeid attributes it, in part, to the fact that they are the only organized political force, who have been opposing the regime. “Standing against the dictatorship gave them a certain mystique. The idea is not to oppose them as a party; on the contrary, the great mistake of the former regime was to isolate them from the political arena through harassment and arrests, which increased the sympathy towards them. Today, the challenge is to incorporate them in the formal political arena, and with time they will become just another political actor, assuming that with time there shall develop other credible alternatives.”

Minority Rights

The 25 January Revolution saw all Egyptians; irrespective of gender, religion or social status participate with equal fervor to achieve the goals of the revolution. Yet, the women and Coptic Christians are at risk of being marginalized in the decision making process. Their representation in the parliament, over the last few decades, has been woefully low.

Quotas and reservation for minority groups are used by governments all over the world to ensure their participation in mainstream politics. Ebeid rejects such reservation as ‘demeaning’ and advocates electoral reforms that will make it mandatory for every political party to follow the system of proportional representation electoral lists and to ensure that women, Copts and youth are included in the candidates that they present.

She has great hopes pinned on the new generation of Copts; she hopes that they will participate in force in the upcoming elections by joining the new or the older parties, in greater numbers.

She also suggests having a mixed proportional representative system, that will allow independent candidates, who do not subscribe to the ideology of any of the parties, to contest elections.

Sectarian Violence: Danger of Losing the Bigger Picture

The days leading up to the referendum on amendments to the constitution split Egypt’s political scene, with the MB urging people to vote ‘yes’ and the secular forces urging them to reject the amendments. The period also saw an increase in sectarian violence, which resulted in several deaths and injuries.
Ebeid was witness to the Muslim and Coptic solidarity at Tahrir Square during the 18 days of the 25 January Revolution. She, herself, was urged to take the podium on two occasions and to address the protestors. She recalls the time when a Christian priest conducted a mass in the Coptic language at Tahrir Square and the Muslim audience responded with an “Amen” at the end of it. The escalating sectarian violence angers her after such “magnificent and beautiful’ episodes of unity and she attributes the sectarian divide to “outside forces.” But she is quick to clarify that she does not mean the foreign forces, but forces outside of Tahrir, like “the thugs and the remnants of the NDP, who are trying to provoke chaos.”
She is proud of the fact that the Copts are coming out of the shadow of the church and demanding their rights in front of a government institution; “For the first time, young Copts act as Egyptian citizens, not as Egyptian Christians.”

She is referring to the recent demonstrations by the Copts in front of the state television building, Maesparo, denouncing sectarian violence and demanding the rebuilding of a burnt church in Sol village. “The old formula was that the decision was between Mubarak and the Pope; today that formula is dead and the young Copts are taking the initiative.”

Ebeid feels that “The road map today should include the joining of the ‘liberal’ opposition with moderate Muslims, [there is a need] to have alternate Muslims who don’t want to see a repeat of the Iranian model. Egyptian democracy cannot work until Muslim and secular groups, who both care about freedom (excluding the MB), develop the ability to refrain from fighting with one another and organize themselves as credible alternatives.”

In fact, as one of the suggestions made to the Prime Minister Sharaf, she has asked that attacks against religion and places of worship to be regarded as a criminal offence.  

De-constructing the ‘Yes’ Vote

What does the ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum mean? This is a question on the minds of all Egyptians. Explaining the ‘yes’ vote, Ebeid said that this means that the MB who wanted to have early elections, before the opposition forces have a chance to organize themselves, have won the first round. “Now they are trying to form a coalition with the different opposition groups to compel the military to accept civilian rule this year.”

“Following the referendum, it is clear that, now, there are three forces competing for control over Egypt - the army, the MB and the various opposition forces. [This situation is] reminiscent of old times; before the 1952 revolution, there was also the monarchy, the British and the Wafd Party. Like then, the outcome depends on which two will work together to defeat the third; whoever stands alone will eventually lose.”

Moving Forward

Sequencing is essential to ensuring  a smooth transition to a functioning democracy but the ‘yes’ vote on the referendum means that Egypt does not have the luxury of time on its side.

“Ideally, I would have preferred that both the parliamentary and presidential elections take place after one year,” reveals Ebeid, as it would give the youth a chance to organize themselves into political parties and the conservative and the established parties could use the time to restructure. “The increased time span would also give the chance to have a wider debate on the constitution, to get a consensus in order to achieve a social contract.”But the reduced timeline means that the nascent and the fledgling political groups will have to move faster to mobilize and reach out to the people, create awareness and educate them on what constitutes a civil society. Ebeid is optimistic and feels that the young protestors, who were so successful in Tahrir, will be able to rise to the occasion and organize themselves into credible and effective political groups in the short span leading to the parliamentary elections. Ebeid  loves to listen to the youth, “Because perhaps they have ideas that does not cross our minds. We have been much too theoretical  all these years. We have said what we said, but never executed it. The time for words is passe, it is now time for action. Egypt has the potential to become the region’s model for democracy. The challenge is not to fritter away this opportunity!”

To know more about Ebeid’s initiative,