Interview: UN former official Mary Robinson looks at Egypt 'between optimism and deep concern'

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Friday, 27 January, 2012

In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, Mary Robinson says that the ruling military authorities need to transfer power as soon as possible and that the next constitution of Egypt needs to be representative of all segments of the Egyptian society.

"There is an opportunity to capture the extraordinary height of Egyptian culture and identity that allows for diversity," said Mary Robinson, member of the Elders – an international non-government organisation of elder statesmen, peace activists, and human rights advocates who established it in order to use their collective experience to address world problems.

A former president of Ireland and a former UN High Commissioner for Women's Rights, Robinson spoke to Al-Ahram Online by phone on the first anniversary of the 25 January Revolution. She stressed the need for Egyptians from all backgrounds, a year after the revolution, should unite in fulfilling demands for democratising the country.

Robinson suggested that, judging by the parliamentary elections which were conducted as part of a complex transitional political process, the transfer of power by the ruling authorities "as soon as possible" and an end to military trials should both be achieved.

“A central principle of all democracies is the subordination of the national armed forces to the authority of elected civilians”, said Robinson. “Egypt is no exception. We hope that the next steps will be accomplished in a timeframe that will allow elections for the presidency to go ahead by the end of June, as promised.”

Meanwhile, Robinson said that the elected committee to be entrusted to draft the constitution should conduct its work upon a shared vision to which the entire nation could subscribe – including minorities such as women and Copts.

Robinson underlined the importance of a clear demonstration of gender sensitivity and a reflection of Egypt’s diversity, which are necessary in the work of the constitution-drafting committee but must not undermine mainstream society.

"A thread of a real rule of law, checks and between the executive authorities and parliament and an independent judiciary" are all necessary for the continuation of democratisation in Egypt, Robinson said. However, she promptly added that female and Christian representation are integral to real democratisation.

"In Ireland we are currently considering the introduction of the quota system to secure the fair representation of women," which is still lacking since independence in the early 1990s.

Robinson expressed a carefully worded concern about the receding role of women in the political scene today, as opposed to the early days of the January 25 Revolution. She underlined the paradox in extraordinary, intelligent and active women being confined to a patriarchal society.

While expressing dismay over the very limited participation of women in parliament, Robinson was still hopeful that the presence and activism of women through social media will counterbalance parliamentary representation.

What counts most at this moment, as she noted, are the laws and legislations to be adopted by parliament – and of course the drafting of the constitution. Gender sensitive laws and legislations, she added, are not just about women's rights but indeed about development prospects that are hard to pursue in a context of anti-women bias.

Robinson said that news of the suspension of the campaigns to end female genital mutilation and to combat early marriages are "very worrying signs" – again not just for women but also for development.

"I see so much evidence to the advancement of girls and women and the advancement of a country," she said.

Robinson added that she was still hopeful that all parties concerned will realise that it is in the interest of Egypt to avoid going through a long process of excluding women and then coming back to their inclusion.

"The way forward should be for the inclusion of women in line with the relevant interpretation of Shariaa," the Elders member stated.

"Between optimism and deep concern" was how Robinson summed up her sentiment on the status of women's and for that matter other minorities' rights, in Egypt through the transitional phase and immediately after.

"It is the strength of Egypt that it is a country where different groups could live side by side," said Robinson. She added that the cultural tradition of diversity should remain integral to the modern identity of Egypt in post-January 25 Revolution times.

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