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Egypt's Troubling Transition

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Hosni Mubarak's trial has begun, but it's just a sideshow. The real action is happening in Cairo slums, places like Imbaba and Ain Shams. It's happening in Muslim Brotherhood meetings and the ongoing marches and protests throughout the capital city. Ask an Egyptian, and he or she will likely will tell you the revolution is still going on. The outcome will have a big impact on Egypt and the whole Middle East. So far, the results are discouraging.

We sent a team from HDNet World Report -- the show I produce -- to Egypt to see how the transition from dictatorship to democracy was progressing. Correspondent Maura Axelrod and cameraman Lucian Read were continually harassed; at one point they were literally chased by an angry mob of conservative Muslims threatening violence (Maura and Lucian were saved from harm by a group of more moderate Egyptians who gave them refuge in a mosque).

But that's not the disturbing part. What is disturbing is that the new Egypt might end up being worse than the old Egypt in important ways. Religious tolerance and women's rights, especially, seem to be moving backwards, and fast.

"It Will Continue ... "

For centuries in Egypt, Coptic Christians, the largest religious minority, and the Muslim majority have lived in relative peace. But since the January revolution, there has been a troubling uptick in sectarian violence. Churches have been burned, young people on both sides killed. Some of the worst violence has taken place in Imbaba, a teeming Cairo slum where Christians and Muslims live in extreme proximity to each other. In May, a street fight broke out that left two churches heavily damaged and fifteen people dead. Longstanding tensions and animosity are bubbling up in this uncertain time, after being held in check for decades by the Mubarak police state.

The question is, who is inciting this violence? One thing that both sides agree on is that 'outsiders' were present during the riots. "There were huge numbers of people from outside that [local residents] didn't know and didn't recognize," says Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a widely respected Egyptian expert on ethnic relations in the Middle East. "Why were they there and how did they come there? We have eyewitness reports that elements of what used to be the security apparatus in Egypt where there." Hellyer speculates that members of the former regime may be seeking to foment sectarian strife, making the security situation so bad that Egyptian voters, who head to the polls in September, long for the 'good old days' of stability -- if not freedom.

Is the Army complicit in an effort to strategically destabilize Egyptian society? Many we met believe so, since during the Imbaba violence and other riots, army units refused to intervene for hours, acting only after the damage was done, and lives lost. "They were just standing there as if useless. They are just useless I am sorry to say," a Coptic woman who lost her son in the Imbaba fighting told us through tears. A human rights organization recently went so far as to blame the Army's inaction for the deaths in Imbaba.

A local Coptic priest was asked if he worried the violence that killed seven of his parishioners would continue. He replied, "Yes, it will continue... the Muslim people promised us, 'just wait, we will burn every Christian house in the neighborhood.'

Women in the 'New' Egypt

Despite the integral role played by women and feminist groups in the January revolution, women are now largely being shut out of the nation-building transition. There are no women on the committee that is re-writing the constitution. "We feel we are betrayed," Fatima Khafaghi, a prominent feminist, told us. During the January uprising, "it was the most positive gender relations that all of us have seen, how men respected women, how they work together," she said. "We saw we are really entering a new era where the gender relations are different again with no discrimination, no differences." How wrong she was.

Egypt remains a deeply misogynist country. For women, being groped by strangers is a common occurrence. Female genital mutilation, long banned, is still common. However, under the Mubarak regime, women enjoyed more freedom than their Saudi or Kuwaiti sisters. Any hope that the modest progress made by women in Egypt might accelerate post-revolution seems a naive dream now, though. The Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant party in Egypt, is now seeking a rollback in the so-called "Suzanne Mubarak Laws" (so named for Egypt's former first lady, the laws' champion). These laws allow women to divorce their husbands, outlaw child marriage, and give mothers protection in custody disputes. The Brotherhood, however, says it needs no "imported" laws like these. Sharia law is enough to protect women, they say.

"Virginity Tests"

The level of brutality that Egyptian women can face was exemplified by the shocking attack on several women who were arrested during a peaceful march on, ironically, International Women's Day, in March. More shocking is the lack of any consequences for those who did it.

As they marched on Tahrir Square, enduring the taunts and threats of counter-protesters (male and female), several women's rights activists were arrested and dragged into the nearby Egyptian Museum by military police. There, they were restrained and subjected to so-called 'virginity tests,' which is simply a horrifying euphemism for a probing, sexual assault.

"Virginity tests alone are a form of torture. Of course I would doubt anyone would disagree with me there," said Shahira Aboullail, an influential activist and blogger who spoke to many of the victims. "They told us they would keep the windows and doors open to further humiliate them... and these were veiled girls and they were... I can't imagine what must have been going through their minds when they were taken to and in our museum of all places, in our sacred museum where people from all over the globe come to see, you know, the greatness of the ancient Egyptian culture! This is where you decide to torture people?"

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that no one has been arrested for these crimes, nor is there even an investigation.

Despite all this, Fatima Khafaghi isn't giving up on improving the lives of Egyptian women. "It seems the military council only reacts when there is a million people in Tahrir; we'll be a million women in Tahrir very soon. We're telling them 'No, we are powerful and you have to treat us with respect as full participants with full citizenship rights. We're not going to take it anymore.'"

There is still a Revolution happening in Egypt. Its outcome, far from certain.

Below are two clips from our World Report stories:

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