09/27/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Why Morsi's Ouster and a Civil Society Offer Hope for Egyptian Women

In Pakistan, two politicians who opposed blasphemy laws were assassinated, and a woman was allegedly hacked into 10 pieces by her pious husband because she refused to wear a hijab. Morsi's Egypt was heading in this direction until he was deposed in a coup following massive public protests. Egyptian women should now ensure that the sexist policies of the Muslim Brotherhood are prohibited and fresh elections are contingent on the development of a civil society.

The Muslim Brotherhood under President Morsi brought in a new constitution that envisaged an Islamic state with state-sponsored empowerment of religious laws hostile to women, like marriage for girls aged nine. During Morsi's presidency, unveiled women were reportedly abused, and little attempt was made to prevent violence in the public space. Blasphemy was criminalized and directed mainly at the minority Coptic Christian community. After years of persecution, Copts faced imprisonment, more violence, and burning of churches, with significant escalation of attacks by pro-Morsi supporters since his ouster in July.

In the now suspended constitution, Article 2 stated that "principles of Islamic Sharia" were the main sources of legislation and Article 219, added by the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly in 2012, specified these principles in Islamist terms. This contentious article was removed in the new draft constitution, although Article 2 stands unchanged. References to criminalization of blasphemy and protection of morals by the state were removed.

The Arab Spring uprisings were meant to revolutionize the Middle East by initiating a new age of liberalism in a region characterized by despotic government. Women of all political and religious perspectives marched in the frontline of the battle for increased freedom but sadly, the changes brought more turmoil.

Long-term gender reforms require more than codified rights and laws. They also depend on the development of a civil society, which we take for granted in the West. This social order incorporates pluralism, an independent judiciary, a free press, freedom of assembly and association, trade unions, non-governmental organizations, an education curriculum with emphasis on reasoning, rather than rote learning, and fair elections.

Apart from non-corrupt voting, which is often hailed as the hallmark of legitimate elections, fair elections demand a multi-party system and a healthy opposition. Neither was present in the Egyptian election, setting the stage for a winner aimed at total victory, extinguishing opposition, and changing the rules in order to retain power. Indeed, Morsi fired Field Marshal Hussain Tantawi, the chief of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, and granted himself sweeping powers to change the law without judicial review.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won 43 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, since they were well organized, and had little robust opposition after the National Democratic Party under Hosni Mubarak was dissolved and only fragmented offshoots remained. The Brotherhood's major competition arose from another Islamist group, the hardline Salafist Nour party. These two Islamist parties were focused on promoting religious law to the detriment of policies that advanced women's rights, minority rights, security, and economic stability.

In Egypt, as in the wider region, the road toward women's rights can be obscured by elections that offer one authoritarian government replaced by another. The more religious the regime in power, the more autocratic and misogynist, as seen in the example of the Iranian theocracy that defends stoning sentences for adultery, and persecutes those women who show a lock of hair in public.

In the West, revolutions are associated with political and social progress; in the Middle East, they tend to look back to an idealized early Islam and the period of imperialism. Yet, the upheavals of the Arab Spring offer an element of hope in a young, Internet savvy population that has tasted the excitement of exercising raw political power. This group will not easily submit to dictatorship and rule by decree.

Minority and women's rights are unable to flower without a civil society. They are also a
barometer of its strength. In conflict with American values and the national interest, U.S. President Obama and his administration have sidelined liberals, reformers and minorities in the region. At the same time, they have supported the Muslim Brotherhood, ignoring the organization's exploitation of democracy and politicization of religion. They have also neglected the women's reform movement in Iran, which is arguably the only truly progressive revolutionary force in the Islamic world. These shortsighted, shameful policies are not worthy of a democratic superpower.