An activist, feminist, Copt and one of the very few female members of the now-dissolved Egyptian parliament, Margaret Azer has been a presence in the Egyptian political and social scene for years.
In 2007, Margaret Azer co-founded the liberal Democratic Front Party and later became its first female Secretary General. She then joined the Wafd Party and became the first woman who was elected to the Parliament instead of being appointed by the President.
Azer entered the political arena because she wanted to use her knowledge of ordinary citizens’ needs and translate it into policy. However, now that the Parliament is dissolved, and with no clear picture of what the new Assembly will look like, her political position is temporarily on hold. Your Middle East talked with Azer about the state of Egypt and her political future.
What made you go into politics? Did you have any specific issues that you wanted to address? Was your family politically interested or involved?
Yes, my family was always interested in politics. My grandfather for example, was a member of Al Wafd Party and a member of the Egyptian Parliament. The thing that made me go into politics, was that when I set up a charity that provided services to people, I discovered through my work that these services alone can’t serve the community. The local neighbourhood councils were not in touch with the ordinary citizens and they often ignored pressing issues like poverty. The Parliamentary members that represented the neighbourhoods didn’t do much for the people either. I wanted to improve my neighbourhood in North Cairo and I wanted it to be a role model for other suburbs in the city, but I was frustrated that I could not make real changes. I thought that the process of elections would be key to solving the problems, so we started out organizing training courses for people to make them aware of the electoral process and the opportunities it provides. That was my first step into politics.
You were the first woman to enter Parliament without the appointment of the President. What is your opinion on Presidential appointment of minorities in Parliament, instead of elections?
I reject the idea of Presidential appointments completely, but I have an alternative proposition and that is a temporary quota for women or Copts, until we have fully accepted the idea that women are able to work and there is no difference between Muslim and Christian. We need to go back to the times when Muslims elected Christians and vice versa, and men elected women and vice versa.
What do you think was the “secret” of your success in the first elections?
Firstly, my success goes back to my campaign team who made a big effort before and during the election, and also to my constituency, which encompassed some liberal neighbourhoods such as Heliopolis and Nasr City. I also think the people know that I do not have any special interest at heart, but that I work for the common interest. This may be the secret to my success.
The participation of women in Parliament is very low. What do you think are the reasons for this?
The low participation of women in parliament is due to several reasons. Firstly, there is the culture of a society that doesn’t accept the presence of women in the field of public work, and political work in particular. The second reason is that there is no will of the political forces to empower women and put them on the electoral lists. Lastly, there is the issue of the religious groups that marginalize women completely. They were forced to put forward some women, but they put them in the last places on the election list. Sometimes they even put an image of a rose, or the name of the husband instead of the woman’s name. This has been a widespread practice in the Egyptian society for a period of time now, but I hope that it will change soon.
How do you feel about the resurgence of a stricter, more repressive version of Islam and the relative popularity of Wahhabi school of Islam in parts of Egyptian society?
I feel very bad about that. Unfortunately, we are changing the identity of Egypt as a moderate country. However I do think what we are experiencing now is a temporary problem, and most incidents are caused by marginal fanatical groups. Organizations like the “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” are considered to be isolated groups, and have little to do with the “Egyptian street”, which has always had a more moderate approach as promoted by both Al-Azhar and the Coptic church. Egypt has always absorbed many different and alien cultures and these cultures never left any real effect on Egypt. Therefore, I have faith that Egypt will also overcome the current cultural problems.
What do you think should be the relationship between religion and politics?
From my point of view, the two spheres have to be separated, because religion is placed in the heart and politics is a social approach to rule society by justice and law. I would not want religion to be a reference for policy, but only law and social justice, which is equally applicable to everybody. Religion should remain in the heart of individuals and in places of worship.
How do you feel about the rising popularity and the growing political power of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded a long time ago in Egyptian society and we must cooperate with them as a longstanding political faction. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has to separate between the organization as an advocacy group on the one hand, and Horyaa and Adala (Freedom and Justice party), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other. These two should always be separated. But I actually feel rather safe, because the ancient regime is over, the era of one President or one political party dominating all of society is now well and truly over. If now the Islamists are in power, tomorrow it will be the Liberals, and the day after will bring the Leftists to power. The Egyptians will elect who works well and punish those who fail. Egypt will experience the changing hands of power, and will not let power be concentrated in a few hands anymore.
What do you wish to see in the new constitution?
The Constitution is the first important task, and it is a very difficult one. I would like to see a balanced Constitution, which calls for a civil state that includes all spectra of society, and which emphasizes citizenship, law and sovereignty. If we can get to that stage, most of our problems will disappear.
Are you happy with the outcome of the presidential elections?
I’m happy with the presidential election, because for the first time Egypt experiences real and genuine elections between real competitors, and for the first time all Egyptian people got involved in elections, and in a clear and democratic way. I am happy whatever the result of the election.
What do you see as the main challenges that face Egypt today, and what should be the priorities of newly elected President Mohamed Morsi?
Firstly, I think that the Egyptian economy is suffering from a recession, and the cash reserve has been affected badly by the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011. The main challenge will be to get out of this situation and start down the path of a renaissance by rapid investing and starting building projects, long-and short-term. This will help Egypt to get a full economic recovery. Morsi should focus on the economy, the establishment of a civil state, citizenship, and try not to change the identity of Egypt. He should work to achieve the goals on which the January 2011 revolution was based, such as bread, freedom and social justice.
Finally, what are your own plans now?
I am planning to participate in the next parliament election which will be held within a month after the new constitution is written. I am pretty confident, because I got the Parliamentary membership in the dissolved council through genuine elections and the will of the people, and I feel that I must participate again in the next elections as well. I am now ready for any public position I can get, and to work hard, irrespective of who I will be working with.
Mostafa Aziz helped translating for this article.