Mona Makram Ebeid never shies away from controversy. A prominent member of one of Egypt’s most famous political families, she is known for her willingness to speak her mind. Most recently she resigned from the Wafd, Egypt’s liberal political party, for the third time since she joined in 1983. The Wafd has been closely associated with her family since her grandfather, Makram Ebeid, joined Saad Zaghloul (Egypt’s national independence hero) in its formation in 1919. eniGma’s Samia Farid Shihata sat down with Ebeid to find out why she left the party and what lies ahead for her in the new Egypt…
This latest resignation could not have come easily to Mona Makram Ebeid. “The Wafd was an integral part of my upbringing,” she recalls. “I grew up in a Wafdist family and was raised by my grandfather, Makram Ebeid, a founder of the Wafd and one of the heroes of Egyptian independence. I loved to hear him recount Egypt’s history. That’s how the ‘Wafd’ became a part of me.”
“The first time I walked away from the Wafd was in 1990 when the party decided to boycott the parliamentary elections,” she explains. “I was in Pakistan at that time, acting as an election observer. Uncertain about the wisdom of the Wafd’s decision, I asked the late Mrs. Benazir Bhutto (a candidate in the elections I was observing) if she ever thought of boycotting an election, and she said ‘never’. This gave me the confidence to openly oppose the election boycott by the Wafd. Later, when former President Mubarak appointed me to parliament (there used to be ten members of parliament appointed by the president, mostly reserved for women and Copts), I accepted and left the Wafd.”
After spending five active years in Parliament, Ebeid returned to the Wafd. A few years later, disillusioned by its leaders, she left the party for the second time and joined the young Ayman Nour, another disgruntled former Wafdist who had recently established his Al Ghad party. Nour would go on to challenge Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election in 2005.
Eventually Ebeid found her way back to her ancestral Wafd party, only to resign for a third time following the collapse of Mubarak’s regime. Once again her party had failed to live up to high expectations of the January 25 revolution. Ebeid identified with the revolution from the start. She recounts, “I spent some unforgettable days in Tahrir Square. I got to know the protesters, a lot of whom were my students. I also addressed the revolutionaries from the podium and expressed how proud I was that Copts had come out from the shadows of the church and joined the national movement. I was so touched by the sight of solidarity and love between Copts and Muslims, and the respect between men and women. There were no religious slogans. Everyone was calling for dignity, freedom, human rights and democracy. I hope this will be the road map for the future of Egypt.” In her opinion, the Wafd’s actions following the revolution indicated that they were not defending those values strongly enough.
Explaining the immediate cause of her recent resignation, Ebeid states, “This time, unfortunately, the party has deviated completely from the principles set by the 1919 Wafd; namely that ‘religion is for God and the homeland is for all’. In their latest actions, the current Wafd did not have the courage of Saad Zaghloul’s Wafd to enforce the principle of the right of citizenship. It deviated and made a coalition with its historical enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. In so doing it angered many Wafdists, including me. I was pleased when this coalition announced that it accepted the bill of rights guaranteeing the rights of all Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, drafted by Al Azhar, the highest Muslim authority. However, caving in to pressures from radical Islamist parties, they later backtracked, and announced that although they supported it, they did not consider the document binding for the drafters of the future, permanent constitution. That is when I decide to leave the Wafd.”
Ebeid promptly joined the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the new parties established after the January 25 revolution. Her enthusiasm for her recent political choice is palpable. As she explains, “I had been following this party for a while. Its programme is based on the principles which the Wafd of 1919 stood for. It’s full of distinguished people all known for their strong belief in democracy and their courage to speak the truth. It also includes many young revolutionaries; the party has a good mixture of experience and revolutionary dynamism. And it’s headed by the nationally respected figure, Dr. Mohamed Abul Ghar. I predict that this will be the party of the majority of Egyptians in a few years.”
Appointed by her new party to serve as its secretary for foreign relations, Ebeid has her work cut out for her. Long before January 25, 2011, her extensive political experience and her academic credentials (which include a Harvard degree and extensive teaching experience at the American University in Cairo) made Ebeid a speaker of choice on Egypt and the Middle East at international forums. After the revolution even more speaking requests came knocking at her door. She was invited to the British House of Lords to speak on the challenges of Egypt’s transition and recently travelled to France where she gave the keynote speech at the Movement of the French Enterprises, one of the largest conglomerates of French industries. She will be wearing her new party hat as she gives the opening speech at the upcoming Socialist International in Greece.
Ebeid was also recently appointed as advisor to the Minister of Manpower and Immigration to liaise with Egyptians in North America and Europe. She firmly believes that Egyptians abroad constitute a strategic asset to the country. “They want so much to contribute to the building of the new Egypt,” explains Ebeid. “They also want the right to vote. I told the Minister we must take this very seriously.”
Ebeid is also passionate about women’s political participation and is shocked at the extent women are being sidelined following their visible and courageous role in the revolution. She notes, “Except for one holdout from the previous regime, there are no women in the Council of Ministers. Not a single woman was on the committee that drafted the constitutional amendments. And now we are even seeing attacks on women’s recently acquired rights.” However, she is quick to add, “Women are not keeping quiet. A new alliance for women is forming and they are ready to fight for their rights. Don’t forget, Egyptian women have been at the forefront of the nationalist movement since 1919. The first Egyptian feminist union was set up as early as 1923 by Hoda Shaarawy, and Egyptian women won the right to vote in 1956, before many European countries.”
Asked if, as a Copt, she is worried about the rise of Muslim radicalism, she stresses it was the Wahhabi influence from the Gulf states that brought radical ideas to Egypt, which changed the relationship between Copts and Muslims in recent years. “Past governments also stirred these differences,” says Ebeid. However, she cautions that the influence of Islamist extremists should not be overestimated. “They will eventually become just a regular political faction and they will be demystified by the elections,” adds Ebeid. “They will have to be accountable and transparent, and they will have to clearly spell out where they stand on two very important issues: women and non-Muslims.” And Ebeid, together with other women, Copts and, indeed, the entire Egyptian electorate, will be listening carefully as campaigns get underway in the first post-revolution parliamentary elections, set for November 28, 2011.
Will Ebeid herself be a candidate in those historic elections? Perhaps. One thing is for sure, though. Mona Makram Ebeid will continue to play an important role in Egyptian politics and, hopefully, in building a new, inclusive, just and democratic Egypt.