Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

Women Key In Education Effort Ahead Of Egypt's Vote

Young women study the proposed constitutional amendments so they can decide whether they want to vote in favor or against them in Saturday's vote.
Young women study the proposed constitutional amendments so they can decide whether they want to vote in favor or against them in Saturday's vote.

While Libya's revolution is being decided by bombs, Egyptians still hope to finish theirs by casting ballots. A referendum is being held Saturday on amending the constitution. It's the first vote on anything since former President Hosni Mubarak lost power in February.

In El Minya, Egypt, Maher Boshra Henein, who runs a nongovernmental organization, took NPR for a ride around the city, the birthplace of Suzanne Mubarak, the ex-ruler's wife.

Henein says many places in the city were named for the former first lady, including a hospital, the square and the center for arts.

"Not now," he says.

Henein says he wants to help prepare El Minya for the era now beginning. His NGO is trying to educate people about this weekend's constitutional vote — and that includes poor men who work in the desert just across the Nile.

Here, men push machinery by hand across the floor of a limestone quarry. White limestone dust covers everything, like snow in a blizzard. In this apocalyptic scene, a man rolls a big stone-cutting saw, pushing it like a lawnmower. He wears no safety equipment, his hands are white with dust, and nothing but a scarf shields his mouth from the powder.

When asked if the work is safe, one of the workers who has gathered around says yes, with the boss listening in. Then a machine starts up and drowns him out.

The desert around here is covered with quarries. It's no surprise that the men in them are too busy to study Egypt's proposed constitutional amendments. When asked if anybody knows what any of the amendments would do, one man replies: "Only God knows."

We don't know anything, the stonecutter says. This is where Henein's NGO, the Better Life Association, comes in. It's not directly talking with the area's quarrymen. Instead, it's targeting the women in their lives.

Some attended class Thursday in a building just outside El Minya.

There, a teacher is telling the women about the meaning of concepts like majority rule, which hasn't mattered much in Egypt for generations. The women are in their 20s; some are even younger. They have come to class wearing their best clothes: Muslims with heads covered, Christians uncovered. Most are wives or daughters or sisters of quarrymen.

Asked what a referendum is, a student says, "In elections we vote for people. In a referendum, we vote for ideas."

The women break into small groups to discuss the proposed amendments.

This learning center in a village outside El Minya was encouraging women to participate in politics even when there was not a democracy.

"Before, we were just talking about the government without labeling it a dictatorship, because everyone know[s] already," says program coordinator Christeen Maher, 25.

It was a democracy in name only, she says. On Saturday, she hopes these women will begin taking the first steps toward a real democracy.

"We also stress the idea that if we don't vote, we're creating another dictator. And if we do, we get what we deserve this time," she says, laughing.

Christeen Maher is a project coordinator with the Better Life Association.
Christeen Maher is a project coordinator with the Better Life Association.

But she knows democracy will take more than voting.

We also have the idea, she says, that if there was corruption in the past, we were part of it by being silent. Paying bribes to get through our daily lives just encouraged more corruption, she says.

Mubarak's regime left a deep imprint on El Minya, even deeper than all the places named after his wife.

In the learning center, young people are meeting with local politicians, most of whom belonged to Mubarak's ruling party.

The ruling party, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood want Egyptians to vote "yes" on the constitutional changes. They limit the president's term of office but leave many powers of the state in place. But some of the quarrymen's relatives don't think that's enough.

Fatima, 22, says she wants bigger change: a new constitution. She says she will vote against the proposed changes after studying them here.

The women say they'll go home and tell their husbands what they have learned. One woman, Safa, says they'll tell their husbands, their families, their neighbors and everyone, probably including men like those stonecutters who don't yet know what the vote involves.

The women don't have much time. The army's swift voting timetable is making it harder to organize opposition. This class on the constitution only wrapped up Friday in El Minya. The voting comes Saturday all across Egypt.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.