Egypt: Nawal El Saadawi: 'We Will Not Let Egypt Burn'

Publication Date: 
February 11, 2011
The Root
Nawal El Saadawi protesting in Barcelona in 2004 (Courtesy of AFP/Getty Image)

Nawal El Saadawi -- an Egyptian psychiatrist, scholar, novelist, feminist and activist -- has been agitating for change in her home country for more than 50 years. An outspoken opponent of female genital mutilation, she was fired from her position as Egypt's director of health education in 1972. When President Anwar Sadat threw her in prison for her activism in 1981, she penned her memoirs on a roll of toilet paper. A committed secularist, her name appears on fundamentalist death lists.

Now 79, she has lived in exile off and on for the past 15 years, teaching at Duke University and Spelman College. For the past year or so, she's been back at home in Egypt, writing and organizing young activists. The Root's Rebecca Walker caught up with her early this morning as she was heading out into the streets of Cairo -- right before President Mubarak stepped down.  

The Root: Where are you now?

Nawal El Saadawi: I am home in my apartment in Cairo, and we are preparing to go out into streets. 

TR:  Are you going to [Tahrir] Square?

NS: The square is full. There is no more room in the square, and so we have decided that we will be everywhere. Egyptians will be in every square, on every street, at the Presidential Palace and at the national television station. We will be in every place. This revolution has unified us. We are not men and women, Christian and Muslim, professional and nonprofessional; we are all Egyptians, and we will not let Egypt burn.

TR: How are you organizing this revolution? Is there leadership among the people?

NS: We are doing it all with Facebook and mobile phone and e-mail.

TR: Are you concerned about who will take Mubarak's place? What about the Muslim Brotherhood, or other extremist groups?

NS: I am not at all worried about the Brotherhood. There is a lot of exaggeration about this organization, and it is used to frighten women here and Western women, too. The Muslim Brotherhood is a minority. They do not lead the revolution, and many of the men involved in the organization want a secular constitution. Men and women protested in the square and died in the square together.

There was not one single harassment of a woman in the square. And these are covered women, secular women, all women from every background. No, it was not the Muslim Brotherhood who hurt women, it was Mubarak's people who entered the square and killed. All of this talk about the Brotherhood is an attempt to use religion to divide the people. Do not worry; the Muslim Brotherhood will never rule Egypt.

TR: What role would you like the U.S. to play?

NS: I don't expect the power or support or interference of anyone, of any government. We here in Egypt are fed up with U.S. colonialism. Obama is a pragmatic person and thinking of the interests of his country; I understand this. But now he is confused: One minute he supports Mubarak, one minute he doesn't; one moment he is afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood, the next he is not. Now I believe in the people of Egypt only, I depend on the people of Egypt only.

TR: Your work has mainly revolved around women's rights and equality. How are these issues playing out in the revolution? What is the role of women on the ground?

NS: Women and men are in the streets as equals now. We are in the revolution completely. Of course if you know the history of revolutions, you find that after the revolution, often men take over and women's rights are ignored. In order to keep our rights after the revolution, women must be unified. We must have our women's union again. We cannot fight individually.  

TR: How do you know that the people who will follow Mubarak will honor your hopes for change?

NS: This revolution changed everything. In history, the millions win, that is democracy. Now the people in the street say no to Mubarak and then will form a temporary government, protected by the army. Then we have to protect the revolution from being aborted; that is the most important fight.

I must go now. There are many people waiting here for me. It is time to go on and do the next things that must be done.