The connection between authoritarian regimes and a lack of rights for women has been seen many times before. It is often even a distinguishing trait in the popular discourse, however, the struggle for securing equal rights for women has been a continuing struggle in many countries and the erosion of these rights is often overlooked. Even in democratic countries such as the United States there has been a strong push to scale back abortion rights and a stagnation of movements for gender equality.
Egypt is not yet considered a free democracy, despite the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and resignation of President Hosni Mubarak which helped establish the current political system. The current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power through a coup and maintained power through elections (after forcing opposition to withdraw) and constitutional amendments in 2019. The recent elections and constitutional amendments both negatively impacted the integrity of the Egyptian Parliament with the regime-allied Mostaqbal Watan Party securing a vast majority of parliamentary seats. These are all key indications of an aspiring autocrat vying to maintain power through seemingly democratic means, which law professor Ozan Varol dubbed “stealth authoritarianism”. However, at this extent it appears a little less stealthy and a little more obvious.
By looking at the VDEM data of certain countries, Egypt included, we can infer a causal link between aspiring autocrats and their likelihood of being anti-minority. While women are not necessarily a minority, they do often fit inside this framework as an “outgroup” that is threatening and needs to be controlled. As political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks said, “Understanding the relationship between sexism and democratic backsliding is vital for those who wish to fight back against both.”
While the updated constitution still claims to grant equal political rights to all citizens, many minority groups such as Christians, Shiite Muslims, people of color, and the LGBT+ do continue to face discrimination and restrictions which limit their political engagement. The weakening power of the parliament is further limiting the avenues minorities have for political and democratic representation. What this means for women is similar, as many aspects of society are controlled by the regime aside from elections/political involvement, and the legislature has also allowed for passage of new laws that seek to restrict women’s rights.
Although at a surface level it may seem that President Sisi is attempting to offer equal rights to women by approving laws that increase punishments for female genital mutilation the truth is a bit more complicated. As political scientists Donno, Fox, and Kaasik point out; “democracy and women’s rights are integrally “bundled” by the international community.” This allows aspiring autocrats to bolster institutional legitimacy by demonstrating a commitment to gender equality, regardless of whether these changes are effective. There remain many restrictions at both a societal and political/legal level that affect the quality of life for women in Egypt. For instance, while not necessarily coded into law, women face discrimination in employment, and high rates of both sexual harassment and domestic violence. In fact, according to the UNDP Gender and Justice report on Egypt, there is no law that explicitly refers to domestic violence. Legislation passed to protect women is often hindered by societal resistance, further demonstrating how the laws President Sisi signed are a form of pacification. There is social resistance even in the courts as women’s testimonies are not considered equally to testimony of their male counterparts, despite no legislation stipulating such. Restrictions in the social sphere preclude legal restrictions and make it easier to garner popular support for laws that strip the rights of outgroups.
At the legal level things become much more interesting in the fight for women’s equality as they hold less than 30 percent of the seats in Egypt’s House of Representatives and even this is largely due to gender quotas, meaning they lack the representation to prevent harmful legislation from being passed. Due to this, there are legal restrictions in place now as well. Efforts to make spousal rape a crime have been quelled, meaning it still remains legal. Women remain at a disadvantage in personal matters such as marriage and custody, especially as they are reliant upon religious affiliations which often do not allow for inter-faith marriage or do not allow divorce. Poor enforcement of the laws that are meant to protect women is also a legal issue, as are grievances committed by the police themselves. This is partly why instances of domestic violence, harassment, and sex trafficking are so common in Egypt.
Finally, this effect could not be achieved without also expanding men’s rights. Instances of this can be seen by the recent legislation introduced by the President himself that would again grant men’s paternity rights, right to polygamy, and right to decide female relative’s marriage plans as well as by viewing the dangerous precedent of severely punishing indiviuals for offenses committed during them being victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence. Not only does this large-scale rollback of women’s rights demonstrate democratic erosion, it would not have been possible without the consequences of existing erosion such as the regime control of the courts and rhetoric that increases societal resistance.
While the removal of women’s rights is a jarring sign of increasing authoritarianism due to the causal link with lacking outgroup protections, it is also a sign because aspiring autocrats often fear women and their ability to participate in politics. Why do they fear women, especially to the extent that they seek to disenfranchise half the population? Well, nonviolent movements are more likely to succeed when women are included, and more likely to result in an egalitarian democracy. Instances of this can be seen during the 1980s-90s in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia and the mass movements of the time that included women in high positions and resulted in democratic transitions.  Most, if not all, resistance movements included assistance from women with intelligence, money, food, shelter, and various other supplies. Therefore there is an additional motivation for aspiring autocrats such as President Sisi to be sexist and limit the freedoms and opportunities for political participation of women, who remain a threat to authoritarianism. Chenoweth, Erica. Civil Resistance. Oxford University press, 2021.