The Egyptian law granting women the right to file for divorce, enacted in 2000, was championed by former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, who was seen with some justification as a women's rights advocate. Yet she hurt the cause as much as she helped it as her campaigns were associated with a despised regime, one that denied fundamental rights to Egyptians, including women. Egypt's women need new champions in government who possess real power.
My organization, Human Rights First, asked Mozn Hassan, Nazra's founder and executive director, what issues Clinton ought to raise with Morsi. "Representation for women in [the] next parliament is important," she told us, "in addition to fair representation for women in the new cabinet." She urged the secretary of state to press Morsi to make good on his promise to select a woman as one of his vice presidents and to appoint women to other important positions.
Hassan also encouraged Clinton to mention violence against women and secure Morsi's commitment to take concrete steps -- such as a pledge to fight for investigations into charges of sexual assault and prosecutions of those responsible -- to combat this growing problem. She should also urge Morsi to support the codification of women's equality in the new constitution, which is being drafted, by embracing language that tracks with the international human rights treaties that Egypt has already signed.
Some have claimed that only secular, wealthy Egyptian women -- not the religious, working-class majority -- support women's equality. But Egyptian feminist Dina Wahba has argued that this oft-cited dichotomy is false. A recent Gallup poll supports her view, revealing that religious Egyptian women are no less likely than their secular counterparts to support equality. Overall, 86 percent of Egyptian women believe they should have the same legal rights as men. Eighty-nine percent say girls should have equal access to education, 89 percent believe women should be able to work outside the home, and 86 percent say women should be able to initiate divorce.
By championing women's rights, then, Clinton will be taking a position that is broadly popular with Egyptian women, even as many women -- and men -- remain leery of American involvement in their country's affairs. They're well aware that the United States supported and armed the Mubarak regime for three decades and continues to send aid to the Egyptian military despite its resistance to democratic reform.
Many Egyptians are skeptical not just of American motives, but also of Clinton herself. In 2009, when many future revolutionaries were fighting for democratic reforms, she made a point of publicly embracing Mubarak and his wife as family friends. And when the revolution erupted in 2011, her initial assessment that "the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people" angered democracy activists.
Clinton could overcome skepticism in Egypt by living up to her well-earned reputation as a champion of women's rights and by fulfilling her inspiring vision of "putting people at the center" of U.S. foreign policy. As she said in April, in reference to activists fighting for freedom around the world, "America needs to be on their side."