Middle East: The Light on the Horizon

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The Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi spoke to Wael Fateen about women, globalisation and the Middle East.

How do see you the anti-capitalist movement at the moment?

In Porto Alegre the slogan was 'Another world is possible'. I believe this is true because the majority of the people are now against the system and they are now organised regardless of religion, gender or colour. The movement has a very politicised agenda. This is what I call unveiling the mind against the mainstream media. I was in the US on 11 September, and I could see the role the media played in brainwashing Americans by using the word 'terrorism'.

Also it is wrong to put the crimes of Sharon and the Israeli army who have developed an arsenal of weapons as equal to the deeds of ordinary Palestinians fighting for their occupied land. This equalises state terrorism with self defence and ignores that Israel is the only nuclear power in the area.

What should happen for the movement to develop in terms of ideas?

The movement has a horizon. It is opposed to Fukuyama and Huntington with their postmodern theories about the end of history or the clash of civilizations. 'Another world is possible'--this is the horizon. It is not a complicated philosophy--it is the simple ideology of the streets, the ideology of peasants, workers, housewives and ordinary people. We can see that in such movements there is no separation between thinking and acting. It is like writing a novel. The ability to create is based on the way you connect the brain, the mind and the spirit. That's how the masses don't split theory and action.

How do you see the effects of globalisation on women?

Women do not have economic power, educational power or political parties to defend them. So they are much more vulnerable. When you have economic crisis or a war women suffer first. Globalisation is not a new phenomenon or bad by nature. There are positive globalisations like the globalisation from below and this is what the world is witnessing now. The globalisation from above is forced upon us by the US and the World Bank. It is an expression of the deepening of exploitation of the majority by the minority.

Women are the more vulnerable part of this majority. In Egypt they are the ones who are dismissed first from factories. They suffer doubly from unemployment and poverty. There is global prostitution, shipping women from all over the world, especially the poor world, such as Egypt and the Philippines, forcing them to sell their bodies.

You were described as the 'priestess of secular feminism'. Do you agree with this description?

I don't like this wording and don't agree with it. I am against using that kind of religious terminology. It sounds like George Bush language. Also I am against the leader and the led relationship it gives. There is no mastermind for the mass movement. There is no one able to write a prescription for the masses. The masses liberate themselves and they don't need the kind of dependency assumed in the word 'priestess'.

Concerning secularism, I have never seen a secular country and I don't think they exist. Even in Britain or the US, where they claim to be secular, whenever there is a crisis they bring god in. Also I have never separated the class struggle from the struggle for women's liberation or against religious oppression.

The scale of the Palestinian solidarity movement in Egypt, Jordan and the whole Middle East is unprecedented. How do you see the connections between this new movement and the anti-capitalist movement?

If we take Egypt as an example, the supposed leaders of political opinions and the most important writers and top thinkers appear in 'Al-Ahram', the influential daily newspaper. They are the direct tongue of the government and it is clear to everyone that nobody believes them. On the other hand, the political parties are impotent. The state created them, so they turned out to be its loyal defendants. Even the traditional left didn't escape this fate. The government realises that--so it is using oppression to limit the mass movements' actions. Failing to convince the people, it uses excessive force to stop them. So people went onto the streets. They stopped reading the newspapers. The mood is critical of the government and its paid voices. The dissident writers and intellectuals like myself are isolated--they cannot publish their articles, and they cannot appear on the television.

This indicates a problem of vision and leadership especially when the movement faces a high degree of oppression. Those people who went onto the streets need leadership to continue fighting. They need organisation. The traditional political parties cannot be that organising leadership so the necessity of new radical forces is crucial. The anti-capitalist movement is getting more powerful because it is getting more and more organised. The driving force behind the movement was not only Palestine. It was also poverty, unemployment and anger that drove them to the streets.

Do you think the Arab left has adopted a secular rather than class or socialist attitude towards the Islamic movement, leading it to an alliance with the state?

I think the right attitude is to cooperate and to have priorities. There are different agendas for different groups but, so long as we are fighting the same enemy, it becomes very important. The rule is that we have to work with all the people who are against class rule and through debate they change and we change. We develop together. I don't mind being in struggle with the Islamists for democracy. The aim of this cooperation must not be a compromise to reach power like the Egyptian traditional left is doing, and betraying everything, beginning with women rights and ending with class struggle. The aim has to be building a stronger front against the common enemy.


background

In 1972 Nawal El Saadawi was dismissed from her post as Egypt's director of public health.

In 1981 she was imprisoned under Sadat in a campaign which included most of the opposition leaders.

'Walking Through Fire' is published by Zed Books, £14.95

In 1991 the Mubarak government closed down the Arab Women Solidarity Association which she founded to defend women's rights.

A year later her name appeared on a death list issued by Islamic groups, prompting her to flee Egypt for five years.