Is Egypt better after Mubarak? Women might not say so

The empowerment of women is a critical part of the ongoing changes in post-revolution Egypt.

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It is a paradox of the Egyptian revolution, which promised a new era of liberty - and above all change - that 17 months after Hosni Mubarak's regime fell, people are still in Tahrir demanding the same rights day after day. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

With the former president's health reportedly deteriorating by the hour, and Egypt about to vote for a new president starting on Saturday, the messages coming from TV news, newspapers and social media are remarkably similar to those from the early days of the Tahrir revolution. Egypt's leaders seem to embody the same faults as the old regime.

Last week, a series of television advertisements warned viewers against talking to foreigners because they might be spies. In one of the ads, a foreign man is seen talking to several young Egyptians, and one woman mentions a conspiracy against the army. The man then taps a message surreptitiously into his phone - clearly, the ad implies, the naive young woman has just betrayed her country to a foreign agent. "Every word has a price; a word can save a nation," the ad concludes ominously.

The advertisements would be laughable if the consequences weren't so serious. They did backfire spectacularly, with Egyptians accusing the government of scaremongering and xenophobia. The ruling generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, it would seem, are even less in touch with the realities of Egyptians than Mubarak and his inner circle were before the revolution.

The situation of women in particular is symptomatic of a greater malaise. For most Egyptians, little has changed in their everyday lives the last 17 months; for many women, it might be argued, things have actually got worse.

Women's rights, and the disgraceful prevalence of sexual harassment of women, have not been priorities in this revolution. The latest high-profile incident on Friday was a terrible irony. Hundreds of women and men marched in Tahrir Square demanding an end to sexual harassment. They were attacked, overwhelmed, and some women were groped and assaulted.

The outrage that this incident caused was not enough. There seemed to be strains of misogyny, ignorance and brutality in some segments of Egyptian society - as there are in any society in the world - that are accepted by some and, worse, tolerated by the state.

Egypt's liberals may see a hidden hand behind the incident. Victims appeared convinced it was an organised attempt to drive women out of demonstrations and trample on the pro-democracy protest movement.

Others saw the assault as orchestrated specifically by supporters of Ahmed Shafiq, the presidential candidate, former prime minister and Mubarak loyalist, who is campaigning on a platform of security.

The event was far too reminiscent of the infamous camel charge in Tahrir Square in early February 2011, when baltagiya, or thugs wielding clubs and batons, charged protesters who were demonstrating against the regime. They could not save the dictator, but thugs are still in Tahrir.

These increasingly visible assaults are a stain on Egypt's reputation at a time when the country is attempting to banish the inequalities of decades. You can rewrite the constitution, carry out fair elections and elect new leaders. The newly elected parliament should legislate protections of women's rights, giving them greater power in politics and in the workplace. But none of this will matter if there is a prevailing mindset that women can be mistreated so openly.

Many will see the issues of economics, religion and security as more pressing than women's welfare. That is shortsighted. The protection of women's rights is in itself a sign of a healthy society, an integral component of all of the other national priorities.

No doubt, Egypt today is fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Revolutionaries blame hidden hands guided by the old regime loyalists; the military-run government in its last days has hardly helped with its clumsy propaganda.

But the bigger question remains: was the revolution worth the pain? In recent weeks, we have seen several embarrassing, offensive editorials in the regional press questioning the merit of the Arab uprisings. The answer, always, a thousand times, is yes: Egyptians were right to throw off the yoke of decades of dictatorship.

The difficulties we see today were inevitable. Among the endless clichés about postrevolutionary politics, one rings truer than the rest: things will get worse before they get better.

Outsiders who question the revolution must realise that Egyptians are in this for the long haul. People inside Egypt must accept, whether they like it or not, that women will be at the forefront of that struggle.

On Twitter: AliKhaled_