Some days ago, I received a call from the Presidential Office inviting me to join a meeting chaired by the president of Egypt on the occasion of Egyptian Women’s Day.
It took me a moment to comprehend the invitation. Meeting the president would be an honour, of course, but I could not help asking myself “why me” and also whether if it was a large meeting whether it would be safe to attend given the threat of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
However, as if the caller had read my thoughts, he assured me that the meeting was only a round table to share in a dialogue with the president and that all health precautions would be applied and respected. He answered my thoughts, but he did not reply to my question of “why me”.
I was very excited to receive the invitation. I felt honoured and that my career as a university professor, researcher and at one point a civil servant had been crowned by the invitation. I have had the honour of meeting various political leaders and other figures worldwide and have also attended various conferences in which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has been in attendance. But even so, meeting the president of your country in a small group and getting a chance to share a dialogue with him is very different.
Egypt celebrates Egyptian Women’s Day every year on 16 March to mark women’s historic struggle for their rights and to recognise their achievements and the obstacles that currently face them. March 16 is a special day in the history of Egyptian women’s struggle for their rights, as the roots of the day date back to 1919 when women participated for the first time in political demonstrations during the 1919 Revolution in Egypt.
When I entered the Ittihadeya Presidential Palace for the meeting, all health and safety measures were applied with a smile and a welcoming note. As promised, the meeting was a limited one, with distances maintained when seated and when taking an official photograph.
The meeting was attended by Speaker of the House of Representatives Ali Abdel-Al, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli and the ministers of planning and economic development, finance, health and population, social solidarity, and media, and the president of the National Council for Women. It included a MP, two mothers of martyrs who had died in terrorist attacks, an academic, an active NGO member and myself.
The meeting was attended by Maya Morsi, head of the National Council for Women, who expressed her gratitude to the political will and determination of the president to support women’s rights and to empower women on the social, political and economic levels. I looked at Maya Morsi with great respect, as although she has recently lost her son, she has never neglected her role and goal to support women’s rights. Her strength at such a difficult time is worthy of great respect and appreciation.
The president discussed the role of women in society, and he also touched on developments regarding the spread of the Covid-19 virus worldwide. He explained the health and safety measures put in place to protect the country and urged the women attendees to continue to play their positive role in society during this global crisis that has crossed borders and manifested itself in a national one.
Meeting the president
He called on women to play an active role in encouraging all citizens to show further discipline in complying with health instructions in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. He elaborated on the economic and financial measures that have been taken to give economic support to industry and the tourism sector and capital market. He said it had been decided to extend the moratorium on taxes on agricultural land for a period of two years, and he elaborated on the government’s decision to pay five bonuses to pensioners representing 80 per cent of the basic wage, in addition to granting annual periodic bonuses of 14 per cent in the next fiscal year. He came across as being both transparent and confident.
Those attending the meeting shared their views with the president, saying that in every crisis there could be a blessing. Discussion took place about how young people could play a role virtually or physically in helping society at the present time, and words were said expressing the belief in Egypt’s young people among those present and their capacity to help and loyalty to their society. Other ideas were discussed about how to maintain the legacy of martyrs who had lost their lives defending Egypt from the threat of terrorism.
As the meeting ended, with no shaking of hands but loads of sharing of respect and pride in the leadership of the country, there came the question of whether there should be a collective photograph given the threat of the Covid-19 coronavirus. The answer was that there could be, provided that we all maintained our physical distance from each other, even if this of course did not apply to our emotional distance.
This warm meeting with the president on the occasion of Egyptian Women’s Day ended with hope and confidence in the political will and determination of the country’s leadership to work with hearts full of belief, confidence and good faith for the good of Egyptian women and for the country as a whole.
The writer is member of the advisory board at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly