Memoir author talks about a life spent fighting for civil society

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 11 Jun 2013

Aziza Hussein, leading figure in Egyptian civil society, shares her perspective on Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood, and her hope for peaceful way forward

Aziza Husein during her book signing (photo by: Ahram Weekly)
Aziza Hussein during her book signing (Photo by: Ahram Weekly)

Now in her early 90s, Aziza Hussein might be now losing a little bit of her energy, but not much else is lost on this elegant lady who has dedicated her life to championing the cause of civil society.

Her smile is still warm and her presence is still strong. Above all, her memory is still fresh; indeed, she has just recently celebrated the release of ‘A Pilgrim Soul: Memoires’ where she shares the fascinating story of her life.

“People are different from one another and that is why they don’t understand each other,” read the words of Hussein, who comes from the same family as prominent mid-20th century diplomat and reformist Ahmed Hussein.

“This is a fact that we should not lose sight of; it is a fact of life that we need to learn to live with, maybe even succumb to,” she told Ahram Online in an interview after a Cairo book signing.

Putting down one of the independent daily newspapers on the table next to her comfortable chair, Hussein reflects on the current state of national division.

"I am just hoping we don’t have to harm one another. I am just hoping that we don't get into bloody confrontations," she said, reflecting on the upcoming rallies planned for 30 June expressing discontent at the performance of President Mohamed Morsi a year after he was sworn in.

Hussein, although born into a wealthy family, has faced her fair share of hardships, including an ill mother and other ailing family members, the harsh atmosphere of a nuns’ boarding school, and a childless marriage.

Keeping her fingers crossed and her spirits high, Hussein is not letting her dedicated transcendental meditation take her away from the realities of life around her, even as she ages gracefully.

"People are going through hard times. This presidency is not living up to the expectations of the people. We had great expectations after the 25 January revolution, but these aspirations have been neglected almost completely."

Hussein does not say directly that she, like much of the opposition, wants Morsi to bow to his critics and step down. Instead, she comments that "it does not seem that he can regain the confidence of the people."

However, she is not willing to conceal her dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood group, which is actually younger than Hussein herself, accusing the Islamist organisation of demonstrating little respect for two things that she takes pride in: Egyptian society, and Islam "as an enlightened and enlightening religion."

That said, Hussein is not willing to discard any particular group of people harshly. "I have not known many people of the Muslim Brotherhood in my life, but I met a few of course; there is always a light wherever you look, you just have to spot it, and we can spot the enlightened ones there and engage them."

In the first round of the presidential elections, she voted for former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, whose "admirable character and commitment to relief work" impressed her.

In the second and final round, which Morsi went on to win, Hussein voted for Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, out of fear that the call for radicalism which she says "is still paramount" within the Muslim Brotherhood would take over Egyptian society.

“When he [Morsi] was elected I said to myself maybe he would make an effort to reach out; I had a brief moment of hope especially when he appointed an impressive board of advisors and started communicating with some of them," Hussein recalled.

"Unfortunately, since this regime came to power we have been seeing so many setbacks on some of the rights that have been gained through the hard struggle of civil society over decades."

Hussein is particularly dispirited about the retreat on women’s rights and the role of civil society.

"When a few days ago I found a story in the papers about a little girl who died as she was undergoing female genital mutilation at the clinic of a medical doctor I was saddened but not surprised; this practice, which we have been fighting for years, had never been eliminated from our society, despite the humble legal penalisation that had been introduced, but now that the state is no longer acting promptly against it, there is a chance that it will increase and hurt more girls,” she said.

Hussein is, however, convinced that with sufficient and firm lobbying some rights could be kept untouched.

"I know it is not easy but we could pressure for it,” she said, “but it has to be done peacefully."

Hussein graduated from the American University in Cairo in the late 1940s and has since engaged in civil work with a special attention dedicated to matters related to women’s rights, especially the much-challenged reproductive rights and rights of children.

She also represented Egyptian civil society at UN conferences and meetings, including some that were held in Egypt, on women’s rights.

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