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Women Key In Education Effort Ahead Of Egypt's Vote

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Women Key In Education Effort Ahead Of Egypt's Vote

Middle East

Women Key In Education Effort Ahead Of Egypt's Vote

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne, with Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, standing beside the river Nile. Libya's revolution is being fought with bullets and countered with bombs. Egyptians still hope to finish their revolution by casting ballots. A referendum on amending the constitution comes tomorrow. It's the first vote on anything since former President Hosni Mubarak lost power.

To hear what some Egyptians are thinking, we've traveled south along this river from Cairo. A man named Maher Boshra Henein took us for a ride around this city, El Minya, Egypt. It happens to be the birthplace of Hosni Mubarak's first lady.

INSKEEP: What are the things in El Minya that are named after Suzanne Mubarak, or that were?

Mr. MAHER BOSHRA HENEIN (Better Life Association): We had many places about Suzanne Mubarak name, like hospital - Suzanne Mubarak Hospital. This is a square of Suzanne Mubarak.

INSKEEP: That we're driving through now.

Mr. HENEIN: And now, yes. Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: Suzanne Mubarak Square. That's what this was. OK.

Mr. HENEIN: Yes, Suzanne Mubarak Square, yeah. But not now, Suzanne Mubarak Square.

INSKEEP: People are renaming these landmarks now, though they have yet to change the sign on the Suzanne Mubarak Hospital for Kids.

And there's also a Suzanne Mubarak Center for Arts at the university?

Mr. HENEIN: Yes. No, now. No, every...

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Maher Boshra wants to help prepare El Minya for the era now beginning. He runs a non-governmental organization that is trying to educate people about this weekend's constitutional vote. And that includes poor men who work in the desert just across the Nile.

(Soundbite of machinery)

INSKEEP: We're listening to men pushing machinery by hand across the floor of a limestone quarry. White limestone dust covers everything. It's the color of snow. It looks like we're standing in a blizzard. And in this apocalyptic scene, a man rolls a big stone-cutting saw, pushing it like a lawnmower. He wears no safety equipment. His hands are white with dust, and nothing but a scarf shields his mouth from the powder.

Is this work safe?

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Yes, says one of the workers who gather around, as the boss listens in. Then a machine starts up and drowns him out.

The desert around here is covered with quarries. And it's no surprise that the men in them are too busy to study Egypt's proposed constitutional amendments.

Does anybody here know what any of the constitutional amendments would do?

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)


Unidentified Man #3: Only God knows.

INSKEEP: Only God knows.

And we don't know anything, the stonecutter says.

This is where that non-governmental organization comes in. That NGO, called the Better Life Association, is not directly talking with the area's quarrymen. Instead, it is targeting the women in their lives. Some of those women attended class yesterday in a building just outside El Minya.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: A teacher is explaining the concept of majority rule, which hasn't mattered much in Egypt for generations. The women are in their 20s, or even younger. They've come to class wearing their best clothes - Muslims with heads covered, Christians uncovered. Most are wives or daughters or sisters of quarrymen.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Asked what a referendum is, a student says: In elections, we vote for people. In a referendum, we vote for ideas.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: The women break into small groups to discuss the proposed amendments. And we step outside to chat with the program coordinator, Christine Maher. She's 25 years old and wears a brilliant, yellow jacket.

This learning center was encouraging women to participate in politics, even when there was not a democracy.

Ms. CHRISTINE MAHER: (Through translator) Well, before, we were just talking about the government without labeling it as a dictatorship, even if everyone know already.

INSKEEP: It was a democracy in name only, she says. On Saturday, she's hoping these women will begin taking the first steps toward a real democracy.

Ms. MAHER: (Through translator) And we also stress the idea, like, if we don't go and vote this time, we're creating another dictator. And if we did, I guess we deserve this time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAHER: Yes.

INSKEEP: But she knows democracy will take more than voting. We also have the idea, she says, that if there was corruption in the past, we were part of it, by being silent. Paying bribes to get through our daily lives just encouraged more corruption.

Hosni Mubarak's regime left a deep imprint on El Minya, even deeper than all the places named after his wife. In this very learning center, young people are meeting with local politicians - most of whom belonged to Mubarak's ruling party. That ruling party - the military - and the Muslim Brotherhood all want Egyptians to vote yes on the constitutional changes. They limit the president's term of office, but leave many powers of the state in place.

Some of the quarrymen's relatives don't think that's enough.

FATIMA: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: That's Fatima, who's 22, and says she wants a bigger change: a new constitution. She will vote against the proposed amendments after studying them here.

Are you going to go home and tell your husbands what you learned?

SAFA: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: A woman named Safa says: We'll tell our husbands, our families, our neighbors, everyone. They'll probably talk with men like those stonecutters who don't yet know what the vote involves.

But the women don't have much time. The army's swift voting timetable is making it harder to spread information. This class on the constitution only wrapped up yesterday in El Minya. The voting comes tomorrow all across Egypt.

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