With its fledgling democracy and tenuous support of women’s rights, Egypt has commanded the Western world’s attention since the Arab Spring riots shook the predominantly Muslim country in January 2011.
Since then, Egyptians have gained a powerful new supporter who is paying particular attention to their future: former first lady Laura Bush.
Advocating for human—especially women’s—rights is a role that comes naturally to Bush, who throughout her tenure as first lady of Texas and then of the nation used her position to call attention to the issue both at home and abroad.
“After September 11 when the spotlight turned on Afghanistan and we saw women were left out—half of the population was denied an education and the right to work—what we saw was a failing country. We learned from that alone that if women are involved in the economy, countries have a much greater chance at succeeding,” Bush said.
Now, Bush is chair of the George W. Bush Institute Women’s Initiative, where she’s focusing on the Middle East. She oversees the work of the Women’s Initiative Fellowship Program, which in its second year is bringing together Egyptian women and teaching them how to effect real social change.
In early 2009 as the Bushes were beginning their lives after the White House, the former president called a meeting in Dallas that would shape what was to become the Bush Institute.
Charity Wallace, then an eight-year veteran of the Bush White House who served as Laura Bush’s director of advance, was present for the meeting, along with about 20 other senior officials, she said.
“It was an opportunity for the Bushes to think about the things they could spend the rest of their lives working on,” Wallace said.
During her time in the White House, Wallace had been on many trips with the first lady. It was during those trips that the two saw the importance of including women in a society.
“I traveled with her to more than 65 countries. I got to see the incredible policies that were put in place and the impact of those policies,” Wallace said. “That’s when I saw the importance of women and their inclusion in a society, the impact that that makes.”
As the Bushes defined the areas of focus for the institute over the course of early 2009—education reform, economic prosperity, global health and human freedom—they saw that women were integral to each area. Then, Wallace said, the president and first lady gave her a directive.
After naming her the director of the Women’s Initiative, “The president said to me, ‘Women will lead freedom and democracy in the Middle East. So, get on that.’ It was a huge task and sort of daunting. How do you equip women to be effective leaders; have effective voices?” she said.
Her answers came from what she learned during her travel with the first lady, and also from research that suggested that a person’s network is a better indicator of his or her success than education.
Armed with that idea, she developed the Women’s Initiative Fellowship Program.
“The program I launched was supposed to be two women from 10 countries, but when I saw that research, I changed from two from each to 12 from one country,” Wallace said. “They would have friends who had shared experiences, which creates this multiplier effect. It makes them much more successful and more effective.”
Laura Bush agreed.
“We have friends from every part of our lives who are a part of our networks. But these women don’t have networks, and that’s the whole idea behind the Women’s Initiative,” Bush said. “We’ve really seen that with the first group of fellows. They all know each other now. When they went back [to Egypt] they had each other. They introduced each other to people and started to rely on each other for what they’re doing.”
“As goes Egypt, so goes the Middle East,” the adage says. And after watching the events of the Arab Spring unfold, that’s precisely why Wallace and Bush chose Egypt as the country where their fellowship program would start.
“[Egypt has] significant influence in the region, so we felt strongly that we needed to start there,” Wallace said. “It was a unanimous decision to start there.”
The selection process for the first class of fellows was intense. Wallace said the Bush Institute worked with organizations on the ground in Egypt to identify potential candidates: the embassies and USAID , the American Bar Association and the World Bank, among others.
From that pool of women, those interested filled out an application, went through an interview process with a selection committee and were then invited to participate.
So in March of 2012, 14 Egyptian women who had never met flew to Dallas to begin the yearlong program Wallace and Bush created—two more women than they had anticipated. The women had backgrounds in the six most influential sectors of their country: education, health, business, politics, law and the media.
While in Dallas, under the tutelage of professors from Southern Methodist University, the fellows studied women in leadership. Each was given a mentor, Wallace said, who guided the fellows and held training sessions with them every other month.
During this time each woman created a personal action plan for the year, Bush said.
For the remainder of their four-week “experience America” portion of the program, the fellows met with women who run businesses traded on the New York Stock Exchange. They visited Goldman Sachs, Fox News and Google, and met with employees in the U.S. Department of State, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and at the National Archives. They also toured NGOs and other sites.
It was transformative for most of them, Wallace said.
Sara Galal, a member of the first class and creator of an online business called Sweety Heaven that helps parents and children communicate, agreed with Wallace’s assessment of the program’s impact.
“I returned to Egypt after the program equipped with many skills that helped me to take a big step in my life, which was opening my own startup. Leadership, communication, networking and setting smart and clear goals all are skills we acquired during the program and had a huge impact in my life,” she said.
And while neither Bush nor Wallace knew it at the time, helping these women create networks would prove beneficial.
After Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president in February 2011, there was widespread optimism among Egyptians. That feeling remained through the first part of 2012 as Egypt elected a parliament and began writing a constitution.
The fellows were encouraged and sustained by their country’s future.
“They were so optimistic about the future of Egypt. Their voices were finally heard. They were excited about democracy,” Wallace said.
Bush, too, noted the fellows’ bravery in pursuing the program with the political stability of their country uncertain.
“These women are brave women. Many of them are married and their husbands were very supportive of them having the opportunity to work on their own lives,” she said.
While the fellows were making inroads into business and government in their home country during the fellowship program, the shift into democracy began hitting significant snags.
Work on the constitution was halted, restarted and then boycotted by part of the constitutional assembly. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, then pushed through a constitution that would strip many people of their rights— women especially.
Bush reiterated that the women of both the first class of fellows, and those of the incoming class who began programmatic work in March, showed unwavering resolve.
“I know they’re worried,” the former first lady said. “They want to make sure that the rights of women and men are guaranteed.”
Bush said the current state of Egypt is concerning, but that the Women’s Initiative and the fellowship program won’t cease work just because of instability.
“We want to make sure the Egyptian fellows aren’t somehow jeopardized,” she said. “When the last group went back they were detained at the airport, but they got home. It is a worry working any place in the Middle East.”
While the new government has had a rocky start, it’s important to give the people and the new system time to adjust, Galal said.
“Looking back on the Egyptian history, Egyptians are strong and they always proved that they are free people,” Galal said. “Giving the current elected party an opportunity to complete their ruling period is a must and part of the democratic process. I have much hope in Egypt.”
For now, Wallace and Bush are concentrating on seeing the second class of 21 fellows through the program and are reveling in the success that the first class has found, even within a confusing and frustrating political climate.
Each woman has accomplished so much, it’s hard to pick out who has had the most impact in her home country, Wallace said. Along with Galal, Wallace named Azza Koura as one of the fellows making notable impacts.
“One of them, a fundraising professional, hosted a conference and raised over $30 million for a children’s hospital. She was very successful,” Wallace said of Koura.
Another was Namees Arnous, who now owns her own media company, Bokra Media.
“One of them was a television personality, a journalist, during the revolution and was told to disseminate false information. She chose not to and quit. [Arnous] started her own news organization online. She covers all of the protests, the legislative issues and the news out of Egypt. [Arnous’] real proposal is to create a women’s talk show that highlights women and the different issues that are relevant to them,” Wallace said.
The program allowed them to find their voices and become more vocal, Wallace said. And that’s getting the women one step closer to her and Bush’s goal for them.
“Our real goal is for them to lead this democracy movement,” Wallace said. “Whether it be through youth development, or through media organization, or through law, or if they run for office, those are the different things that they can do.”
As the program continues, Bush and Wallace both envision reaching women in other Middle Eastern countries, they said.
The second class of Egyptian fellows will help expand the networks already being created by the first class, Wallace said. After Egypt, Wallace said the Women’s Initiative would look to neighboring countries like Iraq, Tunisia, Jordan and Kuwait for expansion of their program.
Wallace said there could also be a third class of Egyptian fellows, though, depending on what unfolds there in the coming year.
Bush agreed that the Women’s Initiative advisory board wouldn’t make any decisions about where to work next in the immediate future, though the goal is to reach as many Middle Eastern women as possible.
“It’s important to have women’s voices at the table. A broad network empowers women and gives them more of a voice,” Bush said. “Our goal and our hope is that we create a broad network across the Middle East of women who are educated and who advocate for education for women and girls, who advocate for women’s rights along with the rights of men.”