Women, representation, and politics in Egypt

Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of CFR’s Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative. She is also director of CFR's Women and Foreign Policy program. Photo by: personal collection

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today marks the two-year anniversary of the popular uprising in Egypt. Women played a key role at the time, but will they be able to take part in running the country as well? A new draft law for the parliamentary elections may make that difficult, writes senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

[Today] is the second anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, an occasion likely to attract widespread reflection, and no doubt some protests. In the wake of the controversial constitution, many Egyptians—particularly women—are worried about whether the government will protect their rights and interests. The new draft law for parliamentary elections gives additional cause for concern about female representation.

In the now dissolved former 508-member lower house of parliament, only eight women were elected. Parties were required to include at least one woman on their electoral lists, but few put women in winning positions (at the top of their lists).

This stands in contrast to the system implemented by Tunisia, which used a “zippered list,” alternating the names of male and female candidates on electoral lists, and required parties to run equal numbers of men and women. The result was that women hold 23 percent of the seats in Tunisia’s parliament.

The election for Egypt’s new lower house of parliament, now called the House of Representatives, will likely take place in or around April, and at this point, it’s hard to imagine that the results for female candidates will be much better than the last time around. Last weekend, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, decided on a controversial elections law which once again specifies that one woman must be on each electoral list, but at any spot on the list; an earlier draft of the law would have placed at least one woman in the top half of each list. An umbrella organization, the National Front for Egypt’s Women, also advocated for a 30 percent quota for women on each electoral list—a measure that ultimately failed—and a proposal to establish a quota for at least one Christian on each electoral list was also jettisoned.

Women’s groups are pushing back. The National Front for Egypt’s Women protested outside the Shura Council against the elections law (and will protest again in Tahrir Square tomorrow), and the National Council for Women’s Rights seems determined to reach out to female parliamentary candidates to support their efforts. Meanwhile, the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) says that if it enters the parliamentary elections, women will comprise at least a third of its list of candidates. At present, it is not clear whether the NSF—a broad coalition united against the Islamist parties and currently experiencing internal divisions—will run in the election as one bloc.

Of course, the presence of women in parliament does not necessarily mean that they will have uniform stances on women’s rights. In the now dissolved parliament, women from the conservative Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party made up about half of the female representatives. It is also worth noting that many women, including some of Egypt’s former female parliamentarians, are strongly against electoral quotas, which are reminiscent of the Mubarak regime; some women have expressed concern that quotas undermine their legitimacy as elected leaders.

Elected women themselves can have complex beliefs about female participation in politics. Dr. Omayma Kamel was elected as a Muslim Brotherhood candidate to the former parliament and noted proudly, “History has proven that the women of Egypt have succeeded throughout the years in outstandingly performing their roles and leaving their mark.” However, when NPR asked her about her thoughts on a woman theoretically becoming president, she said, “Egypt is a very large country and its problems are very, very deeply rooted. I think it will be difficult for her to carry this responsibility. Let men do the difficult job and we can [provide] support.”

Other concerns about the new elections law include the complications caused by allowing both individual and party list candidates to run, as was the case in the last election, and the provision that lets parliamentarians switch party affiliations once they are in office—and independents join parties after they are elected—a tactic that Islamist parties could use to bolster their numbers after the election. Opposition groups are rightly complaining about all these problems. The likelihood that Egypt’s next parliament will again fail to represent the breadth and diversity of Egyptian society–not to mention be overwhelmingly male–is a lost opportunity, for all Egyptians.

Republished with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations. Read the original article.

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