Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Women and the Elections in Egypt

by Isobel Coleman
January 12, 2012

Women read their ballot papers before casting their votes at a polling station on the outskirts of Cairo on Januray 4, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Women read their ballot papers before casting their votes at a polling station on the outskirts of Cairo on Januray 4, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

On January 3 and 4, Egyptians voted in the third and final stage of elections for the lower house of Parliament, the People’s Assembly. Seventy-one out of 498 seats are still being decided through runoffs, but the results for the other 427 seats are final. One clear outcome already is that Islamist parties will wield significant influence in the People’s Assembly. So far, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)  has gained approximately 41 percent of total seats and the Salafist Nour Party has gained another 21 percent, giving Islamist parties a significant majority in the assembly. However, FJP reports no current plans to form a coalition with the Salafis, and it is possible that FJP will create a moderate alliance with more liberal parties.

Women have fared poorly in the election. Only six have been elected, giving them just over one percent of seats if no other women win in the runoffs. They include three members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, two members of Al Wafd party, and a member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. As you can imagine, these women are not wall flowers. They all have some political experience, have been actively involved in the public sphere for years, and are outspoken champions for women’s right to lead. A recent interview, Seham Al Gamal, a member of the FJP from the Delta region, summed it up: “Whosoever doubts the women’s ability to perform in parliament questions the people’s ability who chose these women to represent them. It also questions the ability of women to succeed in parliament. Egyptian women are not less efficient than their counterparts in the Muslim world and the West.” Dr. Aza Al Garf, an FJP member from Giza, was a bit more blunt: “My success in the parliamentary elections after the revolution is a smack in the face to all that have oppressed women.”

All of the elected women have expressed their disappointment with the lack of female candidate’s success at the polls, blaming the fact that women were put at the end of lists, significantly reducing their chances of winning. (They are also critical of the fact that women have been left out of leadership committees after the revolution.)  But interestingly, they are united in their opposition to any quota system. Quotas, a popular approach across the Middle East to bring more women into politics, have a decidedly bad rap in Egypt. Part of the problem is the anachronistic reservations for “peasants” and “workers.” But undoubtedly, the close association of quotas with the previous regime, which manipulated them for its benefit, doesn’t help. Quotas for women have been used a few times in Egypt’s past, most recently in the 2010 election when the Mubarak regime set aside 64 seats for women in the People’s Assembly. At the time, women held only nine out of 454 seats in the parliament and five of these had been appointed by Mubarak rather than elected. Not surprisingly, the quota largely benefitted candidates from the ruling National Democratic Party and enjoyed little popularity. At a conference on January 2, 2012 attended by four of the newly elected female parliamentarians, Margaret Azar, an Al Wafd member, captured the common sentiment when she said that “one elected female parliamentarian is better than 100 appointed ones.”

What can Egypt expect from these determined women? They mostly echo the broad themes of the election, promising to press for anti-corruption laws, better services for the poor including health, sanitation, and education, and laws ensuring social justice. Sana Said, a Social Democratic Party member from Assuit, says that she will focus on securing better services for her district, one of the poorest governorates in Egypt. Her priorities are health, sanitation, and education. Dr. Omayma Kamel, an FJP member from Cairo, notes that 70 percent of health care workers are women, and promises to seek practical solutions to the problems they face as working women. All of the elected women call for the inclusion of women in all parts of public life and their own examples are testament to that commitment.

Yet, given their different political orientation, divisions among these women are inevitable, and not surprisingly, they are readily apparent with regard to the controversial personal status laws. Dr. Aza Al Garf of the FJP promised last week that “she will work with the rest of the members of parliament to change all of the laws that have destroyed the Egyptian family in the past years such as the divorce laws, the marriage laws, and the vision and mandate of education. It is imperative that the structure of these laws be redone to be in accordance with Islamic sharia.” Magda Al Noweeshi of Al Wafd, on the other hand, says that she wants to make sure that the constitution is based on civil, not religious law, and that “it preserves the right of its citizens, and that it ensures social justice.” Even though there are so few women in parliament, they will be divided along familiar lines.

Thanks to my research associate, Thalia Beaty, for providing the Arabic translations.

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