If a healthy person can’t help me, how can I expect one with a disability to be able to do so? If a man, with all the prerogatives a male-oriented society grants him, cannot support me; how can I expect a woman to? And if a Muslim can’t make sure I get my rights in our Muslim-majority society, how can I expect that from a minority Copt? On the face of it, the questions may sound self-evident; in fact they have been voiced out loud by mainstream Egyptians for ages. Despite modern culture which has worked to change views that the marginalised or the less able are less capable, the attitude lingers among wide sectors in the Egyptian community. The general sentiment is that the weaker links in the community—the women, Copts, and persons with disability—are at best in need of help, so how can they be required to help others? At worst, bigotry gains the upper hand and they are scorned and discriminated against.
But the tide is changing, and there is a growing awareness that the marginalised can be effective members once granted the opportunity. Egypt’s upcoming parliament should be proof of that.
The upcoming parliament will be the first Egypt gets after the overthrow of the Muslim Brothers (MB) regime in July 2013. The MB had come to power in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, but were ousted in 2013 by overriding popular will and consequent military intervention. Now Egypt has established a secular Constitution and elected the secular Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as President, and is on to the last step to full democracy: the election of a new parliament.
Egypt’s new parliament will have 540 members, 420 of whom will be elected individually, 120 according to political parties’ electoral lists, and the rest by presidential appointment. In order to guarantee the participation of all members of society, especially categories that have long been underprivileged or marginalised, the new law stipulates that a 15-member electoral list must include three women, three Copts, one person with disability, two young people, two farmers and workers, and one expatriate Egyptian. This quota is granted as a transitory measure for the upcoming parliamentary round alone, and is considered a golden opportunity for the marginalised to prove themselves as active members on Egypt’s political scene.
In case of young people, farmers and workers, or expatriate Egyptians, the idea was that they may not possess the same winning opportunity as mainstream politicians so they were granted a quota for this parliamentary round. Women, Copts, and persons with disability, however, have always been subject to discrimination and marginalisation, which would almost certainly guarantee them no more than minimal if not nil chance of representation in parliament, hence the need for positive action. Watani here focuses on their chances of getting into parliament under the one-time quota.
Taking Egypt by storm
Women in Egypt have for centuries suffered severe social woes. But let no one think that this rendered them weak, unaware, or inactive. During the 20th century they gained full rights to education and work, as well as political rights. Earlier this year, and against all the odds, they took Egypt by storm and went out in huge numbers to take part in the votes for the Constitution and the President. The Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU), first founded in 1923, launched a campaign under the theme “Women Campaign for Women” to support women candidates. EFU head Hoda Badran explained that the union does not want a recurrence of low representation of women; the last parliament, she said, included only ten. Financial means being the biggest impediment for women in electioneering, the EFU aims at collecting EGP30 million to support 100 women candidates run in the upcoming elections.
Former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy wholeheartedly supports the EFU campaign. “Women are capable of reaching leading ranks,” he says, “the only criterion for election should be competence.”
Marguerite Azer, member of the National Council for Women and the Vice-President of Egypt’s Democratic Party, however, begs to disagree with the EFU. “It’s not about so many women getting in parliament,” she says, “it’s about how qualified they are. If underqualified women manage to get in, they’ll do irreparable damage to women as future politicians.”
Ibtisam Abu-Rihab, former MP and member of the National Council for Women, sees a large number of qualified women running for parliament as a definite advantage. However, she says, in order for 100 women to be elected, some 300 should be fielded. “Even then,” Aisha Abdel-Hady, a teacher of Arabic language remarks, “there are no guarantees the qualified ones alone will get in.”
A young female journalist, Injy Doss, voiced strong objection to the “Women for women” slogan. “It’s definitely discriminatory,” she says. “A woman MP should serve the entire Egyptian community, not only women. That’s a sure way never to get elected again.”
Ms Azer points out the confusion between the role of women in parliament and in social work organisations. “In the latter,” she says, “women offer other women the type of services they badly need. But in parliament, their prime responsibility is to serve through legislating and monitoring the executive apparatuses. Here they serve the society at large, including women. They don’t serve women alone.”
There are still those, however, who see that a woman’s public role conflicts with her duties as a family maker, and that the family should come first. Peter Magdy, a lawyer, is wary about female MPs spending so many hours away from home. “This will negatively impact either their political or social role,” he insists.
Egyptian women gained their political rights in 1956 after a long, arduous struggle. In 1957, Rawya Attiya and Amina Shukry became the first female MPs in Egypt and the Arab World. From 1964 to 1972, Mufida Abdel-Rahman, the first Egyptian woman to earn a law degree, joined parliament. She fought to change unfair child custody laws and pension regulations.
Egypt’s last pre-Arab Spring parliament included 57 women, whereas the Islamist-majority one that followed during the MB rule included only 10.
Copts in Egypt’s parliament
Copts are not new to Egypt’s parliament. In 1866, they were on the Shura (Consultative) Council, the precursor to the first representative council established in 1879 which included a Coptic member from every constituency. In 1928 and 1930, the prominent Copt Wissa Wassef became Speaker of Egypt’s Parliament. But that was the golden age when Egypt was fighting for independence from British occupation, and Egyptian nationalist sentiments superseded all else, even religious loyalties. In the southern Muslim majority constituency of Qena, the Copt Makram Ebeid who was fielded by the liberal Wafd Party was elected MP in the 1930s.
Political parties were abolished after the 1952 Revolution which turned Egypt into a republic. This effectively put an end to the opportunity of Copts to win seats in parliament; the 1957 parliament included not one Copts. President Gamal Abdel-Nasser thus initiated the practice of appointing a number of MPs, several of whom were Coptic. The practice has continued uninterrupted ever since, even after political parties were again allowed in the 1970s.
So what chance does a Copt—whether running as an individual, on an independent list, or on a party list—today stand of winning a seat in Parliament?
According to Ms Azer, the list system is a double-edged sword since it takes into account a candidate’s stature and popular backing in a given constituency. While the list may catapult into parliament a candidate with no other chance, unpopular candidates have the potential to undermine the chances of success of the entire list. Parties or groups are thus reluctant to add a Copt to the list in constituencies with low Coptic influence, and this is precisely why the quota was enacted. In constituencies with high Coptic populations such as Minya and Assiut in Upper Egypt or Shubra and Zeitoun in Cairo, she says, individual candidates have very good chances of winning.
Watani’s Nader Shukry, spokesman for the Maspero Youth Union (MYU), says that the union has been meeting various political parties and coalitions, to investigate their chances in the upcoming elections and their seriousness about the Copts they wish to add to their lists. The MYU, Mr Shukry says, is also compiling a list of Coptic candidates who can contest the elections whether individually or on lists. The first priority, he says, is that candidates should be dedicated and experienced in public work, with a clear vision of both national and Coptic issues. “We have been pleasantly surprised,” Mr Shukry says, “by the large number of Copts eager to go into political practice. But, as I said, experience and dedication cannot be sufficiently underscored.”
The Church for its part has announced herself to be absolutely detached from politics, stood at an equal distance form all Coptic candidates, and was endorsing no specific candidate or party.
For whatever its worth, women and Copts have some history to speak of in Egypt’s consecutive parliaments; persons with disabilities have almost none. The only one to make his way into parliament was a blind man in Egypt’s Islamist majority house in 2012. So the some 14-million strong community of persons with disability in Egypt have never been represented in parliament.
Specifically for that reason, and in view of the quota, Watani held a roundtable to discuss the chances and responsibilities of persons with disability in the upcoming parliament. Participating in the discussion were Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Watani International; Maged Samir, managing editor of the online paper Wataninet; Maged Abdu, lawyer and political activist who suffers from a physical disability; Sherifa Massoud and Philip Maher, both of whom are visually impaired. Ms Massoud is managing editor of Watani Braille and human resources official at the Development Association for Empowering Special Needs (DAESN), while Mr Maher is computer trainer for the visually impaired at DAESN.
Mr Abdu started by explaining that once candidates from marginalised groups win seats in parliament according to the quota granted to them, they will gain experience that should hone their political skills and prepare them to run in future elections independent of the quota. If they prove themselves capable, the average man on the street will definitely vote for them, or for other persons with disability, in future elections. Which underscores, according to Mr Maher, the care with which political ought to choose the candidates to go on their lists. The parties should also educate their members to become key players on the political scene.
‘From’ or ‘of’
Ms Massoud sees, however, that the political parties downplay the role of persons with disability, and merely consider them the fulfilment of an election requirement; once the elections are over, they’re just to be seen and not heard. But members of marginalised groups, she believes, have huge potential, and the parties should give them the opportunity to be politically active on agendas that concern the public at large, in the health and education fields for instance.
Which brings us to the role a MP with disability is expected to play, Ms Sidhom asked. In other words, why would a mainstream voter vote for one who comes from a marginalised group? Mr Abdu answered by drawing a distinction between a MP representative of a specific group and one who came from a group. The first spoke on behalf of and served that specific group, whereas the second was chosen from among a group but had a role that extended beyond this group to the community at large. As MP, he or she represents all Egyptians and works on legislation that concerns all, besides of course that which concerns the group he or she comes from.
Is once enough?
Since candidates with disability are totally unknown to voters outside the immediate community of the disabled, how can one parliamentary round be sufficient positive discrimination for them to launch political careers, Mr Samir insisted? But Ms Sidhom and Mr Abdu said that this one five-year round would clearly illustrate the capabilities of persons with disability, women, and Copts, and thus remove the prejudice against them so that voters would readily elect a candidate from a marginalised group to future parliaments when the quota no longer applies. That was why, again the quota was a golden opportunity for marginalised groups to prove themselves and show their real potential, Ms Sidhom added. And why, according to Ms Massoud, parties should field dedicated, competent candidates who would open doors for others after them, not undermine their opportunities.
Members of the roundtable agreed that a distinction must be made between the respective roles of parliament and local government. Marginalised communities imagine that a candidate from among them should serve their direct interests, but this, Mr Abdu made clear, was the role of members of the local government not MPs. The confusion threatens to place MPs in the light of persons who do nothing to help their communities. Yet a MP may, in addition to his or her role in representing the interests of the community at large, propose a law to improve living conditions for the disabled, or demand an increase in the State funds allocated for them and ensure that these funds are spent in the right way. As the session came to an end, everyone agreed it was the role of the media to raise much-needed public awareness on the issue.
Reported by Sherine Nader, Sheri Abdel-Massih, Injy Samy, Amira Ezzat
Roundtable, video by Nasser Sobhy:
13 August 2014