At 87 female MPs, Egypt’s new House of Representatives features the largest number of women MPs in Egypt’s modern history. Out of 568 MPs, 73 female MPs were elected, representing 12.8 per cent of all elected MPs, in addition to 14 women appointed by the President, according to legal requirements.
Interestingly, women were able to win seats not only in upscale, liberal Cairo districts where women are well-respected; but also in the more underprivileged, conservative neighbourhoods and constituencies in the Delta and Upper Egypt where women are more often than not downtrodden.
History of struggle
In an attempt to give the marginalised—women, Copts, and persons with disabilities—a leg-up in political representation, the 2014 Constitution gave these sectors a one-time quota in parliament, in this case the current 2015 House of Representatives.
Egyptian women have to their credit a long struggle to attain political rights. The feminist movement took off in Egypt late in the 19th century and increased in the early 1900s. In March 1924, at the height of the nationalist movement in Egypt which from 1882 and until 1954 was under British occupation, Egyptian women made an official request to the authorities to attend the opening of parliament. In 1925, a booth was set up in the parliament hall for women who wished to attend; a second was added later when more women insisted on attending. Egyptian women, however, only gained their political rights in 1954, in the wake of the 1952 Revolution which overthrew the monarchy and established Egypt as a republic. But even then, and owing to the conservative, religious nature of Egyptian society, few women ran for parliament and fewer still managed to win. The proportion of female MPs in parliament never exceeded 5 per cent except in the 1980 parliament when aggressive affirmative action allowed them to attain an 8 per cent proportion.
Yet the interest of women in political activity has risen steadily over the years. The 2005, 2010 and 2012 parliaments saw 131, 449 and 984 women candidates respectively run for parliament, but these numbers do not reflect the actual interest of women in contesting parliamentary elections. Political parties refrained from actively fielding women because of their obviously lower chances of winning against men. The women who finally made it into parliament remained not more than 3 – 4 per cent.
Not possible without the quota
Ghada Abul-Qomsan, head of the Operations Room at the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, told Watani that current laws did not help women get into parliament except through the coalition or party lists because these include a quota for women. But these lists can only contest 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats. No quota is applied for the remaining 75 per cent of the seats; these are contested on an individual basis. Constituencies are represented by either one or two candidates, depending on the population of each constituency. Abul-Qomsan says that feminists had hoped that each constituency would have had been represented by three seats, one of these seats being allocated to a woman. This way, she says, women would have secured 30 per cent of the individual seats. Yet there was no affirmative action imposed on individual seats, only on the lists. The law stipulated that one-third of the candidates on the lists should be women, and that this proportion may go up to a maximum of 50 per cent. The coalitions stuck to the minimal quota.
So despite the quota, Ms Abul-Qomsan says, women were not actively supported to get into parliament; political parties still preferred to field as few women as possible and support them minimally. Most women who ran in the elections had some political experience or volunteer work to fall back on; they relied on their own strength and drive.
“Women won 73 individual seats in parliament,” Ms Abul-Qomsan says. “But out of a total 568 elected MPs this is barely satisfactory, especially when we compare Egypt with other countries like South Sudan for instance, where women have more than 40 per cent of the parliamentary seats. Yet we must admit that, had the Constitution not granted women the advantage of affirmative action, many female candidates would not have made it into parliament in the first place.”
According to Amina al-Naqqash, Deputy Secretary-General of the leftist Tagammu Party, the outcome of the parliamentary elections reflects an undeniable change in the voting trends of Egyptians. For the first time, Copts garnered a substantial number of individual seats while the al-Nour Salafi Party won only some 2 per cent of the seats. To realise the scale of this change, we only have to remember that al-Nour had won 22 per cent of the seats in the 2012 post-Arab Spring Islamist parliament, second only to the Muslim Brothehood’s Freedom and Justice Party; together they formed more than two-thirds of parliament. The outcome of the 2015 elections thus shows that the brief post-Arab Spring rise of Islamists, which lasted from 2011 to 2013, served to awaken Egyptians to the reality of Islamism and led to the downfall of political Islam and the establishment of a secular State in Egypt.
Another strong feature of the 2015 parliament, according to Ms Naqqash, is women’s representation
“In conservative constituencies and districts where a woman’s role is believed to be primarily in the home, women were able to win seats. This is a radical change in voting trends,” she says. “It also points to retraction of the fundamentalist Islamist thought which looks down on women.”
The female achievement, Ms Naqqash says, is the fruit of women’s struggle for more than a century to gain their rights. She expects more women to win in future parliamentary elections, and stresses that female MPs will be advocating all sorts of issues that concern their constituencies, not women’s issues alone. Women’s issues, she explained, should be the concern of the entire community.
A good start
For Heba Adel, Head of the Egyptian Women Lawyers Initiative, the current women’s representation in parliament constitutes a promising beginning for better future representation. “We did hope that more women would make it into parliament,” Ms Adel says, “but those who did constitute a fine calibre of Egyptian women and will perform well. We expect them to project a positive image of women’s representation in parliament. They must strive to effectively communicate and interact with their constituents to work well for their benefit. They hsve to work hard since, once the next parliamentary elections are due in five years time, there will be no quota for women.
“Actually, the one-time quota is not sufficient to catapult the marginalised into the political arena. In Libya, Tunisia and Morocco affirmative action was applied on a broad level for long periods of time and in various public fields, which effectively paved the way for the election of women. In Egypt women have not been granted such a privilege; they have to work hard to win the trust and respect of the electorate in a short time.”
During the last parliamentary elections, Ms Adel told Watani, the Egyptian Women Observer was set up to monitor the entire electoral process where women are concerned. “We found out first-hand,” she says, “that party support for female candidates was superficial and ineffectual. It’s as though they had fielded women merely to satisfy the electoral requirements.” Even so, she says, the outcome is not bad and still inspires optimism. It shows we are on the right track, despite the impediments.
Not any better
According to former MP and Deputy Head of the General Union for Egyptian Workers Sahar Osman, however, women are no better off in this parliamentary round. “The outcome of the parliamentary elections this round appears more in favour of women only owing to the quotas imposed on the coalition lists. Yet without affirmative action, the maximum 4 per cent women’s representation in parliament that has remained unchanged for decades would have still been the same.”
Ms Osman believes no change has occurred in the community’s perception of women. “We need new policies, new societal attitudes, new structures and new outlooks for women’s participation to become effective,” she says.
The real gain
Those concerned with women’s affairs in Egypt insist that women needed all the help and preparation they could get to make an indent on the political scene. The women win did not come out of the blue, they insist: NGOs that work with women made an invaluable input on that front.
Ms Abul-Qomsan points to the role played by civil society organisations concerned with women’s rights and interests. “These organisations have been very active in enhancing female political participation through training women and encouraging them to be effective participants in revolution, protest, and elections,” she says. “Women were the dynamo behind the massive 30 June 2013 Revolution through which Egyptians were able to overthrew the Islamist MB regime that had risen to power in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Women have also formed a very substantial, visible voter bloc in all the elections in Egypt since the Arab Spring. All this worked to boost Egyptian women’s sense of strength and self-esteem.”
The political turmoil and change that occurred during the last five years, Ms Abul-Qomsan explains, triggered a political awakening with mainstream Egyptian men and women; the latter realised that they constitute a substantial voting bloc that could impact the outcome of elections.
So the real gain, according to Ms Abul-Qomsan, has been in the way women now see themselves and other women; also in the way the entire society has come to see women as a positive force.
4 January 2016