x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Egypt moves to increase female MPs

Many welcome the 'positive discrimination' but some doubt whether it can have an impact given the country's strong conservative streak.

Former MP, Mona Makram Ebeid, who is from very well known Coptic political family, ran for parliament three times and was appointed by President Mubarak for one term., poses in her Zamalek home in Cairo. She is planning on running again in upcoming elections.
Former MP, Mona Makram Ebeid, who is from very well known Coptic political family, ran for parliament three times and was appointed by President Mubarak for one term., poses in her Zamalek home in Cairo. She is planning on running again in upcoming elections.

CAIRO // More than half a century after women won the the right to vote and be elected to parliament, legislators have amended Egypt's electoral laws to reserve them 64 seats in an effort to combat dwindling female representation. Only four women were elected in the last legislative elections in 2005. The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, appointed four more, meaning there are a total of eight women out of 454 parliamentarians.

While the amendment, introduced by Mr Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party this month, has been welcomed by some as "positive discrimination" that could ease women's path to parliament, others say a wider change in attitude towards women is needed to resolve the problem of their under-representation. "There is nothing wrong with Egyptian women, but with the Egyptian society that is not electing them, and which resulted in women making up less than one per cent of parliament, which is a shame," said Georgitte Qelleni, 53, a member of the parliament's legislative committee, who was appointed by the president in 2000, along with nine other men and women.

Still, Mrs Qellini, who joined the NDP, said she supported the new draft law "one million per cent". "I have been struggling in the parliament for the past nine years to have a special quota for women," she said. The law was drafted by the National Council for Women, headed by the first lady, Suzanne Mubarak. It was approved last week after heated discussion in the Shura Council, parliament's upper house, and passed by the lower house yesterday.

It increases the number of seats in parliament to 510 from 454 and will come into effect for the next elections, scheduled for autumn 2010. The new proposal would be adopted for two parliamentary terms, or 10 years, though some say that is not long enough to have an impact on the strong conservative trend in Egyptian society and its associated views of the woman's role. "Even women don't vote for women," said Madiha el Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. "Many women are reluctant to run [for office], few get any support from their families, as women are encouraged to stick to their traditional roles as housewives and mothers.

"Especially considering elections here are marred with violence and thuggery, women are vulnerable targets as they are largely reduced in this society to sex objects." Female political participation in Egypt was introduced in 1956, but following the rise of political Islam in the 1970s, women's political rights were rolled back under conservative pressure. Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world and historically a pioneer in the women's rights movement in the region, now lags behind many other Arab countries in women's representation.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which holds 88 seats in parliament, making it the largest opposition bloc, issued a statement yesterday rejecting the women's quota, accusing the NDP of "destroying political life in Egypt". "While we are pro-female participation, we reject the false reforms presented by the government, and demand it provide a healthy, transparent environment for real political life and allow the formation of political parties," the statement said.

The brotherhood was founded in 1928, but banned from becoming a political party, meaning members run as independents. After their stunning success in the 2005 elections, several amendments were introduced into the constitution to limit their participation in coming elections. Jihan el Halafawi, 57, a female member of the Muslim Brotherhood, contested as an independent and won in the northern city of Alexandria in the 2000 elections, before being thrown out two years later following legal difficulties and replaced by an NDP member.

Ms Halafawi said she would not contest the upcoming elections after becoming disillusioned by her first experience in office. She also said the violence surrounding the voting process made it too dangerous for women. "With the lifting of the judicial supervision, elections are becoming more difficult for women, despite the cosmetic measures taken by the NDP, which is aimed at promoting its women only," she said.

Others agreed with the brotherhood's assessment that the government's outreach to women is only "cosmetic". "We are witnessing a farcical play, in which women are playing the hero role, directed by the NDP, authored by its policy committee, produced by the National Council For Women, in which the opposition parties have to play the minor role," the One World Foundation for Development and Civil Society, a human rights watchdog, said in a statement.

But Mona Makram Ebeid, a veteran politician of the opposition Wafd party, while lamenting the "violence, thuggery, rigging and manipulation" that she said dogged previous elections, said that she supported the new quota for women and believed it could make it easier for women to run in elections. She was appointed to parliament by the president in 1990, but wants to contest again and win a seat by vote alone.

"To achieve two objectives," she said. "That a woman and a Christian can get elected." nmagd@thenational.ae