Egypt: Egypt's election indifference

San Francisco Chronicle
If Egyptian Women's Day came and went without anyone in Cairo marking the occasion, it wasn't for lack of effort on the part of women's organizations.
They had planned a large conference at a local student union to bring together more than 800 women, delegations from 25 women's and development organizations, and print and television journalists. But the previous evening, just hours before the March 16 event was supposed to begin, the Ministry of Education called it off.
The last-minute cancellation, many women's advocates say, is the latest evidence that the Egyptian government -- which has been touting democratic reform for the last year and women's rights for even longer -- is backtracking on both.

"We are extremely concerned about this cancellation and what it implies about the supposed support of the government for women's empowerment and civil society," the organizers said in a statement released the night of the cancellation.

The Ministry of Education initially cited security concerns, but the Ministry of the Interior, which heads state security services, denied any knowledge of the event or its cancellation.

A prominent item on the canceled conference's agenda was draft legislation calling for a quota system to raise the number of women in parliament. In September's parliamentary elections, 125 women ran but only four won, leaving the newly elected 454-seat parliament with the lowest number of elected women in nearly 50 years.

"This is the worst result we have seen since women were given the right to run in elections in 1957," said Nehad Abul Komsan, one of the organizers of the event.

Abul Komsan heads the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, which receives funds from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and other international sources. "The first year, there were two women elected. Last year there were four. So the issue of women's participation in politics gives you a good indication of the state of political participation in general."

The United States has long been urging reform in Egypt as part of its larger policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. A staunch American ally, the government of President Hosni Mubarak receives nearly $2 billion in U.S. foreign aid every year, most of it for military purposes.

The number of women in parliament has been dwindling since the demise of a previous quota system in 1986, when the lower house of parliament repealed a 1971 law that set aside 31 seats -- 7 percent of parliament -- for women.

Women's rights advocates across the political spectrum say that reimposing a parliamentary quota would help them overcome what they see as a cultural bias against women in public life. On Thursday the women's rights center unveiled a proposed law aimed at strengthening opposition parties in general by having voters cast votes for parties rather than individuals, and requiring each party to include a certain percentage of women on its list. Proponents of the change said this could lead to future parliaments with as much as 30 percent female membership.

"The men, our guardians, do not give us the opportunity to compete in elections, even though a great number of the men who ran for their parties entered the elections and lost," said Magda El-Newashy, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent. "There needs to be a quota to raise the percentage of representation of women in parliament, at least for a specified length of time."

In January, Abul Komsan's group released a scathing report on last year's elections, noting that the "principal image that dominated the election scene in 2005 was the use of women." The report accused political parties of backtracking on promises made to run women, noting that only 14 of the 125 female candidates were nominated by the country's legal political parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, while the remainder had to run as independents. The conservative Muslim Brotherhood, which is technically illegal but emerged from the elections as the largest opposition bloc in parliament, nominated only one woman out of 150 total nominees, while Mubarak's secular National Democratic Party, with 444 candidates, nominated only six.

"The NDP only nominated six women, and this is after the president's wife, Suzanne Mubarak, and the National Council for Women (which she chairs) talked about women's rights day and night for five years," says Abul Komsan. "They promised they would nominate 26 women, and then they nominated six."

The National Council for Women, established by a presidential decree in 2000, runs programs encouraging women's political participation, including training workshops and a national program to encourage women to acquire national ID cards, which are necessary for registering to vote. But most women's rights advocates not affiliated with the ruling party describe the organization as window dressing for a ruling party that is uninterested in reform.

Supporters of Mubarak's party insist that the problem of women's representation affects every political organization. "It wasn't only the NDP that did not nominate enough women, but all the other parties," said Sahar Nasr, a party member who sits on the board of the council. "The low level of political participation among women is everyone's responsibility."

The ruling party is currently debating a return to a quota system, but critics say it is dragging its feet. National Democratic Party members are "considering their own constituency, and the fact that they don't have enough women candidates to compete in Upper Egypt and in other rural areas," said Heba Raouf, who teaches political theory at Cairo University. "In these places they chose candidates based on complicated negotiations among powerful local families, Coptic (Christian) communities, businessmen and so on. Having a women's quota would make things even more difficult."

The Muslim Brotherhood opposes reintroducing quotas for female lawmakers. Essam El-Erian, a spokesman for the group, says Islam mandates equal civil and political rights for men and women, but he added that it is not the place of a democratic government to reverse social and cultural norms. "That is an American way of thinking, of dividing societies into women and young men and minorities, and so on," he said.

"The Muslim Brotherhood has much more conservative views of women, but when it comes to political participation there is no difference," Abul Komsan said. "The Nasserist Party, which claims to follow the ideology of (the late president and secular nationalist) Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose presidency is called the golden age for women in Egypt, only nominated one woman, just like the Muslim Brotherhood did."

Even if a quota system is reinstated, it will make little difference in the short run. Parliamentary elections won't be held again until 2010, and in February the government postponed local council elections for two years -- a move aimed at slowing the momentum of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet many women remain hopeful that their growing role in civil society will advance women's rights, even if the national agenda doesn't.

"Women believe in themselves more and more, and they are becoming more aware," said El-Newashy. "The proof is that women are leading popular organizations and carrying out social work with strength and with success. The women leaders are there, really. ... The men in leadership positions, the ones who choose -- this is the problem."

Joseph Krauss
Sunday, April 23, 2006