Women scarce in Egyptian parliament races

Friday 09/10/2015
Candidate Nagah Ali Bekheit campaigning and talking with her constituents

CAIRO -Standing in the parliamen­tary elections and winning a seat was a dream long cherished by Fayza Hasabo, a longtime campaigner and political activist in southern Cairo.
Hasabo is a member of the Egyp­tian National Movement Party. The party had planned to include her in its lists for this year’s elections but she said she preferred not to stand under the current circumstances.
“The party allocates a very small amount of money for the election campaigns of its members,” Hasa­bo, 65, said. “This budget was far from enough to help me campaign well for my parliamentary bid.”
Hasabo had the option of stand­ing as an independent in the elec­tions but, with 60 people contest­ing the seat in her constituency, succeeding as an independent can­didate would have become nearly impossible.
It is equally difficult for thou­sands of other women. Of the 5,420 independent candidates standing for election and the nine lists sub­mitted by political parties, 210 — around 7% — of the candidates are women. That figure underscores the challenges facing Egyptian women seeking seats in parliament.
“This figure just shows that the next parliament will have a very limited number of women mem­bers, supposing that half of the female candidates win parliament seats in the elections, which is also a bit exaggerated,” said Amina Shafiq, a leading women’s rights campaigner. “The fact is that wom­en are having many difficulties in this regard.”
The parliamentary elections, the first since the 2013 uprising that ousted Islamist president Muham­mad Morsi, are to start October 17th in about half of Egypt’s provinces.
A total of 120 parliamentary seats specified for political parties and 448 seats specified for independ­ents are to be contested. Egypt’s president, according to election law, also has the right to give 28 seats to figures of his choice. Those seats usually go to marginalised Christians, women and disabled citizens.
The constitution mandates politi­cal parties to specify half the seats in their lists to women. Supposing that parties honour the require­ment, the number of women can­didates, and consequently parlia­ment members, will continue to be minimal compared to that of men as only 120 seats are specified for party lists. This means that women will be contesting 60 seats in that category.
Shafiq said money is a major chal­lenge for women in the elections, especially when it comes to cam­paigning and distributing informa­tion.
Money was also the reason Has­abo pulled out of the parliamen­tary race altogether. The election commission sets a $62,500 limit for electoral campaign spending for each candidate, but Hasabo said her party allocated only a fraction of that amount for her campaign.
“The candidates running in the elections have enough money to spend on their campaigns,” Hasabo said. “I have the support of my con­stituents but money is indispen­sable for any candidate if he/she wants to reach the constituents.”
Money is not the sole challenge facing women on the road to po­litical empowerment, there is also a lack of political will to see more women in politics as well as cultur­al impediments.
There has been a derailment of a national dream for women’s po­litical empowerment, a dream that formed soon after the revolution that ousted autocratic president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Women joined men in protests that led to the Mubarak regime’s downfall.
After the revolution, there were hopes that women would have a place on the country’s political stage after years of marginalisa­tion. Women took part in political activities, forming alliances and co-founding political parties. Nearly five years later, however, women’s political emancipation remains a mere wish.
Egypt’s cabinet, which was sworn in on September 19th, contains three female ministers for the first time in years but that is less than 10% of the 33-member cabinet.
Dalia Ziada, founder of local think-tank Egyptian Centre for De­mocracy Studies, likes to look at the bright side of Egypt’s political scene.
She says the number of female candidates in the parliamentary polls is very small compared with the number of male candidates. “But one needs to know that this number is the highest in decades,” Ziada said. “In 2010, for example, only 1.8% of the candidates were women.”
She looks at the percentage speci­fied for women in political party lists and says that Egypt’s women are making political gains, if only in terms of laws regulating this coun­try’s political life, even as those gains come slowly.
Ziada concedes that away from urban centres such as Cairo and the coastal city of Alexandria, where people are more receptive to the idea of a woman political repre­sentative, women face difficulties.
Shafiq agrees. She says women’s political empowerment is a far-fetched idea in certain parts of Egypt.
“I hope that there will be time when there are enough women in representative and political institu­tions in this country,” Shafiq said. “But looking at the situation at pre­sent, I think this time will not come soon.”