Women scarce in Egyptian parliament races
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.”