Egypt's proposed constitutional amendments: Controversy over women quota

Gamal Essam El-Din , Friday 8 Mar 2019

Setting quotas for the allocation of parliamentary seats will face legal challenges

A session at the Egyptian Parliament on Sunday February 3, 2019 (Photo: Khaled Mashaal)

Amr Hashem Rabie, a political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly that opposition to the constitutional amendments submitted by the majority Support Egypt parliamentary bloc has coalesced around the proposal to reserve a 25 percent quota of seats for women.

“The level of opposition to many of the amendments varies but a consensus has emerged that the proposed quota of 25 percent of seats being allocated to women candidates should be rejected,” said Rabie.

“Some argue the quota violates principles of equality while others say it is a political bribe offered to encourage women to vote for the amendments in a referendum.”

“The goal of these amendments is to increase the presidential term from four to six years. In order to contain opposition to this change, it was decided to allocate 25 percent of seats to women in order to make the overall package more attractive. It is like disguising poison in honey.”

Ahmed Khalil, a member of the Salafi Nour Party, told the Weekly "the quota violates Article 11 of the constitution which states that men and women have equal political and civilian rights.”

“The only constitutional stipulation on parliamentary representation is contained in Article 244 which obliges the state to ensure women, youth, younger voters, expatriates and the physically challenged are adequately represented.”

Khalil believes that “greater participation by women in parliament does not add much to political life in Egypt.”

“Since 2015 the performance of female MPs in parliament has been insignificant and it is illogical to think that increasing their number will improve the situation.”

Tagammu Party head Sayed Abdel-Aal told MPs in a plenary session on 13 February that “the amendments, in general, do not reflect a pressing need.”

“Although the Tagammu Party has always been in favor of widening the scope of women’s participation in political life it does not believe this is a priority right now.”

“The current electoral system, in effect since 2014, guarantees women and minority groups are adequately represented without stipulating a specific quota.”

Abdel-Aal said that though the Tagammu generally opposes the amendments it will participate in the consultations parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee intends to hold on them.

“We will argue that there are more pressing priorities, such as amending articles on local councils and religious parties, and that the proposed quota should be abandoned,” he said.

Nour Al-Hoda Zaki, a leading member of the Arab Nasserist Party, said: “women have played a leading role in Egypt’s political life in recent years, and were instrumental in removing the regime of Muslim Brotherhood from office in 2013.”

“Women were on the streets en masse to protest the Islamist regime in 2013 and voted yes to the new constitution and the election of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in 2014. They deserve to be adequately represented.”

“The reason we oppose the proposed quota is that it is a cheap attempt to win the votes of millions of women in favor of the amendments. The issue is not the quantity but the quality of female MPs. It is not a question of how many women sit in parliament but how effective they are as MPs.”

Zaki agreed with Abdel-Aal, saying “the performance of female MPs in the current parliament has been all but irrelevant.”

The Wafd Party may have provisionally approved the changes proposed to the 2014 Constitution but many leading members say they have reservations over the quota.

“It is clearly intended as an inducement for women to vote in favor of the changes in the referendum,” says Wafd member Mohamed Abdel-Alim. “Existing electoral rules are perfectly able to ensure women and other marginalized groups are represented in parliament.”

Mona Makram Ebeid, a former member of the Wafd Party and professor of political science at AUC, said in an interview that “it is unnecessary for the constitution to stipulate a quota of seats to be reserved for women.”

“It could easily complicate the situation,” she argued. “What we really need is for political parties to be keener to field more women on their lists.”

Rabie says implementing the quota system is likely to prove difficult.

“It is notoriously difficult to draft electoral laws guaranteeing representative quotas that have been allocated to specific groups. Since 1984 a number of elections laws have been invalidated by the Supreme Constitutional Court for failing to reflect the quotas than in effect.”

In 1979 30 seats were reserved for women, only for the Constitutional Court to rule in 1984 that the 30-seat quota violated the principle of equality, points out Rabie.

In 1987 the electoral system was again invalidated on the same grounds.

“It will be easy to contest the legality of any election law forced to accommodate the quota system. And the situation will be made worse because the amendments also seek to resurrect the old principle of reserving 50 percent of seats for representatives of workers and farmers,” says Rabie.

“A new election law could state that competition in certain districts be restricted to women or it could stipulate that a female candidate is included in the list of candidates for each district. Either way, legal challenges will be brought.”

Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told MPs on 13 February that the amendments would be subject to wide consultations.

“There is nothing final about them, and they will change as the debate progresses,” he said.

Many female MPs welcome the re-introduction of a quota system. Hala Abul-Saad, the parliamentary spokesperson of the Conservatives Party, said the move reflects the growing role of women in public life.

“We now have women cabinet ministers, provincial governors, and heads of parliamentary committees. The quota merely reflects the status quo.”

Sahar Talaat Mostafa, a former head of parliament’s Tourism Committee, argues the 25 percent quota may be too low. Thirty percent, she says, would “better compensate Egyptian women who were left for many years without adequate representation in parliament”.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Controversy over women quota

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