Egyptian women in parliament polls: Hopes and hurdles

Mariam Mecky , Wednesday 18 Nov 2015

Though women voters participated heavily in Egypt's parliamentary elections with high hopes, there were fewer women candidates to vote for and they still face the same old obstacles

Woman Candidate
Asmaa Ahmed Abdel Hakeem, a 40 year-old independent female candidate who was able later on to secure a seat in the first stage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, waves from a vehicle as she campaigns in her neighborhood in Giza, Egypt, Oct. 15, 2015. (Photo: AP)

With a high turnout of women voters in Egypt's parliamentary elections, the fact remains that the number of women candidates is relatively low in a field already stacked with political hurdles against female hopefuls.

"I wish there was a woman candidate in my constituency, but all the candidates were men," said Noha, a 35-year-old woman who cast her ballot in Giza during the first stage of the elections, which took off on 17 October and its run-offs on 27 and 28 of the same month.

Wafaa Ashrey, the first female candidate yet to submit her papers in the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan, was unable to secure a seat in the first stage, said that "there was a great decline in women running in my constituency due to their fear of failure and the experience as a whole."

Female independents: Minority of a minority

Ashrey asserts that if there had been a quota of independent seats for women as positive discrimination/affirmative action, more women would have been encouraged to join the electoral race.

There is no general quota for women in parliament, according to the new parliamentary election law enacted in 2015.

The law stipulates a quota for the number of women on electoral lists, but not as independents who are the most challenged majority of female candidates.

Overall, there have been 282 female candidates out of 5420 independents in this election.

In the first stage, there were 110 independent women candidates from a total of 2573, representing a mere 4.2 percent, according to the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR). Meanwhile, 100 female candidates ran through eight party lists.

The 14 governorates included in this first stage of voting are: Giza, Fayoum, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut, New Valley, Sohag, Qena, Luxor, Aswan, Red Sea, Beheira, Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh.

“Men have more money and more leverage," Ashrey said while describing the status-quo and the issue of the “lack of funding" for female candidates.

Money talks

Salma El-Naqqash, director of Women Political Participation Academy at Nazra for Feminist Studies, also highlighted the lack of funding for women hopefuls while affirming that, "the numbers are relatively low regarding the candidates and the results particularly in the single-candidate seats."

"I personally attribute this to the majority-based system in elections, that lead to the control of political capital in elections as it was quite evident in the field that a lot of candidates relied on buying votes," she opined.

The majority-based system stipulates that if a candidate secures more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, they are elected. If not, they face a run-off.

"Such a system never really gives space for diverse political factions and groups to participate equally in elections and the less empowered groups such as women are less visible," El-Naqash elaborates.

Mona Mounir, a newly elected MP, who won on For the Love of Egypt list in Giza, said that money is often the biggest impediment for candidates and its impact on women is worse.

Mounir is one of the 32 women who succeeded in securing seats in the coming parliament including 27 party-based candidates and five independents out of a total of 210 female candidates in the first stage. All five women who won independent seats succeeded in the run offs.

"Political money plays a central role in campaigning, media and publicity, which constitutes a financial burden for women, especially those running for independent seats," Mounir highlighted.

"Thus, media exposure is also a great obstacle. The media provides a platform to only those who can afford it."

Rania El-Sadat, an independent candidate running in Port Said in the second stage, underlined other hindrances to women running in the elections, such as thuggery and lack of security during campaigning.

In general, she said, there is a notable lack of public trust in candidates thus, it is harder to reach out to voters.

'Women support women'

Nevertheless, it is argued that women have been quite responsive and willing to participate as voters in the ongoing elections amid an overall low turnout and signs of little public interest.

Omar Marwan of the High Election Committee (HEC) said at a press conference early on the first day of Egypt’s parliamentary elections that the number of female voters so far has been “four times greater” than that of men.

Zeinab Abdel-Rahman, an independent candidate who is running in southern Cairo’s El-Basateen district, said that most people working in her electoral campaign are women, saying that often "Women support women as they are more aware of the roles we, as women, should take on." 

"This is more common among the more privileged classes. Among the less privileged, political capital is the key player."

Hala, a university professor in her early fifties, said that she will not vote for a woman just because of her gender. It depends on the candidates' programmes, she said.

In the 2014 presidential election, women used to appear dancing and singing in a festive atmosphere in front of the polling stations. This election, such festive celebrations are more infrequent, yet women's participation was still evident.

Women's rights' organisations such as the National Council for Women (NCW) and ECWR have hailed women’s turnout this year.

Rania Makram, a researcher specialising in public policy and media at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, attributed the high turnout of women to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's call for women to participate in the elections.

Before the parliamentary elections, El-Sisi called on "all Egyptians to actively participate" in the elections, adding that he wants to see Egyptian women, as they are "the national icon for sacrifice."

For her side, El Naqash said, “I personally think that some women could have been influenced by the presidential speech that was urging citizens to vote, and it could have also been driven by family interests in certain areas and for some of the candidates."

Nonetheless, El Naqash stated that no one can confirm that it was higher because so far there is gender- segregated data for the number of voters who actually participated, even though the commission published the number of registered voters with clear gender segregation.

Progress through quotas?

The new parliamentary law would guarantee a minimum of 70 women representatives in the next chamber comprising 568 elected seats and 28 appointed by the president, of which five percent must be women by law.

Makram argued that even though the number of female candidates was not high, there is a relatively high number of successful female candidates. "This number is quite high compared to the previous parliament," she remarked.

Newly elected MP Mounir says that, "after the success of five independent candidates, we are now expecting 74 women in the upcoming parliament."

This number of female MPs shall mark the highest number of women in parliament in Egypt’s modern history, since the introduction of women’s suffrage in 1956.

Notwithstanding, it is difficult to compare the electoral victories of women in the past parliaments to the upcoming one as each had a different parliamentary framework with regards to women. 

In the 2012 Parliament, when there was no quota for women, women won less than 2 percent of the total number of seats, around nine women with two appointed, even though there was 984 female candidates out of a total of 8113 candidates, according to ECWR. 

When the women's quota was reapplied in the 2010 People's Assembly elections, women won 12 percent, which amounted to 64 seats.

The new parliamentary election law enacted in 2015 established a mixed electoral system that puts the total of parliamentary deputies at 596. Of these, 448 members will be elected as independents, 120 as party-based candidates, and 28 (or 5 percent) as presidential appointees.

The second stage is set to take place on the 22-23 of November in the 13 remaining governorates, with the run offs on 1-2 December. After appeals and presidential appointments, the parliament is expected to be formed by the end of this year.

“Despite the general atmosphere and the impediments, we took it upon ourselves to have a positive role,” concluded the independent candidate for Port Said El Sadat.

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