Inclusive dialogue and awareness building are forerunners to lasting change and reform — invigorating democratic decision-making and leading the way for more reasoned politics. In Egypt, unfortunately, that pattern may not hold true for the discourse on women’s political empowerment.
As Nazra for Feminist Studies found recently, simply having female political candidates on party lists changed the nature of political debate and negatively affected women’s abilities to gain seats in office during the last round of elections.
With the appearance of women candidates on party lists, political discourse in Egypt transformed into socio-political discourse on the role of women in society. However, the focus on women’s social issues was disconnected from female candidates’ own efforts to portray themselves as representatives of their constituencies holistically.
That disconnect had negative effects for women’s political successes, particularly for women at the top of their party lists. To avoid polarizing voters, at least one female candidate yielded her spot on her party list to a male candidate, moving herself to the bottom.
Indeed, female candidates with husbands on their campaign teams gained more credibility among voters. According to Nazra, having men on a campaign “… portray[s] the candidate as first and foremost a successful homemaker who entered politics with the consent and encouragement of her husband, thus boosting her legitimacy, especially in rural areas.”
Egypt’s reformed election law abolishes the Mubarak-era requirement that 64 seats in parliament be reserved for women. Instead, the new law mandates that every party list include at least one female candidate. In the recent elections, however, most parties did not place women very high on their party lists.
Perhaps women’s lack of political credibility is a result of Egypt’s political past. Previously, only women from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) had enough resources to win the seats that were reserved for them in parliament. Many Egyptians resented those women’s political participation as a tactic designed to bolster the NDP’s dominance. “State feminism” undermined women in political positions.
The success of Sana Said, a female candidate who was high on her party’s list and won a seat in the recent elections, shows that Egyptians will vote for a woman if they think she is a worthy candidate. Nevertheless, Nazra recommends that political parties materially and technically support their female candidates’ campaigns on a mandatory basis, preferably with at least one male staff member so that female candidates are presented as politicians rather than representatives of women’s issues exclusively.
Egypt’s transition to democracy is far from over, and it seems that women’s participation in political offices will depend on men until women’s social issues are no longer a divisive factor to the electorate. It’s impossible to erase memories of a women’s agenda hijacked for the political interests of the NDP, but women will have to find a way to participate in decision-making bodies if Egypt is to have a truly inclusive democratic society.