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Egyptian Women and the Upcoming Presidential Elections

May 15, 2014

Political choice to be made

As Egyptians prepare, yet again, to go to the polls to replace deposed President Morsi, three main opinion camps seem to be emerging. In one, there are those who support the election of Sisi, until recently was the Minister of Defence, who strongly represents the army and State institutions and is being hailed in some quarters as the leader who will save Egypt from its internal divisions, Muslim Brotherhood-style political Islam, and the spectre of civil war. While he is an experienced military leader, he has little diplomatic experience.

In camp two are political dissenters who oppose not only the militarisation of Egypt’s democracy, but point out both Sisi’s popularity with the old regime who were behind Mubarak and his lack of economic and social policies. This groups support Sabahi, the candidate seen most to uphold the values of civil society and the January 25th Revolution and who is hailed, especially by the youth, as a strong advocate of social justice but who suffers from poor organisation and a comparatively small political outreach.

The third group is likely to boycott the elections altogether – either out of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, or because they feel the latest elections will do nothing to advance the democratic process. Young people feature prominently in this camp.

No demilitarisation in sight

As is typical in any country in the midst of change, women are not expressing homogenous opinions about who they want as their next leader. Disappointingly for WILPF partners, who have been actively formulating possible new political directions in favour of demilitarising the country and advancing the goals of CEDAW and Security Council Resolution 1325, Sisi appears to have struck a particularly popular chord with large numbers of women in their 40s and 50s who are characterised by the media as being less interested in his capacities as a statesman than in his glamorous appeal as a “contemporary Charles de Gaulle”.

Situation for women – the grim reality

Meanwhile, the reality for women – on the streets, in their homes and in the economy – remains grim. While social media fora such Facebook and HarrassMap are an important new space in which city dwellers can report on the horrific levels of sexual harassment faced by women going about their daily lives, little advancement has been made in terms of laws to deter men’s attacks.

Activists also report little advancement in their education campaigns to oppose popular media stereotypes that women “ask for it” through “improper” dress or manners; even the most modestly-dressed women are victimised in a system that refuses to treat the crime wave against women with anything approaching seriousness (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/05/egypt-sexual-harassment-spread.html).

As their freedom of movement and association continues to be curtailed, and patriarchal values appear once more to be on the rise, activists are reviewing the mixed bag of gains and losses they have made since the uprisings began.

Small steps for women’s political participation

Weighed against the slow progress being made to oppose men’s violence and impunity, women are celebrating the fact that more and more are speaking out against harassment. Even more importantly, they celebrate the small political gains that have been possible as a result of increased public discourse about all forms of social inclusion. Women represented a huge number of those who voted in the 2014 constitutional referendum, by this means showing their strong support for the new Articles 11, committing to protect them from all forms of violence and Articles 93, re-stating Egypt’s commitment to uphold CEDAW.

Hala Shukrallah recently became the first woman to lead an Egyptian political party. In the same spirit a new female political initiative, Women for Women (WFW) was launched in November 2013 and was granted permission to fundraise at the beginning of this year.

Whether women will make any further political gains in the upcoming elections remains to be seen as the goal of a female parliamentary quota remains elusive, and activists fear their efforts to implement measures to include women in electoral lists will be too easily squashed. In the last parliament, women represented a woeful 1.8%, one of the lowest formal participation rates in the world. Finally, if Sisi’s campaign prevails, an even more heavily pro-military stance is likely to colour Egyptian politics; and this is the hardest challenge of all faced by Egyptian activists in WILPF’s MENA project.

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