Egypt's Pro-Women Election Turns Ugly

When Egypt's government announced its new parliamentary quota for women, it was hailed as a step for gender equality. The reality on the ground? Not so much.

CAIRO —For someone whose rally was just disbanded by plainclothes policemen and thugs wielding knives, Amal Abdel Karim is remarkably calm. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidate for parliament, now sitting serenely in the parlor of her makeshift campaign headquarters in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Agouza, tells me she has been through far worse.

On Sunday, Nov. 28, Egyptians will head to the polls to elect a new lower house of parliament. Elections in Egypt are routinely marred by violence and allegations of fraud -- and this People's Assembly contest appears to be no different. The relatively short official campaign period of two weeks has already witnessed detentions, charges of vote-buying, and violent clashes. And Karim has suffered through much of it: The mother of four has had her office ransacked, her posters torn down, and her supporters intimidated and threatened, while she reports being put under surveillance herself and summoned repeatedly to court.

This was supposed to be Egypt's pro-women election. In 2009, President Hosni Mubarak's long-standing National Democratic Party government passed a law creating a new quota system, adding 64 seats to the People's Assembly that can be contested only by women. The new quota, which will stay in place over two five-year election cycles, will ensure that women control at least 12 percent of the assembly. Announcing it, the regime proclaimed the end of a system that saw women holding only nine of the outgoing parliament's 454 seats.

But the quota system -- which government critics dismiss as little more than a vote-amassing scheme -- isn't necessarily a female-friendly institution. Because of engrained sexism and political cynicism in Egypt, it may end up creating a worse situation for female candidates than their earlier situation. "[Quotas] don't get to the root of the problem, [which] is that the culture in the Middle East now is not supportive of active women's participation," says Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Institution's Doha Center. "That's why when there are free and fair elections, people in the Arab world don't vote for women."

For some, of course, the quota is a chance for girl-power sloganeering, however dissonant with the reality on the ground in a country where few women serve in public office or the upper echelons of the business community. "Some people look at this with arms wide open and some people are afraid that a woman is running. The quota system is trying to eliminate what we have inherited in the culture, that women can't practice politics," says Souad Abdel Hamid, a female quota candidate from the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party running in Cairo.

But most observers see a more complex motivation behind the government's new policy. "The Egyptian regime is good at one thing in particular and that's finding ways to maintain power, and I think we have to look at gender quotas as part of a larger strategy," says Hamid of Brookings. He thinks the quota system is a way for the regime to curry favor with Egypt's liberal, secular elite and the international community without changing conservative attitudes on the ground or relinquishing any political control.

"Most of women who are going to win these seats are NDP," says Hamid. "Why would NDP members just by virtue of being female have a fundamentally different political approach?"

Some female candidates have actually spoken out against the quota. "It does not provide actual women's development," says Dr. Manal Abul Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidate. Hassan refused to run for a quota district and disapproves of the whole policy: "It was applied not to improve the woman's role in the government, but to improve the NDP's image."

The opposition candidates running for the quota seats are aware that their chances of victory against the government are narrow. "The NDP is going to take three quarters of [quota seats]," says Mona Makram Ebeid, a quota candidate from the opposition Wafd party, who thinks she has a shot at ending up in the remaining quarter because she has better name recognition than her NDP rival.

But the NDP candidates are facing their own set of problems. The quota created fierce competition, with potential candidates swarming to get on the ruling party's ballot. In one jurisdiction, local press reported that 131 women competed for only two NDP slots.

Meanwhile, the quota comes with some inherent logistical challenges for candidates from all parties. The new seats are associated with Egypt's 22 governorates, which overlay the existing 222 districts, meaning that quota candidates must campaign over much larger regions than other candidates -- a governorate holds multiple districts. Meanwhile, Egypt's usual two-week campaign period has been shortened by the Muslim holiday of Eid, which shut down the country for five days last week. Female candidates report they are finding it nearly impossible to make their presence known.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," says Ebied. "You don't have the time to do anything. It's as if they're putting up obstacles, and particularly for women, who have to cover all this enormous area."

And then there's the sexism of the average Egyptian voter. Rural traditions prohibit many Egyptian women from attending campaign rallies, so female candidates find one of the main discomforts of holding rallies is that they're speaking in front of large crowds of men, especially outside of the cities. "That's the contradiction: They accept you, but they don't accept that their women will go out," Ebied says.

Women are also particularly vulnerable to the violence that's a regular part of Egyptian elections. Female candidates -- who often hail from privileged backgrounds and don't have much experience in the brash Egyptian public sphere -- admit they are more easily threatened by violent tactics than their male counterparts. And women voters who might support them are more easily scared off by angry mobs, a frequent occurrence on poll day here.

Women are also more susceptible to media slander and harassment. Male candidates and journalists from state-affiliated media routinely target their rivals' reputations, charging them with extramarital affairs or inappropriate behavior -- something that is especially poisonous for women in a conservative society where their reputation reflects on the family and community. During the nomination process, NDP women reported bribery attempts by journalists who threatened to slander their reputations in articles if they didn't pay up -- playing on the greater fragility of a woman's reputation in Egyptian culture.

"[Women are] very easily slandered in the press," says Celia Shenouda, a workshop volunteer with the Alliance for Arab Women, a local nongovernmental organization that has been working with female candidates and campaign managers for the past year in preparation for the election and collected the stories about bribery attempts. "Male candidates face the same issues in having bad issues brought forward against them in the press, but it's usually not of a sexual nature."

Shenouda describes an NDP candidate who was asked by a local journalist to pay him 100 Egyptian pounds ($17) to retract a statement he published about her reputation. When the woman refused, he threatened to publish more. The candidate spent 10,000 Egyptian pounds prosecuting him in court.

Gameela Ismail, the ex-wife of opposition leader Ayman Nour, who came in second to Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election, is running as an independent for a non-quota seat in Cairo.  "They would threaten you with everything they can, formally and informally, they would even threaten you with your children, prostitution cases, drug cases, everything they can," she says.

Some female candidates still have hope that something good will come out of their struggles. "I wish to be a part of change and development by standing in front of corruption and to have a positive role as a Muslim woman in participating and helping the society I live in," says Karim, the Brotherhood quota candidate in Giza.

Whether or not Karim gets the chance, says Yasmin Galal, project manager at the AAW, the most important thing is for all the new female parliamentarians to carry out the job well and to think of their entry into Egyptian politics as a crucial step, if a complicated one. And despite the system's imperfections, Galal has high hopes for the women who will be elected Sunday. "I hope that in these two elections, women make a very good impact," she says. "It's not only about having women there, it's about having women there who can do something."

AFP/Getty Images


O, Brotherhood, Where Art Thou?

Has the Egyptian regime finally outsmarted its largest Islamist opposition group?

CAIRO—The noise could be heard from well down the block in the muddy streets of Shubra al-Kheima, a grim industrial suburb just north of Cairo.

A chanting sign-waving crowd, about 50-strong, worked its way through the Mit Nama neighborhood, singing the praises of Dr. Mohammed El-Beltagui -- the district's incumbent parliamentarian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and best-known Islamist group.

"The symbol of the anchor," they chanted, referring to the Beltagui's electoral logo -- a key element in a district where illiteracy runs high. "Reform and change! He doesn't sleep and he doesn't lie!"

Every few blocks, Beltagui -- an eye, ear, nose, and throat doctor -- would stop and deliver a spirited speech, railing against the deficiencies and failings of the government.

"They wage war on us because we talk about corruption and the sewers running through our streets," he shouted. "They wage war on us because we ask why our government is selling natural gas to Israel for free."

Beltagui was one of 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood -- running as nominal independents -- who won seats in the People's Assembly, Egypt's lower house of parliament, in 2005. The victories established the Brotherhood as the country's largest opposition bloc with 20 percent of the legislature, despite the fact the group is outlawed by the Egyptian government and banned from forming an actual political party.

The 2005 vote amounted to a political earthquake, shaking up Egypt's normally stagnant and predictable political process. It served as a stinging rebuke of President Hosni Mubarak's dominant National Democratic Party and a vindication of the Islamist group's decision to participate in mainstream politics.

But five years later, a very different reality holds sway, as the Brotherhood works to defend its gains in elections scheduled for Sunday. A series of harsh government crackdowns has left at least 1,000 Brotherhood activists in jail, and the group's decision to contest the elections -- in defiance of wide-ranging calls for an opposition boycott -- have left it open to both internal and external second guessing. Observers close to the movement say the Brotherhood may be headed for a crushing defeat.

Very few doubt the Brotherhood's sincerity or that its supporters -- estimated at around 50,000 dedicated members -- possess the courage of their convictions; after all, its members are known for smiling in the face of routine mass arrests, and then emerging from jail to head straight back to their political activities.

But the current state of affairs has prompted a debate about the wisdom of the Brotherhood's strategy this time around.

The Brotherhood's decision to re-enter the electoral arena essentially cut the legs out from under the reform movement headed by Mohamed ElBaradei. The former International Atomic Energy Agency chief had spent months cajoling Egypt's opposition forces to boycott the vote as a sweeping gesture of no-confidence in the Mubarak regime's commitment to a true democratic process, but the Brotherhood announced its decision to participate in October.

Brotherhood decision-making is famously opaque, but the group's leaders acknowledge that the decision to defend their parliament seats was far from unanimous.

"Of course, there was a lot of internal discussions and debate," said Mohammed Moursi, a Brotherhood MP. "It's a continuation of our historic struggle for reform. This is our national duty -- sacrificing for the nation."

Beltagui, the MP from Shubra al-Kheima, added, "We decided that participation enabled us to express the desires of the people. We want to emphasize the will of the people for change."

After-the-fact analysis of the 2005 elections attributed the result to a combination of factors: the strength of the Brotherhood's formidable grassroots infrastructure of dedicated cadres, plus widespread public dissatisfaction with both the government and the established political parties.

Political scientist Khalil El-Anani, an expert in Islamist movements at the University of Durham, breaks down the Brotherhood's support into three broad categories: Hardcore cadres willing to fight through police lines to cast their vote, more casual supporters who benefit from the wide range of Brotherhood social services, and protest voters looking to support anyone from outside the established political order.

Based on what Shubra al-Kheima residents told me, much of that appeal appears to be still in place.

Mohamed Ismail, a 25-year-old accountant and one of the marchers in Beltagui's campaign rally, said he was drawn to Beltagui not so much because of his personal qualifications as a candidate as for the larger ideals he represents.

"We're with the Islamic project. It's not just Dr. Beltagui as one man," Ismail said.

But Gaber Refaat, a 30-year old Arabic teacher who was playing dominoes in a cafe as the march went by, seems to represent the other camp of potential Brotherhood voters. He said he would vote for Beltagui on Sunday, but not for any ideological reason. What attracts Refaat is Beltagui's record of charitable acts, including offering free medical service at his clinic for those who can't afford to pay.

"It's not because of the Brotherhood. I don't really care about that," Refaat said. "It's because of who he is as a person -- because he does what he says he's going to do."

Nevertheless, all indications point to serious reversal of fortune for the Brotherhood this time around. The government seems determined to reign in the group, and five years as the main opposition bloc in parliament have proven the Brothers can annoy and harass, but not seriously hinder, the government.

Mohammed Habib, the group's former* deputy supreme guide and second in command, told me he expects the group will win "15 seats at most" on Sunday. His estimate may have been an attempt to lower expectations, but few observers expect the Brotherhood to emerge from the upcoming election with more than half its current total of 88 seats.

The Brotherhood's normally disciplined message control has also broken down badly in the days leading up to the election. As the full extent of the government's pressure campaign has become apparent, dissident Brothers have begun going public with calls for the group with withdraw rather than participate in a rigged vote -- a move that would essentially amount to admission of a tactical error.

"This is the last chance for the Brotherhood to announce its withdrawal from parliamentary elections," prominent Brotherhood leader Mukhtar Noh told the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm Tuesday. Noh and a handful of others have formed what they're calling the Brotherhood Opposition Front, to pressure their own leadership to reverse course.

"It's time the group took the bold decision to withdraw all its candidates from this electoral game, which lacks even a modicum of credibility," Noh said. "Such a withdrawal would destroy the legitimacy of the elections."

However, such a reversal would prove embarrassing for the proud and venerable organization, opening it up to second-guessing from those outside the Brotherhood and also a potential revolt by younger cadres against the group's aging leadership. The Brotherhood's newly installed supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, may not feel secure enough to deliver such a public mea culpa.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Brotherhood's decision badly weakened the drive for domestic reform that appeared to be gaining steam following ElBaradei's return to Egypt. What remains to be seen is how badly the Brotherhood also weakened itself in the process.

*This article originally identified Mohammed Habib as the Muslim Brotherhood's current deputy supreme guide and second in command. He formerly held those positions.