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."