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Credit: Al-Jazeera

Egypt held parliamentary elections last Sunday and not surprisingly President Hosni Mabarak’s ruling party won an overwhelming majority of the seats.  Also not surprisingly the election results were marred by multiple allegations of voter intimidation and violence.  Amnesty International has issued a release calling for the immediate investigation of violence in connection with the elections, and the Obama Administration expressed “disappointment” with “the numerous reported irregularities at the polls.” Human Rights Watch said it had received reports of “numerous” violations during the vote. These included authorities detaining journalists and preventing the staff of opposition candidates from entering 30 polling stations the group visited, it said in a statement distributed to reporters yesterday in Cairo.

The US media has given little attention to the role of gender in these elections.  (The New York Times tucked into its coverage of the election only a small nugget in a much larger article: “There was at least one new element in Sunday’s elections: 64 seats were added to the chamber and set aside for women, bringing the total number of lawmakers to 518.”)

But actually, gender was a very important part of these elections.  According to Foreign Policy Magazine “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.”

This goal was marred by voter intimidation and fraud, mirroring problems with the elections overall.  Election monitors from the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights were denied access to the polling places, after having secured governmental permission to do so.

Even in the absence of voter intimidation, the new quotas, while trumpeted as a great reform by the ruling party, are unlikely to deliver greater rights for women more generally.  According to Mozn Hassan (via Al-Jazeera), the executive director of the Nazra Centre for Feminist Studies in Cairo, while the quota looks good from the outside, it conceals a host of more complicated problems.  “The quota system has definitely increased the number of women, we cannot deny that, but we’re more concerned with the quality of candidates rather than the quantity,” she said, adding that entering a public parliamentary race does not inherently mean a woman is a good politician.  “I’m worried about the kind of women that will join parliament. Many of them are women who are against women,” she said.

“They do not have to be feminists; we want to see women who will fight for women’s rights.  The quota system is only put forth to send an image that Egypt is becoming more democratic, but in doing so it overlooks other problems.”

Tahani El-Gebaly, Egypt’s first female judge, is quoted in al-Shorouk expressing skepticism about the value of the quota  :

The quota could get us 64 women in the People’s Assembly, but they could very well be worthless; those women might just keep silent or join the applauding masses […] How can women play any role in a parliament that has no vision when it comes to critical issues like democracy or social matters that affect both men and women?

Not everyone is a skeptical as Hassan and El-Gebaly.  This short video produced for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tells a more optimistic story about women in the Egyptian elections:

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has a good story on the gendered implications of the new quotas here, as does Al-Jazeera here, and the Economist here.

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