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EGYPT: Disputes Rise Over Quotas for Women MPs

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jul 27 2009 (IPS) - Disputes have arisen over new legislation setting a quota for female representatives in parliament. Spokesmen for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak describe the quotas as a milestone for women's rights, but some critics say the move threatens to create more problems than it solves.

"The move has opened up a Pandora's box of side issues," Amr Hashem Rabie, expert on parliamentary affairs at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. "Along with questions as to its constitutionality, the new law has encouraged other groups to demand their own parliamentary quotas."

The NDP's majority in parliament approved legislation last month to create 64 new parliamentary seats reserved for female MPs. The move, which amended a 1972 law regulating parliamentary activity, will raise the number of seats in the assembly from 454 to 518.

The NDP currently controls roughly four-fifths of the seats in parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement has most of the rest. Some secular opposition parties and independent MPs have a few between them.

The new quotas will be applied in parliamentary elections scheduled for October of next year. According to officials quoted in the state press, 32 new electoral districts will be created in which only female candidates can contest. Four additional seats will be reserved for women representing densely populated urban governorates including Cairo, while another two seats will be allotted to women representing Egypt's rural governorates.

The law was initially proposed by the NDP's powerful Policies Secretariat headed up by Mubarak's influential son, Gamal. "This draft law represents a historical turning point in the political role of Egyptian women," said NDP Secretary-General Safwat Sherif.

But opponents of the legislation – which include the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberal Wafd Party, the leftist Tegammua Party and most independent parliamentarians – question the new law's constitutionality.

"This law runs counter to the national charter, which doesn't mention anything about 'positive discrimination', or call for parliamentary quotas for particular demographic groups," Hamdi Hassan, a leading Muslim Brotherhood MP told IPS. "The Muslim Brotherhood supports broadening female political participation, but not by these methods."

Brotherhood and independent MPs issued a joint statement in which they rejected the new legislation due to "doubts as to its constitutionality" and because it "conflicts with the values of our citizens, including the right to equal opportunity."

"The new law conflicts with several articles of the constitution ensuring equality and equal opportunity among citizens," says Rabie. The new law, he said, had been brought in for "political considerations" rather than any sincere desire on the part of the ruling party for greater female political participation.

"Like the longstanding emergency law and the recent amendments to electoral regulations, the rationale behind the new legislation is entirely pragmatic," Rabie said. "Under the current electoral system, it is likely that the only women to win parliamentary seats will be NDP candidates."

Like most opposition figures, Hassan also says the new quota is little more than a surreptitious means of cementing NDP control over the national assembly.

"The NDP hopes to monopolise these additional seats in order to shore up its parliamentary majority," said Hassan. "By having to run in vast electoral districts, such as Cairo or Alexandria, female candidates will not have a chance of winning unless the contest is rigged in their favour."

Hassan added that the ruling party was also using the new law as a way of "proving its liberal credentials to the west, especially in the wake of (U.S. President Barack) Obama's recent visit to Egypt."

Rabie too says that the NDP was "eager to please the liberal agenda promoted by the west," of which women's rights constitute a major component. "That's why the draft law was debated and passed quickly – in order to bypass public opinion."

The new law has led to calls by other groups, mainly Egypt's Coptic Christian community, for similar parliamentary quotas. Copts are between six and 12 percent of Egypt's population of 82 million; exact figures are notoriously difficult to ascertain.

"If the government considers women a 'minority', then Copts, too, should be considered a minority," says Naguib Gabriel, head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, a Cairo-based NGO.

Refaat Fekry, a leading member of the Anglican Church in Egypt, had demanded that a parliamentary quota should be set for Copts, "because Egyptian society has been loath to elect Copts to parliament since the 1970s."

Rabie says this demand is a non-starter. "It comes as no surprise that the new legislation prompted Copts and other groups to demand their own parliamentary quotas. But the state will absolutely never comply with such a suggestion."

"A parliamentary quota for Copts conflicts with the fact that Egypt's social fabric is cut from one cloth," Mohamed Kamal, a leading member of the NDP Policy Secretariat and a close associate of the younger Mubarak was quoted as saying in the state press.

"Such a system might work in other countries," Kamal said in a reference to Lebanon's confession-based electoral system. "But there's no place for such an arrangement in Egypt."

Al-Gomhouriya editor-in-chief Mohamed Ali Ibrahim has defended the new law, and accused its detractors of raising "unimportant side issues".

"Politicians and the media would be better off discussing how to prepare these female candidates – legally, politically and culturally – to be active members of parliament," Ibrahim wrote last week.

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