Trying to Break Through Egypt’s Political Glass Ceiling

Mariam Milad hopes her fourth try at entering parliament with the party she founded, Al-Haq, will be lucky. But the revolution seems to have left Egypt’s women behind.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Mariam Milad was the first Christian woman to found an Egyptian political party. She has run for parliament, and lost, three times. Undaunted, she is now preparing for her fourth parliamentary election, to be held sometime after the as-yet unscheduled presidential election.

Milad abounds with ideas on how to improve Egyptian society, beginning with the status of women. As a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority and as a young woman – perhaps too young – she cuts a highly unconventional figure in Egyptian politics. This does not bode well for her election chances: The revolution that championed gender and religious equality is nonetheless still very conservative when it comes to women.

Milad, who has degrees from both the University of Missouri and the University of Oxford, is around 30 but still looks like a college student. She started out in politics by joining the ruling party in the Mubarak era, where she says she ran into a hostile masculine wall.

“The men who ruled the party machine did everything to forge election results and sabotage the advancement of women, even though more women voted than men,” she says.

Milad owns several companies, so she needs no financial support. She founded the Al-Haq (“the truth”) party, which she funded mainly herself, after the 2011 revolution that brought down President Hosni Mubarak.

“Milad knows how to stir things up, she has an important role in Egyptian discourse but she seems to be ahead of her time,” an Egyptian journalist who writes for the government daily Al Ahram tells Haaretz. “We’re still stuck in a political culture that believes men should run politics, not women,” he says.

This is exactly the attitude Milad is fighting. She demanded, unsuccessfully, that the constitution committee include a provision setting aside a certain number of parliamentary seats for women.

In 2009 Mubarak issued an order setting aside a minimum of 64 of the parliament’s 518 seats for women. But the first parliament after the revolution stuck down the clause. As a result, only 2 percent of MPs were women, compared to 12 percent under Mubarak. In Tunisia, by contrast, women hold 23 percent of the seats in parliament, while in Libya 17 percent of MPs are female.

The National Council for Women, headed by Mervat Talawi, sponsored a long discussion on Sunday, attended by leaders of Egypt’s main parties, aimed at examining ways to increase the number of female parliamentary candidates. The problem is that the new constitution stipulates merely that the state must “ensure women’s rights in appointments to public and senior management positions and in the judicial authority, with no discrimination.” Since no number is mentioned, most parties are expected to push their women candidates to the bottom of the slate, keeping the top slots – the ones with the greatest chance of being elected – for the men.

Even Egypt’s State Council, which advises the government on matters of law, has recommended not setting quotas for the representation of women in the parliament or in judicial positions. It based this position on the recommendations of a 2010 committee that advised against appointing women judges because of the absence of suitable child care arrangements for female judges with children. The same committee said the attempt to appoint women to judgeships failed entirely “after four women judges failed in their married lives and separated from their husbands.”

With such attitudes in the council charged with interpreting the constitution, it is doubtful that Milad or any other female candidates will be able to win significant election victories.

“We exploit women in politics,” Bassem Kamal of the Social Democratic Party said at Sunday’s conference. “We command the women to vote, but we don’t publish their pictures on the candidate lists.”

According to figures from the protest organizations, women accounted for more than half of demonstrators. In addition, women accounted for 55 percent of the Egyptians who voted in the constitutional referendum earlier in January, and 60 percent of the voters in the last election.

But the obvious willingness of Egyptian women to participate in the political process seems to make no impression on the country’s male leaders. Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this month that most women will vote for Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi for president because he’s “handsome.”

But although Milad is an important activist, she is partly responsible for her inability to break through Egypt’s glass political ceiling. She angered her own Copt community in 2011, when she said she would gladly cooperate with the extremist Salafi Muslims and the Muslim Brotherhood. A few months later she said “deserters” from the Muslim Brotherhood had joined her party. She also criticized then-President Mohammed Morsi in a television interview, and for the past six month she has castigated the Muslim Brotherhood.

Milad even angered the protest movements 10 days ago, by demanding that everyone who wants to celebrate the revolution’s third anniversary apply for a demonstration permit, in accordance with the law. The law, that is, that is bitterly opposed by the protest movements, as a serious violation of the principles of the revolution.

Female Egyptian voters cast their votes during the second day of presidential elections in the Mataraya neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, May 24, 2012. Credit: AP

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