For Egypt, it was a grand return to historic heights: Last week, the brand-new prime minister Mostafa Madbouly named two female ministers, adding to the six already in the cabinet.
Eight out of 34 ministers is definitely a distinguished representation, the most Egypt has had since 1962 (yes, then it had more). For comparison, Israel has four female ministers and one deputy minister in a 21-person cabinet.
It is an important milestone, even if Egyptian cabinets over the ages serve mainly as a rubber stamp for the omnipotent president. But don’t break out the bubbly just yet. In the West, the proportion of women in politics is one of the criteria by which a given regime’s progress is tested. Egypt did make an impressive leap forward, but if we look at discrimination against women in society, Egypt is one of the lowest in rank.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi can take the credit for the “manpower” change. Ministers heading key ministries were replaced, including defense, interior and economy, as was the prime minister himself.
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The shuffle was interpreted as being pursuant to a strategy of strengthening Sissi’s status and politically eliminating people suspected of opposing his policies.
Shuffling ministers isn’t an unusual move in Egypt. Every time any economic or security-related crisis arises that evokes criticism of the government or president, the relevant ministers pack their bags. But that doesn’t mean they are distanced from the circle of influence. For instance, the outgoing minister of defense, Sedki Sobhy, and of interior, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, will remain as special advisers to the president, though they won’t be able to make decisions themselves. They could well find themselves back in power after the next shuffle.
Female ministers seem less vulnerable to being replaced, whether because they head less important ministries – social solidarity, health, and immigration, for instance – or whether because replacing a male minister is perceived as a more significant change than replacing a female one, given that all along her appointment was felt to be a gesture, not a substantive political advance. Note that the Egyptian media dwell mainly on the female ministers’ appearance – their garb, makeup and tone of speech, an analysis the male ministers are spared.
Last month, before the new female ministers were added, the Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm ran a long feature on the female ministers, in which experts on style and psychology were tapped for their views on the ministers’ appearance. A stylist named Nada said that the blue garment worn by the minister of planning, monitoring and administrative reform, Dr. Hala el Saeed, was spectacular and suited the color of her skin and face, and that she could wear other quiet colors that would do well by her round face – but she could definitely do better with her hair.
Still, it isn’t only the wardrobe that makes the minister. Psychologist Dr. Ibrahim Magdi had another interesting insight: “We don’t hear the minister’s voice much, because she plans and thinks quietly,” he said. “We only hear from her when the project is finished. She isn’t glamorous like Sahar Nasr (the minister of investments and international cooperation) but she has chic.”
Speaking of Nasr, what Nada the stylist had to say was, “Her unique advantage is that she has a baby face, so all colors suit her.” Nada added that Nasr uses a lot of accessories and is bold in her brand choices.
“Her appearance brings honor to Egypt and she has great taste in choosing the very latest in makeup. She uses colors like orange, white, gray and black as basic colors,” said Nada.
Magdi the psychologist noted that Nasr’s “baby face helps her in her work, by helping to persuade people and institutions to budget money to development projects, and her charming smile makes people feel love.”
These colorful descriptions do mention the ministers’ education – most hold doctorates and some studied in the West and held key positions in Egyptian administration, and at international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But they barely mention how the ministers are doing their jobs or the projects they initiated.
The female ministers usually get quoted in the media when they appear at official functions, or give fairly scripted interviews. It is hard to find quotes about their political opinions, but it’s the same with their male colleagues: All must stick to the president’s messages, without skepticism or change. If you want to read about or voice criticism of the female ministers, the place is social media, which the female ministers do not use except for their Facebook and twitter accounts which abound, not surprisingly, with descriptions of grandiose development plans. Sissi doesn’t really care if a given minister is male or female, so long as they don’t stray from his way of doing things.