CAIRO (Nov. 7) -- As Egypt's Nov. 28 elections approach, female candidates are squaring off to fill the country's newly instated women's quota in the parliament. But whether reserving places for women lawmakers will change Egypt's conservative society and sclerotic political system is up for debate.
Other Middle Eastern regimes have announced quota systems in recent years for their mostly rubber-stamp parliaments, often to rounds of Western applause. November's elections will be the first test of Egypt's new system, which adds 64 women-only seats to the lower house of parliament for two five-year terms in what is touted as an effort to increase women's political participation.
"It may work in terms of getting women mobilized to run," says Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "What that does in terms of the actual action of the assembly and whether it does something more profound to the society in terms of democratic values and the value of political participation and spreading those things in society, I'm not really sure. It's too early to tell."
Today, Syria, Iraq and Morocco are among the countries to have women's quotas, although the percentages vary. Iraq, at 25 percent, tops the list for largest number of seats reserved for women. In Jordan's elections this month, the female quota has been doubled to 12 percent, the same percentage women in Egypt will have.
In some Arab countries, like Bahrain and Kuwait, women have managed to secure seats without quotas. Kuwait only granted women the right to vote in 2005, but in the country's 2009 elections, four women won seats in the 50-member parliament, and 16 were on the ballot. And nine women were elected to Egypt's parliament in the last election in 2005 without quotas.
Quota or no quota, running for office as a woman in conservative societies is not without obstacles. Female candidates face increased societal opposition, funding problems and intimidation. Egyptian elections are routinely marred by violence and allegations of fraud.
The Alliance for Arab Women, an Egyptian group, has been working with female candidates for the past year trying to ready the women for the campaign. "They're very easily slandered in the press. There are many accusations made against them about them having affairs, extramarital relations, that are not necessary true," says Celia Shenouda, an AAW volunteer. "Male candidates also face having bad issues brought forward against them in the press, but it's usually not of a sexual nature."
The women candidates themselves report that not everyone approves of their participation in political life. "There is no one response. Some people look at this with arms wide open and some people are afraid that a woman is running," says Souad Abdel Hamid, a female candidate from the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party running in Cairo. Hamid says she has not been harassed, but the official campaigning season has yet to technically begin.
Hamid is a proponent of the new system. "The quota system is trying to eliminate what we have inherited in the culture," she said. "It's an opportunity for women to prove to the people that they can run politics and they can change things in politics."
But not all women agree. Dr. Manal Abul Hassan, an independent candidate sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood, is running for a non-quota seat against a male candidate from the ruling party. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed since 1954, its members run in Egyptian elections as independents. In the 2005 elections, Brotherhood-affiliated candidates captured a 20 percent block of seats to become the largest opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party.
Hassan sees the quota system as a cover-up for the NDP and not a tool for gender empowerment.
"It does not provide actual women's development," Hassan says. "It was applied not to improve the woman's role in the government, but to improve the NDP's image." She predicts the ruling party will dominate the women's seats and that the winners will merely perpetuate what she sees as Egypt's erroneous policies, further reducing their credibility as candidates.
And others agree. "Gender quotas in the Arab world are one of the most cynical regime ploys," says Shadi Hamid, director of the Brookings Institution Doha Center. He sees the quota as an attempt on the part of the Egyptian regime to perpetuate their image as more liberal than their Islamist rivals.
Nor does he believe the quota will necessarily change Egyptian society. "[Quotas] don't address the real structural problem, they don't get to the root of the problem -- that the culture in the Middle East now is not supportive of active women's participation, is not supportive of women's leadership in senior positions," he says. "And that's why when there are free and fair elections, people in the Arab world don't vote for women."
On that count, Hassan begs to differ. She's convinced that on an even playing field, she could run against and beat a male candidate from the ruling party. "If there were free elections, I expect to win," she says.