Text by: Vivian Nilsson – van Iperen
Visual by: Grace Marwa - Pattison
On 10 – 12 December 2023, the Arab Republic of Egypt held its presidential election. The incumbent President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was declared the winner, securing a historic third term in office. President el-Sisi, running as an independent, received 89.60% of the votes. As he secured a majority of votes, a second round of elections was not held. Despite the reported feeling that the election was a forgone conclusion and there were no serious challengers to Mr el-Sisi, 67% of voters participated in the polls. It represents an increase from the 2018 presidential polls when 47% of voters did.
The polls, the fourth since the Arab Spring in 2011, came amid the conflict between Israel and Gaza and as Egypt faces financial challenges with an inflation rate of around 40% and about two-thirds of the population living on or below the poverty line. Observers cite the country’s economic situation as the reason for why the presidential election was moved from spring of 2024 to December 2023. While MEWC was unsuccessful in finding data on the issues most important to female voters specifically, analysts point to the economy as a top issue among the general electorate in Egypt.
According to the African Union (AU) and Common Market for Eastern And Southern Africa (COMESA) Election Observation Mission, the campaigns proceeded peacefully with sporadic protests related to the conflict in Gaza. However, others report arrests, intimidation, harassment, detention and prosecution of journalists and political and human rights activists and “onerous requirements for candidates that effectively prevented any meaningful competition” during the campaign period.
In 2019, Egypt held a referendum where several constitutional amendments were approved. Among those was an amendment increasing the presidential term limits from four to six years. President el-Sisi, first elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018, was permitted to stand for election in 2023 following the adoption of Article 241, an intermediate constitutional provision, which extended his second term from four to six years.
In addition to Mr el-Sisi, three other candidates competed for President of Egypt in the recently concluded elections. Hazem Omar, Republican People’s Party, received 4.49% of the votes. At the same time, Farid Zahran, Egyptian Social Democratic Party, obtained 4.01% and Abdel-Sanad Yamama, Wafd Party, 1.86%. Two other contenders, Mr Ahmad Tantawi and Ms Gameela Ismail, declared their intentions but ultimately did not run for the presidency.
Women’s political participation and representation
While female candidates have yet to compete in the Egyptian presidential elections, two women have paved the way for others to follow. Ms Bothaina Kamel, often credited with being the first female candidate, announced her intention to run in Egypt’s first democratic elections in 2011 following the Arab Spring. Her campaign, however, came under “sustained attack from many directions” and received little attention in the national media. While she did collect enough signatures to qualify as a candidate, her candidacy was seen as an important step in Egyptian women’s political participation. In 2014, Ms Kamel announced her intention to run in the presidential elections; however, she could not secure the necessary support to become a candidate officially.
The second woman was Ms Gameela Ismail, head of the Constitution Party. In September 2023, she announced her intention to run in the presential elections. A month later, Ms Ismail announced she was withdrawing her candidacy following the Constitution Party’s decision not to nominate her. Ms Gameela Ismail reportedly did not obtain the necessary support for her candidacy as established by the law. However, her campaign denied these claims and criticised “the systemic restrictions” her supporters faced in registering their support for her candidacy.
Per the Egyptian Constitution, to officially be accepted as a presidential candidate, a candidate must obtain the endorsement of at least 20 elected members of the House of Representatives or from at least 25,000 citizens who have the right to vote in at least 15 governorates, with a minimum of 1,000 endorsements from each governorate. For the 2023 presidential elections, an additional avenue was presented. On 25 September 2023, the National Elections Commission issued a decree that said, “Egyptian citizens could register endorsements for a candidate by visiting one of 217 designated government notary offices under the Justice Ministry, where they would sign an electronic form in the presence of an office employee.” The endorsements had to be filed between 25 September and 15 October 2023.
In recent years, Egyptian women’s representation and participation in parliament has increased. As of December 2023, women comprise 27.5% of the House of Representatives compared to 14.9% in December 2019. It marks the highest level of female representatives in the lower house. In the Senate, women hold 13.7% of the seats. The Senate was re-established in 2019 following the adoption of the revised Constitution. Following the 2020 elections, Representative Phoebe Fawzi became the first woman to serve as Second Deputy Speaker of the Senate.
Egyptian women's representation rate among candidates and elected members is linked to various interconnected challenges. For example, political parties do not prioritise "actively identifying, training or supporting" female candidates. Studies show that many parties are not eager to include women at the top of their party lists, as women are seen as less likely to win their seats. Furthermore, except for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, most political parties do not have quotas or defined targets for female participation in participation in leadership. Conversely, the quota of 30% adopted by the Egyptian Social Democratic Party had a positive impact as, at the time of the study's publication, women accounted for 38% of the party's leadership.
Economic inequality and financial constraints pose significant challenges for female candidates. Compared to male candidates with substantial budgets, those of female candidates are considerably smaller. Female candidates and politicians also receive less coverage than their male counterparts. The lack of coverage puts female candidates and politicians at a disadvantage in terms of acceptance and in reaching voters with the message.
A patriarchal culture, gender stereotypes and social norms, at times perpetuated by the media, also pose challenges to women’s equal participation in political and public life in Egypt. During her campaign, Ms Bothaina Kamel noted that people were initially shocked and said that Egyptian society would not accept a female president. However, as she continued to campaign, Ms Kamel noticed that gradually, voters began to take her more seriously, and she and her candidacy gained more acceptance. Additionally, female candidates and women supporters have reported experiencing sexual and other forms of harassment.
Legal and policy reforms on women’s rights
The government of Egypt has implemented legislation, policies and strategies to advance women’s political participation. For example, it adopted quotas for both houses of parliament and well in local councils. Under the 2019 Constitution, one-quarter of seats in the election of local councils (Article 180) and at least one-quarter of seats in the House of Representatives (Article 102) should be allocated to women. Law No. 141 states that at least 10% of “the total number of seats should be dedicated to women” in the Senate. The Law also requires that every list of 15 seats must include at least three (3) women, and lists with 35 seats must consist of at least seven (7) women. Any list that does not comply with the conditions will not be accepted. Additionally, under the 2019 Constitution, women have the “right to hold public posts and high management posts in the state, and to appointment in judicial bodies and entities without discrimination.”
Egypt's National Council for Women (NCW) Political Empowerment Program strengthens women's political capacities and skills to further advance women's political participation. During the 2015 parliamentary elections, NCW developed a website that served as a platform to raise awareness of female candidates by sharing and promoting information about each candidate and their campaigns.
In addition to the abovementioned measures, the Egyptian government has adopted and implemented legislation and strategies in other areas that positively impact women’s political participation. It adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender (Labor Code No. 12 of 2003) and sexual harassment in the workplace (Penal Code). Other legislation enacted grants benefits to working mothers (Civil Service Act of 2016) and ensures that periods of absence from work due to childcare are accounted for in pension benefits (Child Law No. 12. 1996).
Through the adoption of various strategies, the Egyptian government has to prevent and combat violence against women (National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women), harmful practices such as FGM (National Strategy for the Abandonment of FGM) and child and early marriages (National Strategy for the Abandonment of Early Marriage.) The National Strategy for the Empowerment of Egyptian Women 2030 aims to create equal opportunities for women in all sectors, focusing on rural women, impoverished women, and elderly and disabled women. The government has also initiated projects to improve women’s social economic situation. In 2019, it launched a project to eradicate illiteracy by offering literacy classes for women. While Egypt has made progress in some areas of women’s rights by enacting laws and policies, the country has yet to sign and ratify the Maputo Protocol.
Egyptian women advocating for change
Egyptian women have a long history of activism. Increasingly, young women, often active at the grassroots level, are using social media to discuss issues of importance to them, such as sexual violence and harassment and calling for action. Some describe this growing activism as a “continuation of the incomplete 2011 revolution” when Egyptian women were told that now was not the time for their equality demands as “more pressing issues had to be addressed.”
Women’s groups, female activists, and politicians are essential in advancing and strengthening women’s rights in Egypt, such as calling for a quota for women in both houses of parliament and local elections. They also work to address discrimination in the judicial system, where few Egyptian women work overall. After experiencing gender discrimination, Ms Omnia Gadalla founded the “Her Honor Setting the Bar” initiative to fight the discriminatory ban on women working in the judiciary.
While the Constitution commits the State to protect women against all forms of violence, VAW is widespread in the country, with a rate of violence at 86%, according to the National Council for Women in Egypt. Ms Amal Salama, a member of parliament representing the Mostaqbal Watan Party-led National Unified List, proposed amending the article on battering in the Egyptian Penal Code to explicitly criminalise wife battering and mandate detention for no less than three years and not more than five years against husbands who injure or beat their wives.
When the Egyptian government proposed the adoption of the Personal Status Law in 2021, women’s groups and activists organised gatherings and launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #Guardianshipismyright. The draft Law included provisions requiring a woman to receive consent from a male guardian to get married, travel abroad and register a child’s birth. It would also give fathers priority in child custody matters. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights called the draft Law repressive. Others highlighted that it did not treat women equally, noting that the proposed legislation did not advance women’s rights. On social media, women shared personal stories about how the current laws had affected them, such as preventing them from making decisions for themselves and how further restrictions would impact them.
The Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), the Women and Memory Forum, and the Guardianship is My Right campaign proposed the Just Family Law as an alternative to the Personal Status Law. The Just Family Law would give women equal rights to men in divorce and favour mothers in child custody cases.
Female members of the House of Representatives also proposed amendments to the Personal Status Law that would, among others, strengthen women’s financial support in the event of a divorce. Ms Amal Salama, a House of Representatives Human Rights committee member, proposed an amendment that “would determine the minimum amount of post-divorce alimony.” Her proposed amendment would require a husband who divorces his wife without her consent, in addition to regular alimony, to pay her another sum of money. The additional sum of money would vary depending on the length of the marriage.
The draft Law and proposed amendments are expected to be discussed and approved by the House of Representatives during its next session. At the time of writing, MEWC has yet to verify whether a discussion has occurred or a decision has been made.
The incumbent, President el-Sisi, won the 2023 elections with 89.60% of the votes, avoiding a second round. Ms Gameela Ismail declared her intention to stand for election. However, she ultimately did not run. There was no woman among the four presidential candidates. There has yet to be an official female presidential candidate in Egypt.
While Egyptian women face challenges regarding political participation, there have been positive developments. More women are represented in the Egyptian House of Representatives. As of December 2023, women make up 27.5% of the members. It represents the highest level of female representation in the lower house. Furthermore, each Egyptian woman running for office and engaging in political and public life challenges the perception that men are better suited for political work. Or that women lack “the ability to convince others, argue, negotiate and create effective political alliances.” Egyptian women lead by example.
There is also a growing number of young women raising their voices and calling for change on women’s rights issues that are important to them, such as sexual harassment and discrimination. Egyptian women’s activism has positively impacted women’s rights, such as calling for the implementation of quotas in both houses of parliament. They have also proposed amendments to draft laws and existing legislation. Women’s groups also play an essential role for women elected to “parliament to build broad networks of support.” These networks are critical as Egyptian women are less likely to be exposed to and participate in political and public life than men and have access to existing networks. Whether calling for ratifying the Protocol, enacting legislation, or strengthening national laws and policies, Egyptian women will play an essential role in realising women’s rights.