Egypt's field of presidential candidates for the March election is exceptionally sparse this year. But this year, like every other year, the field is absolutely barren when it comes to female candidates.
One woman tried to run. But Mona Prince, an English literature professor at Suez University, failed to collect the necessary 25,000 signatures.
On Jan. 30, the elections commission announced that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will face only one other candidate: Moussa Mustafa Moussa, head of El Ghad Party. However, Moussa is actually a Sisi supporter who many claim is only running to give the race an appearance of legitimacy.
Egypt’s presidential elections have lacked female competitors. In 2005, former President Hosni Mubarak ran against nine candidates, all men. Following the January 25 Revolution of 2011, 13 men competed in the 2012 election. At that time, television anchor and presidential hopeful Bothaina Kamel failed to collect the then-necessary 30,000 endorsements from citizens. In May 2012, Kamel told BBC, “I fought a war against the backward mentalities,” adding, “A woman participating in the electoral run is a new phenomenon, which is why society rejected it, as it prefers stability [and rejects change].”
After the June 30 Revolution of 2013 that led to the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, the following year saw Sisi, who resigned as field marshal to run for president, handily defeat Hamdeen Sabahi, founder of the Egyptian Popular Current.
Where haven't there been female candidates?
“The radical religious current has established within society a derisory image of women, which explains the voters’ rejection of female presidential candidates. Some religious teachings wrongfully claim that there are texts in Islam banning women from acceding to the presidency," Suzy Nashed, a member of parliament’s Committee on Legislative and Constitutional Affairs, told Al-Monitor.
“Religious and government institutions should organize awareness campaigns about voting for women in Upper Egypt and rural areas, as [residents] of these areas reject female candidates the most, given customs and traditions [there]. For these people, women’s roles are limited to household chores, and women should not venture into public work,” she said.
Nashed recommended that political parties develop plans "to train women who aspire to lead a political party." Women have been successful in parliament races, and they can share their experience to help groom potential candidates.
Women in Egypt have proved capable of holding high positions, raising hope that the 2022 presidential election will include a female candidate. Among those women currently occupying high positions are Faiza Abou el-Naga, the president’s adviser for national security affairs, and Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Sahar Nasr.
Nehad Abo El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, is more optimistic than many about how enlightened Egyptians have become regarding women in politics.
“Egyptian society has recently evolved and people would be ready to endorse a female [presidential] candidate who meets their ambitions and demands," she told Al-Monitor. "But the women who have so far stepped forward lacked popularity or didn't have enough political background that encouraged citizens to vote for them.”
Unlike society, she said, “the political scene in Egypt isn't prepared for a female presidential candidate. This is because parties don't support women in the elections. Women are aware of the electoral process and the need for the support of a political party that enjoys wide popularity in most governorates.”
Komsan called on parliament to increase the female quota in local election laws, allowing more women to compete in all governorates and participate in the political process. This way, Egyptians would slowly become accustomed to voting for a woman, she added.
Not everyone agrees that society has evolved that much, however. Some prominent women refuse to run in presidential elections for fear of failing and being rejected by society.
Parliamentarian Margaret Azar said, “The ruling regime has the political will to encourage women to reach high positions. There are six female ministers in the current government and 90 women [out of 596] in parliament. But Egyptian society rejects the candidacy of a woman for the presidential elections, which is why parties refuse to endorse a female candidate.”
Azar told Al-Monitor, “There are wrongful religious teachings spread among society that reject women [as presidential material], especially in poor areas where ignorance is spread. This is why religious institutions have an urgent role to raise awareness among voters that competency matters, not gender.”
Ahmed Abdel Moneim, a worker who holds a traditional view of politics, told Al-Monitor, “It may be hard for a woman to assume the presidency, as this job requires physical activities, and only men can handle them. The president of the republic is the commander of the armed forces, so how can a woman lead the army and police? It's difficult for the officers and troops to obey a woman.”
Housewife Samira Abdallah expressed a different point of view.
"Egyptian women have proved that they can occupy any position, including the presidency," she told Al-Monitor. "The women in Egypt are the ones running the affairs of their homes under the current difficult economic conditions. But the problem is that men consider women incapable of running the country, as they see women as submissive.”
Sanaa al-Saeed, a member of the National Council for Women, told Al-Monitor that women make up 20% of the current government. The council is organizing training sessions at its headquarters and across the country to teach women about political work and organizing campaigns, allowing them to choose whatever role suits them best.
"Presidential elections require major efforts to change the ideology of society," Saeed said. "But Egyptian women are on the right path to convince the public about their competencies to become presidential candidates."