Wafd Party elections raise issue of female empowerment in Egypt

While five candidates contended for the leadership of the Wafd Party, none of them were women, which raised several questions about the future of women in Egyptian partisan life.

al-monitor Hani Sarie Eddin (C), a member of the Supreme Committee of the Wafd Party, speaks to the press at the headquarters of the party following a meeting, Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 27, 2018. Photo by MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images.

Apr 22, 2018

CAIRO — Secretary-General of the Wafd Party Hani Sarie El-Din announced April 16 that the party has prepared a list of cadres to take part in the upcoming local council elections scheduled for early 2019. He pointed out that the party was keen to give the bigger share of the list to women and the youth.

But finding strong and well-known female cadres in the Wafd Party is not an easy task. Women do not currently fill any positions within the Wafd Party. Five candidates competed March 30 for the leadership of the party. While these candidates represented many segments of society, none of them were women or Copts. Bahaa Abu Shoqa, the former secretary-general of the Wafd Party, won the elections.

Of note, the Wafd Party adopts an objective approach in its relations with the current regime. While its members of parliament supported Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in many decisions, many of its members refused the Maritime Demarcation Agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which led Egypt to give up its sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

Yusri al-Azabawi, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The party’s elections included many trends, ages, orientations and demographics. While the absence of women and Copts cannot be deemed as an indication of marginalization given that each party has its own age, political and demographic composition, the absence of women from a lot of Egyptian party leaderships remains a phenomenon that deserves to be explored.”

“The absence of women is more remarkable than the absence of Copts, considering that Copts represent about 15% of Egyptian society, while women represent about 50%, a rate that increases among the youth, who are supposed to be at the core of partisan work,” he added. “I think that the weak and immature partisan experience in Egypt did not care much about empowering women in partisan life. Party leaders were busy settling their struggle for partisan leadership. One example is the conflict between Noman Gomaa and Mahmoud Abaza over the leadership of the Wafd Party in 2006. [Egyptian] parties only embarked on including women in parliament after the 2014 constitution stipulated a quota for women on each party’s list.”

Only one woman has assumed the post of party leader in the history of partisan life in Egypt — Hala Shukrallah, a Christian who served as the head of Al-Dostour Party in the wake of the February 2014 partisan elections. However, Shukrallah resigned in August 2015 in protest against what she deemed to be confusion in the party's policy and failure to heed the demands of the people.

For her part, Sabah al-Saqqari ran in 2012 for the presidency of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, but did not win.

In an attempt to identify the reasons behind the absence of women from the Wafd Party elections in Egypt and the Egyptian partisan life in general, Nihal Ahdi, the head of the Women's Union of the Wafd Party, told Al-Monitor that the crisis is not limited to the Wafd Party or to partisan life alone, as the problem is embedded in Egyptian society, which she described as patriarchal. Most Egyptians, she said, including women, favor men occupying partisan and local council positions.

She pointed out that the most important step that should be taken by the Wafd Party in the coming period and before the local council elections is to organize intensive awareness campaigns across Egypt to encourage women to elect women. Also, the historical role of women in political and partisan work needs to be highlighted because women participate more than men in the elections. Still, women chose to support men.

“When female cadres make it to local councils and parliament and manage to earn the trust of the Wafd Party members, then they will be able to assume leadership positions within the Wafd Party,” she said.

The Wafd Party was the first political party to allow women to join its ranks. Safiya Zaghloul, the wife of Saad Zaghloul, the first leader of the Wafd Party, led the women's secretariat in the party and was succeeded by Huda Shaarawi, one of the leaders of the Egyptian women's movement.

Abu Shoqa told Al-Monitor that women are not well-represented within Egyptian parties. And Sisi’s experience in the empowerment of women during 2017, which he declared as the year of women, showed that political parties are the ones who need women, not the other way around. Women assumed high positions without any partisan support. Sahar Nasr assumed the post of minister of investment and international cooperation, and Nadia Abdo assumed the post of governor of Beheira.

“My presidential program for the Wafd Party is based on an integrated strategy that aims to empower women both within the party and in the local council elections,” Abu Shoqa added.

Hoda Badran, the president of the Egyptian Feminist Union, ruled out that women will be allowed to assume higher positions in partisan life in Egypt.

“Most Egyptian parties witness occasional splits when a certain group in the party rejects the leadership’s policy, and developing a strategy to empower women at the expense of some party activists may lead to further splits. Women will not reap any benefits from being represented within parties plagued by splits,” she told Al-Monitor.

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