Friday, February 19, 2010

Elections will not bring significant change in human rights issues

By Alexandru Cristea

Edited by Chen Lou

The Egyptian parliament in 2009, photo from Los Angeles Times.

Parliamentary elections in Egypt will not improve the status of women and religious minorities, despite increased internal and international attention. A 2009 report by Human Rights Watch stated that abuses and general discrimination committed by state and private agents against women and religious minorities have continued. Among religious groups, Copts, native Egyptian Christians which represent around 10% of the population, have been the focus of violent attacks. Local political analysts and human rights activists indicated that lack of political party electoral agendas focused on ending sectarian violence or empowering women means the elections will not bring major changes to these groups.

Political analyst Khalil Al-Anani referred the lack of strong commitment from the ruling Egyptian National Democratic Party to further women’s agenda. “Regarding women and minorities: although the constitution has been changed to guarantee a certain proportion for women in the parliament (64 seats of 518), the political culture in Egypt does not help to empower women. Moreover, this proportion will go automatically to the NDP.”

The success of these constitutional maneuvers eliminated any kind of incentive for the NDP to actively promote women’s issues.

Aida Seif El Dawla of Cairo, human rights activist and co-founder of The New Woman Research Center and the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence, was skeptical about the possibility of a larger focus on the rights of women. “The quota for women is reserved for women of the ruling party and it does not follow that they will carry women’s agenda,” she said, indicating that the opposition does not provide a viable alternative either. “There is simply no space for this type of negotiation.”

“Women remain on the outside of the political spectrum and this doesn't appear to be changing,” indicated journalist Joseph Mayton, the editor and founder of the Bikya Masr, a website specialized in news reports, analysis and opinion on Egyptian and regional issues, and based in Cairo. “As with the opposition, women leaders are growing old and the people involved in rights issues are not going to change to politics, they believe what they are doing is working and making change,” Mayton said.

Egyptian women wait to register their names in Cairo in June, 2009. Photo from: Reuters.

The political parties that make up the opposition in Egypt do not provide any grounds for hope either. “The opposition has made statements but does not have any agenda with regard to either women or minorities”, Dina Shehata, researcher with the Cairo based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, has indicated. “As for minorities, there are no intentions from either the government or the opposition to enhance their presence keeping away from dividing the population along the lines of majority and minority,” she added.

Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, pointed out the lack of an agenda focused on minorities. “There is already a political discourse on the Coptic issue. The government is saying that what is happening is criminal. All the acts are criminal but one has to look at the motives and the motives are religious. There is no strategy and it is very depressing.” Kazziha was also skeptical about the intentions of the opposition to address such issues. “They said we don’t need to do what they’re doing outside in the west”, he explained.

The Egyptian government’s unwillingness to approach the issue of sectarian violence is seen as a reason for the lack of action, indicated Samy Saad of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “They are scared to admit there is sectarian violence because they cannot control it. They make use of it to get Copts scared and get their votes. The church asks them to reelect Mubarak,” he added. Joseph Mayton indicated the “government wants to keep tensions going because it deflects from the real issue: that they are oppressing all Egyptians.” Lack of active engagement in political life prevents Copts from exercising influence over the agenda of mainstream politics, Mayton also suggested. “(As) for Christians, they are not interested in political participation and the churches in Egypt don't push them for participation. I don't think that any change will happen in representation of Copts in the next elections,” analyst Khalil Al Anani said.

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