Two years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Arab Republic of Egypt is still struggling to develop into a more liberalized and democratic state. With the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and the return to de facto military rule on July 3, 2013, Egypt has again fallen into a transitional phase. Increasingly vocal women’s rights groups are among the various interests and factions vying for a place in Egypt’s future political design.
Recently, these groups are seeing their chances at full democratic participation under threat and organizations such as the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights are expressing concern over the mechanisms shaping Egypt’s forthcoming constitution. As a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Egypt’s government is obligated to make the advancement of women’s rights a governmental goal.
Despite Egypt’s ratification of the CEDAW and the ICCPR, the state tends to demur when it comes to the actual participation of women in government. During Mohammed Morsi’s brief tenure as president, women comprised less than two percent of Egypt’s legislature after the 2011 parliamentary elections. These figures are drastically lower than other post-revolution states in the region. Seventeen percent of Libya’s elected Members of Parliament are women and Tunisia leads both states with women winning twenty-three percent of its parliament’s seats.
Since the provisional military junta’s suspension of the constitution and dissolving of parliament in July 2013, Egypt is once again operating under its Emergency Laws. Not wishing to revisit the constitutional limbo of the Mubarak era, a fifty-member Constituent Assembly was appointed in September 2013 to amend the now defunct 2012 Constitution. Despite the Assembly’s expressed democratic intentions, the under-representation of women is apparent. Only five women sit on the Constituent Assembly and some comment that this gender imbalance contradicts basic norms regarding gender equality affirmed by international law.
Adding to the controversy, Egypt’s 2012 Constitution contained articles stating that a traditional interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, would serve as the guide for the country’s legislation. The final language of the revised articles is another source of concern for women’s rights groups. Some allege a connection between traditional interpretations of Sharia and the rejection of gender equality. These controversies generate concern that if Egypt does take steps to reverse these inequalities in its government, it may violate its obligations under the CEDAW and ICCPR.
The CEDAW requires governments to take “all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men.” Specifically, Articles 2, 7, 9, and 16 of the convention require states to (1) enshrine gender equality in their constitutions and public laws, (2) allow for equitable inclusion of women in drafting government policy, and (3) ensure equality in marriage and family law. Similarly, Article 2 of the ICCPR requires protection of civil and political rights regardless of gender. Article 3 of the ICCPR guarantees equal protection for men and women in all rights set out in the Covenant. These two conventions form the critical nexus of human rights law requiring Egypt to be proactive in the face of gender discrimination in public life.
Many hope that the committee will make the changes advocated by women’s rights groups with some calling for the restoration of a quota system to ensure fair representation in parliament. During the Mubarak era, a quota system maintained women’s representation in the legislature, which reached a peak of fourteen percent in 2010. This debate over the articles’ controversial language and gender-based parliamentary apportionment is expected to continue into the near future with the Assembly starting the second phase of voting on the completed articles on October 21, 2013.
As the work of the Assembly continues, human rights advocates are focused once again on the moves of the Egyptian government. As the Arab world’s largest country, the development of gender equality laws in Egypt may serve as a model in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Whatever form the new Constitution takes, Egypt’s lawmakers should ensure that it provides for gender equality and encourages women’s participation in government, such as with the quota system’s proposed renewal. If the Assembly completes this task, it will be bringing Egypt more into line with its treaty obligations under the CEDAW and the ICCPR.