Can new 'women's government' advance gender equality in Egypt?
In a step aimed at promoting the role of women in Egyptian society, a "parallel" women's government, the first of its kind, was announced in mid-July, dubbed the Egyptian Women's Government.
A statement issued just before the official launch said that the new Cabinet includes only female independent ministers and will work as a research center to serve Egyptian society and support women's intellectual paths of all stripes.
"Forming a government with only female ministers is unprecedented historically and geographically," Ghad al-Wakil, the head of the newly formed women's government, told Al-Monitor.
Wakil said that she has been mulling over the idea for years now and started two months ago to form the parallel government under the umbrella of the Heritage and Traditional Arts Association. The women's government includes 25 ministerial posts, including some that do not exist in the traditional Egyptian government, while some traditional ministries were merged into a single post.
She added that the women's government operates under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Solidarity in Egypt's government; this ministry supervises nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations. "The women's government includes symbols of civil society as they are working on the ground and have a firsthand experience in the citizens' daily problems," she said, adding that the parallel government was formed in an unconventional way — using outside-the-box thinking — as new approaches were set forth.
Wakil, who serves as the chairperson of the Women's Committee in the Heritage and Traditional Arts Association, criticized present and past Egyptian governments for the low representation of women in the Cabinet. In the Egyptian Cabinet formed in September 2015, only three of 33 ministerial posts went to women.
"Women number more than 47 million in Egypt, according to the United Nations, and the executive government continues to limit us to certain ministries," she said.
Wakil, who served as minister of immigration in the shadow government of the Wafd Party before she was suspended, said, "The women's government came in peace to extend a helping hand to the executive government and we have seen a great welcome."
"We do not seek any position. Our work is voluntary first and foremost and we have our own funding. We are an independent entity and we do not espouse or endorse any political or partisan ideology," she added.
Wakil rejects the term "parallel" government. "We are a typical government that was formed to promote women's participation in Egypt and to find solutions to community problems," she said.
The women's government includes 19 women, plus one man in charge of the men and housing portfolio. "This ministerial post seeks to improve the image of Egyptian men abroad, after having been badly portrayed, especially for sexual harassment," she said, adding that a 23-year-old woman was appointed as head of the Youth Ministry.
Two new ministries were created in the women's government. The first is the Francophone minister, who will focus on a portfolio concerning Africa, given the issues that are of great concern to Egypt strategically and geopolitically. The second ministry will handle Nile Basin Affairs.
Wakil said, "We ought to address this issue that is of paramount importance for Egypt and we hope that will not face any problem in this regard," referring to the Renaissance Dam project that is of great concern to Egypt; the Ethiopian dam might cause Egypt to lose part of its water share.
Asked whether or not the women's government will play a role in some foreign issues of concern to Egypt, Wakil said it has been customary for Egypt to deal with the United States and some European countries. She said the women's government will also address the African and Asian axes, in addition to Latin America. She believes that soft power engendered by the women's government could be of help to Egypt in certain issues, but by way of dialogue, not pressure.
Wakil further said that education is a top priority for the women's government. The ministries of Education and Higher Education were merged into one ministry in the women's government and started its first project in Port Said. The project, called "Sun," aims to turn two technical schools (for boys and girls) from consumers of energy into producers of it. The women's government's Environment Ministry and Youth Ministry, in cooperation with the executive government's Ministry of Education and Higher Education, will contribute to the project.
Wakil said she considered vocational education to be the future of Egypt in the coming years. The women's government is also concerned with health issues. "We separated the Health Ministry from the pharmaceutical domain, along the lines of the American model," Wakil said.
Commenting on Egypt's current economic crisis, Wakil said, "It is a thorny issue. Therefore, we merged the ministries of economy, finance and investment into one ministry supervised by an integrated economic advisory board. We are working on formulating a vision out of the current crisis to be submitted to the executive government." Wakil criticized the state for removing subsidies on some basic services such as electricity and energy.
Wakil also heads the Defense Ministry in the women's government. "Among other issues that have been placed on the table for consideration: the military recruitment of young women, which comes upon the request of many of them. We are preparing now to discuss this proposal in public and we seek to hold an international conference with the theme of defending Egyptian identity," Wakil said.
Mustafa Kamel Sayyed, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said of the women's government, "I highly doubt that this Cabinet will have any impact on the executive government's policies."
He told Al-Monitor, "In terms of political sciences, a shadow government could be formed that would include some figures assuming responsibility for certain ministries but in the context of a parliament, whose members would usually be from an opposition party. This government would be used as a means to train its members for the government work in addition to providing alternative proposals that would be implemented when their party comes to power following elections. These members could also try to convince the public that their shadow government could be a better option in running the state affairs."
Sayyed said forming shadow governments is important, but should be done within the framework of the current parliament, a condition the women's government has failed to meet. He added that the decisions of shadow governments are not binding for the executive authority. However, shadow governments could criticize the government's current program and lobby public opinion and parliament, while trying to show its effectiveness by gaining an overwhelming majority of votes on some issue in parliament.
"The communication channels that the women's government will be employing to convey their ideas to the executive power are unknown, nor do we know to what extent the latter will be interested in them," he added.
Sayyed, however, noted that this new Cabinet is an important step in promoting women's participation in the political life and public sphere. He said that it all boils down to how the members of the women's government present themselves and their ideas; a good presentation could provide an incentive for many other women to follow suit.
He also said, "I believe there are indications suggesting that there have been higher rates of women's participation in the public sphere, but this was limited to supporting [Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi in the last presidential elections."
He added, "We must wait some time to see what happens. These rates increase following major political changes — such as the January 25 Revolution in 2011 — and after a while people may become disappointed because their hopes for revolutionary change were not realized. But change is a long, difficult process and we need to wait to see more women in the public sphere."