The intricacies of democracy are a mystery, at least for many of the country’s rural poor — and especially for the politically and economically disenfranchised women of the agricultural heartlands of Egypt. But local councilors Fatheya Rezk Abdel-Rahman, Hoda Salah Sayed and Huwaida Abd El-Atti Abdullah from rural Assiut have achieved a unique victory: The three women won seats at the April 2008 local council elections. Like the non-governmental organization that encouraged them to run for office, they believe that grassroots education and economic empowerment, rather than forced participation, are what is required to bring women into the political fold.
In September 2006, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) began its program to promote political awareness among the women entrepreneurs of Assiut and Qalyoubeya governorates. Leila Ahmed, project manager, explains the program’s origins.
“Our project was built on two older projects. One of them is a microfinance program that started seven years ago and  will continue for some years. In this program, the women have microcredits to make small enterprises and we just try to empower them economically,” she says. “In addition, there was another project finished two years ago. It was aimed at empowering women politically. In this project they tried to bring political awareness to women and provide them with the tools that will help them in the political process, such as IDs or voting cards  and asked them to participate in the elections. That’s all.”
The CRS program that ended in September was built on the concept that political empowerment must be based on economic empowerment. “It is so difficult to go and speak with anybody who is not supported economically or empowered economically and ask them to participate or be empowered politically,” says Ahmed. “That’s why we make our target groups women entrepreneurs who are already empowered economically. And through the program of microcredits, it helps them to work in groups.”
Microfinance loans from the existing CRS program start at LE 500 and can increase over time, with repayment schedules varying according to the circumstances of the borrowers. However, it is not the sum of money that is important. The concept of group lending, that is, loans guaranteed by a group of women who will meet the payments of any member of the group that defaults, prepares borrowers for the political process. Each group must have an elected leader, and each individual has a responsibility towards the group. Democratic concepts are established through microfinance.
Male Pride and Tribal Prejudices
Working with a local community development association, the Assiut Businesswomen’s Association (ABWA), and with $1 million funding from USAID, CRS provided political awareness sessions for a total of 8,400 women in two target districts in the Assiut governorate. In each district, three villages hosted awareness sessions chaired by a facilitator appointed from each village. The facilitator would normally lead four groups, each consisting of 25 women attending eight hours per month. Each village chose five female candidates to run for election in the April 2008 local council elections, a total of 30 women.
The sister project, run with a different partner — the Industrial District Development Association — in Qalyoubeya only presented 18 candidates instead of the target of 30, and none were elected. However, in the two governorates a total of 15,000 women attended awareness sessions, which dealt with the basic requirements of political participation, such as obtaining ID and voting cards, and informed women of their right as citizens to vote and how to do it, as well as encouraging the nomination of candidates.
Although the project exceeded its target in Assiut of providing political education for 7,500 women, the task for CRS was not easy. “[There were] a lot of obstacles  It was difficult for these very simple women to be attracted to such awareness sessions, so we tried to convince them at the beginning of the [monthly] sessions in which they pay the installment of their [microfinance] loan,” Ahmed says. He also pointed out that most of the attendees were illiterate and had either no experience or interest in politics. And when it came to actually nominating the candidates, there was more than a little bad blood.
“Before the election we faced a lot of obstacles,” Ahmed says. “One of them was tribal prejudices which dictate places in the local councils for some families over all the past years and prevent any new individuals from being nominated for any council positions.” Sayed, widowed in 2004, describes the reaction of some of the women’s husbands: “At first [the candidates] faced problems with their husbands. They felt they would take the time dedicated to their homes.”
Family and tribal pressures were not all the candidates had to worry about. There was a lack of faith in the community that women would be able to fill the shoes of male incumbents, some of whom refused to let the women try to take their places anyway. While some women faced no opposition in their respective communities, others were forced to withdraw because of threats on the lives of both themselves and their families.
However, the election winners in Assiut were able to confront the ingrained prejudices in their communities, with Abdel-Rahman, 57, and Abdullah, 26, becoming the first women on their 24-member village councils and Sayed, 34, the second woman on her district council of 88 members.
While each of the women feels that conditions for women in Egypt are improving, their election platforms were still concentrated on the most basic of issues. All three cited bread distribution as a major problem in their areas, with Abdel-Rahman meeting with bakers to restrict the amount one person could buy and making sure that the most deprived are fed. Also, as she states, “we didn’t have a health unit in the village. We used to have a small one that was built in 1980, but through our efforts we can make it effective again  There is an area of the village that has no electricity and we are working on that.”
Abdullah, who works as a volunteer in her community and is getting married next year, brought her personal experience to her political career, helping newlyweds and widows through funding from the council. She plans to set up an “alms-giving community” in her village of Beni Rafea.
The most outspoken of the three councilors, Sayed is working on a number of problems in Beni Rafea, the same village as Abdullah. “We can work together to build literacy classes and pave the roads in the village through cooperating with officials to develop our village.” She helps widows and poorer people in her area, a large percentage of whom are women, by going to the Ministry of Social Solidarity to sort out ID and other documents that allow them to vote. “Also, I am working on the garbage crisis. We have tons and tons of waste and I want to fix it by making boxes for the garbage outside each house in the village.”
Education and Awareness
Of course, women are not the only victims of the political ignorance that CRS and now Abdel-Rahman, Sayed, and Abdullah are trying to combat. Nevertheless, with literacy rates below 60 percent, compared to 83 percent for men, women are at a distinct disadvantage. Much of the time, the reasons for the low levels of education among women and people in rural areas generally are a lack of money or traditional attitudes: Abdullah works as a teacher but was unable to pursue a diploma after her brother had to undergo surgery. Sayed left school at 15 when she married, though she was able to return, and graduate, after her husband died.
All three women agree that the most damaging element in society for Egyptian women is the lack of political awareness, a result of a low standard of state education and the attitude of many men who “fear women could compete with them,” according to Sayed.
Besides the Assiut women’s experiences as micro-entrepreneurs that prepare them for political participation, traditional attitudes can create a place for female political leaders, a role that men cannot fulfill. “It is easy for any woman in the village to knock on the door and ask the women who won the local council election and tell her about their problems,” says Ahmed. “But it is difficult for a woman to go to a man and ask him to solve her problems.”
In 1979, Egypt was one of the first Arab countries to introduce a quota for the number of women in the People’s Assembly (PA), but the law was rescinded in 1986. Women now make up just 3.5 percent of local council members, and even in the PA only 1.9 percent of parliament members are women. Ahmed is reluctant to make any comment regarding the government’s attitude. “Any government will demonstrate that they are encouraging the nation or the people to participate and be democratic  I think [the government] understands what the aim and objectives are of the NGOs who fund such projects. I think it’s clear to the government.”
The November 2006 parliamentary decision not to reinstate a quota for female members of parliament in the PA indicates the government’s disinterest in encouraging women’s participation in national politics. The decision was justified by MPs who claimed that a quota system would create an imbalance in the rights of men and women.
Ahmed, however, does not feel that the lack of a quota system at any level is a disadvantage: “It means that some women don’t deserve to be members, but they [would] be just to complete the quota  The process needs to start at the bottom with education rather than at the top with the government forcing it.”
There is no certainty that the rise of Egyptian women in politics will continue: They must also overcome the same obstacles as the male candidates. The sole independent nominee in Assiut (there was another in Qalyoubeya), Mediha Moustafa Gaflan, explains that the strength of her competitors in part lay in their political affiliations. “I faced a fierce battle,” she says. “My competitors were very strong and I could not match them.” The three winning candidates in Assiut all ran on the NDP ticket.
CRS is just one of many NGOs trying to provide a political education for women. While the project itself has ended, around 15,000 women have been educated on the voting process; the hope is they will pass on these lessons to both their peers and children. And the councilors themselves are ambitious. Sayed believes that “in [the rural areas] women were deprived of their rights and even until now the local council is not enough.” Though her first priority is to educate her children, she plans to possibly run for a position in the PA.
In a presentation at the project’s closing ceremony, head of the ABWA Administration Education Department Zaineb Sayed Touny points out what the project has really achieved. “Even if [the candidates] failed in the elections, I would be happy, too. It’s enough that [the women educated by the project] knew the meaning of political empowerment and the meaning of politics. If one female candidate succeeded, I would consider that all women succeeded.”
The Macro of Microfinance
The importance of microfinance to the development of good governance practices is recognized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Egypt, which funded the CRS program.
From 1990 to June 2008, USAID has extended around 5.6 million loans valued at LE 10 billion to 2.2 million small and micro-entrepreneurs via its supported institutions. Manal Alfred, communications officer for USAID Egypt, states that currently, “the USAID-supported institutions are managing an outstanding loan portfolio of LE 1.1 billion serving about 800,872 borrowers.”
At the same time, according to the agency’s 2008 fiscal year estimated budget, 15 new grants to organizations like CRS will be awarded in FY2008, “ranging from $50,000 to $1,000,000 per grant and having a performance period ranging from six months to three years  An additional $2 million (estimated) may be awarded under fast-track procedures, in support of 2008 election activities.”
In a country where small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) account for 75 percent of private sector employment, it is no surprise that aid agencies and non-governmental organizations are realizing the potential of microfinance networks to spread democratic principles, especially among women, who make up 65 percent of USAID’s borrowers as heads of the household in some of the country’s most deprived areas. et