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Women check for names before casting their votes during the second day of voting in Egypt's presidential election

Last week, Egypt’s Constituent Assembly, charged with amending the country’s constitution, announced that 25 percent of municipal seats will be reserved for women. There is no word yet on when municipal elections will be held, or if a similar quota will be established for parliament, but the move is a positive step toward improving the low political participation of women in the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution.

During the last years of the Mubarak regime, benefiting from a law that set aside sixty-four seats for women, female representatives held 12 percent of parliament – the highest level ever in Egypt. Some claim that this quota system only undermined the legitimacy of female parliamentarians and did little to further women’s rights in the country. But it at least brought women to the table – something Egypt’s post-revolutionary governments have failed to do. The transitional government led by Egypt’s military declined to include any quota for women and as a result, less than two percent of the post-revolution parliament was female.

This stands in contrast to other Arab states, where post-revolution electoral laws successfully brought more women into the new political systems. Both Tunisia and Libya employed a “zippered list” model — alternating the names of male and female candidates on electoral lists, which effectively guarantees that women will win seats. As a result, women won 23 percent of parliamentary seats in Tunisia and 17 percent of National Assembly seats in Libya. In Egypt’s post-revolution elections, on the other hand, parties were only required to include one woman on their lists, and most pushed female candidates toward the bottom. As a result, few women were elected.

“Having a voice at the table – even if it is quiet – can be better than having no voice at all.” – Isobel Coleman, Council on Foreign Relations

In response, women’s rights organizations in Egypt have waged an extended campaign demanding proportional representation, fearing that a simple majority electoral system will keep women out of politics. Indeed, there is evidence that first-past-the-post systems have an adverse effect on female representation. The municipal quota is a hopeful indication that the Assembly is listening to women’s concerns. Women also have some role in drafting the new constitution: 10 percent of the fifty-person Constituent Assembly is female, an improvement compared to the 2012 Assembly, which included only five women and was more ideologically conservative. Although small in number, the female delegation in the current Assembly is reportedly outspoken and progressive when it comes to women’s rights.

Women queue to vote in a referendum on Egypt's constitution at a polling station in Alexandria, in this December 15, 2012, file photo. (Reuters)

Women queue to vote in a referendum on Egypt's constitution at a polling station in Alexandria, in this December 15, 2012, file photo. (Reuters)

Still, it is up for debate if quotas are the best way to support women’s political activity. Iraq’s 25 percent quota for women in parliament has had mixed results. Quotas can undermine female candidate’s legitimacy and, once in office, women still face discrimination and countless barriers preventing them from influencing legislative decisions. Furthermore, the presence of women in parliament does not necessarily mean that they will have uniform stances on women’s rights. In the last Egyptian parliament, half of the female representatives were from the conservative Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

All this proves that a quota system is by no means a panacea. But as many Arab women activists and politicians argue, it can be an essential first step to increasing women’s political participation. Having a voice at the table – even if it is quiet – can be better than having no voice at all.

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Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman is senior fellow and director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative as well as director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. On Twitter, she can be followed at Isobel_Coleman.

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