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Hala Shukrallah was elected leader of Egypt’s Dostour party last week, since when journalists have barely stopped bothering her. Her party’s reputation has something to do with it: Dostour (“Constitution”) was founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, the exiled Nobel laureate many hoped would lead post-revolutionary Egypt. But there is another cause of the excitement.

Shukrallah is the first woman – and first Christian – to lead a major Egyptian party. At a time when the 2011 uprising seems to have achieved little, her election is a reminder of the seismic social shifts the revolution unleashed. At least, that is how she sees it. “What we’re seeing here is that something truly on-the-ground is happening,” Shukrallah, 59, says of her election. “I think it’s a reflection of the changes in the people’s psyche since the 25 January [revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak]. They do not really see these elements as significant – being a woman, being a Copt, or whatever. These elements are no longer significant in comparison to a much bigger thing that they are aspiring to.”

Women and Coptic Christians (who form around 10% of the otherwise Muslim population) have historically been largely marginalised from politics. But Shukrallah’s election hints that this may slowly be starting to change, partly thanks to a shift in national consciousness created by the 2011 revolution, which encouraged people to challenge social structures.

Here and there, you can find similar signs. In December, leftist physician Mona Mina became the first woman to be elected head of Egypt’s influential doctors’ syndicate, a group led for years by male conservative Islamists. In terms of women’s rights, Egypt’s new constitution is thought more progressive than any before.

In the campaign to lead Dostour, Shukrallah – who earned her PhD from University College London – was not even thought of as “the female candidate”: her closest rival, Gameela Ismail, is also a woman. Shukrallah feels she was elected for her ideas, which appeal to her party’s revolutionary youth, and her plans to change the culture of Egypt’s political parties, which too often centre on a single figure, rather than encouraging broad grassroots engagement.

“Our parties have always been a one-man show – both in the way that it’s been ruled by one personality, and that it’s usually been men who’ve been in the position,” says Shukrallah, a veteran activist jailed for her politics three times in the 1970s and 80s. In changing this culture within Dostour, she hopes to encourage a similar transition across a society that has relied on strongman leadership.

“How can we expect the rulers to change when the political opposition does not?” asks Shukrallah, who runs an NGO that tries to empower local communities. “How can we expect there to be replacement of power within the ruling parties when the opposition parties don’t [either]?”



Posted March 2, 2014 by tmusicfan in Politics, Quote of the Day

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