Woman bids to lead Egypt Islamist party

By Maggie Fick

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 5 2012 1:26 p.m. MDT

In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 photo, Sabah al-Saqari, 49, a senior member of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, arrives at her office in the FJP's headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. For the first time, a woman is running for the leadership of the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful Islamist group. Sabah al-Saqari says she wants to increase female participation in politics and even defends a woman’s right to run for president, a stance her organization rejects. But liberals who fear Islamist rule will set back women’s rights say her candidacy is just an attempt by the Brotherhood to improve its image.

Nasser Nasser, Associated Press

CAIRO — For the first time, a woman is running for the leadership of the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful Islamist group. Sabah el-Saqari says she wants to increase female participation in politics and even defends a woman's right to run for president, a stance her organization rejects.

But liberals who fear Islamist rule will set back women's rights say her candidacy is just an attempt by the Brotherhood to improve its image.

A 22-year veteran of the Brotherhood, al-Saqari is running to become chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, which the Brotherhood set up after the fall of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in February last year. The party has become the vehicle through which the Brotherhood — banned and oppressed for decades under Mubarak — has rode to power, triumphing over the activists and progressive forces that led the revolution.

The internal party election, scheduled for Oct. 19, is to replace Mohammed Morsi, who held the chairman post until he took office in late June as Egypt's first freely elected president.

Al-Saqari's candidacy is largely symbolic. She is seen as having no chance to win in the face of two heavyweight candidates competing for the post — senior Brotherhood figures Essam el-Erian and Saad el-Katatni. A lesser known party member, Khaled Awda, is also running.

But the move is an unprecedented bid for a woman to enter the entirely male halls of power in the Brotherhood. The party did have female lawmakers in the first parliament formed after the revolution — which has since been dissolved — but men have completely monopolized the decision-making bodies and leadership posts of the party and the Brotherhood itself.

Liberals are not impressed, calling her candidacy a cynical attempt by the Brotherhood to promote a misleading view of its stance on women.

"They are still using women as decor," said Nehad Abou-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.

The Brotherhood contends that it supports women's participation in politics, business and other parts of public life. But it also advocates a strongly traditional role for women as mothers and wives, and contends that equality cannot undermine that role or contradict Islamic Shariah law.

Islamists are currently in a fierce political battle with liberal and secular forces in post-revolutionary Egypt, particularly over a new constitution. The Brotherhood and more conservative Islamists hold a majority on the assembly that is writing the charter, and liberals say they have been trying to introduce measures that would open the door for implementing a strict version of Islamic law and restrictions on women's rights.

In an interview with Associated Press, al-Saqari echoed the Brotherhood's conservative views, saying that Shariah laws are the top parameter. She argued that she can't call for a law banning female genital circumcision or limiting the marriage age for girls to prevent child marriage.

But she insisted women have a right to run for president. The Brotherhood long said a woman or Christian could not be head of state in Muslim-majority Egypt, but since Mubarak's fall it has softened that stance somewhat, saying it would not seek to write such a ban into law though it would not itself support a woman or Christian president.

"I want to see more political participation by women," said al-Saqari, a 49-year-old pharmacist who like most Egyptian Muslim women wears the conservative headscarf. "I have political rights and I want to use (them)."

"There is a political culture in Egypt that doesn't accept women as presidents, but I have the right to run for presidency."

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