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Women crowd Egypt's ballot

CAIRO — A television cameraman follows Mona Makram-Ebeid into a hall filled with 500 men as loudspeakers boom campaign slogans.

The men, many wearing traditional ankle-length gowns, cheer and clap as Makram-Ebeid, in a red jacket, white shirt and tan slacks, takes her place at the head table.

"My family has 100 years of political history in the service of Egypt," she declares.

A few curious women join the crowd. Young boys peek through the hall's open windows.

Over banging tambourines and chants of "With our soul, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you," Makram-Ebeid calls out: "You should say, 'I love Mona!'"

"I got it from 'I like Ike,'" she later explains with a laugh, referring to the 1952 slogan of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower. "It has to be simple and something they can remember."

The Harvard-educated professor at American University in Cairo is a Coptic Christian candidate in today's parliamentary elections. She hopes to win a lower-house seat as a member of Wafd, the government-sanctioned opposition.

Women have served in Egypt's parliament for decades. But a constitutional amendment reserves 64 of 502 lower-house seats for them, and hundreds of every political stripe are running for the first time.

Politics in the world's most populous Arab nation (and America's most important Arab ally) is always a violent affair; 63 people were killed in the past two parliamentary elections.

This vote occurs amid rising sectarian tensions. Last week, two Coptic Christians were killed in clashes with security forces in the next-door city of Giza.

"Unfortunately, that is (a) certainty of Egyptian elections — death and violence and blood," says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University in Washington. He is observing the election in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria, where the worst violence is expected.

The risks prompted Makram-Ebeid's supporters to advise her against running.

"I think that with everything I do, with my background, my education, and me being a public figure, this overcomes these tensions," counters the two-time candidate and presidential appointee to parliament in 1990.

"If I make it, I will be the first Christian woman elected ... in the history of Egypt."

'Not a man's business'

Ten to 15 percent of Egypt's 80 million people are thought to be Coptic Christians; the true number is unknown, uncounted by any national census.

Many Copts criticize the ruling National Democratic Party for having just 10 Christians on its 800-candidate slate. Of more than 5,000 candidates from all parties, only 50 are Christians.

Youssef Sidhom, executive editor of Watani, a weekly Coptic newspaper, says NDP leaders "lack political insight. They do welcome Copts to join ... (but) when it comes to nominating candidates, there is a ceiling where we cannot go beyond."

Makram-Ebeid, however, said she thinks she has a good chance "if the elections are clean and fair."

She is well-known; photographs in her study show her with such world leaders as slain Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, South Africa's Nelson Mandela and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yet as chairwoman of a nongovernmental organization working with Egyptian women, she knows the many obstacles they face.

"I want women to feel more self-confident, ... and they can only do that if they have a job," she explains. "This is the first step to encourage women to participate in parliamentary life" and to prove "that politics is not ... a man's business."

'Nothing like Islam'

Despite government assurances of a fair election, many Egyptians are doubtful.

Police have arrested more than 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to rule Egypt under Islamic law.

Officially, the Brotherhood is banned. Yet it is so big, so powerful that the government tolerates some activity.

In 2005, it won 88 parliamentary seats, making it the largest opposition party. This time, the government is allowing just three of eight Brotherhood parliamentarians in Alexandria to seek re-election.

Bushra El-Samny, a Brotherhood member, is running as an independent for Alexandria's female-quota seat. Despite crackdowns on supporters, she is unafraid.

"We've been harassed throughout," says the mother of four, who is a teacher at a girls school. "... There are always people detained, and whenever we are out on the street, we are always accompanied by state security."

She wears gold-rimmed glasses, a long beige head scarf tightened under her chin with a pin proclaiming "Allah," and a long brown wool gown. She sits in front of Brotherhood flags and campaign posters with the group's new slogan — "Together we will change" — or its older, more familiar motto, "Islam is the solution."

Although religious sloganeering is banned in politics, she says, "There is nothing like the solution of Islam."

The motto, she insists, "is not about faith but about the ruling of Islam. That applies to everyone. Even non-Muslims would be very happy under the ruling of Islam."

'A pain for the regime'

Riding in a car to meet voters, El-Samny points to her defaced campaign posters and admits, "It affects your morale." Some NDP candidates "have had their banners up for two or three months, and nobody has touched them."

Along Alexandria's seaside streets, posters portray President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal with the slogan, "The Intifada (Uprising) of Love." Others promote Gamal as his father's successor — someday.

"The people are really very tired," El-Samny says. "People are suffering a lot, and we sense their suffering because we are of the people.

"... God willing, I will win — and I actually believe I will win, (if) there is no fraud."

Georgetown's Shehata says El-Samny has "a way with people. ... When it comes to the street, she's a better politician than a lot of them."

Yet he thinks the Brotherhood "will certainly not do as well as they did in 2005. They will not be allowed to do as well. They have been a pain for the regime."

They will be lucky to win half the seats they hold now, he predicts.

Unable to vote for herself

Political activist Gameela Ismail, a former TV personality and ex-wife of 2005 presidential candidate Ayman Nour, may go furthest in criticizing the government.

When her ex-husband was imprisoned for four years on political fraud charges, Ismail worked tirelessly to keep his name in the news and hold his party together.

She knows all about political harassment. As a parliamentary candidate in 2001, she says, 17 of her campaign workers were detained, and she was "physically attacked. There was a curfew on the street, and I wasn't able to vote for myself."

This time she is an independent candidate for an open seat, not one reserved for women. Her slogan, "With the youth, an arrow in the eye of corruption," encourages young Egyptians to become politically active.

Ismail wants to downsize the country's formidable interior ministry, which controls the security forces, and remove police and military social clubs that line the Nile River in Cairo, so everyone can enjoy the riverbanks.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood won't cross those political red lines, analysts say.

Ismail is relentless in her criticism. The ruling NDP, she declares, has "proven their failure for 30 years, their corruption."

"We see, day after day, the sectarian strife ... (on) both sides from the Islamists and from the Coptic fundamentalists," she warns. "It is taking the country to a point where things can explode at any minute."

And with her campaign workers harassed again, she worries "about thuggery."

Women are 'truly capable'

Dr. Mediha Khattab is running for the ruling NDP in part of Cairo that includes very affluent and very poor neighborhoods — and she has studied them all.

As a doctor of internal medicine, the first female dean of Cairo University's medical school and head of the NDP's health committee, Khattab focuses on health issues.

Her background "gives me a very quick communicating point with people," she says, and has taught her about working with limited budgets.

Her posters, seen across Cairo, stress unity: "We build together, Women and Men."

Khattab, who is striking, with her shoulder-length, chestnut-colored hair and black pantsuit, talks with potential voters at a basement political rally in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek.

"I am responsible for the health sector of the party but I ... know our health needs and know that we need to work together. ... We need much stronger education in the schools," she declares.

A man in the audience shouts, "You will lift the whole of Egypt like you've lifted ... the simple and poor people! We will not respond with words! We will respond with this card!" He waves a pink voting card.

Khattab pledges to oversee "government performance" and to "seek legislation for social health insurance that includes all citizens."

She concludes with a hope that "women take their roles in development ... because the woman is truly capable.

"... So, God willing, when the woman is present beside the man, we will definitely convince them that we will rise quicker than if we remain a burden on the shoulders of our great men."

Her words may sound odd to Western ears, but they reflect the realities of Egypt's male-dominated politics.

Photo Galleries

Women on Egypt's ballot

Women on Egypt's ballot

Hundreds of women are running for election in Egypt for the first time.

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