CAIRO — A former army chief who defended conducting invasive “virginity tests” on female protesters is expected to be elected Egypt’s president this week — with a large constituency of women voters.
Presidential front-runner Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has cultivated the support of Egyptian women since skyrocketing to power after the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July.
Egyptians will head to the polls Monday in the first of two days of voting to elect a new leader. Sissi is expected to secure a resounding victory over his sole opponent, socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.
But many Egyptians fear Sissi’s election will simply cement the authority of another military strongman, after the popular uprising in 2011 interrupted six decades of rule by presidents from the army’s ranks. A career military officer who spearheaded last year’s coup, Sissi is so popular that his name has been etched into bridal jewelry. Women have kissed posters of his face at pro-military demonstrations.
In some ways, Sissi’s support among women might not be surprising. Many think he rescued the country not only from political and economic ruin, but also from the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Morsi. The Islamist group helped draft a constitution that provided no protections against gender discrimination.
After just one year of rule by an elected civilian leader — Morsi held office from 2012 to 2013 — a little over half of Egyptian women think democracy is preferable to other systems of governance, according to a study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. Twenty-nine percent of women said that a non-democratic government is preferable in some circumstances.
But women’s rights activists warn that Sissi, 59, who retired as defense minister two months ago to run for office, is no champion of Egypt’s 42 million women.
“There is nothing about Sissi that is different for us” as women, said Zahra Fouad, a 24-year-old student in Cairo.
“We are treated the same on the streets as we were under Morsi and [Hosni] Mubarak,” she said, referring to the strongman who ruled Egypt for 30 years before the uprising here in 2011.
Since the army’s takeover, Sissi has presided over a bloody crackdown on dissidents, among them many women whom security forces have killed, imprisoned and sexually assaulted, according to rights advocates and former female detainees. As a member of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces that led Egypt after Mubarak was forced from power, then Maj. Gen. Sissi argued to London-based rights group Amnesty International that virginity tests carried out by soldiers at a Tahrir Square demonstration were aimed at protecting the army from allegations of rape.
More recently, in an interview with a private Egyptian television channel, Sissi struck a paternal tone, saying “all the women of Egypt will be my daughters” if he becomes president.
“Personally, I love Egyptian women. And all the Egyptian women are going to help me rebuild the nation,” Sissi said in the May 7 interview. He said women will be asked to motivate their husbands and children to work, and to ration energy. But Sissi did not outline any policies intended to empower women or safeguard their rights.
Egyptian activists say the government has long been an inadequate defender of women’s rights, and has done even less during the turmoil of the Arab Spring.
Women had already been pushed to the margins of society by a mixture of conservative religious traditions, deeply entrenched patriarchy and discriminatory or poorly enforced laws. Amid the chaos after the 2011 uprising, women were assaulted at many political demonstrations.
According to a 2013 report published by the United Nations, 91 percent of women in Egypt have been sexually harassed. The 2012 constitution, written by a largely Islamist assembly but later scrapped with Morsi’s overthrow, contained a provision that rights groups said would allow for stricter interpretations of sharia law, potentially hampering women’s freedoms.
“There were rumors under Morsi that everyone would be made to wear the veil. We heard very strange things” about what the Islamists planned to do in power, said Zozo Wahba, 70, a Cairo resident and member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
The Islamist-led constitution gave an outsize role to Islamic law, but the Morsi administration did not propose legislation that would have required women to cover their hair. Most women in this predominantly Muslim region wear a veil or head scarf in public. Still, under Morsi, there was a rise in reported attacks by fundamentalist Muslims on unveiled women, Christians and unmarried couples appearing in public.
“With Sissi in power, he will give the woman her voice — at work, in the streets, at home,” said Wahba, who runs a souvenir shop downtown. “Right now we are weak.”
But even if many women here see Sissi as an ally, obstacles remain. According to the Pew study, just 37 percent of Egyptians deem equal rights for men and women “very important.” Not everyone is convinced that a Sissi presidency would include a big change from the status quo.
The women who support Sissi “see that he is radically opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, so in their own logic, they see him as naturally opposed to [that group’s] ideology ,” said Hala Shukrallah, the leader of the progressive Dostour Party.
Shukrallah, a Copt, is the first female head of a political party in Egypt.
“What I think is that you can be politically opposed to a group of people who are active in political life,” Shukrallah said of Sissi’s relationship with the Islamists. “But it doesn’t mean that you will be opposed to all of their ideas.”
Hanaan Adel, a 24-year-old freelance journalist, said she is similarly skeptical of Sissi. Veiled, she recently sat comfortably at a male-dominated coffee shop in downtown Cairo. A cigarette dangled from her mouth — a sight that is not uncommon in upscale neighborhoods but was rare in this district.
“Women should not have to choose between conservatism and the military’s virginity tests; they are from the same foundation of misogyny,” Adel said.
The military, which has ruled Egypt for six decades, and the Islamists “think about women in the same way — they are only objects to them,” she said. “Nothing will change as long as men like these are in power.”
Sharaf Al-Hourani contributed to this report.