Hala Shukrallah was elected leader of Egypt’s al-Dostour Party last week and journalists have barely stopped bothering her since then.
Her party’s reputation has something to do with it: al-Dostour (“Constitution”) was founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, the exiled Nobel laureate many hoped would lead post-revolutionary Egypt.
However, 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, said of her election.
“I think it’s a reflection of the changes in the people’s psyche since the 25 January [revolution that toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak]. They do not really see these elements as significant — being a woman, being a Copt[ic Chrsitian], or whatever. These elements are no longer significant in comparison to a much bigger thing that they are aspiring to,” she said.
Women and Coptic Christians (who form about 10 percent of Egypt’s otherwise Muslim population) have historically been largely marginalized from politics. However, Shukrallah’s election hints that this may slowly be starting to change, partly thanks to a shift in the national consciousness created by the 2011 revolution that has encouraged people to challenge social structures.
Here and there, one can find similar signs. In December last year, leftist physician Mona Mina became the first woman to head of Egypt’s influential doctors’ syndicate, a group led for years by conservative male Islamists.
In terms of women’s rights, Egypt’s new constitution is thought more progressive than any before.
In the campaign to lead al-Dostour, Shukrallah — who holds a PhD from University College London — was not even labeled as “the female candidate,” since her closest rival, Gameela Ismail, is also a woman.
Shukrallah feels she won 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 center 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,” said Shukrallah, a veteran activist jailed for her politics three times in the 1970s and 1980s.
In changing this culture within her party, 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?” asked Shukrallah, who also runs a non-governmental organization 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]?” Shukrallah added.
However, cynics say that Shukrallah’s election, and what she stands for, matters little in an Egypt that again has narrowing room for political debate.
Last week, three activists who dared to campaign for a “No” vote in January’s constitutional referendum were jailed in the latest instalment of a crackdown on dissent that since July last year that has killed more than 4,000 people and imprisoned 16,000 — most of them Islamist supporters of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, but increasingly secularists too.