A ‘parliament beauty,’ but can Egypt’s Shahinaz al-Najjar win?

Shahinaz al-Najjar became a familiar face during her campaign to run for Egypt’s male-dominated parliament

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya News
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Shahinaz al-Najjar became a familiar face in 2005 when billboards of her started spreading across Cairo as part of her campaign to run for Egypt’s male-dominated parliament. She became the talk of the town not only because she was a woman, but because she was only 36 years old at the time.

Read also: Interview - Meet Shahinaz al-Najjar, an Egyptian parliamentary hopeful

Her beauty was also a topic of discussion, as people joked about how MPs would be distracted by her presence. Her victory as Egypt’s youngest MP was a surprise for candidates as well as voters.

However, this was overshadowed by the controversy over her marriage to steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, himself a controversial figure for his leading position in the previously-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and his close ties to Gamal Mubarak, reportedly groomed to succeed his father Hosni as president of Egypt. Shortly after the marriage was announced, Najjar resigned from parliament amid rumors that it was Ezz’s wish.

As Najjar, originally a businesswoman, went back to managing her projects, news of her started fading. After the 2011 revolution and the subsequent incarceration of Ezz, Najjar was almost solely mentioned in relation to how her wealth would be affected by the possibility of confiscating Ezz’s assets. Shortly after Ezz’s acquittal in June 2013, she announced her intention to run for the next parliament.

Journalist Hussein al-Zanati says Najjar’s announcement is a disguised comeback for her husband, who had intended to run for parliament following his release. “There was a lot of pressure on Ezz to retract his decision to run for parliament, so he withdrew and made his wife run instead,” Zanati wrote.

“They are one and the same person. Both represent the powerful return of Mubarak’s supporters.” For Zanati, Najjar’s return is bound to increase opposition against the current government, which is accused of encouraging the political participation of members of the Mubarak regime.

He said while Najjar stressed the NDP would never come back, she indirectly defended the party. “She claimed that younger leaders in the party, her husband being one, had already embarked on several reforms but were not allowed to complete them because of the revolution. She is portraying her husband and his clique as revolutionaries and reformers.”

Journalist Ahmed Ismail highlighted the unpredictability of the constituency in which she will be running for the upcoming parliamentary elections, the same constituency she represented in 2005.

“Some residents in the area she is planning to represent accused her of disrespecting the sacrifices of revolutionary youths since she is a prominent symbol of the Mubarak regime, while others welcomed her decision to run as long as she was not involved in the killing of any of those youths,” he said.

Ismail added that the financial support Najjar has been offering residents of her constituency since she decided to run is seen by some as a gesture of goodwill and by others as a bribe. “She is also making grand promises about solving the problems of the constituency like unemployment, infrastructure, and education if she wins the elections.”

In addition to questioning Najjar’s awareness of the deplorable conditions in her constituency and her ability to address them, Ismail said it would be hard for a woman to be in charge of that area.

“The district of Manial and Masr al-Qadima is categorized as tribal, since a large number of its inhabitants descend from Upper Egyptian tribes who settled there and have religiously preserved their customs. According to these customs, women are not allowed to mediate... disputes.”

Najjar, who has been touring different neighborhoods in her constituency, launched an initiative to provide future brides with electrical appliances, which contributed to increasing her popularity especially among women. She is counting on female voters, with whom she holds frequent meetings that focus on women rights.

Najjar visited the main church in her constituency on Coptic Christmas, and posted her photos there on her Facebook page. She is also offering training courses in technical skills to youths in her constituency.

This, however, did not stop the 30 complaints filed against her by members of her constituency who demanded her exclusion from the parliamentary race due to her “bad reputation.” The complaints followed statements by Cairo-based Armenian belly-dancer Soufinar about a hotel owned by Najjar allegedly involved in prostitution, drug-dealing and gambling.

Najjar is not the only woman to run for the 2015 parliamentary elections, and not the only controversial one for that matter. Singer and belly-dancer Sama al-Masry’s decision to enter the race was met with criticism, mainly because her songs and performances are seen as sexually explicit, and because lacks political experience.

Veteran NDP MP Amal Osman, who was minister of social affairs for 20 years, said members of her former constituency, which she had kept for 24 years, were urging her to run in the upcoming elections. Although she has not officially announced whether she will run, Osman’s statement was seen as another alarming sign of the return of Mubarak’s regime.

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