Egypt has appointed its first female governor. On 16 February 2017, Nadia Ahmed Abdo (73) was sworn in as governor of Nile Delta governorate of Beheira.
In a country where governor positions are often reserved for retired army or police officers, the appointment has been hailed as a victory for women’s emancipation. However, concerns have also been raised about Abdo’s past membership of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP). One of the main factors that sparked Egypt’s January 25 Revolution in 2011 was the rigging of the 2010 parliamentary elections in favour of Hosni Mubarak’s then-ruling NDP. Abdo won a seat in parliament in those elections.
Abdo holds a Bachelor in Chemical Engineering and a Master in Health Engineering, both from Alexandria University. She has two sons, also engineering graduates from the same institution. Throughout her career, Abdo has been active in water management. From 2002 to 2012, she was head of the national water company in Alexandria. She is a member of the French Institut Méditerranéen de l’Eau, the World Water Council and the Alexandria Business Association, and a rapporteur for the National Council for Women’s Rights. She also founded the Arab Countries Water Utilities Association. In August 2013, she was appointed deputy governor of Beheira, where she served under governors Mostafa Hadhoud and Mohamed Sultan until assuming the position herself February 2017. Her tough stance has earned her a reputation as an ‘iron woman’.
Mona Ezzat of the New Women Foundation praised Abdo’s appointment, telling al-Monitor that it proves “that the government believes women have leadership capabilities and can make a change in society”. Abdo told the same media that her nomination is the “best proof” that Egypt’s integration of women in leadership positions is gradually evolving. She said her priorities as governor are completing industrial zones, sewage projects and developing poor villages.
The Beheira governorate is predominantly rural, and besides several oil exploration sites and related industries, the main source of income is agricultural products. In an interview with state newspaper al-Ahram, Abdo outlined further plans, such as turning the port city Rashid, which is known for its historic Ottoman warehouses, into a tourist destination, as well as improving health care, education and housing.
Skills acquired in previous positions, such as “managing a key natural resource [water] and communicating with different sectors of society”, qualify her for the position as governor, she said. “These achievements should be the focus of the media, as opposed to stressing the fact that I am the first female to take up the post,” she added.
As a member of the NDP, Abdo was elected to parliament in December 2010, in elections that human rights organizations dubbed ‘the most fraudulent in the country’s history’. Abdo defended her NDP membership in al-Ahram, saying that “three quarters of Egypt was NDP at the time of Mubarak”. “I never took anything in return while in the party, nor did I ever practice nepotism or purchase property or land illegally,” she claimed. However, Abdo has been under scrutiny several times over precisely these sorts of allegations.
She was forced to step down as head of the water company in 2012, following a worker’s strike. The workers accused Abdo of embezzling land owned by the company and demanded her resignation, the replacement of certain high-level company officials and limits on management salaries. In 2014, Rashid residents protested against Abdo and then-governor Mustafa Hadhoud over the contamination of drinking water, and demanded their dismissals. The city’s water was polluted with ammonia and phosphates, leading to massive fish deaths in the Nile, which flows into the Mediterranean at Rashid.
In 2015, Abdo was linked to another corruption case. Media claimed she had signed a contract worth 10,000 EGP with an engineer from Alexandria for a corruption case. This time, it did not lead to her resignation. Gamal Eid, founder of the Arab Network of Human Rights Information, described Abdo’s appointment on Twitter as ‘one step forward, two steps backwards’, citing her past with the NDP. Journalist Yasmine Khatib wrote on Facebook that Abdo’s appointment is more a victory for the remnants of the Mubarak regime than for women’s rights in Egypt.
In addition, constitutional expert Nour Farahat said in a post that Abdo’s governorship is not enough for women’s empowerment, as women’s rights should go hand in hand with the values of freedom, equality and justice, which the NDP did not represent. Abdo’s dubious track record in previous positions suggests that, as much as her appointment proves women can achieve leadership positions in Egypt, affiliates of the corrupt Mubarak regime still prevail in government.