Gender equality in Egypt: there has been 'great improvement', says minister

Women now hold positions to make a difference, Hala El Said, minister of planning and economic development, tells 'The National'

Hala El Said, Egypt’s Minister of Planning and Economic Development. Courtesy Ministry of Planning and Economic Development
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Hala El Said, Egypt’s minister of planning and economic development, is one of eight women in the country's 32-member Cabinet. She is also chairperson of Egypt's sovereign wealth fund.

The 63-year-old was selected as the best minister in the Arab world in November under the Arab Government Excellence Award, launched by the UAE in 2019 in partnership with the Arab League.

“Today the best minister in the Arab world is female and we chose her because she is really good in what she does,” Mohammed Al Gergawi, UAE Minister of Cabinet Affairs, said at the time.

Ms Said has set a target to boost female workforce participation in Egypt to 40 per cent by 2030. Only about a quarter of women are in the country’s labour market, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2020 report.

Ms Said earned her bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in economics from Cairo University, where she later taught and became the first elected dean for the Faculty of Economics and Political Science from 2011 until 2017. From 2003 to 2011 she served as executive director of the Egyptian Banking Institute, the training arm of the Central Bank of Egypt.

The National spoke to Ms Said about her journey, progress for women in Egypt and the country's recent reforms.

Now you have the heart of the economy and the Egyptian government being led by females

What are the key decisions that affected the path you took in life?

The first key decision was entering the liberal arts section for my high school diploma, instead of the sciences section – this was my father’s advice. I wanted to go to engineering school and he advised me that maybe the faculty of economics would be a better choice. His motto was ‘enter a place where you become the first and you excel’.

The second change in path or career was when I decided to leave the Egyptian Banking Institute and go through the election for the deanship at the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences at Cairo University in 2011. At that time, I had just finished the international accreditation of the Egyptian Banking Institute and people thought I should stay and reap the fruits of what I had achieved. It was the only internationally accredited institute in the region. But I decided to go back to my school where I studied and serve my students and professors. It was not easy to run in an election among three men, but I won

These were the two main changes in my career and I think they were both good decisions.

What led to your transition from academia to a government position?

I have always been close to the government, I was never away from the government – it’s not a full change. Being a professor of economics, you are always a consultant to different public institutions, so it was not a major shift. I served my faculty for quite a long time. You move from serving your students, your professors, to serving the public.

I was brought up to like serving the government, it ran in the family [Ms Said’s father was Egypt’s minister of electricity in the 1970s]. Especially when his excellency, the President [Abdel Fattah El Sisi], was on board, and with all the changes happening in Egypt, I thought I would like to be a part of this change and serve the government at that time.

What are the initiatives you are most proud of in your time as the minister of planning and economic development so far?

We have a lot of initiatives that we are proud of in the ministry, and I’m proud of doing this with all of my colleagues. We launched a mobile application called Sharek where people can contribute their ideas for developing the country and get to know about projects in their governorates and how they relate to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

We did a lot of capacity-building programmes with international institutions, like a leadership programme with Kings College and an executive women’s leadership programme with Missouri State University. We have trained more than 190 ladies in the government on women leadership. We have also done a lot of entrepreneurship programmes, because we want people to create jobs for themselves and for others.

We have an observatory with the National Council for Women and the American University in Cairo, through which we monitor, increase and enhance the presence of women on the boards of different institutions because having women in decision-making positions is very important.

I think Haya Karima [Decent Life] is a historic initiative for transforming Egypt, because when you work on upgrading the level of citizens or providing better services, usually countries focus on the capital and more civilised parts of the country. But we are targeting a better quality of life for 50 per cent of the population. We're starting with 1,500 villages up to 4,500 over the next three years.

How have you seen gender equality in Egypt improve in recent years?

There has been great improvement in the last five to six years, because there has been a great political will to improve women’s participation and especially in real decision-making positions. You see now the Minister of Planning and Economic Development is a lady, the Minister of Health is a lady, the Minister of Culture is a lady. These types of portfolios were not allowed to women before; usually women were responsible for social files.

Now you have the heart of the economy and the Egyptian government being led by females. It’s not about increasing the percentage, it’s the quality and what these women are responsible for. We have 25 per cent of the parliament now is women and they are all of very good calibre.

What advice do you have for young Egyptian women?

Any dream can be achieved with hard work, commitment, perseverance and dedication. Believe in your capabilities. Always love what you do because passion is very important in work. Always dream big and always target to excel and make a difference. It’s not about having a job and delivering what is required from you.

What do you see as your greatest achievement in life?

I think we should always be achieving. There is no greatest; the greatest is yet to come. Balancing between my family and my work was very important. I wouldn’t have done this without the support of my mother and sister. Having this right balance is very important for the future of our country.

I was very lucky being surrounded by young students for a big part of my life, because they give you positive energy. Being able to serve my professors who taught me while I was a dean, this is also one of the things I’m very proud of.

How has Egypt progressed in the past five years and in which areas does the country have a long way to go?

Egypt has made tremendous efforts and achievements in the last five years. Whether in infrastructure, capacity-building, education, health, we have been able to achieve a lot in different sectors across the country.

We are still at the beginning and there is a long way to go in everything, but what has been achieved in Egypt in the last five to six years is equal to what has been achieved in Egypt in the previous 30 to 40 years. The rhythm with which the country is moving and the amount of investment and the number of projects that Egypt has been doing is huge.

This is reaping fruits, whether before Covid or even during Covid. Egypt was one of the few countries that has managed to weather the impact and mitigate the risk of Covid on the economy and its people.