Archive

Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Saudi Arabia’s gender hegemony in the new Arab world

February 16, 2012 1 comment

For a nation that measures success in black gold, Saudi Arabia hopes sending one female athlete to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London will pacify gender equality activists. But meeting the International Olympic Committee’s bare minimum requirement for female participation is hardly a bold stance.

Taken in context, this is still Salafist-dominated Saudi Arabia, the hallmark of gender inequality in the Arab world. Putting it in another context, however, spells bad news for the clean Arab Spring slate regarding human rights.

From The Jerusalem Post:

Saudi Arabia, which follows a male-dominated puritan form of Islam that bars women from driving or travelling aboard alone follows strict gender segregation, is the last to buckle under to IOC demands. Since it is seeking athletes who live abroad, Saudi Arabia’s most likely Olympic female athlete is reportedly Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old equestrienne who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics. At that time, Malhas did not officially represent the kingdom.

From Tunisia to Egypt, women hoped bringing down dictators would usher in respect for women’s rights. Unfortunately, the hodgepodge revolutionaries’ power was far too scattered to mount a cohesive political front or voice. Yes, women’s rights, they said. But how? The question remains largely unanswered as political realities threaten to minimize liberal groups’ impact in nascent democracies.

The Kingdom of Saud is the counterbalance to the revolutionary hoopla. An overwhelmingly Sunni nation — much like the rest of the Arab world — asserting social values across the Persian Gulf with recently empowered fundamentalist political parties will likely slow the women’s rights agenda.

The Muslim Brotherhood and conservative groups like Ennahda were poised to jump into the political arena because, though marginalized under former reigns, were still organized political groups. This much is known, is history.

The future will reveal them to be more moderate than fearmongers predicted one year ago. Playing in the political system does these things, and those groups didn’t wait decades on the backburner within their respective nations to throw it all away on unpopular, autocratic initiatives.

But to each Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda there are even more fundamentalist groups. Their strength — and, to the same extent, liberal parties’ weaknesses — will determine whether groups like the Muslim Brotherhood invite them into coalitions. The Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt especially, recognized doing so would blatantly dismiss the work of the revolutionaries whose views are not reflected in ultra-conservative parties.

Viewed through this Olympic snafu, the Arab Spring hardly has had a liberalizing effect on Saudi Arabia. While expected, the ramifications of this resistance should not be understated. Undoubtedly, fundamentalist groups in new Arab democracies will follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, which is as hegemonic a force for fundamental political Islam as anywhere in the world.

If strong liberal parties in other Arab nations fail to emerge, Saudi Arabian influence may continue to grow as Egypt’s prominence declines. That will make it ever harder for women’s rights to gain traction.

 

 

PA faces future with fewer donations

The Palestinian Authority has long been a political football in the Arab world, and that has never been more apparent than during the Arab Spring. Mahmoud Abbas’ request that wealthier Palestinians donate food from expensive iftar dinners — the meal following the daily Ramadan fast — to the poor exemplifies the drop in funding the PA has received from its Arab friends.

The last paragraph from this short Al Bawaba story is the most telling:

For months, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has warned of financial woes due to a chronic shortfall in financial support pledged by donors, especially Arab countries.

Arab leaders have long used Palestinians as a symbol of Western oppression. However, most of those autocratic Arab leaders held discriminatory views of Palestinians, relegating them to second-class citizens. Only Jordan accepts Palestinians into its borders, where they are treated more as a nuisance than an accepted portion of the population.

But the Arab Spring has made it clear that while the leaders viewed the Palestinian symbol as important, the Arab street has not. The Arab Spring was never about and never will be about Palestinians. Arab oppression occurred at home at the hands of their own government, not the West. That means when and if democratically-elected governments come into power, the Arab street will hold those politicians accountable for domestic problems. Those leaders will not be able to deflect problems on the West if they want to win re-election — the Arab street is no longer uninformed or naive. Communication technology has opened them up to how the Western world lives, and those societies are not built on oppression like the Arab world’s autocrats claim.

All this could reduce financial support for the PA. Arab politicians will realize their citizens care more about the domestic situation than some existential Western campaign of oppression in the Middle East. The fact few Arab protests have invoked the Palestinian cause in this Arab Spring shows how little that issue matters. Arab citizens will likely frown upon sizable donations to the PA if such donations lead to sacrificing domestic issues.

That means the onus is on the PA to develop its own economies. The West Bank has done an admirable job. Gaza, on the other hand, has not been as fortunate. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Rafah crossing at Egypt has any effect — and if the Muslim Brotherhood, which supports the PA, ramps up Egypt’s influence in the PA.

The West Bank has experienced significant economic growth during the past several years. Ramallah’s population doubled between 2000 and 2010, with Israel saying much of that growth came from removing various checkpoints. At the same time, checkpoints and security measures in the Gaza Strip have prevented the free flow of goods and capital needed for economic development. The West Bank, therefore, has grown at a much faster pace while Gaza has stagnated.

Arab countries comprise 20 percent of PA donations. The European Union, which is dealing with a significant monetary and debt crisis, amount to more than half of donations to the PA. Relying on this aid is unsustainable and unlikely to continue at its pre-recession rates.

The West Bank is doing relatively well, given its circumstances. Gaza, however, relies on direct donations because its economy has been stunted by heavy-handed Israeli security. Whether justified or not, there is no doubt Israel’s security apparatus damages Gaza’s economy.  I would argue economic development and opportunity would reduce terrorism’s draw and therefore mitigate Hamas’ role in Gaza, but I’m not going to waste my time, either. Things like the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that eventually led to increased terrorist attacks in Israel have given credence to hardliners’ views. But autonomy or lack of foreign military presence does not end terrorism. Only a better standard of living can reduce terrorism. That takes time.

Cutting US foreign assistance bad for economy, Arab democracy

August 2, 2011 1 comment

Everyone knows US foreign assistance is slated for spending cuts, but recent aid authorization bills show the major differences already forming between the House and Senate. Never has there been a better opportunity and greater need for democracy promotion and US aid than the Arab Spring. But if the House gets its way, that will mean a sharply decreased US role abroad — and, as I will argue, to the detriment of the US economy.

First, let’s start with the facts. The foreign assistance fund — which includes food aid, supporting stable democratic institutions and the like — is not in any way related to the defense budget. Politicians usually lump the two together, whether intentionally or not, because our military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have undertaken the ostensible role of democracy promotion. But when you look at the numbers, foreign assistance accounts for a mere 1 percent of the US budget. That still hasn’t stopped people like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., from suggesting cuts of 44 percent by 2016. By comparison defense budget — cuts to which the House has tried to avoid — is the largest spending item in the US budget, comprising 24 percent of total spending this fiscal year.

Many people believe the US should turn inward — some argue the nation cannot project itself abroad when it cannot take care of its economic issues at home. I don’t buy that argument. US-based nongovernmental organizations will continue to do a lot of the heavy lifting overseas when it comes to international aid, but they will need government grants to keep major operations going. Denying those funds could lead to job loss, so keeping foreign assistance at current funding levels will keep Americans at work.

Also, it is in US economic interests to promote healthy governments and citizens because it will lead to economic rewards in the future. Corrupt, undemocratic governments will generally operate at the expense of their own people largely by keeping growing wealth for the government elite. That means people have less money to spend on more expensive American goods, which in turn dampens US overseas profits.

Curbing corruption will also ensure future US investment is not wasted. Billions of dollars of US investment — both from the federal government and private citizens or corporations — get lost among red tape or swindling politicians in corrupt foreign nations. Some of those nations — such as Afghanistan, Mongolia and India — sit on treasures of natural resources the US lacks, so US business interests are more than happy to invest. Cleaning up those states would produce a greater return on that investment.

In terms of the hopeful new Arab democracies, US foreign assistance can help build trust between those governing in Arab nations and the US officials with whom they will be communicating. It’s no secret that Egyptians oppose US meddling, a fear the military there is exploiting. But it’s not the Arab street the US must win over — it’s the new, democratically-elected leaders with whom the US must curry favor. The US already is training potential political leaders in Libya, Syria and Egypt — certainly a good start. The US wants to be the nation those new leaders look toward for guidance, but cutting foreign assistance will imperil the US ability to help guide new Arab democracies through the troubles they will encounter during nascent stages. In turn, that will dampen the ability to do everything from strike bilateral trade agreements to establishing and supporting sound human rights protections.

On top of the general budget malaise, a Foreign Relations Authorization bill currently going through the motions on Capitol Hill makes it more difficult for the US to use international aid in corrupt nations:

The corruption indicator has a range of uncertainly (especially around the median) and can have time lags of up to two years.  Using the control of corruption indicator as a hard hurdle for all U.S. economic and development assistance without addressing the inherent problems in the indicator could prove highly challenging.

That bill, pushed by the House (there also is a less restrictive Senate version) is not likely to pass in the Senate. But the writing is on the wall for US foreign assistance. If this debt ceiling fiasco proved anything, it’s that the House and Senate are beholden to very different interests and views. The House will champion spending cuts abroad because, rhetorically, it sounds good. The House will stomach defense cuts, but it will not digest those cuts easily. Still, it’s the assault on foreign assistance that should induce gagging.

 

Ramadan could put Syria sectarian struggle in motion as attacks, protests increase (w/ video)

Ramadan began Monday, which could spark a fresh spate of protests and ensuing violence in Syria — some of which may lend itself to sectarian undertones. During Islam’s holy month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Muslims congregate at mosques following sunset. The majority-Sunni Syrian population will therefore have a means to meet up and discuss the atrocities being committed by its government, which is largely controlled by the minority (about 12 percent of the population) Alawite sect of Islam.

The attacks also will do nothing to silence the murmurs of sectarian strife in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood accused Bashar al-Assad’s government Sunday of igniting sectarian conflict:

“Syria is witnessing a war of sectarian cleansing. The regime has linked its open annihilation with the crescent of Ramadan. It is a war on the identity and beliefs of the Syrian nation … on Arab Muslim Syria.”

The Brotherhood’s timing is significant. Many people have suggested Syria would devolve into sectarian crisis, and Ramadan could best amplify that sentiment. Alawites view fasting during Ramadan as merely symbolic, whereas it is one of the five pillars of Islam that Sunni Muslims observe without question.

Hama, a central Syrian Sunni stronghold, suffered 80 deaths at the hands of government-backed security forces Monday. Such violence will only magnify the growing divide between ruling forces and people at large.

What is getting less attention than the actual violence itself is the opportunity Ramadan will give Sunnis to organize. Under the cover of the mosque, Syrians can organize face-to-face and discuss strategy with less fear of backlash. Meeting in a mosque is inherently safer than a coffee shop, and physical communication removes the risks of internet and telecommunications contact. It could also help bring protest outsiders into the revolution as they see the passion with which protesters carry themselves.

But at the same time, various Muslim sects meeting daily for prayer during Islam’s holiest month as violence continues may foment discriminatory, sectarian views. To this point, many Syrians believe President Bashar al-Assad has manipulated violence to make it appear more sectarian. By doing so, al-Assad can claim his rule is important for restoring order so the nation does not devolve into sectarian war. However, as violence and protests ramp up this month, it will be increasingly plausible to Syrians that a sectarian struggle is on the horizon.

Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, established a sophisticated patronage network by installing the formerly disregarded Alawite minority into top business, police and military positions. That network has provided Bashar al-Assad unflagging loyalty, as if the regime falls, so do those top Alawites who benefited from al-Assad corruption and thuggery.

As attacks continue during Ramadan, Sunnis will grow more enraged with the regime. Alawites do not share the same view as Sunnis when it comes to the holy month. The differences between sects will never be more pronounced than during the next 40 days.

 

Jordan proposed reforms limit government control over municipalities

Jordan’s Lower House approved reforms Wednesday giving municipalities greater control at the expense of an increasingly corrupt federal government cabinet.

Municipalities will receive a greater piece of the tax pie, which will help balance local government checkbooks. Ethnically diverse communities could splinter into their own municipalities if they get 5,000 or more people, which might be appealing to Christian minorities. Shielding municipal personnel decisions from a corrupt cabinet will ensure stability and long-term planning at the municipal leadership levels. The reforms also promote women on municipal boards.

With protests amplifying in Amman, the nation’s capital, and across the rest of the country, the vote might have been intended to dampen civil unrest. However, protests continue unabated.

In all, the reforms are a positive. If approved, women must comprise 25 percent of municipal boards instead of 20 percent. Also, municipal affairs managers can no longer request the federal government to forcibly remove municipal board members or mayors — now, the courts will review claims against board members and mayors. The municipal councils themselves will now appoint “executive managers” rather than municipal affairs managers making that selection.

The proposed law contains several other provisions. From the Jordan Times:

Under the new law, municipalities will be given 8 per cent of the fuel tax revenues instead of the 6 per cent stipulated in the older version of the law.

Inhabitants of any district with a population of 5,000 or more can request the establishment of their own municipality or disengagement from a merger with a larger municipality.

So not only does the Jordanian government give up control by shifting responsibility for determining whether mayors and city council members should be removed to the courts, it also gives Jordanians a greater right to self-determination and increases fuel tax revenues 33 percent for municipalities.

In all, these reforms promote stability by taking power over municipal decisions from the cabinet’s hands. However worthwhile, the reforms still might have come too late to squelch Jordanian protests.

 

Cartoon of the Day: Fear in Yemen

Clearly, I’m not in Yemen, but I’ve written about the fractious nation steamrolling toward violence and a significant power vacuum that will only lead to more abuse. Sure, there’s a shadow government in the works, but one that will exert little force or control over Yemen’s tribal militants. Really, Yemen’s society is beginning to sound a lot like Afghanistan, with an important al Qaeda faction to boot.

Dozens were killed today at a Yemeni army base. A brief cease fire at the normally peaceful, intellectual haven of Taiz ended today as clashes resumed. And now, militant groups seeking to exert power and influence have begun kidnapping aid workers for ransom. (For the record, al Qaeda is employing a similar “fundraising” tactic.)

This cartoon from the Yemen Times sums up the feelings of already one of the bleakest nations in the world even before the six-month uprising that have crippled the (already faltering) economy — people have simply stopped paying back loans because they need money, which has crippled banking institutions and hurt any future prospects of economic development — and (never respected) fragile rule of law:

World Bank SME program right thing for Middle East

This new World Bank program aimed at financing small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is the kind of policy this blog is all about. Democracy and entrepreneurship should work in lockstep. By giving people choice in who they vote for, you give people choice in how they want to live their lives. Entrepreneurship is all about choice — the choice between staying in a stable job (or remaining unemployed) and striking out on your own, risk and all, to do something different.

From the MEMRI Economic Blog:

MSME Sector: Engine Of Growth

“It is indeed the huge MSME sector across the Middle East and North Africa that can and must be the engine for accelerating growth and in so doing drive that all-important factor: job creation.” So says Shamshad Akhtar, vice president for the region at the World Bank. The facility has been a gleam in her eye from the outset, based in a firm conviction that enterprise access to finance and knowhow has proven globally to be a critical path to inclusive economic growth for millions of people. As the challenges of openness and opportunity recast history across the region in its streets and squares, the emphasis on creating employment and entrepreneurship opportunities has never been more urgent.

Lack Of Funding

As elsewhere in the world, the MSME sector in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is where significant numbers of people make (or could make) their livelihoods. For example businesses employing up to 100 people make up well over 90% of all enterprises in economies such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. But the constraints are sharply felt. Bank lending to MSMEs is lowest in the world along with Sub Saharan Africa, and only 10% of MENA enterprises finance their investment expenditures with bank loans. Smaller players are starved for capital and growth in output, and job creation hits a ceiling.

With a large, educated amount of unemployed youth being one of the driving factors behind the Arab Spring, this program could not have come at a better time. If there are no jobs, people need to create them. Arab youth are right to hold their governments accountable for failing them — that is deserved. But plenty of smart, driven youth could also channel their revolutionary energy into innovative productivity.

Some of the greatest entrepreneurs have failed time and time again before finding the one innovation that changed the course of their lives. But in the top-down, authoritative Arab society, few dreamers receive the leeway to pursue such innovations. Responsibilities remain with putting food on the table for large families. Arab families also push their children into becoming engineers or doctors — recently, lawyers have become somewhat acceptable — simply because those professions represented stability and status. Entrepreneurship is just now rinsing off a dirty label in the United States, and the Arab world lags far behind cleaning up the term.

This influx of capital will only help push Arab innovators to go at it alone. Ultimately, it will merely pull people who already have the entrepreneurial spirit into the fold — this program won’t immediately attract the 22-year-old busboy with five siblings. But this program could very well set the groundwork for the entrepreneurial spirit in the Arab world. Eventually, busboys could innovate in their spare time, thinking of the next big business idea or technology.

Sidenote: Apologies for my self-imposed, week-long hiatus. It’s somewhat taxing to write 1,000 words daily for the job that pays my bills and then do another 600-1,000 on top of it each day for this blog. I’m sure you all had no idea what to do with yourselves this past week. Hopefully you read a book, or something.

%d bloggers like this: