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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.

 

 

Egypt, Jordan reproductive health changes — the new youth revolution

Jordan and Egypt made positive strides in reproductive health through the past several years but still have many challenges and opportunities to address, according to World Bank reports publicized yesterday.

Some of the key findings showed stark improvement in some areas: Egypt halved its infant mortality rate and malnutrition in children under five years old in the past two decades; 89 percent of Jordanian 15-year-old girls are literate; fewer than 2 percent of Jordanians live on less than $1.25 per day; overall fertility is declining, which is a positive for the overpopulated and youth-heavy nations; and use of modern contraceptives in both nations is increasing.

However, those pluses must be met with the sobering realities in each country. Contraceptive use among married women is just 60 percent in Egypt and 59 percent in Jordan. In Egypt, just 58 percent of women aged 15 and older are literate. Just 25 percent of Egyptian adult females work, mostly in agriculture. Fertility remains high among the poorest in each nation, creating large social problems. The poor are more at risk of early childbearing in each nation. HIV awareness is low in Egypt.

With 33 percent of Egypt and 35 percent of Jordan younger than 15 years old, tremendous opportunities exist to improve those statistics, the World Bank said. And if the revolutions in Egypt and Jordan (to a much lesser extent, of course) has proven anything, it’s that Arab youth are tired of being denied the standard of living so many other nations have. That means a path for grassroots reproductive health education has been paved, as raising the standard of living starts with healthy pregnancies.

Healthy pregnancies is an all-encompassing term. It doesn’t just mean birthing a functioning child — it means having a child at the proper age, having the right amount of children, being economically self-sufficient and having two parents. None of that will happen, however, without proper education and societal change that empowers women and promotes safe sex.

Both of those aims — empowering women and promoting safe sex — are complicated in the current Egyptian and Jordanian context. Still ruled and influenced by older religious men, women — especially in Egypt — are subordinate to men in every way. Additionally, contraception is frowned upon in Muslim society despite no explicit mention of banning birth control in the Qur’an.

These customs will be difficult to overturn in a top-down fashion. But, then again, the same would be said for changing governance — which is exactly why revolutions in Egypt and Jordan have been youth-led, grassroots efforts. The opportunity to change society and not only politics can be exploited in the same way. By directing the female empowerment and contraception message at the enormous youth populations in Jordan and Egypt, change will slowly occur. And this is change that does not require an election — it can happen everyday, with any person, whenever they choose.

Jordan report

Egypt report

Egypt holds massive protest in Tahrir square

 

Frustration with the Egyptian military Friday fueled the largest nationwide protest since longtime President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

Trials for military officials have been postponed. The military has continued to engage in violence against protesters.

While I feel SCAF should try to postpone September’s elections to allow other parties to gather strength, it has been slow to introduce or announce any reforms. That has sent a bad message to Egyptians, one that leads them to believe the military establishment intends to hold onto its same level of power even after elections. Surely, the protests against Mubarak were just as much against SCAF.

Mubarak relied heavily on the secretive military, which has assumed the role of interim government until September elections. Suppression tactics that led to violence last week that left hundreds of protesters injured and has some believing Mubarak’s legacy lives on with the military.

Egypt had been under emergency rule since 1967, which extended police powers, suspended some constitutional rights and allowed the military to easily detain people and censor newspapers. Mubarak entrusted his secretive military/police force, SCAF, to keep order in the country and his people subservient to the president. SCAF has rounded up “subversives” for years and used torture for years to maintain fear and subordination.

 

 

Egypt needs more time for bill of rights, parties to form

The Egyptian political landscape is rapidly evolving, the nation’s leading newspaper Al Ahram reports. The Muslim Brotherhood has fractured, spawning four new parties; smaller, established parties are becoming clearer; and the discussion of a bill of rights highlights differences between Islamists and secularists.

All this analysis should lead to one conclusion — postpone the September Egyptian elections. That likely won’t happen. And while I understand Egypt’s desire to move on with life and distance itself from decades of oppressive rule, patience might lead to more defined parties and greater political choice for Egypt’s democracy-starved citizens. Egypt suffered through 30 years of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule. A little more patience might be beneficial.

The new parties require 5,000 signatures from 10 or more governates, which is a taxing task for the new parties that likely lack strong organizational structure and the citizens who must learn about each new party.

Alluding to the Muslim Brotherhood as Egypt’s “most organised” political force might soon become a redundant cliché. The 83-year-old organisation is metamorphosing — some might say disintegrating — into five political parties. It is a far cry from the Islamist group that has, since 1948, survived repeated attempts by the state to weaken it while retaining, on the surface at least, its monolithic structure.

In post-revolution Egypt the Ikhwan (Brothers) is no longer simply the Gamaa (Organisation). It faces no existential threat from a dictatorial regime or police state and now has a political party, Freedom and Justice. Officially approved on 6 June, it is led by three ex- members of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau. Soon it could be joined by four other parties spawned by the group: Al-Nahda (Renaissance); Al-Riyada (Pioneer); Haraket Al-Salam Wal-Tanmiya (Movement for Peace and Development) and the youth-led Al-Tayar Al-Masri (Egyptian Current).

Egyptians are debating three bill of rights-type documents, with the hopes of approving it before elections. One is a Magna Carta-style assurance of people’s rights, one is a more basic document pushed by the government and another is more detailed than the government’s. But polarization between secularists and Islamists have led to divided camps on any bill of rights. More time to develop a compromise would help.

On 26 June Mohamed El-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), announced a “Bill of Basic Rights and Principles”. It stipulates that the new Egypt will be a democratic republic founded on equal rights. Islam is acknowledged as the official religion of the country, Arabic its main language and sharia the principle source of legislation. Egypt’s political system will be multi-party, there will be an independent judiciary and the Armed Forces will act as the guardians of the state’s independence.

The bill upholds freedom of expression, the right to peaceful protests and freedom of religion. It seeks to prohibit the detention of any citizen without their first being charged, and enshrines the principle that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. It also reaffirms the right of citizens to education and privacy, to own property, to work and join syndicates.

The constitution of the People’s Committee, a third bill prepared by legal experts and politicians, is more detailed than El-Baradei’s document. It elaborates on the powers and duties of the president of the republic and the separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial authorities.

Civil rights activist Bahieddin Hassan believes the proliferation of charters “reflects a collective spirit and crystallising of a supra-national vision and code of principles”.

Categories: Democracy Tags: , ,

Impact of Jordan decision not to recognize Palestinian statehood

Jordan’s announcement that it would not recognize the Palestinian Authority’s seemingly imminent unilateral declaration of statehood will send shockwaves around the Arab world. While the Arab Spring has united the Arab world and occurred irrespective of the Palestinian statehood question, the Hashemite Kingdom’s stance will certainly provoke strong reaction.

Arab leaders have rallied around the Palestinian cause for political gain, although the only Arab country with a true vested interest in Palestinians is Jordan. Most Arab nations — Syria being the most prominent example — have used Palestinians as rhetoric and as a political football. Many Arab nations reject Palestinian citizens from entering their borders, as even the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been met with resistance.

Jordan's border with Israel and West Bank could be more volatile with Palestinian statehood

Jordan, however, begrudgingly accepted Palestinians. They are second class citizens in that country despite comprising nearly half the population. So if anyone is an authority on Palestinian statehood and refugees in the Arab world, it’s Jordan.

But as new Arab governments come to power, they may be less beholden to United States and other Western influences. The U.S. supported many Arab dictators — like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — because they were willing to support Israel’s right to exist. However, that view was not aligned with the Arab street in those nations. As democratically elected governments come to power in Tunisia and Egypt, and possibly Libya in due time, it will be more difficult for the U.S. to interfere and pressure those leaders to support the unpopular cause of aiding Israel.

Jordan may now have partially ostracized itself among a new group of Arab leaders by essentially breaking a party line. It will be interesting to see how accepted Jordan is when a new government in Egypt takes control. And if Bashar al Assad remains in power, Jordan will not be spared from his vitriol. Same goes for Iran.

Jordan’s stance on Palestinian statehood breaks from Arab solidarity on that issue. Jordan already has set itself apart from Arab nations by its cool but cordial relations with Israel, which may be more for Jordan’s own border security than shared ideological beliefs. Jordan maintains respectable ties with Israel out of necessity because they share a border. Their histories would not naturally align the two.

And that is why Jordan is making this decision — the border. A unilaterally-declared Palestinian state would mean Israeli involvement, as it could be considered aggressive behavior because Israel believes it has a right to settlements in the West Bank. Politically, Jordan had to try its best to maintain the status quo and keep as quiet a border as possible with Israel and the West Bank. By not lending its support to Palestinian statehood, Jordan shields itself from Israeli blame and the associated political ramifications.

The U.S. will undoubtedly veto any UN Security Council resolution, so the Palestinian Authority will have to appeal to the General Assembly for symbolic support of statehood. Nothing will be official until the Security Council agrees, which is unlikely for the indefinite future.

Side note:

Interestingly, the YNet story also had this to say about Palestinian identification papers in Jordan:

Meanwhile, the paper also reported that Jordan is preparing to cancel the identification papers provided for Palestinian statesmen and their families. The decision was explained as a move that began with a 1988 ruling “to disengage from the West Bank and maintain Palestinian identity”.

The wording is extremely vague. I’m not sure yet what it means to “cancel” identification papers. The papers were issued to Palestinian refugees beginning in 1988 to distinguish them from Jordanian citizens. The Jordanian government put a nice spin on it with that quote, but it ultimately has been used to discriminate against Palestinians in Jordan rather than to “maintain Palestinian identity” out of some source of nationalistic pride. By canceling these papers, are Palestinians in Jordan recognized as the same as Jordanians? Or are they now officially nomads with no national identity or rights? I’ll have to look into this.

Egypt must push elections back to ensure political choice

June 29, 2011 1 comment

A call to eliminate Hosni Mubarak-era local councils in Egypt is another step toward clearing the political grounds of corruption. It shows the military is committed to transparency and a more functional government. Still, the nation should try to postpone its September elections to prevent a consolidation of power in the hands of the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood.

Representatives from Mubarak’s former party won widely presumed rigged elections to these countrywide local councils, so it makes sense to clear them out of office. There is a legacy of corruption with any officials tied to Mubarak, so good riddance.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera included this line:

Tuesday’s ruling followed calls by protesters for remnants of the old political order to be dismantled.

I don’t mean to twist words, so I’ll try not to. But the Muslim Brotherhood was a part of the old political order — albeit a marginalized one. But it was a part nonetheless, which means it is very much established. I am not saying it is anything like Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and I am not here to debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood is Islamist. All I am saying is the Muslim Brotherhood has an unfair advantage going into September elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood already had a hierarchy with clear leaders. As Egypt soon learned following Mubarak’s resignation, the protest movement lacked organizational structure befitting a political party. The movement had no focus following Mubarak’s fall. That created a power vacuum, which allowed the military — another already established group — to fill the void.

I don’t think the protest movement could have stepped right in and run the country or set up elections, regardless of how organized it was. The military has tried its best to provide security, and I’m not sure the peaceful Egyptian movement would have been able to ensure that sort of stability and command legal authority.

Still, the obvious confusion over how to become an organized political party is telling. And if Egypt rushes ahead with these elections, it could play right into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t believe the Muslim Brotherhood is to be feared, but it’s always good to have political opposition — the Muslim Brotherhood has very little right now.

The youth in Egypt led this revolution, so it would make most sense to allow the youth to devise their own parties rather than simply join the ranks of the older, established Muslim Brotherhood. This revolution was about choice and freedom to choose, freedom to speak. Young Egyptian voices could be quieted among the Muslim Brotherhood’s more experienced ranks.

As we learned, though, Egyptian youth can be loud. They have bold opinions. They have different ideas on how Egypt’s government should operate — beginning with the fact they don’t want it to operate like the last one.

Virtually the only strong party in the running right now was active during the last government. While there certainly needs to be caution about pushing the elections too far back and jeopardizing order and rule of law with extended military governance, it would be best for Egypt to give nascent political factions time to evolve into full-fledged parties.

Egypt forces clash with protesters

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the nation’s military that has assumed control in a transitional government leading up to the country’s September elections,  clashed with protesters Tuesday night.

According to Zeinobia, who writes on Egyptian Chronicles, the 2,000-person protest in Tahrir Square started with a Tweetup. The Egyptian Ministry of the Interior has blamed out of control protesters for the dust-up.

The Associated Press reported a 5,000-person “rock-throwing” crowd was met with tear gas and force.

Video from Associated Press:

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