Women’s Rights Movements in the ‘Arab Spring’: Major Victories or Failures for Human Rights?

30 07 2015

Women’s Rights Movements in the ‘Arab Spring’:  Major Victories or Failures for Human Rights?

by Hayat Alvi, Ph.D.

Journal of International Women’s Studies

Vol. 16, No. 3 July 2015

http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1828&context=jiws

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Elections Killing Democracy in the Middle East

5 05 2014

Bouteflika A supporter of Egypt's army chief Field Iraq Elections

 

 

This is an important election year for a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Egypt will hold elections on May 26-27, with the military dictator General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi likely to run. He has already gripped Egypt in an iron fist, while the courts do his dirty work sentencing hundreds to death without due process. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to run for president in August, while journalists are arrested and the government promotes increasingly authoritarian policies that include tight controls over the judiciary. Rubbing salt into the wounds of millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and families of more than 150,000 dead in the Syrian civil war, the vicious dictator Bashar al-Assad plans to run for re-election in June.

Iraq just witnessed crucial parliamentary elections amid fierce violence flaring in Fallujah, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s track record has not exactly fostered a healthy democracy. He has long antagonized Iraq’s Sunni minority, and managed to provoke violent backlash in Anbar. According to a Washington Post article, entitled “Iraq’s Elections May Accelerate its Descent” (May 1st) –

Mr. Maliki built support among Shiites before the election by launching a military campaign against Sunni tribes in Anbar province; the result was the takeover of Fallujah by al-Qaeda and waves of bombings against Shiites in Baghdad. Without U.S. support, the army appears to lack the means to recapture Fallujah and other Sunni-populated areas, though Mr. Maliki, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, has resorted to using Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The prosperous, autonomous Kurdistan region, with its own oil reserves, has become a de facto independent state.”

In late April, Algeria has exhibited one of the most embarrassing and shameful sights when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, already in power for fifteen years, ran for a fourth term following a stroke and was sworn in while sitting in a wheelchair. This comes after the 2011 Arab Awakening revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but Algeria has successfully suppressed similar uprisings and protests within its borders. However, the results are a gross blemish, analogous to the worst warts and boils on the ragged old face of Arab status quo, which convey only the Arab leaders’ obsessions with self-empowerment, stagnation, oppression, and authoritarianism. The delusion of these autocrats is boundless.

The only light in this dark tunnel is Tunisia, which has succeeded in nonviolently removing the Islamist Ennahda Party from power and preparing for new elections this year, while having revised the constitution once again. Democratization processes are not easy. They require not only smooth transitions in political leadership, but also substantive reforms of institutions and structures, with a lot of patience and determination. Clearly, Egypt and Libya, within their own respective contexts, have been impatient with the democratization processes. Leaders can be corrupt failures anywhere in the world, even in established democracies. But, the true test of democracy is the citizenry’s commitment to the values and principles of democracy. We have not seen this in the MENA region. In fact, egotistical self-promoting autocrats like General Sisi and Bouteflika and Bashar al-Assad eagerly want democracies to fail and collapse and be snuffed in the dust under the soles of their shoes. They also have powerful people supporting them, and in most cases that includes the military. They have been the circles of democracy assassins who rally around brutal dictators.

With all that Mohamed Bouazizi, the April 6th Movement, and hundreds, if not thousands, of others have sacrificed to change the face and stench of autocratic stagnation and status quo in the region, it is a tremendous tragedy that their revolutions, symbolism, and efforts have been undermined by the most diabolical people. The latter only possess self-interests, and are not concerned with the public’s welfare. The greatest irony is that so many of these self-interested autocrats and their supporters are using the tool of democracy, elections, to empower themselves. The counter-revolutions have been a slap in the face of the victims who died or were injured while trying to bring democracy, freedoms, and rights to their countries. When strokes and wheelchairs don’t deter a dictator, what can be said, but “what a shame.” But remember that it’s the circle of stakeholders around the dictator that is just as selfish, greedy, and ruthless. The proponents of real democracy in the MENA region face formidable challenges ahead. Their greatest test will be their commitment to democracy. The dictators and autocrats have shown their deep commitments to their brutality and authoritarianism. Stagnation and status quo will be the region’s future in politics, economics, and many other aspects of life if the “counters to the counter-revolutions” are not successful. And, those who are blindly supporting the likes of Sisi, Assad, Bouteflika, and a host of other oppressive and tyrannical dictators are dooming the entire region to a dark and wretched fate. Dictators deserve to be tossed into the dustbin of history, and the citizenry must commit to “never again!” Instead, we see countless people prepared to vote for new and old dictators. Has nothing been learned from the past several decades of tyranny?

The following quote by John F. Kennedy has profound wisdom for us all: “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

 

The views expressed are personal.





Condemning Democratization in the Middle East

22 01 2012

One of the first comments we heard from the Obama administration in the early stages of Egypt’s 2011 revolution was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark, “the Egyptian government is stable,” referring to the Mubarak regime.  Of course, this is a stark contradiction to the democratic and human rights principles that the US espouses.  It also contradicts the expressed objective to promote democracy in the region, as stated in the US National Security Strategy (NSS).  Since then, we have seen regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and major political reforms in Morocco, Jordan, and some of the GCC states.  One of the outcomes of all of these events and changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011 has been the electoral empowerment of various Islamist parties.  Now, the editorial and news pages of global newspapers are brimming with alarmist messages about the Islamists coming to power in the MENA.  And, those of us in the field of MENA Studies are hearing earfuls of complaints and “I told you so’s,” because of the Islamist tsunami.

I respond to these complaints with these observations and explications:

  • This is the price of democracy, and democracy has various components:  the electoral, civil / human rights, and some argue the civic duty component (i.e., citizens have the obligation to participate in the political process).
  • Open, fair, and free elections should translate into allowing any party, however unpalatable, to run for political office.
  • These countries in the MENA region have never seen democracy, which means that they will respectively undergo their own evolutionary processes, just like we did in US history.  The MENA countries are starting from square one in this regard.  American democracy took a long time to reach the maturity we have today.  Let’s not forget that American democracy began with slavery, a brutal civil war, racial segregation, a women’s suffrage movement in the 20th century, and a very bloody and painful Civil Rights Movement.  For the MENA region, I am dubbing the process, “Evolution after Revolution.”  And, evolution after revolution takes a very long time.
  • If anyone doubts the compatibility of Islam with democracy, consider the approximately 14% of Muslims in the 1.3 billion total population of India, the world’s largest democracy.  This core Indian Muslim population has accepted and embraced secular democracy since day one of India’s independence from British colonial rule, the creation of Pakistan notwithstanding.  We often forget this point.  I am quick to remind people, pointing to India on the map.  Of course, India’s post-colonial history has its own complexities and communal problems; no one denies that.  But, it’s still evidence that Muslims in India, in whatever nuanced manner, find Islam and democracy compatible.  Turkey is another example that has been repeatedly cited as a template for the 2011 Arab uprising.

This is not to say that some of the developments in the region don’t trouble me.  The rise of the Salafists in Egypt, in particular, bothers me to no end.  If Egypt veers in the direction of a Saudi-like theocracy, then I will indeed be biting my nails with anxiety.  However, even then, it will be up to the Egyptian people to redirect the polity towards a flourishing democracy.  The burden is on the Egyptian citizens.  The same goes for all the other countries in the MENA region.  Of course, these will be long, hard struggles for freedoms and rights.  Let’s go back to US history and remind ourselves that we also have gone through difficult struggles to bring our democracy to maturity, and even now, it is far from perfect.  No one should expect absolute perfection.  But, everyone should aspire to it nonetheless, keeping the eye on the prize:  democracy that encompasses all of the components – free, fair, and open elections, freedoms and rights, and civic participation.

Two major dichotomous arguments are circulating about this issue today.  One is the recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that calls on Western governments to, basically, suck it up and accept Islamist parties coming to power in the region, as this is what democracy embodies, and it is a better outcome than the status quo autocratic dictators in power for decades who have violated human rights for so long.

The other argument is that the Islamists have hijacked the “Arab Spring” fruits of the secularists / modernists / liberals’ labor.  Some say this hijacking threatens the rights and freedoms of women and religious minorities, and in fact, thousands of Coptic Christians have preemptively left Egypt already.

Today’s Haaretz has an article about the former argument, citing the HRW report:

“Western democracies should overcome their aversion to Islamist groups that enjoy popular support in North Africa and the Middle East and encourage them to respect basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in the group’s annual report that the past year’s Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings across the region have shown it is vital for the West to end its policy of backing ‘an array of Arab autocrats’ in exchange for supporting Western interests.

The West should also be more consistent in supporting pro-democracy forces in the Arab world and elsewhere, he said in HRW’s 690-page report on human rights abuses worldwide.

‘The international community must … come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference,’ he said. ‘Islamist parties are genuinely popular in much of the 
Arab world, in part because many Arabs have come to see political Islam as the antithesis of autocratic rule.’

‘Wherever Islam-inspired governments emerge, the international community should focus on encouraging, and if need be pressuring, them to respect basic rights – just as the 
Christian-labeled parties and governments of Europe are expected to do,’ he said in the introduction to the report.

He added that the international community ‘should adopt a more principled approach to the region than in the past. That would involve, foremost, clearly siding with democratic reformers even at the expense of abandoning autocratic friends.’”

The counter-argument, which actually does not completely dismiss the former argument, is presented in today’s Al Arabiya News by Raghida Dergham, saying –

“Mistaken are those who demand that power be handed over to the Islamists in the Arab region of change, even on the grounds that they have been brought to power by a democratic process that must be honored, and that there is no choice but to submit to the de facto situation until the Islamists are tested in power. This is because democracy has been abortive as a result of excluding women and the youths from decision-making, and there are dangerous indications that the personal freedoms of Arab women and religious minorities are being undermined in the age of the Islamist monopoly of power. The youths of the Arab Awakening launched the revolution of change, but the ballot boxes brought victory for the Islamist movements. While they had toppled their regimes jointly in 2011, they parted ways in 2012 battle over the fateful choice between the modern state and the Islamic state.”  (my emphasis)

I close with Raghida’s last paragraph, which, I think, sums up this discourse very eloquently, and leaves you, the reader, to contemplate how the “necessity of challenging monopoly” applies to your own political system.  The checks and balances in a democracy are not just a civic responsibility, but are also imperative for upholding all of the components of democracy simultaneously.  Consider Raghida’s words –

“The change coming from the Arab Awakening is going through a frightening phase that is causing much frustration, and yet there is something in the air preventing a downward spiral into pessimism – something that awakens frustration into the necessity of challenging monopoly.”

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.