The obstacles to gender equality in the Arab world

The Economist reports: Ahmed, who lives in Cairo, allows his wife to work. “At first, I insisted she stay at home, but she was able to raise the kids and care for the house and still have time to go to work,” he says. Still, he doesn’t seem too impressed. “Of course, as a man, I’m the main provider for the family. I believe women just cannot do that.”

Ahmed’s outlook is widely shared throughout the region, where men dominate households, parliaments and offices. Chauvinist attitudes are reflected in laws that treat women as second-class citizens. A new survey by the UN and Promundo, an advocacy group, examines Arab men’s views on male-female relations. (One of the authors, Shereen El Feki, used to write for The Economist.) It finds that around 90% of men in Egypt believe that they should have the final say on household decisions, and that women should do most of the chores.

So far, so predictable. But the survey sheds new light on the struggles of Arab men in the four countries studied (Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine) and how they hinder progress towards equality. At least two-thirds of these men report high levels of fear for the safety and well-being of their families. In Egypt and Palestine most men say they are stressed or depressed because of a lack of work or income. Women feel even worse, but for Arab men the result is a “crisis of masculinity”, the study finds.

Far from relaxing their patriarchal attitudes, Arab men are clinging to them. In every country except Lebanon, younger men’s views on gender roles do not differ substantially from those of older men. There may be several reasons for this, but the study suggests that the struggle of young Arab men to find work, afford marriage and achieve the status of financial provider may be producing a backlash against assertive women. In other words, male chauvinism may be fuelled by a sense of weakness, not strength. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Maher makes us dumber: How ignorance, fear and stupid clichés shape Americans’ view of the Middle East

Steven A Cook and Michael Brooks write: Last Sunday was the 14th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. Given the outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the milestone passed almost completely without comment among the many who led the charge to Baghdad in 2003. There are soldiers of all ranks who went into battle carrying copies of Ibn Khaldun’s “The Muqaddimah,” Hans Wehr’s Arabic-English Dictionary and other works that might help explain the land and region to which they were ostensibly bringing liberty. Many of these honorable men and women are wiser and more in touch today with the history, politics and culture of the Middle East than when the invasion order came. The same cannot be said for America’s political leaders or Americans more generally.

Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and certainly before the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Americans lived mostly in ignorance of the Middle East. All these years later they remain ignorant but in a different way. Previously, Americans had simply been uninformed about the region. What little they knew tended to be shaped by the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the fading memory of the Iranian hostage crisis and the brief Persian Gulf War of 1991 to reverse Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait.

Today Americans remain ignorant about the Middle East not because they are unaware of the region, but because they are poorly educated about it. It was not long after the Twin Towers fell and the smoldering fire at the Pentagon was extinguished that terms like jihad, Salafi, Wahhabi, madrassa and al-Qaida became part of the American political lexicon. It seemed that anyone who had attained the rank of colonel, or could claim (legitimately or otherwise) onetime employment at the CIA, or was a columnist who had visited an Arab country once or twice was booked on television to shed light on “why they hate us.” To be fair, this reflected a surge of genuine interest in the Middle East. Suddenly, university Arabic classes were oversubscribed, and books about the region that once reached tiny audiences did very well.

As 9/11 became a distant memory and the Iraqi venture became a disaster, the laudable desire to learn more about the Middle East seemed to fall off even as the casualties returning home continued at a steady pace. Yet in ways the region continued to be an obsession — not just for policymakers and foreign policy analysts, but also for a network of groups and individuals that fostered mistrust and fear of Middle Easterners in general and Muslims in particular.

People like Frank Gaffney, Brigitte Gabriel, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer had long been fringe figures in American public discourse. But their dogged efforts to brand Islam a hostile political ideology and characterize Muslims as a fifth column in the United States paid off in a variety of ways that reinforced one another. The controversy over the “ground zero mosque” in lower Manhattan is instructive in this regard. Such people were able to inject their Islamophobic worldview into the reporting on the debate over the “mosque” — actually a community center with a prayer room — which then wended its way into political spheres where these ideas became increasingly more mainstream. While figures on the far right and the emerging alt-right may have been responsible for propagating Islamophobia, liberal punditry and pop culture also gave it wider currency. [Continue reading…]

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Trump talk of terror listing for Muslim Brotherhood alarms some Arab allies

The New York Times reports: In Morocco, it would tip a delicate political balance. In Jordan, it could prevent American diplomats from meeting with opposition leaders. In Tunisia, it could make criminals of a political party seen as a model of democracy after the Arab Spring.

Of all the initiatives of the Trump administration that have set the Arab world on edge, none has as much potential to disrupt the internal politics of American partners in the region as the proposal to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist movement with millions of followers.

“The impact would be great,” said Issandr El Amrani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Morocco, where a Brotherhood-linked party won the last election in October. “It could destabilize countries where anti-Islamist forces would be encouraged to double down. It would increase polarization.”

At issue is a proposal floated by Trump aides that the 89-year-old Brotherhood be designated as a foreign terrorist entity. The scope of any designation remains unclear, but its potential reach is vast: Founded in Egypt, the Brotherhood has evolved into a loose network that spans about two dozen countries. It has officially forsworn violence. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s Middle East fans get caught up in global blowback

Julian Pecquet writes: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the first foreign leaders to get stung for too closely identifying with the new White House occupant. In a tweet published Saturday evening ahead of his Feb. 15 meeting with Trump, Netanyahu voiced support for the US president’s proposed wall with Mexico.

“President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea,” said Netanyahu.


The tweet immediately caused a furor in Mexico, which is home to about 50,000 Jews and has good relations with Israel. Dozens of Mexican Jews canceled donations to the United Israel Appeal campaign, while Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray asked for an apology. [Continue reading…]

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America, you look like an Arab country right now

Karl Sharro writes: Dear America,

We have been watching the drama of your presidential elections with much interest and curiosity for some time now. It’s hard not to notice the many similarities between our own countries and yours. From fiery inauguration protests and bitter disputes about crowd size, to the intelligence service’s forays into politics and the rise of right-wing extremists, it appears that you are traveling very much in our direction — and at the same time, like us, becoming a curiosity for foreign correspondents trying to explain what’s happening in your region to the world. You might be distraught about where you are headed, but we aren’t! Perhaps this will be an opportunity to put our differences aside and recognize how similar we are.

Let’s start at the beginning. During the campaign we were surprised to learn of the influence that the head of the American mukhabarat (state security, i.e. your FBI) can wield over the election process, simply by choosing to pursue a certain line of investigation. As you may know, this has been a constant feature of our politics since independence. Our surprise turned to astonishment when we started to witness the blossoming feud between the then-president-elect and the American mukhabarat, another important feature of Arab politics.

On top of that, we started to hear reports of foreign meddling in your elections, which some say may have influenced the result. Of course, we are quite familiar with that situation, too, not least because of the efforts of your own administrations over the decades. Yet it came as a surprise to hear talk of “foreign hands” and “secret agendas” in a country like America. We sympathize.

On the bright side, this was also the moment that the conspiracy theories started to spread. You know us; we’re quite fond of conspiracy theories — particularly when they involve plots by external powers — and consider ourselves connoisseurs of the genre. Your plots are a bit rough around the edges, we have to admit, but top marks for creativity. Was the election of Trump a Russian conspiracy? Was talk of the Russian conspiracy a liberal conspiracy to undermine Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to help Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to hurt Trump? Was media coverage of Trump’s mukhabarat conspiracy theories part of a liberal conspiracy theory to bring him down? They’re all so deliciously complex and open-ended, much like our own. [Continue reading…]

Karl Sharro tweets as @karlremarks.

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The Arab Spring is far from over

Koert Debeuf writes: What were once high hopes for a new, free and democratic Arab World have turned into civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Instead of democracies, countries like Egypt, Bahrain and even Morocco have become even more repressive dictatorships.

In Egypt alone, no less than 40,000 people have been detained since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July 2013. All independent television stations have been closed and critical journalists arrested. Most NGOs have been shut down or can simply no longer function. And then there is the Islamic State, the most barbaric outcome of the chaos that followed the 2011 uprisings.

These may seem like more than enough reasons to call the Arab Spring an utter failure. But, in truth, it depends on how carefully you look at what is happening. On the surface, the political upheavals look like failed revolts against dictatorships. But dig a bit deeper into the societies of these Arab countries and there are reasons to believe what we see is not a simple revolt, but an epochal revolution.

If that is true, today’s depressing situation is not the end; it’s just one of the stages the region is going through on its way to a better future. That, at least, is one of the lessons we could learn from history.

Take the French Revolution. The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, didn’t come out of nowhere. In the 18th century, the population of France had grown by 50 percent. The large young generation couldn’t find jobs because the economic system was stuck. The people were getting poorer, while the grandees who populated the court in Versailles were excessively rich. There was no freedom of religion, and the Church was amassing power and wealth. The French Revolution didn’t stop when Napoleon took power in 1799. It took 80 years and 12 constitutions before France became a stable democracy in 1870. [Continue reading…]

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Obama hoped to transform the world. It transformed him

Adam Shatz writes: At his final news conference as president, Mr. Obama expressed anguish over the fall of Aleppo, but insisted that his Syria policy had been guided by his sense of “what’s the right thing to do for America.”

It may well have been; American lives were spared. But noninterference created a vacuum that autocrats like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were happy to fill. What’s more, Mr. Obama’s understanding of American interests in Syria was more restrictively drawn than one might have expected from a man so worldly, someone who had always stressed the interdependence of the global community and the moral burdens of “what it means to share this world in the 21st century.” Who governs Syria may not be a core American interest, but the country’s apocalyptic splintering is another matter. The effect of Mr. Obama’s caution, as much as Moscow’s belligerent resolve, was to help prolong the war.

The consequences of Syria’s disintegration have spread far beyond its borders. Not only has the crisis placed dangerous strains on neighboring states, but it has emboldened the far right in Europe, which has played on fears about Islam and terrorism in its campaign against immigration and the European Union. Nor has the United States been unscathed by what Mr. Obama recently called the “tug of tribalism”: Donald J. Trump owes his election to it. Mr. Trump is an open admirer of tribal politicians like Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, not least because they remind him of himself with their love of the mob, contempt for liberal elites and penchant for conspiracy theory.

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Mr. Obama imagined Muslim and Western democrats working together in partnership, overcoming borders imposed by war, prejudice and mistrust for the sake of a common future. Instead, the very prospect of a common future, of global interdependence, has been jeopardized by the emergence of an illiberal world of tribes without flags. Despite the best of intentions, and for all his fine words, Mr. Obama became one of the midwives of this dangerous and angry new world, where his enlightened cosmopolitanism increasingly looks like an anachronism. [Continue reading…]

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Arabic translators did far more than just preserve Greek philosophy

By Peter Adamson, Aeon, November 4, 2016

In European antiquity, philosophers largely wrote in Greek. Even after the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean and the demise of paganism, philosophy was strongly associated with Hellenic culture. The leading thinkers of the Roman world, such as Cicero and Seneca, were steeped in Greek literature; Cicero even went to Athens to pay homage to the home of his philosophical heroes. Tellingly, the emperor Marcus Aurelius went so far as to write his Meditations in Greek. Cicero, and later Boethius, did attempt to initiate a philosophical tradition in Latin. But during the early Middle Ages, most of Greek thought was accessible in Latin only partially and indirectly.

Elsewhere, the situation was better. In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Greek-speaking Byzantines could continue to read Plato and Aristotle in the original. And philosophers in the Islamic world enjoyed an extraordinary degree of access to the Hellenic intellectual heritage. In 10th-century Baghdad, readers of Arabic had about the same degree of access to Aristotle that readers of English do today.

This was thanks to a well-funded translation movement that unfolded during the Abbasid caliphate, beginning in the second half of the eighth century. Sponsored at the highest levels, even by the caliph and his family, this movement sought to import Greek philosophy and science into Islamic culture. Their empire had the resources to do so, not just financially but also culturally. From late antiquity to the rise of Islam, Greek had survived as a language of intellectual activity among Christians, especially in Syria. So when Muslim aristocrats decided to have Greek science and philosophy translated into Arabic, it was to Christians that they turned. Sometimes, a Greek work might even be translated first into Syriac, and only then into Arabic. It was an immense challenge. Greek is not a semitic language, so they were moving from one language group to another: more like translating Finnish into English than Latin into English. And there was, at first, no established terminology for expressing philosophical ideas in Arabic.

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Russia is taking the unwelcome place long occupied by the U.S. in Middle East

The Wall Street Journal reports: Victory comes at a cost.

Since entering the Syrian war last year, Russia successfully ended America’s status as the Middle East’s sole superpower, an achievement capped by the fall of Aleppo.

That rise has turned Moscow into the region’s indispensable power broker. In Europe, too, the migrant wave unleashed by the Syrian war strengthened Moscow’s sway, fueling populist parties friendly to President Vladimir Putin.

The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday, however, highlighted the flip side of this dizzying rise. As America’s influence has shrunk, Russia has taken the place the U.S. long occupied in the minds of many people in the Middle East: an alien imperialist power seen as waging war on Muslims and Islam.

There haven’t been any recent anti-American protests in the region. But amid the agony of Aleppo, tens of thousands of protesters converged this month outside Russian missions from Istanbul to Beirut to Kuwait City—where the chanting, led by local lawmakers, was clear: “Russia is the enemy of Islam.”

The Turkish policeman who gunned down Ambassador Andrey Karlov on Monday shouted that he was avenging the suffering of Aleppo, which had been subjected to a year of Russian bombing before the Syrian regime and its Shiite allies conquered the rebel-held parts of the city in recent weeks.

The diplomat’s assassination, while condemned by governments, was greeted with open joy on Arabic social media, and in Palestinian refugee camps.

“Russia is certainly being perceived as the new bully in the neighborhood,” said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “The way people react to its involvement in the decimation of one of the most revered Sunni cities in the Middle East, Aleppo, is reminiscent of how the U.S. was viewed after its occupation of Iraq. You only need to follow how the killer of the Russian ambassador was glorified throughout the region to get an idea of how Russia is despised by the populace today.” [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s oil and gas deals magnify military power in Middle East

Bloomberg reports: After reinventing itself as a major power in the Middle East by force in Syria, Russia is now using its other strong suit, energy, to expand its influence across the region.

A series of agreements is allowing Russia and the Gulf states to cooperate in areas where their interests meet, looking beyond Syria where they have backed opposing sides in a brutal proxy war. Over the past month alone, Russia brokered the first deal between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and non-OPEC nations in 15 years to cut oil production, secured a $5 billion investment by Qatar in oil giant Rosneft PJSC, and then saw Rosneft agree to pay as much as $2.8 billion for a stake in an Egyptian gas field.

“Russia is really keen to increase leverage in the Middle East by every means,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

It’s a reflection of how events in the region are combining in favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin as rarely before. A cooling of U.S. alliances in the Gulf in recent years, the havoc cheaper oil has wreaked in energy-dependent economies and a recognition that Russia can no longer be ignored on regional security issues mean Putin is pushing at an increasingly open door. [Continue reading…]

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Another Arab awakening is looming, warns a UN report

The Economist reports: In December 2010 Egypt’s cabinet discussed the findings of their National Youth Survey. Only 16% of 18-29-year-olds voted in elections, it showed; just 2% registered for volunteer work. An apathetic generation, concluded the ministers, who returned to twiddling their thumbs. Weeks later, Egypt’s youth spilled onto the streets and toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

The UN’s latest Arab Development Report, published on November 29th, shows that few lessons have been learnt. Five years on from the revolts that toppled four Arab leaders, regimes are ruthlessly tough on dissent, but much less attentive to its causes.

As states fail, youth identify more with their religion, sect or tribe than their country. In 2002, five Arab states were mired in conflict. Today 11 are. By 2020, predicts the report, almost three out of four Arabs could be “living in countries vulnerable to conflict”.

Horrifyingly, although home to only 5% of the world’s population, in 2014 the Arab world accounted for 45% of the world’s terrorism, 68% of its battle-related deaths, 47% of its internally displaced and 58% of its refugees. War not only kills and maims, but destroys vital infrastructure accelerating the disintegration.

The Arab youth population (aged 15-29) numbers 105m and is growing fast, but unemployment, poverty and marginalisation are all growing faster. The youth unemployment rate, at 30%, stands at more than twice the world’s average of 14%. Almost half of young Arab women looking for jobs fail to find them (against a global average of 16%).

Yet governance remains firmly the domain of an often hereditary elite. “Young people are gripped by an inherent sense of discrimination and exclusion,” says the report, highlighting a “weakening [of] their commitment to preserving government institutions.” Many of those in charge do little more than pay lip-service, lumping youth issues in with toothless ministries for sports. “We’re in a much worse shape than before the Arab Spring,” says Ahmed al-Hendawi, a 32-year-old Jordanian and the UN’s envoy for youth. [Continue reading…]

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Who made the Arab Spring into an Arab crisis?

Yezid Sayigh writes: A recent news item on the BBC’s English website neatly captured the sharp contrast in how, five years later, various Arab rulers, citizens and non-Arab observers view the popular uprisings that swept leaders from power in several Arab states and challenged others. The headline read “Arab Spring ‘cost region $600bn’ in lost growth, UN says”, but what the latter actually said differed substantially.

In its Survey of Economic and Social Developments in the Arab Region 2015-2016 (PDF), the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which covers 18 Arab countries, attributed a net loss of $613.8bn in economic activity and an aggregate fiscal deficit of $243.1bn not to the attempt to bring about democratic political transition, but to the armed conflicts now involving nearly a dozen Arab states.

Whether intentionally or not, the BBC’s headline echoes those who portray the chaos and bloodshed suffered by several Arab states since 2011 as the direct result – indeed the essence – of the Arab Spring. But, there was nothing inevitable about this.

Rather, the current reality, or potential threat of state failure and civil war in Arab states, is the outcome of their problematic past trajectories prior to 2011 and of the choices made by those in power on how to respond to evolving political, socioeconomic and institutional challenges since then. [Continue reading…]

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Middle East rights activists, dismayed by Obama, fear Trump will be much worse

The Washington Post reports: Human rights activists fighting a wave of repression across the Middle East are bracing for an American president they fear will empower autocrats and roll back U.S. support for democracy initiatives in the region.

President-elect Donald Trump has shown little regard for human rights issues, activists say, and has praised authoritarian leaders in countries including Turkey and Egypt.

The Obama administration — which sold arms to despots in the region even as it cracked down on opponents — has disappointed many rights advocates. But President Obama has also pressed Middle East governments to curb abuses and enact democratic change.

Trump, by contrast, has not only lauded some of the region’s strongmen but also called for torturing terrorism suspects and killing the families of Islamic State fighters as a way to defeat the extremist group. His rhetoric has alarmed local human rights defenders who say their situation is tenuous enough already. [Continue reading…]

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Sesame particle accelerator project brings Middle East together

The Guardian reports: In the sleepy hillside town in al-Balqa, not far from the Jordan Valley, a grand project is taking shape. The Middle East’s new particle accelerator – the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, or Sesame – is being built.

In a region racked by violence, extremism and the disintegration of nation states, Sesame feels a world apart; the meditative peace of the surrounding countryside belying the advanced stages of construction inside the site, which is due to be formally inaugurated next spring, with the first experiments taking place as early as this autumn.

It’s a miracle it got off the ground in the first place. Sesame’s members are Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Bahrain. Iran and Pakistan do not recognise Israel, nor does Turkey recognise Cyprus, and everyone has their myriad diplomatic spats.

Iran, for example, continues to participate despite two of its scientists who were involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, being assassinated in operations blamed on Israel’s Mossad.

“We’re cooperating very well together,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of Sesame. “That’s the dream.” [Continue reading…]

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An epic Middle East heat wave could be global warming’s hellish curtain-raiser

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The Washington Post reports: Record-shattering temperatures this summer have scorched countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond, as climate experts warn that the severe weather could be a harbinger of worse to come.

In coming decades, U.N. officials and climate scientists predict that the region’s mushrooming populations will face extreme water scarcity, temperatures almost too hot for human survival and other consequences of global warming.

If that happens, conflicts and refugee crises far greater than those now underway are probable, said Adel Abdellatif, a senior adviser at the U.N. Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Arab States who has worked on studies about the effect of climate change on the region.

“This incredible weather shows that climate change is already taking a toll now and that it is — by far — one of the biggest challenges ever faced by this region,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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The Middle East needs help with its long game: education and jobs for the young

By Zahir Irani, Brunel University London

The future for many young people across the Middle East and North Africa looks bleak. The World Bank records that 54% of the working age population in the Middle East and North Africa is unemployed with little prospect of any positive immediate change. An average of 28.7% of 15 to 24-year-olds in the Middle East and 30.6% of those in North Africa are unemployed according to the International Labour Organisation.

Much of the world’s response to this chronic problem has been to intervene financially: in the form of aid or debt restructuring. But through supporting economic recovery by giving generations of young people new skills and new opportunities to improve themselves, the world can help Middle Eastern societies in a more sustainable and thoughtful way.

Reliance on public sector jobs

One of the biggest challenges the World Bank identifies in this broad region is that unemployment rates are the highest among the educated, with university graduates making up 30% of the region’s unemployed. They are slowly losing optimism and hope for a better life and future.

This is largely attributed to a reliance on the public sector to provide jobs that come with steady albeit low salaries but high degrees of job security. In many North African countries or those Middle Eastern ones with high populations, other than wait in line for a public sector job, there are few other alternatives. At one end of the spectrum there’s the misery of violence and refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and the other – even if you’ve excelled – a flat and static job market for the best and brightest. No wonder so many highly-skilled people are fleeing to Europe in search of stability and new opportunities.

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