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Rached Ghannouchi and Tunisia’s Transition

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, June 5, 2013

Last week, my colleague Ed Husain and I hosted a meeting with Rached Ghannouchi—the cofounder and president of Tunisia’s Islamist Nahda party—at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The audio is available here.

In January 2011, after more than twenty years in exile, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia to lead Nahda’s revolutionary rise. Nahda went on to win some 40 percent of seats in Tunisia’s transitional parliament. Ghannouchi–who speaks passionately about the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and modernity–is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading Islamic thinkers. At CFR, his comments focused on his efforts to end Tunisia’s more than half century of political polarization by forging a coalition between moderate Islamists and secularists; the economic challenges facing the country’s transition, particularly with respect to stubbornly high unemployment; his hopes that Tunisia, as the first true Arab democracy, will serve as a model for other Muslim-majority countries; and the threat to freedom and democracy posed by violent extremism in Tunisia.


Women’s Security in the Middle East and North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on Middle East Voices, March 12, 2013

“It is time for an uprising of women in the Arab world,” writes Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOW News in Lebanon in the second annual publication to mark International Women’s Day by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. (more…)

Ensuring Opportunities for Women

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared in After the Spring: Prospects for the Arab World in 2013, December 14, 2012

As the uprisings of the Arab Spring give way to the hard tasks of reconstruction and statebuilding, women’s rights remain a divisive issue. Women have certainly played a prominent role in their countries’ transitions. In Egypt, activists such as Esra Abdel Fattah and journalists including Shahira Amin have steered the public dialogue about what the uprisings mean and helped broadcast events around the world. In Yemen, Tawakkol Karman emerged as an iconic protest leader, providing critical momentumto the broader uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Libya, demonstrations by female relatives of prisoners outside the infamous Abu Salim prison sparked the uprising there. In Tunisia and across the region, women marched in the streets, camped out in squares and managed the distribution of food and supplies. (more…)

Democratic Transition in North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, December 13, 2012

Egypt’s transition is turbulent, to say the least. The upcoming constitutional referendum is becoming more fraught by the day. Because most of the country’s judges are refusing to supervise the referendum, it is now scheduled to take place on two different dates: December 15 and December 22. Egypt’s main opposition coalition, after considerable indecision, has decided to participate in the referendum—trying to vote it down rather than boycotting it—but says it will not participate without sufficient oversight, monitoring, and security. All of this is taking place against a backdrop of increasing economic instability and uncertainty: this week, President Morsi announced tax increases stipulated by the IMF, only to rescind them hours later. Egypt also delayed its loan from the IMF in order to better explain required austerity measures to the population.

How are its North African neighbors, Tunisia and Libya, faring in their transitions? (more…)

Tunisia’s Transition Continues

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, October 23, 2012

Today marks the one year anniversary of Tunisia’s first free and democratic election. Last October 23, some ten months after Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali fled the country, Tunisians flocked to polling stations to vote for members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). The assembly was tasked with forming an interim government and writing Tunisia’s new constitution. The historic moment was filled with great hope for Tunisia’s future.

The assembly moved quickly to approve guidelines for the country’s governance during its transition and then to elect an interim government. The assembly’s other mission, the drafting of a constitution, has not progressed as smoothly, and the NCA’s legitimacy is in danger of fraying. (more…)

Thoughts on Tunisia’s Transition

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, October 9, 2012

I was in Tunisia last week and met with a wide range of people, including business, government, and civil society leaders; educators, journalists, bloggers, university students, and Salafist youth; young people unemployed and looking for jobs, and graduates who have newly entered the workforce. Below are some reflections on what I heard:

– Numerous Tunisians I spoke with sadly noted that they don’t recognize their country today. From the Salafist demonstrations that shut down Manouba University; to the attacks on artists and journalists for “harming public morals”; to the sacking of the U.S. Embassy and nearby American Cooperative School of Tunis a few weeks ago; to the recent case of the woman who after being raped by the police was accused of “indecency”–all of these and other incidents indicate a worrying rise of conservatism and rejection of modernity in what has always been thought of as the most progressive country in the region. As Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch put it, “After Ben Ali, a veil has been lifted exposing multiple realities in Tunisia, and the conservative trend is gaining ground.” (more…)

Women’s Rugby in Tunisia

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, October 2, 2012

Yesterday, flying between Casablanca and Tunis, I found myself sitting amidst the Tunisian women’s national rugby team. (Who knew Tunisia has a women’s rugby team? To my surprise, apparently Morocco and Egypt also have women’s teams.) The Tunisian women competed over the weekend in Rabat to successfully qualify for the 2013 Rugby World Cup in Moscow. One young player told me that it was her goal to compete in the World Cup in 2013 and go on to represent Tunisia at the 2016 Olympics – the first time rugby will be played at the games since 1924 and the first time ever for women’s rugby.

Inspired by the women’s enthusiasm, and the huge silver trophy they lugged with them on the plane, I did a little digging and discovered that the Tunisian women’s team is actually pretty good for its neighborhood, going undefeated in 2011. They were also the African Cup champions in 2011, and the only team from Africa to compete at the Hong Kong seven’s tournament in March 2012. (Seven’s is one of two widely played variations of rugby.) Admittedly, the Tunisians lost in Hong Kong against the much more experienced European and Asian sides, but facing stiffer competition is an important step forward. (more…)

Women’s Electoral Quotas: Filled but Empty Seats?

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on the Fikra Forum, September 18, 2012

For decades, the Arab states have had the lowest rate of female parliamentary representation of any region in the world. While that rate has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from 4.3 percent in 1995 to 10.7 percent today, the Arab world still ranks at the bottom.[1] During the same time period, women in the rest of world expanded their participation from 11.3 percent to 19.5 percent.[2]

In an effort to include more women in politics, some Arab governments have adopted quotas to boost female participation. That trend has expanded in recent years, but with mixed results. The concept behind quotas is that reserving seats for women helps overcome structural challenges that depress female participation. Over time, this should give female politicians more experience and draw talented women into the political pipeline; as voters come to appreciate their contributions, women should be able to win elections on their own merits and quotas can be eased; in the meantime, quotas at least ensure that women’s perspectives are represented in government. (more…)

Women, Free Speech, and the Tunisian Constitution

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, August 15, 2012

The path to democracy hardly begins and ends with elections. There is necessarily a lot of heavy lifting along the way to ensure that a full set of human rights are protected. In the reconstituted Arab states of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, balancing conservative religious beliefs and social mores with minority rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech is already proving to be a hard challenge indeed.

In Tunisia, arguably the most secular and progressive of the transitioning countries, worryingly violent protests have marked the deep tensions that exist between religious and secular elements in society. Unsurprisingly, these tensions are playing out not only in the streets, but also in cultural spaces like art galleries, in the media, and in the courts. Last fall, protests erupted after a Tunisian television station showed the acclaimed movie Persepolis—a coming-of-age story set in Iran that depicts God in a human form, something that Islam forbids. The head of the station’s home was ransacked by demonstrators in the ensuing demonstrations. What really alarms secularists is that the court fined the executive $1,600 for “disturbing public order” and “threatening public morals.” (more…)

Women’s Rights in the New Islamist States

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on the McKinsey & Company, June 2012

The revolutions unfolding across the Arab world have not only upended long-standing secular, authoritarian dictatorships; the new political systems emerging are bringing long-suppressed Islamist parties to the forefront. In Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary election, the Muslim Brotherhood, along with more conservative Salafist parties, won more than 70 percent of the seats. In June 2012, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi captured Egypt’s presidency. In Tunisia, Al Nahda, the largest Islamist party, won over 40 percent of the seats in parliament, making it the leading party in the new government. These results are not surprising: Islam is the cultural touchstone for most Arabs, and polls consistently show large majorities across the Arab world support sharia—Islamic law—as the basis of legislation. Indeed, a 2012 Gallup poll found Arab women as likely as men to favor sharia as a source of law.

Many, however, worry that the political ascendency of Islamist groups will set women’s rights back, as happened with the triumph of Islamic theocracy in Iran. Under the Shah, women in Iran enjoyed a relatively expansive set of legal rights, but those rapidly deteriorated with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. In the name of Islam, Khomeini rolled back women’s legal status, significantly reduced their family rights, and set the marriage age for girls at 9 (it has since been adjusted to 13). For more than thirty years, women in Iran have been struggling to regain lost legal ground. (more…)