Monday, February 28, 2011

Reflections on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt- Rashid Khalidi

This is above all a moment of new possibilities in the Arab world, and indeed in the entire Middle East. We have not witnessed such a turning point for a very long time. Suddenly, once insuperable obstacles seem surmountable. Despotic regimes that have been entrenched across the Arab world for two full generations are suddenly vulnerable. Two of the most formidable among them -- in Tunis and Cairo -- have crumbled before our eyes in a matter of a few weeks. Another in Tripoli, one of the most brutal and repressive, is tottering at this moment. The old men who dominate so many of these countries suddenly look their age, and the distance between the rulers and the vast majorities of their populations born 40 or 50 or 60 years after them has never been greater. An apparently frozen political and social situation has melted almost overnight in the heat of the popular upsurge that took over the towns and cities first of Tunisia and then of Egypt, and which is now spreading to other Arab countries. We are privileged to be experiencing what may well be a world historical moment, when what once seemed to be fixed verities vanish and new potentials and forces emerge.

The same mainstream Western media that habitually conveys a picture of a region peopled almost exclusively by enraged, bearded terrorist fanatics who "hate our freedom" has begun to show images of ordinary people peacefully making eminently reasonable demands for freedom, dignity, social justice, accountability, the rule of law, and democracy. Arab youth at the end of the day have been shown to have hopes and ideals not that different from those of the young people who helped bring about democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South, Southeast, and East Asia.

These young voices have been a revelation only to those deluded by this media's obsessive focus on Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism whenever it turns its attention to the Middle East. This is thus a supremely important moment not only in the Arab world, but also for how Arabs are perceived by others. A people that has been systematically and habitually maligned -- probably more than any other in recent decades -- are for the first time being shown in a new, and largely positive, light.

The most difficult tasks are yet to come. It was not easy to overthrow an out-of-touch tyrant and his greedy family, whether in Tunis or Cairo, and it is proving very hard in Tripoli. Building a working democratic system will be much harder. It will be harder still to ensure that a democratic system, if one can be established, is not dominated by the plutocrats who abound in the Arab world and by entrenched, powerful interests like the military. Finally, it will be a daunting task for any new popular democratic regime to achieve the social justice and the rapid economic growth that will be necessary to provide good jobs, decent housing, quality education, much-needed infrastructure, and equal opportunity. These are the very things that the old regimes failed to provide and whose absence triggered the youth revolution now sweeping the region. Failure at any of these daunting tasks could well lead to an attempted comeback for the forces of reaction and repression. It could also unleash those extreme, violent, minority trends that prosper in circumstances of chaos and disorder, such as were created by the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the attendant destruction of the Iraqi state. And we must never forget that this is the Middle East, which is the most coveted region of the world and the most penetrated by foreign interests. It is thus vulnerable, as it has been throughout its history, to external intervention that could easily divert or distort outcomes.

Nevertheless, what has happened in Tunisia and Cairo has opened up horizons that have long been closed. The energy, dynamism, and intelligence of the younger generation in the Arab world have been unleashed after being dammed up by a system that treated the younger generation and its aspirations with contempt and that concentrated power mainly in the hands of a much older generation. Seemingly out of nowhere, young people in the Arab world have gained a confidence, an assurance, and a courage which have made fearsome police-state regimes that once looked invincible tremble and lose their nerve. Watching young Tunisians and Egyptians speak on Arab satellite TV stations was a revelation to many in the West. These young people were articulate, they were smart, and they were determined. Al Jazeera took much of the credit for relaying news about events to the Arab world and beyond, especially in Tunisia, where it was way ahead of other media in perceiving the importance of what was happening, but also in Egypt and now Libya, among others. However, other Arab TV stations played a major role, including Egyptian stations, once the fear of repression had ebbed and the spirit of revolution had spread.

All of Egypt, and much of the rest of the world, were transfixed by the interview on Dream TV with Wael Ghonim immediately after his release from 12 days of captivity, especially given his mix of clarity and rationality on the one hand, with profound emotion on the other. And the fact that he was a Google executive obviously played especially well with Westerners. But other young Egyptians that few people outside Egypt have ever heard of have been even more impressive, like the blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, a leader of the new revolutionary movement whose persuasive and forceful video blog helped incite the Jan. 25 protest, or Nawara Negm, a journalist, activist, and leader of the movement (and daughter of one of Egypt's most revered popular poets of the 1960s and 1970s, Ahmed Fouad Negm, and the renowned feminist Safinaz Kazim). A Dream TV interview with Negm gave a clear sense of the strategic clarity of the leaders of the protests -- although she protested that she was not a leader, saying: "We do not need leaders. We do not need zaims [strong men]. That stage in our history is over." Responding to a question about what the movement would do if the military did not keep its promises, she responded matter-of-factly and utterly convincingly: "We know the way back to the [Tahrir] Square." These young women, and hundreds of other women and men like them, in 18 days managed to produce a movement that toppled a pharaoh who had been in power for 30 years.

It once looked as if the Arab countries would continue indefinitely to be an exception to the wave of liberation from authoritarianism which has swept other regions of the world over the past few decades. Suddenly, the younger generations of Arabs have proven that they are no different than anyone else. They have shown that they have been following events elsewhere and watching carefully the examples of others outside their region. They have learned amply from the mistakes of their elders, and they are far more technologically savvy than the police state with its unlimited resources, top-of-the-line equipment, and extensive training in the best facilities the United States and Europe could provide.

This last point raises embarrassing questions. Why were American tear gas canisters used copiously against peaceful protesters in Tunis and Cairo, as they have been systematically used for years against Palestinians and a few Israeli and foreign activists demonstrating at villages like Bil'in in the occupied West Bank? Why were the goons and thugs of Ben ‘Ali and Mubarak on such good terms with the intelligence services of the United States, France and other European countries? Why was support for "stability" (which really meant support for repression, corruption, the frustration of popular demands, and the subversion of democracy) in practice the main, and indeed the only, policy of the United States and the European Union in most parts of the Arab world?

These may be questions which policymakers prefer not to answer in Washington, Paris, London and Bonn. But they are on the minds of smart young people all over the Arab world who follow the Western and other international media, and are aware of what is happening in the rest of the world -- much more aware than those who have repressed them for so long. Like people in the non-Western world going back to the eras of Lord Palmerston and Woodrow Wilson, this generation of young Arabs has also become aware of the long-standing gap between the proclaimed ideals of the great Western democracies and their cynical realpolitik policies. Because of the existence of this awareness, it would be a welcome change if American and European officials would refrain from preaching either to those in Tunisia and Egypt who have already engineered striking revolutionary change, or to others in the Arab world who are trying to do the same. Clearly, these young revolutionaries know better what they need to do to achieve democracy and social justice than those who until literally a couple of weeks ago were the closest friends of dictators in Tunis and Cairo, and are still intimately linked to the rest of the Arab despots.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions raise many questions. After liberation from Western colonialism, failed experiments with radical populism, Arab nationalism and state-led economic development in the 1950s and 1960s gave way to the stagnation and repression of dictatorships and absolute monarchies. During the decades since the 1960s, sclerotic authoritarian regimes have controlled every Arab country, with the (partial) exceptions of Lebanon and Kuwait. This has been a night seemingly without end, going back as long as most Arabs, born in the 1970s and afterward, can remember. Most people in this very young population, over two-thirds of whom are under 30, know no time when they were not governed by either aging ex-military officers or absolute hereditary rulers, or by their chosen heirs.

One of the worst things about this pan-Arab patchwork of authoritarian regimes was the contempt the rulers showed for their peoples. In their view, the people were too immature to make decisions, to choose their own representatives, or to allocate societal surpluses or foreign aid. These things and much else were done for them by their betters, their rulers. Anyone who challenged the lines drawn by those with power, whether by the ruler or by the policeman in the street, risked being subjected to unlimited brutality. This was the lesson of the fate of Khalid Said, the young Alexandrian blogger who videotaped police corruption in June 2010, and was beaten to death in broad daylight by the crooked cops he had reported on (ironically, the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said" was one of the many triggers of the Egyptian Revolution). These incessant infringements on the common dignity of nearly every Arab citizen, and the constant affirmations of their worthlessness, were eventually internalized and produced a pervasive self-loathing and an ulcerous social malaise. This manifested itself, among other things, in sectarian tensions, frequent sexual harassment of women, criminality, drug use, and a corrosive incivility and lack of public spirit. All of these phenomena appeared to confirm the dim view held by those in power of their subjects.

It was only after the shocking spark of the self-immolation of a young vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, had started a chain reaction as people first in Tunisia and then in Egypt organized and realized their ability to confront the regimes in power, that it became possible to overcome some of these deep traumas bred by decades of oppression. Multiple reports indicated that in the Cairo protests, for example, people brought food to each other in Tahrir Square; sexual harassment dropped off noticeably; Muslims guarded Christians while they prayed in public and vice versa; and young Egyptians voluntarily swept the streets and picked up the trash. The millennium had not come, of course. It was simply that standing up to those who had denied their dignity and their rights gave the people in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and dozens of other cities and towns the sense that they were masters of their own fate, that they had dignity, and that they were not simply miserable, abject near-slaves of their lofty masters who ruled them from their palaces and villas.

It is impossible to say whether this spirit of liberation can be sustained, whether other Arab revolutions underway will help to keep it alive, or even if this spirit can be sustained sufficiently to surmount the daunting structural problems of a country like Egypt. We cannot know whether these upheavals will amount to real regime change, and whether Tunisians and Egyptians will succeed in establishing fundamentally new political systems, or will just end up with Ben Ali-lite and Mubarakism without Mubarak. The elites in both countries, whether the influential military in Egypt or the entrenched upper classes in both countries, will not easily cede their power, even if they have been willing to sacrifice Ben Ali and Mubarak and some of their closest collaborators. (They have not sacrificed them all: Mohammad Ghannouchi, the interim Tunisian prime minister, was a minister in Ben Ali's government, while Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Egyptian junta, was Mubarak's defense minister and crony.)

Nevertheless, for the first time in two generations there is hope among the people of Tunisia and Egypt that they can aspire to a better life, to greater dignity and to more control over their lives. The youth of these countries have found out how to harness popular discontent and turn it into a force against the status quo. They know their way back to the street, if foot-dragging by those in charge necessitates it. This spirit in turn has clearly inspired people in many other Arab countries to fight against the pervasive hopelessness and despair that are essential if despotism is to be sustained.

Another major question is whether what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and what appears to be happening in Libya, marks the beginning of a real Arab revolutionary wave. So far the demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, and Iraq are no more than a potent expression of universal dissatisfaction with a rotten status quo. Although they are a powerful echo of events in Tunisia and Egypt which have been amplified by the media, there is no indication yet that any of them -- with the possible exception of Libya -- has the potential to overthrow those in power in these countries. For all the similarities between their regimes, each of these countries is very different from the others and from Tunisia and Egypt. The populations of several of them, notably Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain and Iraq, are less demographically homogenous than Egypt or Tunisia, with significant ethnic, regional or religious cleavages that rulers can always exploit to divide and rule. And in some cases, notably Algeria, Iraq, and Jordan, there is memory of bloody strife that recently or not so recently tore apart these societies, and may make people hesitant about protesting. Nevertheless, a new spirit seems to be abroad in the Arab world, and there has certainly been a contagious effect of the spirit of protest, and of demands for democracy, that started in Tunisia and Egypt. Just watching Arab satellite TV and listening to radio accounts of the protests, one is struck by the ubiquity wherever Arabic is spoken, from Morocco to Bahrain, of the slogan raised first by the Tunisian revolutionaries and then by their sisters and brothers in Egypt: "Al-sha'b yurid isqat al-nizam" ("The people want the fall of the regime)."

Whatever the result, these events are a spectacular confirmation not only of the common aspirations for freedom and dignity of an entire generation of young Arabs, but of the existence of a common Arab public sphere. Although this owes much to modern media, including satellite TV, it is a mistake to focus excessively on the specifics of the technology. Such a common public sphere existed in the past, relying on earlier forms of technology, whether the printing press or radio. The importance of Al Jazeera in particular has been misunderstood. In the early days of satellite television it was certainly crucial in breaking the monopoly of the state broadcasting systems, and in introducing competition which forced even the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya and other stations to cover a great deal of news simply to avoid losing viewers. During the uprising in Tunisia and later during the Egyptian events, Al Jazeera riveted viewers all over the Arab world and in the Arab diaspora. But the insidious Islamist bent of its coverage is not reflective either of the protests themselves or of a large segment of its viewership. This bent was noticeable in its constant favoritism towards Hamas in covering Palestinian events, and during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in its intensive coverage of the return to Tunis of the Tunisian Islamist Rashed al-Ghannouchi, or the prominence it has given to Egyptian Islamists in the wake of the fall of the Mubarak regime. Similarly, Al Jazeera highlighted the participation in the Algiers demonstration of February 13 of a leading Algerian Islamist, Ali Belhadj, but not the fact that many in the crowd called him an assassin. The point is that Al Jazeera is followed by Arab viewers for its gripping and often daring news footage, but not necessarily in the political line its executives push. As most of the coverage of the Arab uprisings so far has shown, there is nothing specifically Islamist about most of those participating, nor about their demands for dignity, freedom, democracy and social justice.

The last question these Arab revolutions raise is that of the role of the United States and its European partners in upholding the rotten Arab status quo which seems to be crumbling before our eyes. The United States is always torn in its Middle East foreign policy between its principles, including support for democracy, and its interests, including upholding dictators who do what is wanted of them. When there is little public scrutiny, the latter impulse almost always predominates in U.S. policy in the Middle East. Today, with the American media featuring stories of charismatic young Arabs bringing down hated dictators and calling for democracy in perfectly comprehensible English, the public is watching, and Washington has responded by tepidly supporting a democratic transition, and calling for restraint by its other Arab clients in repressing their peoples. One can only wonder what will happen when the attention of the American public wanders from the Arab world, as it inevitably will.

In any case, this new moment in the Middle East will make the old business as usual approach in Washington much harder. The dictators and absolute monarchs, even if they stay in power, have been placed on notice that they cannot any longer ignore their peoples, as they have done before in making policy. Whether this meant submissively following Washington's lead in its Cold War against Iran, or in protecting Israel from any pressure as it colonized Palestinian land and entrenched its occupation, these highly unpopular policies of most Arab governments are no longer tenable. Much remains to be decided in the Arab world, and a real input of public opinion into the making of foreign policy there is still in the future. But the day when a Sadat or a King Hussein could ignore domestic and Arab public opinion and make peace with Israel while it brutalized the Palestinians may well be past.

Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan will most probably survive, even if there are real democratic transitions in the entire Arab world. But no one in Washington can rely on the complaisance and submissiveness towards Israel and the United States that was one of the features of the stagnant Arab order that is being challenged in the streets all over the region. What will replace it is unknown. It will largely be determined in these streets, as well as in the internet cafes, and in the union halls, newspaper offices, women's groups and private homes of millions of young Arabs who have served notice as publicly as possible that they will no longer tolerate being treated with the contempt and disrespect their governments have shown them for their entire lives. They have put us all on notice with their slogan: "The people want the fall of the regime." They are not only referring to their corrupt governments; they also mean the old regime that has prevailed for decades in the entire Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, and author of Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East. A version of this article will be published in Spanish in Vanguardia.

My Heroes: A Libyan Story- Amjad Tarsin


Now I understand. As I see waves of protesters breaking the muzzle of fear Gaddafi has put on the people for 42 years, now I understand. As I see young men and women sacrificing their lives to give other people a fighting chance to live a dignified existence, now I understand. As I see solidarity from all over the world calling out to Gaddafi with one voice: “Enough!” now I understand.

These events have affected me deeply, and have made me thankful to my people for their struggle. My heart swells with honor for them. My heart swells for the sacrifices of Umar al-Mukhtar and the true mujahideen today who have dignified our Libyan existence, giving up their lives to Allah so others could be free. My heart swells at their firm resolve and their every call of, “La ilaha illa Allah!”

But my heart swells the most for my parents. My heart swells for every gray hair that has set itself upon their noble heads. My heart swells for every heartache and tear that has flown from their eyes. My parents who have sacrificed their lives fighting against the oppression of Gaddafi. Who have given up home and family to stand up for their principles. My parents who lived everyday with hope that they could one day return to a free Libya.

I never understood their struggle. I sometimes thought they were just holding on to the dreams of their youth, not living in reality. I would tell them, “Gaddafi has won. Let’s just accept that fact.” Several times I would even try to persuade my father to go back. “Just say a couple nice things about Gaddafi and we can go back.” He would look at me with a gaze with wrinkled eyes that had seen more than I could possibly imagine. It was a look of sad, but unshakable determination. Then, he would say, “I will not go back to Libya while Gaddafi is in power.”

I thought it was pride that stopped him. I thought it was some personal vendetta against Gaddafi. How wrong I was! My father gave up his entire world for Libya. In the years fighting against the monstrous regime he lost his father, his mother, his two brothers, and even his land. I would think to myself, “Why does he still care about Libya? Nothing’s even there for him.” I never understood why he fought so hard.

Now I understand.

Because it wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about his family. It wasn’t about his land. It was about Libya. I think back to his gaze. It was a gaze of someone who would stand by his principles at any cost. A gaze of someone who would never give way to oppression. A gaze of a warrior carrying many scars. A gaze of a man. A man I wish I could be even half of.

I remember the look on my mother’s face when I went to Libya for the first time. She said to me, “Take my heart with you.” She would pray night and day to return to her country and see her elderly parents again. She would write articles against Gaddafi and poetry about her love for Libya. She would post her writings, as many others of those in opposition to Gaddafi would, on a Libyan blog. I would think to myself, “What good is this ever going to do?” In a way, I felt sorry for her. That was then. Now, I am inspired by her undying hope. Her resolve to never give up. Her fight to the very end. She would fight for her people with whatever she had, even if it meant that she would never feel the sweet ocean breeze of Tripoli kiss her face again.
Now I understand.

So many times I did not understand that struggle of my parents. I did not understand their obsession with Libya’s politics. I did not respect their sacrifices. But now I understand. Now I understand that they would give every drop of blood in their bodies for the freedom and dignity of the Libyan people. My parents make my heart swell. In them, I see the dignity of my ancestors. In them, I see the courage of the youth supporting this new uprising. In them, I see the warrior saints. They are my heroes, and I am honored to be their son.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Coup de Gueule- Lina ben Mhenni, The Tunisian Girl

Comme je l 'ai déjà dit hier, je n 'étais pas optimiste suite à la rencontre avec le Premier Ministre . Je ne l 'ai pas senti sincère. Beaucoup de gens ont dit que je disais ça parce que je suis entrée le voir  avec le préjugé qu 'il était mauvais car il a travaillé pour  Ben Ali. D'autres pensent que je suis traître parce que je l 'ai rencontré. Aux premiers  je dis quelqu'un qui a travaillé pour Ben Ali dans plusieurs postes depuis 1989  et qui n 'a pas agi pour  aider le pays ne peut être bénéfique pour le pays maintenant. Aux autres je dis, je suis une blogueuse je fais un travail d'information j 'ai le droit de rencontrer qui que ce soit .Je ne représente aucun parti politique et je ne représente que moi même. Je n 'invite personne à me suivre ou à adopter mes idées. Depuis que j 'ai commencé à bloguer en 2007, je me suis toujours exprimée spontanément. Je n 'ai pas cherché à dissimuler quoi que ce soit car j'ai toujours veillé à être indépendante  et j 'ai toujours préservé ma liberté. Je n 'ai de compte à rendre à personne.C 'est parce que ej en représente personne que j 'ai le droit de rencontrer qui que ce soit.

Comme citoyenne tunisienne je suis contre la présence de Mohamed Ghanouchi dans le gouvernement transitoire. Je  ne suis pas satisfaite de sa prestation depuis le 14 Janvier 2011. Comme citoyenne tunisienne je suis pour l 'élection d'une Assemblée Constituante. Et comme citoyenne tunisienne j'accepterai tous les choix faits par mes compatriotes. Cependant , j 'ai le droit de défendre mon opinion. J 'ai le droit de m 'exprimer.

Plusieurs des personnes qui me reprochent ma rencontre avec Mohamed Ghanouchi et me traitent de traître font partie du  Front du 14 Janvier ( je peux comprendre ça du langage utilisé pour  la défense fervente  de l 'idée de l 'établissement d'un Conseil pour la Protection de la révolution), qui passe souvent au stade insultes). A ceux ci je poserai une seule question : Avec qui vos leaders ou portes parole sont ils entrain de discuter ou je dirai de négocier l 'établissement d'un Conseil pour la Protection de la Révolution?  

D'autres personnes le font sans un but précis. Ce sont des gens qui ne se sont jamais intéressés à la situation de la Tunisie auparavant. Ce sont des gens qui n'ont jamais osé dire non ou discuter des problèmes de ce pays et qui se retrouvent soudainement libres de dire ce qu 'ils veulent donc ils se mettent à insulter tout le monde gratuitement et tout ça dans le cadre de la liberté d 'expression.
Il y a' sûrement d'autres catégories que je n 'ai pas réussi à discerner mais je me contente de ces deux là.

Aux premiers je dis contrairement à vous  je n 'ai aucune ambition politique. Je suis une citoyenne tunisienne qui aime la pays tout comme tous les citoyens tunisiens. J'ai une opinion que je défends comme j 'ai toujours défendu mon opinion depuis des années. Je ne partage pas votre opinion mais sans pour autant vous insulter dans vos personnes . Je respecte la différence. 

A ceux qui appartiennent à la deuxième catégorie je dirai que votre harcèlement verbal ne  réussira pas à m 'intimider. Je continuerai à écrire. Je continuerai à donner des interviews , à faire des apparitions sur les TV car personne ne peut nier le rôle des médias alternatifs dans la révolution.  Je ne vous ai pas vu commenter sur mon blog ou ma page avant le 14 Janvier car vous aviez peur!Au lieu de chercher à comprendre vous vous attardez sur des détails comme  un piercing !

Au Premier Ministre je dis, selon mes constatations pesronnelles  de journaliste citoyenne qui observe la situation du pays comme elle le peut une grande partie du peuple demande une Assemblée Constituante et demande que vous quittiez le pouvoir. Pourquoi vous n 'écoutez pas  le peuple ?

Mr ce qu'on a vu ces deux derniers jours est inacceptable. Votre gouvernement n 'a pas réussi à faire ses preuves. Le sang tunisien a coulé de nouveau. Le sang tunisien est cher Monsieur . La Tunisie a vécu un massacre ces deux derniers jours. Des jeunes avides de liberté , de démocratie et de dignité sont morts sous les balles. Des balles réelles ont été tirées contre des tunisiens. Mr vous avez parlé d'un complot lors de notre rencontre pour l 'Assemblée constituante . Je vous dit un gouvernement qui ne réussit pas à démanteler les complots doit démissionner. Mr écoutez la colère du peuple ! Écoutez la rage du peuple ! 

Aux gens qui sont en sit-in à la Kasbah pour une vraie démocratie, pour la liberté et pour la dignité , je vous dis ma honte est grande parce que je ne peux plus être à coté de vous comme ça était le cas pendant le premier sit-in à cause de mes problèmes de santé . Je vous respecte et je pense que tout tunisien libre vous respecte. Merci pour les sacrifices que vous faites pour nous , pour la Tunisie.

A revolution against neoliberalism? If rebellion results in a retrenchment of neoliberalism, millions will feel cheated- 'Abu Atris'

Ahmed Ezz, one of several NDP officials arrested since Egypt's revolution began [EPA]
On February 16th I read a comment was posted on the wall of the Kullina Khalid Saed ("We are all Khaled Said") Facebook page administered by the now very famous Wael Ghonim. By that time it had been there for about 21 hours. The comment referred to a news item reporting that European governments were under pressure to freeze bank accounts of recently deposed members of the Mubarak regime. The comment said: "Excellent news … we do not want to take revenge on anyone … it is the right of all of us to hold to account any person who has wronged this nation. By law we want the nation’s money that has been stolen … because this is the money of Egyptians, 40% of whom live below the poverty line."

By the time I unpacked this thread of conversation, 5,999 people had clicked the "like" button, and about 5,500 had left comments. I have not attempted the herculean task of reading all five thousand odd comments (and no doubt more are being added as I write), but a fairly lengthy survey left no doubt that most of the comments were made by people who clicked the "like" icon on the Facebook page. There were also a few by regime supporters, and others by people who dislike the personality cult that has emerged around Mr. Ghoneim.

This Facebook thread is symptomatic of the moment. Now that the Mubarak regime has fallen, an urge to account for its crimes and to identify its accomplices has come to the fore. The chants, songs, and poetry performed in Midan al-Tahrir always contained an element of anger against haramiyya (thieves) who benefited from regime corruption. Now lists of regime supporters are circulating in the press and blogosphere. Mubarak and his closest relatives (sons Gamal and 'Ala’) are always at the head of these lists. Articles on their personal wealth give figures as low as $3 billion to as high as $70 billion (the higher number was repeated on many protesters’ signs). Ahmad Ezz, the General Secretary of the deposed National Democratic Party and the largest steel magnate in the Middle East, is supposed to be worth $18 billion; Zohayr Garana, former Minister of Tourism, $13 billion; Ahmad al-Maghrabi, former Minister of Housing, $11 billion; former Minister of Interior Habib Adli, much hated for his supervision of an incredibly abusive police state, also managed to amass $8 billion — not bad for a lifetime civil servant.

Such figures may prove to be inaccurate. They may be too low, or maybe too high, and we may never know precisely because much of the money is outside of Egypt, and foreign governments will only investigate the financial dealings of Mubarak regime members if the Egyptian government makes a formal request for them to do so. Whatever the true numbers, the corruption of the Mubarak regime is not in doubt. The lowest figure quoted for Mubarak’s personal wealth, of "only" $3 billion, is damning enough for a man who entered the air force in 1950 at the age of twenty two, embarking on a sixty-year career in "public service."

A systemic problem

The hunt for regime cronies’ billions may be a natural inclination of the post-Mubarak era, but it could also lead astray efforts to reconstitute the political system. The generals who now rule Egypt are obviously happy to let the politicians take the heat. Their names were not included in the lists of the most egregiously corrupt individuals of the Mubarak era, though in fact the upper echelons of the military have long been beneficiaries of a system similar to (and sometimes overlapping with) the one that that enriched civilian figures much more prominent in the public eye such as Ahmad Ezz and Habib al-Adly.

Despite macroeconomic gains, tens of millions of Egyptians still live in poverty [EPA]
To describe blatant exploitation of the political system for personal gain as corruption misses the forest for the trees. Such exploitation is surely an outrage against Egyptian citizens, but calling it corruption suggests that the problem is aberrations from a system that would otherwise function smoothly. If this were the case then the crimes of the Mubarak regime could be attributed simply to bad character: change the people and the problems go away. But the real problem with the regime was not necessarily that high-ranking members of the government were thieves in an ordinary sense. They did not necessarily steal directly from the treasury. Rather they were enriched through a conflation of politics and business under the guise of privatization. This was less a violation of the system than business as usual. Mubarak’s Egypt, in a nutshell, was a quintessential neoliberal state.

What is neoliberalism? In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, the eminent social geographer David Harvey outlined "a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade." Neoliberal states guarantee, by force if necessary, the "proper functioning" of markets; where markets do not exist (for example, in the use of land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution), then the state should create them.

Guaranteeing the sanctity of markets is supposed to be the limit of legitimate state functions, and state interventions should always be subordinate to markets. All human behavior, and not just the production of goods and services, can be reduced to market transactions. And the application of utopian neoliberalism in the real world leads to deformed societies as surely as the application of utopian communism did.

Rhetoric vs. reality

Two observations about Egypt’s history as a neoliberal state are in order. First, Mubarak’s Egypt was considered to be at the forefront of instituting neoliberal policies in the Middle East (not un-coincidentally, so was Ben Ali’s Tunisia). Secondly, the reality of Egypt’s political economy during the Mubarak era was very different than the rhetoric, as was the case in every other neoliberal state from Chile to Indonesia. Political scientist Timothy Mitchell published a revealing essay about Egypt’s brand of neoliberalism in his book Rule of Experts (the chapter titled "Dreamland" — named after a housing development built by Ahmad Bahgat, one of the Mubarak cronies now discredited by the fall of the regime). The gist of Mitchell’s portrait of Egyptian neoliberalism was that while Egypt was lauded by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund as a beacon of free-market success, the standard tools for measuring economies gave a grossly inadequate picture of the Egyptian economy. In reality the unfettering of markets and agenda of privatization were applied unevenly at best.

The only people for whom Egyptian neoliberalism worked "by the book" were the most vulnerable members of society, and their experience with neoliberalism was not a pretty picture. Organised labor was fiercely suppressed. The public education and the health care systems were gutted by a combination of neglect and privatization. Much of the population suffered stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation. Official unemployment was estimated at approximately 9.4% last year (and much higher for the youth who spearheaded the January 25th Revolution), and about 20% of the population is said to live below a poverty line defined as $2 per day per person.
For the wealthy, the rules were very different. Egypt did not so much shrink its public sector, as neoliberal doctrine would have it, as it reallocated public resources for the benefit of a small and already affluent elite. Privatization provided windfalls for politically well-connected individuals who could purchase state-owned assets for much less than their market value, or monopolise rents from such diverse sources as tourism and foreign aid. Huge proportions of the profits made by companies that supplied basic construction materials like steel and cement came from government contracts, a proportion of which in turn were related to aid from foreign governments.

Most importantly, the very limited function for the state recommended by neoliberal doctrine in the abstract was turned on its head in reality. In Mubarak’s Egypt business and government were so tightly intertwined that it was often difficult for an outside observer to tease them apart. Since political connections were the surest route to astronomical profits, businessmen had powerful incentives to buy political office in the phony elections run by the ruling National Democratic Party. Whatever competition there was for seats in the Peoples’ Assembly and Consultative Council took place mainly within the NDP. Non-NDP representation in parliament by opposition parties was strictly a matter of the political calculations made for a given elections: let in a few independent candidates known to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005 (and set off tremors of fear in Washington); dictate total NDP domination in 2010 (and clear the path for an expected new round of distributing public assets to "private" investors).

Parallels with America

The political economy of the Mubarak regime was shaped by many currents in Egypt’s own history, but its broad outlines were by no means unique. Similar stories can be told throughout the rest of the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Everywhere neoliberalism has been tried, the results are similar: living up to the utopian ideal is impossible; formal measures of economic activity mask huge disparities in the fortunes of the rich and poor; elites become "masters of the universe," using force to defend their prerogatives, and manipulating the economy to their advantage, but never living in anything resembling the heavily marketised worlds that are imposed on the poor.
Unemployment was a major grievance for millions of Egyptian protesters [EPA]
The story should sound familiar to Americans as well. For example, the vast fortunes of Bush era cabinet members Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, through their involvement with companies like Halliburton and Gilead Sciences, are the product of a political system that allows them — more or less legally — to have one foot planted in "business" and another in "government" to the point that the distinction between them becomes blurred. Politicians move from the office to the boardroom to the lobbying organization and back again.

As neoliberal dogma disallows any legitimate role for government other than guarding the sanctity of free markets, recent American history has been marked by the steady privatization of services and resources formerly supplied or controlled by the government. But it is inevitably those with closest access to the government who are best positioned to profit from government campaigns to sell off the functions it formerly performed. It is not just Republicans who are implicated in this systemic corruption. Clinton-era Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin’s involvement with Citigroup does not bear close scrutiny. Lawrence Summers gave crucial support for the deregulation of financial derivatives contracts while Secretary of Treasury under Clinton, and profited handsomely from companies involved in the same practices while working for Obama (and of course deregulated derivatives were a key element in the financial crisis that led to a massive Federal bailout of the entire banking industry).

So in Egyptian terms, when General Secretary of the NDP Ahmad Ezz cornered the market on steel and was given contracts to build public-private construction projects, or when former Minister of Parliament Talaat Mustafa purchased vast tracts of land for the upscale Madinaty housing development without having to engage in a competitive bidding process (but with the benefit of state-provided road and utility infrastructure), they may have been practicing corruption logically and morally. But what they were doing was also as American as apple pie, at least within the scope of the past two decades.

However, in the current climate the most important thing is not the depredations of deposed Mubarak regime cronies. It is rather the role of the military in the political system. It is the army that now rules the country, albeit as a transitional power, or so most Egyptians hope. No representatives of the upper echelons of the Egyptian military appear on the various lists of old-regime allies who need to be called to account. For example, the headline of the February 17th edition of Ahrar, the press organ of the Liberal party, was emblazoned with the headline "Financial Reserves of the Corrupt Total 700 Billion Pounds [about $118 billion] in 18 Countries."

A vast economic powerhouse

But the article did not say a single word about the place of the military in this epic theft. The military were nonetheless part of the crony capitalism of the Mubarak era. After relatively short careers in the military high-ranking officers are rewarded with such perks as highly remunerative positions on the management boards of housing projects and shopping malls. Some of these are essentially public-sector companies transferred to the military sector when IMF-mandated structural adjustment programs required reductions in the civilian public sector.

But the generals also receive plums from the private sector. Military spending itself was also lucrative because it included both a state budget and contracts with American companies that provided hardware and technical expertise. The United States provided much of the financing for this spending under rules that required a great deal of the money to be recycled to American corporations, but all such deals required middlemen. Who better to act as an intermediary for American foreign aid contracts than men from the very same military designated as the recipient of the services paid for by this aid? In this respect the Egyptian military-industrial complex was again stealing a page from the American playbook; indeed, to the extent that the Egyptian military benefited from American foreign aid, Egypt was part of the American military-industrial complex, which is famous for its revolving-door system of recycling retired military men as lobbyists and employees of defense contractors.

Consequently it is almost unthinkable that the generals of the Supreme Military Council will willingly allow more than cosmetic changes in the political economy of Egypt. But they could be compelled to do so unwillingly. The army is a blunt force, not well suited for controlling crowds of demonstrators. The latest statement of the Supreme Military Council reiterated both the legitimacy of the pro-democracy movements demands, and the requirement that demonstrations cease so that the country can get back to work. If demonstrations continue to the point that the Supreme Military Council feels it can no longer tolerate them, then the soldiers who will be ordered to put them down (indeed, in some accounts were already ordered to put them down early in the revolution and refused to do so) with deadly force, are not the generals who were part of the Mubarak-era corruption, but conscripts.
Pro-democracy demonstrators and their sympathisers often repeated the slogans "the army and the people are one hand," and "the army is from us." They had the conscripts in mind, and many were unaware of how stark differences were between the interests of the soldiers and the generals. Between the conscripts and the generals is a middle-level professional officer corps whose loyalties have been the subject of much speculation. The generals, for their part, want to maintain their privileges, but not to rule directly. Protracted direct rule leaves the officers of the Supreme Military Council vulnerable to challenges from other officers who were left on the outside. Also, direct rule would make it impossible to hide that the elite officers are not in fact part of the "single hand" composed of the people and the (conscript) army. They are instead logically in the same camp as Ahmad Ezz, Safwat al-Sharif, Gamal Mubarak, and Habib al-Adly — precisely the names on those lists making the rounds of regime members and cronies who should face judgment.

Ultimately the intense speculation about how much money the Mubarak regime stole, and how much the people can expect to pump back into the nation, is a red herring. If the figure turns out to be $50 billion or $500 billion, it will not matter, if Egypt remains a neoliberal state dedicated (nominally) to free-market fundamentalism for the poor, while creating new privatised assets that can be recycled to political insiders for the rich. If one seeks clues to how deeply the January 25th Revolution will restructure Egypt, it would be better to look at such issues as what sort of advice the interim government of generals solicits in fulfilling its mandate to re-make Egyptian government. The period of military government probably will be as short as advertised, followed, one hopes, by an interim civilian government for some specified period (at least two years) during which political parties are allowed to organise on the ground in preparation for free elections. But interim governments have a way of becoming permanent.

Technocrats or ideologues?

One sometimes hears calls to set up a government of "technocrats" that would assume the practical matters of governance. "Technocrat" sounds neutral — a technical expert who would make decisions on "scientific" principle. The term was often applied to Yusuf Butros Ghali, for example, the former Minister of the Treasury, who was one of the Gamal Mubarak boys brought into the cabinet in 2006 ostensibly to smooth the way for the President’s son to assume power. Ghali is now accused of having appropriated LE 450 million for the use of Ahmad Ezz.
I once sat next to Ghali at a dinner during one of his trips abroad, and had the opportunity to ask him when the Egyptian government would be ready to have free elections. His response was to trot out the now discredited regime line that elections were impossible because actual democracy would result in the Muslim Brotherhood taking power. Conceivably Ghali will beat the charge of specifically funneling the state’s money to Ahmad Ezz. But as a key architect of Egypt’s privatization programs he cannot possibly have been unaware that he was facilitating a system that enabled the Ezz steel empire while simultaneously destroying Egypt’s educational and health care systems.
The Egyptian army controls a range of businesses, ranging from factories to hotels [EPA]
The last time I encountered the word "technocrat" was in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine — a searing indictment of neoliberalism which argues that the free-market fundamentalism promoted by economist Milton Friedman (and immensely influential in the United States) is predicated on restructuring economies in the wake of catastrophic disruptions because normally functioning societies and political systems would never vote for it. Disruptions can be natural or man-made, such as … revolutions.

The chapters in The Shock Doctrine on Poland, Russia, and South Africa make interesting reading in the context of Egypt’s revolution. In each case when governments (communist or apartheid) collapsed, "technocrats" were brought in to help run countries that were suddenly without functional governments, and create the institutional infrastructure for their successors. The technocrats always seemed to have dispensed a form of what Klein calls "shock therapy" — the imposition of sweeping privatization programs before dazed populations could consider their options and potentially vote for less ideologically pure options that are in their own interests.
The last great wave of revolutions occurred in 1989. The governments that were collapsing then were communist, and the replacement in that "shock moment" of one extreme economic system with its opposite seemed predictable and to many even natural.

One of the things that make the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions potentially important on a global scale is that they took place in states that were already neoliberalised. The complete failure of neoliberalsm to deliver "human well-being" to a large majority of Egyptians was one of the prime causes of the revolution, at least in the sense of helping to prime millions of people who were not connected to social media to enter the streets on the side of the pro-democracy activists.

But the January 25th Revolution is still a "shock moment." We hear calls to bring in the technocrats in order to revive a dazed economy; and we are told every day that the situation is fluid, and that there is a power vacuum in the wake of not just the disgraced NDP, but also the largely discredited legal opposition parties, which played no role whatsoever in the January 25th Revolution. In this context the generals are probably happy with all the talk about reclaiming the money stolen by the regime, because the flip side of that coin is a related current of worry about the state of the economy. The notion that the economy is in ruins — tourists staying away, investor confidence shattered, employment in the construction sector at a standstill, many industries and businesses operating at far less than full capacity — could well be the single most dangerous rationale for imposing cosmetic reforms that leave the incestuous relation between governance and business intact.

Or worse, if the pro-democracy movement lets itself be stampeded by the "economic ruin" narrative, structures could be put in place by "technocrats" under the aegis of the military transitional government that would tie the eventual civilian government into actually quickening the pace of privatization. Ideologues, including those of the neoliberal stripe, are prone to a witchcraft mode of thinking: if the spell does not work, it is not the fault of the magic, but rather the fault of the shaman who performed the spell. In other words, the logic could be that it was not neoliberalism that ruined Mubarak’s Egypt, but the faulty application of neoliberalism.

Trial balloons for this witchcraft narrative are already being floated outside of Egypt. The New York Times ran an article on February 17th casting the military as a regressive force opposed to privatization and seeking a return to Nasserist statism. The article pits the ostensibly "good side" of the Mubarak regime (privatization programs) against bad old Arab socialism, completely ignoring the fact that while the system of military privilege may preserve some public-sector resources transferred from the civilian economy under pressure of IMF structural adjustment programs, the empire of the generals is hardly limited to a ring-fenced quasi-underground public sector.
Officers were also rewarded with private-sector perks; civilian political/business empires mixed public and private roles to the point that what was government and what was private were indistinguishable; both the military and civilians raked in rents from foreign aid. The generals may well prefer a new round of neoliberal witchcraft. More privatization will simply free up assets and rents that only the politically connected (including the generals) can acquire. Fixing a failed neoliberal state by more stringent applications of neoliberalism could be the surest way for them to preserve their privileges.

A neoliberal fix would, however, be a tragedy for the pro-democracy movement. The demands of the protesters were clear and largely political: remove the regime; end the emergency law; stop state torture; hold free and fair elections. But implicit in these demands from the beginning (and decisive by the end) was an expectation of greater social and economic justice. Social media may have helped organise the kernel of a movement that eventually overthrew Mubarak, but a large element of what got enough people into the streets to finally overwhelm the state security forces was economic grievances that are intrinsic to neoliberalism. These grievances cannot be reduced to grinding poverty, for revolutions are never carried out by the poorest of the poor. It was rather the erosion of a sense that some human spheres should be outside the logic of markets. Mubarak’s Egypt degraded schools and hospitals, and guaranteed grossly inadequate wages, particularly in the ever-expanding private sector. This was what turned hundreds of dedicated activists into millions of determined protestors.

If the January 25th revolution results in no more than a retrenchment of neoliberalism, or even its intensification, those millions will have been cheated. The rest of the world could be cheated as well. Egypt and Tunisia are the first nations to carry out successful revolutions against neoliberal regimes. Americans could learn from Egypt. Indeed, there are signs that they already are doing so. Wisconsin teachers protesting against their governor’s attempts to remove the right to collective bargaining have carried signs equating Mubarak with their governor. Egyptians might well say to America 'uqbalak (may you be the next).

'Abu Atris' is the pseudonym for a writer working in Egypt. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Egypt:Is Feb25 the Restart Button for the Egyptian Revolution? - Tarek Amr

This post is part of our special coverage of Egypt Protests 2011.
Yesterday, one month month after the 25th of January, the protesters went to Tahrir Square to celebrate and call for the toppling of the government that was appointed by the former president, Hosni Mubarak. Egyptians are starting to feel suspicious about the future of their revolution, and they are still not sure if the old personnel of the Mubarak regime, who are still in charge, could be trusted. Later at night, some protesters decided to sit-in and camp in Tahrir Square and in front of the parliament.
At night, things didn't go the way they expected though. Manal tweeted about the military police trying to evacuate the area by force.
@manal: Military police is beating and arresting ppl now in Tahrir Square now #jan25 Help us expose them.
This is how it began on January 25th when the police forces attack the protesters at Tahrir square at night after midnight and this is why I am so scared now !!
The military police has attacked the protesters who were having a sit at Tahrir square and at the cabinet HQ at Kasr Al Aini street. Protesters have been chased and eye witnesses are saying that teasers and whips were used, activists have been detained. No one is allowed to enter there , journalists were not allowed to cover what is going on. There are reports that masked men with machine guns were seen with the military police , I think they were brought to scare the protesters.
Some users on Twitter on the other hand believe that the actions taken by the military police can be justified.
@anonymous_blank: They started chasing protesters out of tahrir, to avoid further melt down in economy!I agree violence not solution,but ppl stop camping [there].
@l0gicpath: Respect the Military and they will respect you back! Curfew at 12, then it is curfew at 12! peaceful or no shit.
However, Ahmed Zaki Osman and Zeinobia don't digest such justifications.
@ahmedzakiosman: We have the right to protest and for the curfew, people were having Tahrir as their homes despite the curfew.
Zeinobia adds:
I know someone will say that there is a curfew and I tell him that the curfew does not give the military to end the sit in by this shameful and disgraceful way. For 18 days the army let the protesters stay as they wanted regardless of the curfew.
Already where was that curfew on February 2nd when the thugs attacked and killed protesters ??
This is a dangerous escalation, unacceptable one too.
This post is part of our special coverage of Egypt Protests 2011.

Islamic Traditions and the Feminist Movement Confrontation or Cooperation?- Dr. Lois Lamya' al Faruqi

Whether living in the Middle East or Africa, in Central Asia, in Pakistan, in Southeast Asia, or in Europe and the Americas, Muslim women  tend to view the feminist movement with some apprehension. Although there are some features of the feminist cause with which we as Muslims would wish to join hands, other features generate our disappointment and even opposition.  There is therefore no simple or "pat" answer to the question of the future cooperation or competition which feminism may meet in an Islamic environment.

There are however a number of social, psychological, and economic traditions which govern the thinking of most Muslims and which are particularly affective of woman's status and role in Islamic society. Understanding these can help us understand the issues which affect male and female status and roles, and how we should react to movements which  seek to improve the situation of women in any of the countries where  Muslims live.


One of the Islamic traditions which will affect the way in which Muslim women respond to feminist ideas is the advocacy in Islamic culture of an extended rather than a nuclear family system. Some Muslim families are "residentially extended" - that is, their members live communally with three or more generations of relatives (grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and their offspring) in a single building or compound.  Even when this residential version of the extended family is not possible or adhered to, family connections reaching far beyond the nuclear unit are evident in strong psychological, social, economic, and even political ties.  Mutual supports and responsibilities affecting these larger consanguine groups are not just considered desirable, but they are made legally incumbent on members of the society by Islamic law.  The Holy Quran itself exhorts to extended family solidarity; in addition it specifies the extent of such responsibilities and contains prescriptive measures for inheritance, support, and other close interdependencies within the
extended family.[1]

Our Islamic traditions also prescribe a much stronger participation of the family in the contracting and preservation of marriages.  While most Western feminists would decry family participation or arranged marriage as a negative influence because of its apparent restriction of individualistic freedom and responsibility, as Muslims we would argue that such participation is advantageous for both individuals and groups within the society.  Not only does it ensure marriages based on sounder principles than physical attraction and sexual infatuation, but it provides other safeguards for successful marital continuity.

Members of the family provide diverse companionship as well as ready sources of advice and sympathy for the newly married as they adjust to each others' way.  One party of the marriage cannot easily pursue an eccentric course at the expense of the spouse since such behavior would rally opposition from the larger group.  Quarrels are never so devastating to the marriage bond since other adult family members act as mediators and provide alternative sources of companionship and counsel following disagreements.  The problems of parenting and generational incompatibility are also alleviated, and singles clubs and dating bureaus would be unnecessary props for social interaction. There is no need in the extended family for children of working parents to be unguarded, unattended, or inadequately loved and socialized because the extended family home is never empty.  There is therefore no feeling of guilt which the working parent often feels in a nuclear or single-parent organization.  Tragedy, even divorce, is not so debilitating to either adults or children since the larger social unit absorbs the residual numbers with much greater ease than a nuclear family organization can ever provide.

The move away from the cohesiveness which the family formerly enjoyed in Western society, the rise of usually smaller alternative family styles, and the accompanying rise in individualism which many feminists advocate or at least practice, are at odds with these deep-rooted Islamic customs and traditions.  If feminism in the Muslim world chooses to espouse the Western family models, it should and would certainly be strongly challenged by Muslim women's groups and by Islamic society as a whole.


The traditional support of the large and intricately interrelated family organization is correlative to another Islamic tradition which seems to run counter to recent Western trends and to feminist ideology.  Islam and Muslim women generally advocate molding of individual goals and interests to accord with the welfare of the larger group and its members.  Instead of holding the goals of the individual supreme, Islam instills in the adherent a sense of his or her place within the family and of a responsibility to that group.  This is not perceived or experienced by Muslims as repression of the individual.  Other traditions which will be discussed later guarantee his or her legal personality.  Feminism, therefore, would not be espoused by Muslim women as a goal to be pursued without regard for the relation of the female to the other members of her family.  The Muslim woman regards her goals as necessitating a balance with, or even subordination to, those of the family group.  The rampant individualism often experienced in contemporary life, that which treats the goals of the individual in isolation from other factors, or as utterly supreme, runs against a deep Islamic commitment to social interdependence.


A third Islamic tradition which affects the future of any feminist movement in an Islamic environment is that it specifies a differentiation of male and female roles and responsibilities in society.  Feminism, as represented in Western society, has generally denied any such differentiation and has demanded a move toward a unisex society in order to achieve equal rights for women.  By "unisex society," I mean one in which a single set of roles and concerns are given preference and esteem by both sexes and are pursued by all members of the society regardless of sex and age differentials.  In the case of Western feminism, the preferred goals have been those traditionally fulfilled by the male members of society.  The roles of providing financial support, of success in career, and of decision making have been given overwhelming respect and concern while those dealing with domestic matters, with child care, with aesthetic and psychological refreshment, with social interrelationships, were devalued and even despised.  Both men and women have been forced into a single mold which is perhaps more restrictive, rigid and coercive than that which formerly assigned men to one type of role and women to another.

This is a new brand of male chauvenism with which Islamic traditions cannot conform.  Islam instead maintains that both types of roles are equally deserving of pursuit and respect and that when accompanied by the equity demanded by the religion, a division of labor along sex lines is generally beneficial to all members of the society.

This might be regarded by the feminist as opening the door to discrimination, but as Muslims we regard Islamic traditions as standing clearly and unequivocally for the support of male-female equity.  In the Quran, no difference whatever is made between the sexes in relation to God. "For men who submit [to God] and for women who submit [to God], for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God much and for women who remember - for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward" (33:35).  "Whoever performs good deeds, whether male or female and is a believer, We shall surely make him live a good life and We will certainly reward them for the best of what they did" (16:97).[2]

It is only in relation to each other and society that a difference is made - a difference of role or function.  The rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man, but they are not necessarily identical with them.  Equality and identity are two different things, Islamic traditions maintain - the former desirable, the latter not.  Men and women should therefore be complementary to each other in a multi-function organization rather than competitive with each other in a uni-function society.

The equality demanded by Islamic traditions must, however, be seen in its larger context if it is to be understood properly.  Since Muslims regard a differentiation of sexual roles to be natural and desirable in the majority of cases, the economic responsibilities of male and female members differ to provide a balance for the physical differences between men and women and for the greater responsibility which women carry in the reproductive and rearing activities so necessary to the well-being of the society.  To maintain, therefore, that the men of the family are responsible for providing economically for the women or that women are not equally responsible, is not a dislocation or denial of sexual equity.  It is instead a duty to be fulfilled by men as compensation for another responsibility which involves the special ability of women.  Likewise the different inheritance rates for males and females, which is so often sited as an example of discrimination against women, must not be seen as an isolated prescription.[3] It is but one part of a comprehensive system in which women carry no legal responsibility to support other members of the family, but in which men are bound by law as well as custom to provide for all their female relatives.

Does this mean that Islamic traditions necessarily prescribe maintaining the status quo in the Islamic societies that exist today?  The answer is a definite "No." Many thinking Muslims - both men and women - would agree that their societies do not fulfill the Islamic ideals and traditions laid down in the Quran and reinforced by the example and directives of the Prophet Muhammad, salallahu alehi wasallam.  It is reported in the Quran and from history that women not only expressed their opinions freely in the Prophet's presence but also argued and participated in serious discussions with the Prophet himself and with other Muslim leaders of the time (58:1). Muslim women are known to have even stood in opposition to certain caliphs, who later accepted the sound arguments of those women.  A specific example took place during the caliphate of 'Umar ibn al Khattab.[4] The Quran reproached those who believed woman to be inferior to men (16:57-59) and repeatedly gives expression to the need for treating men and women with equity (2:228, 231; 4:19, and so on).  Therefore, if Muslim women experience discrimination in any place or time, they do not and should not lay the blame on Islam, but on the un-Islamic nature of their societies and the failure of Muslims to fulfill its directives.


A fourth Islamic tradition affecting the future of feminism in Muslim societies is the separate legal status for women which is demanded by the Quran and the Shari'ah.  Every Muslim individual, whether male of female, retains a separate identity from cradle to grave.  This separate legal personality prescribes for every woman the right to contract, to conduct business, to earn and possess property independently.  Marriage has no effect on her legal status, her property, her earnings - or even on her name.  If she commits any civil offense, her penalty is no less or no more than a man's in a similar case (5:83; 24:2).  If she is wronged or harmed, she is entitled to compensation just like a man (4:92-93; see also Mustafa al Siba'i 1976:38; Darwazah n.d.:78). The feminist demand for separate legal status for women is therefore one that is equally
espoused by Islamic traditions.


Although the taking of plural wives by a man is commonly called polygamy, the more correct sociological designation is polygyny.  This institution is probably the Islamic tradition most misunderstood and vehemently condemned by non-Muslims.  It is one which the Hollywood stereotypes "play upon" in their ridicule of Islamic society.  The first image conjured up in the mind of the Westerner when the subject of Islam and marriage is approached is that of a religion which advocates the sexual indulgence of the male members of the society and the subjugation of its females through this institution.

Islamic tradition does indeed allow a man to marry more than one woman at a time.  This leniency is even established by the Quran (4:3).[5] But the use and perception of that institution is far from the Hollywood stereotype.  Polygyny is certainly not imposed by Islam; nor is it a universal practice.  It is instead regarded as the exception to the norm of monogamy , and its exercise is strongly controlled by social pressures.[6] If utilized by Muslim men to facilitate or condone sexual promiscuity, it is not less Islamically condemnable than serial polygyny and adultery, and no less detrimental to the society.  Muslims view polygyny as an institution which is to be called into use only under extraordinary circumstances.  As such, it has not been generally regarded by Muslim women as a threat.  Attempts by the feminist movement to focus on eradication of this institution in order to improve the status of women would therefore meet with little sympathy or support.


What can be learned about the future compatibility or incongruity of feminism in a Muslim environment from these facts about Islamic traditions?  Are there any general principles to be gained, any directives to be taken, by those who work for women's rights and human rights in the world? 


The first and foremost principle would seem to be that many of the goals of feminism as conceived in Western society are not necessarily relevant or exportable across cultural boundaries.  Feminism as a Western movement originated in England during the 18th century and had as one of its main goals the eradication of legal disabilities imposed upon women by English common law.  These laws were especially discriminatory of married women.  They derived in part from Biblical sources (e.g., the idea of man and woman becoming "one flesh," and the attribution of an inferior and even evil nature to Eve and all her female descendants) and in part from feudal customs (e.g., the importance of carrying and supplying arms for battle and the concomitant devaluation of the female contributions to society).  The Industrial Revolution and its need for women's contribution to the work force brought strength to the feminist movement and helped its advocates gradually break down most of those discriminatory laws.

Since the history and heritage of Muslim peoples have been radically different from that of Western Europe and America, the feminism which would appeal to Muslim women and to the society generally must be correspondingly different.  Those legal rights which Western women sought in reform of English common law were already granted to Muslim women in the 7th century.  Such a struggle therefore holds little interest for the Muslim woman.  In addition, it would be useless to try to interest us in ideas or reforms that run in diametrical opposition to those traditions which form an important part of our cultural and religious heritage.  There has been a good deal of opposition to any changes in Muslim personal status laws since these embody and reinforce the very traditions which we have been discussing.  In other words, if feminism is to succeed in an Islamic environment, it must be an indigenous form of feminism, rather than one conceived and nurtured in an alien environment with different problems and different solutions and goals.


If the goals of Western feminism are not viable for Muslim women, what form should a feminist movement take to ensure success? Above all, the movement must recognize that, whereas in the West, the mainstream of the women's movement has viewed religion as one of the chief enemies of its progress and well-being, Muslim women view the teachings of Islam as their best friend and supporter.  The prescriptions that are found in the Qur'an and in the example of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW), are regarded as the ideal to which contemporary women wish to return.  As far as Muslim women are concerned, the source of any difficulties experienced today is not Islam and its traditions, but certain alien ideological intrusions on our societies, ignorance, and distortion of the true Islam, or exploitation by individuals within the society.  It is a lack of an appreciation for this fact that caused such misunderstanding and mutual distress when women's movement representatives from the West visited Iran both before and after the Islamic Revolution.

Second, any feminism which is to succeed in an Islamic environment must be one which does not work chauvenistically for women's interest alone.  Islamic traditions would dictate that women's progress be achieved in tandem with the wider struggle to benefit all members of the society.  The good of the group or totality is always more crucial than the good of any one sector of the society.  In fact, the society is seen as an organic whole in which the welfare of each member or organ is necessary for the health and well being of every other part.  Disadventagous  circumstances of women therefore should always be countered in conjunction with attempt to alleviate those factors which adversely affect men and other segments of the society.

Third, Islam is an ideology which influences much more than the ritual life of a people.  It is equally affective of their social, political, economic, psychological, and aesthetic life.  "Din," which is usually regarded as an equivalent for the English term "religion," is a concept which includes, in addition to those ideas and practices customarily associated in our minds with religion, a wide spectrum of practices and ideas which affect almost every aspect of the daily life of the Muslim individual.  Islam and Islamic traditions therefore are seen today by many Muslims as the main source of cohesiveness for nurturing an identity and stability to confront intruding alien influences and the cooperation needed to solve their numerous contemporary problems.  To fail to note this fact, or to fail to be fully appreciative of its importance for the average Muslim - whether male or female - would be to commit any movement advocating improvement of women's position in Islamic lands to certain failure.  It is only through establishing that identity and stability that self-respect can be achieved and a more healthy climate for both Muslim men and Muslim women will emerge.



[1]. For example, see Quran 2:177; 4:7,176; 8:41; 16:90; 17:26; 24:22.
[2]. See also Quran 2:195; 4:124,32; 9:71-72.
[3]. "God (thus) directs you as regards your children's (inheritance): to the male, a proportion equal to that of two females..." (Quran 4:11).
[4]. Kamal 'Awn 1955:129.
[5]. "... Marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess.  That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice."
[6].  It should be remembered that any woman who wants her marriage to remain monogamous can provide for this condition under Islamic law.



Kamal Ahmad 'Awn, Al Mar'ah fi al Islam (Tanta: Sha'raw Press, 1955)
Muhammad 'Izzat Darwazah, Al Dastur al Quran fi Shu'un al Hayat (Cairo: 'Isa al Babi al Halabi, n.d.).
Mustafa al Siba'i, Al Mar'ah baynal Fiqh wal Qanun (Aleppo: Al Maktabah al 'Arabiyyah, first pub. 1962).  
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