Hopes are high that the military junta which recently seized power in Mauritania, ousting long-time dictator Mouawiya Ould Al-Tayie, will usher in a new era marked by democratic reform. Historically, Arab countries have had bitter experiences with coups, but there is reason to believe that this latest episode differs markedly from its predecessors.
The country could be on the brink of change because political parties have been legalized, free speech is creeping into the press and previously taboo subjects, such as slavery, are being openly discussed. The new Constitution, reworked from the stillborn 1991 version, sets a presidential term limit of two mandates, each of five years. More importantly, the junta has promised to hold democratic presidential elections in March 2007. None of the 17 junta members will run for office. One of the most striking clauses in the Constitution, approved by popular referendum in late June, establishes a minimum quota of 20 percent of seats for women parliamentarians. This comes on the heels of similar measures in other Arab countries to ensure political representation for women. Morocco recently set aside 10 percent of parliamentary seats for women, while in Iraq the Bush administration initially stipulated that a third of all candidates nominated by any given party be women. This was later lowered by the Iraqis to 25 percent, still the highest percentage in the Arab world. Parliamentary quotas for women also exist in Tunisia, Djibouti and Jordan, which, along with Palestine, also maintains quotas for minorities. Where quotas do not exist, representation of women and minorities is scant. Consider parliamentary elections in Egypt late last year. Out of 444 elected parliamentarians, only one was a Coptic Christian, and only four were women, even though Copts comprise 10 to 15 percent of the population and women are a majority. Yet the results came as no surprise because few Copts and women are nominated by Egyptian political parties to begin with. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood nominated only one woman and one Copt out of about 150 candidates, while President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, which contested all seats, nominated six women and two Copts. Smaller parties, even those touting themselves as liberal and “progressive, did not do much better. The sad truth is that in Egypt and other Arab nations many Muslims simply do not vote for Christians. Curiously, large numbers of men and women in Arab countries also refrain from voting for female candidates, viewing them as weak, ineffective, emotional, and generally unsuited for political work (not one woman won a seat in the recent Kuwaiti elections). That’s why political parties are reluctant to risk defeat by including women on their electoral lists. It has become painfully obvious that without quotas, women and Christians in the Arab world don’t get nominated, let alone elected. Crucial to the meaningful representation of women, quotas or no quotas, is that the issue not become one of partisan politics. In Tunisia, the ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique party fills Parliament’s quota for women by securing the majority of seats for itself. In Syria, where women enjoy representation without a quota, opposition parties do not exist. That’s why women parliamentarians are all members of the ruling Baath party, or its allies. In Egypt, Mubarak attempted to partly redress the imbalance of female and Coptic representation by appointing five women and five Copts to fill the 10 parliamentary slots reserved for presidential appointees. But this only means that most women and Copts in parliament are personally beholden to a president widely regarded as corrupt and undemocratic. Only by holding democratic elections coupled with the requirement that all participating political parties maintain internal quotas for women, a practice that has become the standard in Iraq, will this dilemma be resolved. It may even prompt talk of doing the same for Christians and other minorities. Of course, it should be a source of shame to Arabs that, though women have always been underrepresented, Christians were better represented in the time of British and French colonial administration of Arab countries than they are today. When independence was granted and Arab nationalists came to power, quotas were abolished as inimical to nationalist notions of unity. The waning of nationalism and increasing influence of democracy has not fundamentally softened this position. In Egypt, politicians of widely disparate political inclinations have long denied that Copts even constitute a minority, much to the chagrin of minority rights activists. This is not some rarefied academic debate over nomenclature, but a politically charged battle over identity. Were the Egyptian political establishment to recognize Copts as a religious minority, this would be tantamount to acknowledging their specificity, which in turn would lead Copts to press for increased cultural and political representation. For those Arabs still susceptible to nationalism’s overriding obsession with unity, this is a line that cannot be crossed. Yet the idea that democracy can coexist with enforced homogeneity is absurd. Democracy must create a framework in which ethnic, religious, and other differences can be openly expressed. It was the German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt who pointed out that the obliteration of socio-economic, ethnic, religious and political differences between sectors of a population, so that all can be better controlled and manipulated, is a central characteristic of totalitarianism. Democracy, in contrast, provides for the careful management of peacefully expressed differences, from which women and minorities should not be excluded. Properly applied quotas for women and minorities would invigorate the tentative democratization underway in many Arab countries. Instead of waiting until majority biases change, action should be taken to show the baselessness of such biases. Quotas, together with increased parliamentary power, will ensure that women and minorities have a say in the transformations taking place across the Arab world, where pluralism is slowly supplanting rigid, forcibly imposed ideological uniformity.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a freelance writer and reviewer based in Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.