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 d’état, but there is reason to believe that this latest episode differs markedly from its predecessors. Of course, Mauritania, an oil-rich yet impoverished nation straddling Arab and black Africa, remains bedeviled by a host of deeply entrenched human-rights abuses. For example, slavery, long a part of Arab Islamic culture (Saudi Arabia only outlawed the practice in 1962—almost a century after the United States did in 1863), continues to exist in Mauritania, despite being declared illegal in 1981. As with Sudan, disadvantaged Africans in Mauritania continue to be enslaved by members of the politically dominant Arab population.
Yet the country could be on the brink of change. 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 limit of two terms, each of five years, for the president. More importantly, the junta has promised to hold democratic presidential elections in March of 2007. None of the 17 members of the junta will run for office.
One of the most striking clauses in the new constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved in a popular referendum, establishes a minimum quota for women parliamentarians. Henceforth, 20% of seats in the Mauritanian parliament will be reserved for women. Though unexpected, this welcome initiative comes on the heels of similar measures in other Arab countries to ensure the political representation of women. Morocco recently set aside 10% of parliamentary seats for women, while in Iraq the US administration initially stipulated that one-third of all candidates nominated by any given party be women. This was later lowered by the Iraqis to 25%, 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 such quotas do not exist, representation of women and minorities is scant.
Consider the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt. Out of 444 elected members of parliament, only 1 was a Coptic Christian, and only 4 were women, even though Copts comprise 10-15% of the population, and women are the majority. Yet the results came as no surprise, because precious few Copts and women are nominated by Egyptian political parties to begin with. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood nominated only 1 woman and 1 Copt out of about 150 candidates, while Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, which contested all 444 seats, nominated a grand total of 6 women and 2 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 both of men and women in Arab countries also refrain from voting for women candidates, viewing them as weak, ineffective, emotional, and generally unsuited for political work (none of the women candidates emerged victorious in the recently concluded Kuwaiti parliamentary elections). Resultantly, 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 simply don’t get nominated, let alone elected.
Yet crucial to the meaningful representation of women, quota or no quota, is that the issue not become one of partisan politics. In Tunisia, the ruling Democratic Constitutional Gathering 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, so women parliamentarians are all members of the ruling Baath party or its allies. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak attempted to redress the imbalance caused by the election of only 4 women and 1 Copt by appointing 5 women and 5 Copts to fill the 10 parliamentary slots reserved for presidential appointees. But this means that the majority of women and Copts in the Egyptian parliament are now personally beholden to a president widely viewed 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 the nationalists came to power, quotas were abolished as inimical to nationalist notions of unity. It is instructive to note that the subsequent 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 constitute a minority, much to the chagrin of minority rights activists. This is not some rarefied academic debate over proper nomenclature, but a politically charged battle over identity. Were the Egyptian political establishment to recognize Copts as an ethnic or religious minority, this would be tantamount to acknowledging Coptic specificity, which in turn would almost inevitably 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 patently absurd. Indeed, democracy creates a political framework in which ethnic, religious, and other differences are openly expressed, not suppressed. We are indebted to German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt for pointing out that obliterating socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and political differences between various sectors of the populace is one of the central characteristics of totalitarianism, which seeks to create an undifferentiated mass where there was once a plethora of distinct groups, the better to control and manipulate the entire population. Democracy, in contrast, provides for the careful management of peacefully expressed differences, a process from which women and minorities should not be excluded.
Properly applied quotas for women and minorities, then, will serve to further invigorate the tentative democratic process underway in many Arab countries. Quotas may be unsuitable for social organizations and professional guilds, where a system of meritocracy can allow for certain ethnic or religious groups’ specialties, or men and women’s preferences, to carry the day, but this does not apply to political work. Parliament exists to represent all sectors of the population. If parliaments in the Arab world are to be truly representative of their people, they must include women and members of minority groups, without regard for prejudiced notions concerning their alleged unsuitability for such posts. Indeed, instead of waiting until majority biases change, action should forthwith be taken to demonstrate 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 a rigid and forcibly imposed ideological uniformity.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer in Beirut, Lebanon. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the July 7, 2006 edition of the Beirut-based Daily Star.
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