Why do they stereotype us?

Has Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy’s Foreign Policy polemic – Why Do They Hate Us?generated so much debate because her claim that Arab male misogyny explains the region’s gender inequities appeals to Western media paternalism?

“Many Arab women are perturbed that her article received so much attention while millions of women leaders throughout the Middle East are reduced to a footnote by Western media,” writes Sarah Aziz:

These women are the unsung heroes in the trenches struggling to shed the yoke of patriarchy infiltrating the crevices of their lives. But because they do not adopt the direct and radical approach in Mona’s piece, they are often overlooked. Their empowered lives do not satisfy our craving to fulfill the stereotypes of the oppressed and subjugated Arab woman in need of saving by the West.

Highlighting “the millions of women leaders who incrementally chip away at patriarchy, as opposed to bulldozing it with a sledge hammer,” Aziz stresses that “Arab women, both Christian and Muslim, have been struggling for equality for more than a century.”

Perhaps she is thinking of such women as Nobel laureate Tawakkul Karman, leader of Yemen’s Women Journalists Without Chains, or groups like Egypt’s National Association for the Defense of Rights and Freedom, which promotes awareness of women’s civil and political rights in such rural areas as Alexandria, Ismailia, Daqahliyah, Bahr Al Ahmar and Suez; the Association of Egyptian Female Lawyers, which strengthens women’s leadership and par­ticipation in decision-making; or Morocco’s Carrefour d’Initiatives de Communication, d’Information et de Documentation, which coordinates innovative advocacy strate­gies on women’s rights, including a documentary featuring its network of rural listening centers.

“Despite strong resistance from some men and women, every new generation treads new ground,” Aziz argues on The Huffington Post:

Whether it is the right to vote, the right to serve as judges, or the right to run for political office, Arab women have made much headway. But there is still much work to be done on multiple fronts. From disparate literacy rates, unequal wages, flawed personal rights laws and underrepresentation in government, gender equality in the East (and the West) remains an aspiration rather than a reality.


Sahar Aziz is an Associate Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law where she teaches national security and civil rights, and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

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Top-down reform 1 – Burmese Spring 0?

One of Burma’s leading ethnic insurgent groups called for peace talks today, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon praised pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for ending a boycott of parliament, but some analysts fear the standoff may have played into the hands of military hardliners eager to sabotage the fragile reform process.

“Disarray in the reform process will only strengthen the hands of conservatives who have grave misgivings,” said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus with the Australian Defense Force Academy. “They will say ‘We told you so.’ ”

Suu Kyi “has been under quiet, though sensitive pressure from recent high-level visitors to resolve the impasse, which was threatening to derail the reform process,” said one observer.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has proposed fresh negotiations with the government, Irrawaddy magazine reports.

Aside from the ethnic conflicts, the main threat to the reform process is not any imminent backlash by military hardliners, but a sheer lack of capacity, a Washington meeting heard last week. Decades of neglect and under investment have resulted in a striking and potentially disabling lack of organizational capacity, skills and expertise in government as well as civil society, said a leading analyst.

The international financial institutions that helped fund and advise on democratic transitions in post-Communist Europe and elsewhere have been conspicuously absent from Burma, the analyst observed. So reformist technocrats will be assured by the news that the World Bank is to open offices in the country.

The military-backed civilian-led government, headed by former general Thein Sein, pledged more reforms – including a revised print media code –after meeting with Ban, while the UN leader urged Western states to remove remaining economic sanctions to incentivize further reforms.

The European Union recently suspended sanctions, while the US has relaxed measures on not-for-profit funding, but insist on retaining some sanctions as a guarantee against backtracking or a hardline backlash.

“We recognize very clearly that there have to be provisions and capabilities to be able to respond if there is a reversal or a stalling out (of reforms), that leverage is an essential component of our strategy,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, recently told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Many democracy and rights advocates fear that the reform process has not gone far enough and remains vulnerable to regression, but the Obama administration is under growing pressure from business groups eager to exploit investment opportunities.

“Failure by the United States to take similar steps (to the EU) will do more than put American companies at a commercial disadvantage vis-a-vis their competitors,” the US-ASEAN Business Council said in a recent statement.

Ban described Suu Kyi as a “real leader” for demonstrating “flexibility” by making the “very difficult decision” to take a parliamentary oath pledging commitment to a constitution that entrenches military prerogatives. 

Suu Kyi this week announced that the National League for Democracy party would pledge to “safeguard” the army-drafted constitution.

“We have always believed in flexibility, in the political process… that is the only way in which we can achieve our goal without violence,” she said.

The opposition was taking a principled stance designed to promote democratic standards, some observers noted.

“But digging in too hard over the oath could have raised questions among foreign aid groups, overseas governments and hard-liners at home concerning the party’s willingness to engage in practical politics rather than confrontation and political grandstanding,” others said.

Diplomats and analysts are relieved at Suu Kyi’s climb down, reports suggest:

“This is the real starting gun for a new phase – although this farcical false start has hardly inspired confidence among parliament’s hardliners about dealing with MP Suu Kyi,” said one western diplomat……On social media websites and in Yangon’s tea-shops last weekend, the resulting disappointment over the dispute had turned widespread euphoria over the NLD’s victory in April 1 by-elections into bewilderment and even vexation.

“We didn’t vote for THIS mess,” wrote one commentator on a chat site.

In her most defensive performance yet, Ms Suu Kyi last week said she was committed to supporting Mr Thein Sein in the reform process. But, said one local critic, “If she was really committed to helping the president she wouldn’t put him in such an impossible position.”

Encouraging Ms Suu Kyi to participate in elections was a high-risk strategy for Thein Sein, the reformist president, who must now play a balancing act between hardline elements and reformers in both government and parliament. In her new capacity as MP, it is one that she too must navigate, with all the uncomfortable compromises that may bring.

The impasse over the oath was “the worst place to start a supposed new era”, noted one Yangon-based diplomat. “It confirms all the worst suspicions of the hardliners, that she [Ms Suu Kyi] is going to be nothing but trouble.”

According to Swe Win, a journalist working for Irrawaddy Magazine, “a protracted standoff would undermine [the reform process’s] still-fragile legitimacy. And it could cast doubt over President Thein Sein’s recent promise that ‘there won’t be any u-turn’ in the democratization process.”

The stakes may be even higher for the N.L.D., Win argues:

Many people here are bewildered by the oath issue: what, exactly, is the difference between “safeguarding” and “respecting” the Constitution, and is it worth fighting over? If the party refuses to back down on a matter this trivial, it risks losing the public’s heartfelt support, which is its greatest political asset.

Score 1 for top-down reform. Score 0 for the Burmese Spring.

But many Burmese democrats insist that constitutional reform is a necessary precondition for a sustainable democratic transition.

“It will be very difficult to amend the constitution,” says Ko Mya Aye, a well-known former political prisoner. “The army has 25 percent of seats but any change [to the constitution] requires 75 percent of the parliament to vote for it,” he added.

Khin Ohmar, a Burmese exile who heads the Thailand-based Burma Partnership, suggests that more widespread public support for constitutional change could be necessary if the NLD is to have any success prior to the next nationwide elections scheduled for 2015.

“It [changing the constitution] is possible only if outside parliament civil society movement is mobilized,” she says.

“Since the general election in 2010, the Burmese military has proved itself to be quite savvy,” says analyst Min Zin.

“The new generation of leaders has focused on modernization in order to bring their forces up to the level of their Southeast Asia counterparts. Their strategy is to decrease their reliance on China … and to seize the opportunity to intensify their dealings with the West,” Zin writes on the Democracy Lab channel’s Transitions, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute:

Sources close to the U.S. government told me that U.S. delegations to Burma are generally impressed by the openness of the leadership of the Tatmadaw (the armed forces)….In its efforts to court the West, the Tatmadaw wants to avoid cracking down on any Arab Spring-style of popular revolt that may arise at home. Therefore, military leaders are tolerating political liberalization, the incorporation of urban dissidents and ethnic rebels into the regime-led transition, and even the surging assertiveness of opposition forces. This toleration will likely continue so long as the reform process does not challenge the military’s veto-wielding political supremacy and economic interests.

“Burma is still ruled by a military government but the pace and scope of political and economic change has been astonishing, despite the country’s low levels of literacy, pervasive poverty and lack of information,” Brian Joseph, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Senior Director for Asia and Global programs, said recently.

It is encouraging that while the reform process can generate uncomfortable unforeseen consequences for the military, including the NLD’s sweeping victory in April’s by-elections, rather than trying to stall or sabotage the process, the military “made another smart move by strengthening its position in parliament,” Zin writes:

Many observers interpret the influx of new blood to mean that the military is preparing a counterbalance against the incoming NLD parliamentarians, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. …In any case, the fact that the Tatmadaw is attaching importance to the parliament is a good sign. It’s a step toward acknowledging that parliament is more than a rubber-stamp legislature that simply endorses decisions made elsewhere. Instead, the military may actually begin to rely on the legislature as a mode of governance, a forum for articulating policy preferences, and a tool for mediating the broader interests of a diverse society. …..Its political will and potential capacity to build legislative institutions should not be disregarded, since all the other institutions in this ill-fated country so far remain completely dysfunctional.


The Burma Partnership and Irrawaddy Magazine are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Is Chen Guangcheng the next Fang Lizhi?

…….asks China analyst Perry Link who was involved in mediating Fang’s eventual exile.

The US and China may agree that exile for the barefoot lawyer currently taking refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing is “the least awkward solution from their points of view,” he writes in The New York Review of Books, but Chen may not consent. (Above: Activist Hu Ji describes Chen Guangcheng’s escape.)

“Chinese dissidents have learned over the past two decades that exile leads to a sharp decline in a person’s ability to make a difference inside China.”

Imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo “made it clear after his arrest that he would not accept exile as an alternative to prison,” Link writes. “From what friends of Chen in Beijing have been saying in recent days, it seems that Chen is taking a similar position.”

According to Jerome A. Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University law school, the question for Chen is: “Is it better to be in China and be stifled, or to come to America and be frustrated because you’re not able to muster much understanding or support?”

Fang Lizhi provides a salutary lesson.

The scientist “made a poorly received, dogma-laden speech in broken English at the Council on Foreign Relations when he was allowed to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for exile,” writes the Washington Post’s Steven Mufson.

Yet on securing refuge in the United States, Fang did articulate the case for Chinese democracy. In words that still resonate as the ruling elite struggles to modernize an over-centralized and inflexible economy, he told a 1991 National Endowment for Democracy conference that China’s efforts at modernization will always “end in failure” because of the constraints of its authoritarian political system.

The key difference between Fang and Chen is that the former was a prominent intellectual, celebrated within the elite but less well-known by the wider population. But if Fang is China’s Andrei Sakharov, Chen’s profile is closer to a Lech Walesa, a vocal and visible campaigner for the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens, including the disabled and women forced to undergo compulsory abortions.

“Chen has a broader following among average Chinese people than Fang had,” Link notes:

Fang was a hero to university students and some intellectuals. But most Chinese did not know him, and what they did hear of him were highly distorted accounts in the government-controlled press. Even before the 1989 crackdown, government television was broadcasting images of government-orchestrated “protests” in which farmers were burning Fang Lizhi in effigy. Many people, having no other sources on Fang, accepted such accounts. Today, though, with the Internet, far greater numbers of Chinese—millions of people including many outside of the big cities—know the true story of Chen than ever knew the story of Fang. And to judge from the many accounts circulating on microblogs and elsewhere, hardly anyone seems to view Chen with anything but sympathy.

By contrast, Link notes, “Chen is seen not as an elite intellectual but as an ‘ordinary person’ who taught himself law to help other ordinary people, and then was imprisoned and persecuted—and is blind to boot. For the Chinese authorities to accuse him of treason or to blame meddling foreigners for helping him will be a hard sell.” RTWT

But exile need not entail political impotence or marginalization, as the Post’s Mufson observes:

One person whose stature has grown in exile is Rebiya Kadeer, a successful businesswoman from the Uighur ethnic group in the western province of Xinjiang. In China, Kadeer was arrested while on her way to meet a U.S. congressional delegation in 1999. She was put in a small cell in Bajahu women’s prison with two women monitoring her. One day in 2005, she said, the guards left and people in dark suits appeared, telling her she was bound for the United States. She didn’t believe it until she was taken to Beijing and met a U.S. Embassy official.

“I couldn’t control myself,” she recalled. “I cried and hugged the embassy official.”

“She became the face of the Uighur struggle when she came to the United States,” according to lawyer Nury Turkel, a former president of the Uighur American Association. “One of the wealthiest people in China before being arrested, she was already high-profile in China. Because of her tireless efforts after her release, she has been able to elevate the status of the Uighur struggle to an international level.”

Not is exile without its costs.

“We cannot be directly involved in what’s happening inside the country,” Kadeer tells the Post. She added, “When we go into exile, our relatives are in absolute danger.” Chinese authorities have arrested two of her sons and put them in a prison next to the one that housed Kadeer.

The Uighur American Association is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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China’s leaders ‘feared Arab Spring’ revolts

“Shortly after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in 2010, some senior Chinese leaders began asking if the rebellions that followed throughout the Arab world could ignite similar uprisings in China, according to U.S. diplomatic and intelligence reports” seen by Bloomberg’s Indira A.R. Lakshmanan :

Some members of China’s ruling Politburo, the reports reveal, began musing about whether bribery and other abuses of power were undermining the Communist Party’s authority at least 16 months before the corruption scandal surrounding deposed party leader Bo Xilai shined an international spotlight on the issue. The reports were described by five U.S. officials familiar with the contents who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence is classified.

As the Arab Spring revolts spread from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya after vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on Dec. 17, 2010, the reports said, some Politburo members questioned whether protests might follow against Chinese provincial politicians demanding bribes; local party officials confiscating land; and products and government services rendered shoddy by influence peddling, the U.S. officials said.

The revelations come at a potentially fraught time in US-China relations, with the audacious escape of human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng (above), presenting a policy dilemma to both Washington and Beijing.

Both countries appear eager to avoid a standoff that threatens to mar relations and, most immediately, to eclipse annual talks scheduled to begin in Beijing on Thursday,” say New York Times analysts Steven Lee Myers and Andrew Jacobs. “But Mr. Chen’s professed desire to remain in China could result in a prolonged stalemate that undercuts cooperation on other global security issues.”

Chen’s case is highlighting the fallacies of rule of law in China and the authorities’ post-Arab Spring nervousness about the prospect of politicized social unrest.

“This puts China in a dilemma, as the government has spent the better part of the last month telling people China is a law-governed society and law-based government,” said Victor Shih, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. “The Chinese government should then, according to law, protect Chen Guangcheng, who has not broken any laws.”

“The leadership is quite insecure now,” said Michael Green, an associate professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

The ruling Communist party is especially agitated that the scandal involving ousted neo-Maoist Bo Xilai is exposing the degree of corruption within the ruling elite.

The leadership will curtail the investigation into Bo and his family and present him as an outrider, analysts say.

“They’re going to limit this as much as possible –identify the main tumor, excise it and move on,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. “They’re not going to go into a mass purge if they can avoid it, because everyone at the top leadership has a complex web of connections.”

The Bo controversy has boosted public cynicism but it doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood of social or political unrest, said Andrew Nathan, a China scholar at New York’s Columbia University.

“That doesn’t mean the public in China is going to rise up in rebellion, but it’s definitely a big hole to climb out of,” said Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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