For many in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, the Arab Spring uprisings were a glimmer of hope in an area plagued by oppressive regimes and dictators. While many of these countries are still in a state of transition, the indicia of change are everywhere.
In Tunisia, for example, the local television and radio stations are abuzz with the talk of political parties, drafting a new constitution, and equality amongst the population. The thought of such discussions taking place openly, even as recently as January, would have been unthinkable under the leadership of President Zine el Abdine Ben Ali. However, after Ben Ali fled the country weeks into the new year, the Tunisian population has embraced the change which they sought to bring about.
For Marou Ben Shalah, a 23 year old, female student living in Sousse, the memories of change are vivid, “When I learned that Ben Ali ran away, I quickly thought: ‘Is this a happy ending’? ‘Is this a new start?’ I was confused. The happiness was overshadowed by fear but I’m still optimistic about the future.”
Despite Ben Shalah’s optimism, many have expressed concern over the erosion of civil and individual liberties as new religiously motivated political parties begin to from. At a recent meeting of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, the group tasked with developed developing a new constitution, the Islamist party Ennhada called for the invocation of Shariah Law as the primary source of legislation. Ennhada has a commanding majority in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly and the prospect of Islamic law becoming a reality isn’t farfetched.
Similar sentiment has been expressed in Egypt—the heart of the Arab Spring. Iman Bibars, a social scientist who heads the Association for Development and Enhancement of Women in Egypt, recently noted, “The revolution gave us a voice and we cannot hide that. But I think the product after the revolution is against women.” Ms. Bibars also expressed surprise at the popularity of religious zealots in the post Mubarak government, “I was shocked the [Muslim Brotherhood] took over.”
As was noted in a recent New York Times article, religious political ideology poses a large threat to personal rights, particularly for women, in the region. The larger question must be asked: what can be done? The United States has sought to promote democracy in the Middle East for decades, is it now our job to promote equality for all genders as well? Do we have a bargaining chip to help entice these governments to promote civil liberties? Can the international community do anything to ensure that women have a voice in these young democracies?