The Role of Women in the Arab World: Toward a New Wave of Democratization, or an Ebbing Wave toward Authoritarianism?

By Sika, Nadine | Journal of International Women's Studies, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Role of Women in the Arab World: Toward a New Wave of Democratization, or an Ebbing Wave toward Authoritarianism?


Sika, Nadine, Journal of International Women's Studies


At the beginning of the new millennium, the third wave of democratization had not yet touched the shores of any Arab country. In the 1990s, analysts believed that economic liberalization would eventually lead to democratization in the region. Instead, it has evidenced the resilience of authoritarianism. By :2005, political developments and openings in the public sphere created some optimism about a "Spring of Arab Democracy," but the hopefulness was soon over. Many scholars have argued that Arab political culture is not conducive to democracy, and that the Arab world presented a case of "exceptionalism" to democracy. Another influx of studies pointed to various reasons for the persisting authoritarianism that ranged from the structure of political, social, and religious institutions to political socialization, and to the prevailing political economy of the region. Another major obstacle to democratization was the international community's view and acceptance of the region's status quo, which preferred stability over democratic uncertainties, especially with the rise of the Islamic tide in most Arab regimes.

In the meantime, state-society relations were gradually changing. The Arab public sphere was transforming. Independent media was emerging forcefully and developing heated public debates. With the enhancement of a free market economy neoliberal economic development processes were on the rise, fostering a "crony" capitalist system of development which ensured high GDP growth and the ascent of new business gentry. However, it excluded the majority of Arab populations. On the one hand, Arab human development indicators were on the rise, with access to education increasing exponentially throughout the past two decades. On the other hand, Arab citizens, especially middle and lower class, were becoming more and more excluded from the economic development of their polities. For example, Egypt and Tunisia have the highest unemployment rates among their educated youth.

The rise of corruption, inequalities, and increased political repression prepared the ground for a decade of social contention on the streets of the Arab World, which can be divided into four waves: the first is represented by embryonic demonstrations on Arab streets that addressed Arab causes in general, rather than specific internal national issues. For instance, people in different Arab countries demonstrated extensively in support of the Palestinian cause, especially in 2000 with the al-Aqsa intifada. Demonstrations were more forceful by 2003 with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators sweeping the region: the rallies were mainly directed against the American invasion of Iraq, while Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Syria witnessed the largest demonstrations in years.

Arab citizens' discontent with their leaders was growing at an unprecedented rate by the early 2000s. In one of al-Jazeera's talk shows, in 2003, more than 70% of Arab viewers of the show believed that Arab leaders were more repressive and less legitimate than foreign colonizers (Lynch 2003). The second wave of protests emerged in the mid-2000s, and this time it addressed internal issues. For example, an important phenomenon in Egypt was the creation of the Kifaya (Enough) movement in 2004 (al-Shobaky, 2011). For the first time, the protest addressed national political problems and crossed the red line of dissent; it called for the end of the Mubarak rule with chants like "No to [Mubarak rule] extension, No to [Gamal Mubarak] hereditary rule" [Laa lel tamdiid, laa lel tawrith]. Though the adherents to the Kifaya movement were no more than a hundred independent activists who did not have mass followings, the intensity, boldness, and repertoire of Kifaya demonstrations were important in influencing many other protest movements that emerged not only in Egypt but elsewhere in the Arab World. And though women were not among the creators of the movement, they were quiet but present in the movement and in different demonstrations. …

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