Thursday, April 28, 2011

Post-Mubarak : What Kind of Egypt?

By William Fisher

Close to two-thirds of the Egyptian public is satisfied with the way things are going in their country, pleased that former president Hosni Mubarak is gone, and optimistic about the future, according to a new survey by the Pew
Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.

But the readiness of the public to accept military rule, or rule by a religious-based political party, and to abrogate its peace treaty with Israel, raises questions about what kind of Egypt it will be.

The Pew organization said, “In this new political era, Egyptians are embracing long-standing bases of power, and new ones, as well. The military and its leadership are very well regarded, and the Egyptian public is clearly open to religion-based political parties being part of a future government. Most have a favorable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, and looking ahead to the elections, it has as much potential support as any of a number of political parties.”

The Egyptian public’s unwavering support for the military is particularly problematic. In the early days of the Tahrir Square revolution, the Army won the applause of the anti-government protesters by using its tanks to keep pro-Mubarak forces from attacking demonstrators. Later, the Army was seen clearly to take the side of the anti-government protesters.

But, even during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the Army was accused of roughing up and arresting many anti-government demonstrators, torturing them in custody, and holding some of these civilians for military trials. Their actions sparked an outcry from the anti-Mubarak forces and an investigation by the Army Supreme Council, which is running the country until elections are held.

Egypt-watchers say the high respect in which the Army is held dates back at least to Egypt’s three wars with Israel. Thanks to Egyptian Government propaganda, many Egyptians believe Egypt was victorious in these wars. After the 1973 war, known as the Yom Kippur War, Egypt regained control of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had won as part of the agreement ending the 1967 Six Day War. But there is no question outside Egypt that Israel was the victor in all three wars.

It was the conviction that Egypt and its Arab allies would never defeat Israel militarily that drove President Anwar Sadat to make his historic visit to Israel in 1977. That courageous act formed the basis of the US-brokered peace treaty that currently exists.

If post-revolution Egypt appears to distancing itself from what most of The West saw as the protesters’ democratic vision of the country in the future, the Pew survey also uncovered many contrary and contradictory opinions.

For example, while Egyptians would find a military or religious-based government acceptable, Pew finds that “other agents of political change are also viewed positively by majorities of Egyptians, including the relatively secular April 6 Movement and political leaders Amr Moussa, Ayman
Nour, and Mohamed ElBaradei.”

This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the myriad of contradictions that co-exist in modern Egypt. In fact Pew found near-unanimity on only two issues: “No dividend emerges for the United States from the political changes that have occurred in Egypt. Favorable ratings of the U.S. remain as low as they have been in recent years, and many Egyptians say they want a less close relationship with America. Israel fares even more poorly. By a 54%-to-36% margin, Egyptians want the peace treaty with that country annulled.”

But Egyptians, repeatedly burned by unkept leadership promises, appear to bring a healthy dose of caution into their assessments of the future. Pew notes: “This is not to say that many do not remain cautious about the prospects for political change – just 41% say that a free and fair choice in the next election is very likely, while as many (43%) think it is only somewhat likely, and 16% say it is unlikely.”

The Pew survey was conducted nationwide. Face-to-face interviews were
conducted with 1,000 adults in Egypt between March 24 and April 7, 2011. The poll finds Egyptians anxious for democracy and accountable government. When asked what has concerned them most about Egypt in recent years, corruption and a lack of democracy top the list.

And Pew says that support for democracy is clearly on the rise in Egypt. “Last year, 60% of Egyptians said that democracy is preferable to any other type of government; today, 71% hold this view. By a 64%-to-34% majority, most say they favor a democratic form of government over a strong leader.”

Four years ago the public was evenly divided on this basic question about governance. Moreover, 62% want parliamentary and presidential elections as soon as possible, rather than delaying them to give political parties more time to organize.

Yet, the poll finds that the desire for free multiparty elections co-exists, and
potentially competes with, other aspirations.

“More Egyptians say that improved economic conditions (82%) and a fair judiciary (79%) are very important than say that about honest, multiparty elections (55%). And maintaining law and order is also more highly rated (63%). In that regard, when asked to choose which is more important – a democratic government, even if there is some risk of political instability, or a stable government that is not fully democratic – democracy wins out, but by a narrow 54%-majority; 32% choose stability, and as many as 14% of Egyptians say they are not sure. When a good democracy is tested against a strong economy, it is a 47%-to-49% draw, respectively.”

Regarding economic conditions, the survey finds Egyptians somewhat more positive than they were a year ago. About one-third (34%) now rate the economy as good, compared with 20% in 2010; still, most (64%) say economic conditions are bad.

But fully 56% think the economy will improve over the next year. Just 25% were optimistic in 2010.

The military is now almost universally seen (88%) as having a good influence on the way things are going in Egypt. Fully 90% rate military chief Mohamed Tantawi favorably. In contrast, views of the police are on balance negative (39% good influence, 61% bad influence).

The court system and religious leaders are seen by most as having a good influence on the country, 67% and 81% respectively, but it is of note that fewer Egyptians give religious leaders very good ratings this year than did so in 2007 (29% vs. 43%).

Most see the traditional news media’s influence as having a positive impact on the way things are going, and the survey found as many as 23% saying they use social networking sites to get news and information about the political situation in Egypt.

Pew says Egyptians are welcoming some forms of change more than others. While half say it is very important that religious parties be allowed to be part of the government, only 27% give a similar priority to assuring that the military falls under civilian control. Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. Women themselves are more likely to say it is very important that they are assured equal rights than are men (48% vs. 30%).

Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other
religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.

Egyptians hold diverse views about religion. About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.

Those who disagree with fundamentalists are almost evenly divided on whether the treaty with Israel should be annulled, while others favor ending the pact by a goodly margin.

Only 20% of Egyptians hold a favorable opinion of the United States, which is nearly identical to the 17% who rated it favorably in 2010. Better educated and younger Egyptians have a slightly more positive attitude toward the U.S. than do other Egyptians.

President Barrack Obama gets more negative than positive reviews for how he is handling the political changes sweeping through the Middle East: 52% disapprove of how Obama is dealing with the calls for political change in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya. A plurality of those who disapprove say Obama has shown too little support for those who are calling for change.

When asked specifically about the U.S. response to the political situation in
Egypt, 39% say the U.S. has had a negative impact, while just 22% say it has had a positive effect, and 35% volunteer that the U.S. has neither positively nor negatively influenced the situation in their country.

Looking to the future, few Egyptians (15%) want closer ties with the U.S., while 43% would prefer a more distant relationship, and 40% would like the
relationship between the two countries to remain about as close as it has been in recent years.

In any environment, it would be surprising to find unanimity among the disparate groups that conceived and then carried out an 18-day revolution that brought down a three-decade dictatorial ruler. In Egypt, the hub of the Arab Middle East, that kind of unanimity would be nothing less than spectacular.

That is simply unlikely to happen, and so we in The West need to re-learn how to live with an environment rich with ambiguity and contradictions. Egyptian attitudes toward military or religious rule are not good news for small “d” democrats. Nor is the antipathy toward the United States and toward the idea of peace with Israel.

For the US, the Pew survey results should be a huge red light, a wake-up call to all those who believed that the status quo ante is something that could be bought with more aid dollars. We have been down that road before; it didn’t work. What we got for our “investment” was revolution. Being able to offer anything credible to the pro-democracy forces will require nothing less than restoration of the credibility America once enjoyed here. But the suspicion and distrust of the US is palpable. Turning that around is going to be a hard sell. But that’s the challenge for America.

The challenge for Israel is even more formidable, particularly given the hard-line attitudes of Israel’s current government. Could one dare to hope that Israel might publicly celebrate the triumph of self-determination over dictatorship? Not likely, as it was the dictator who came to be seen as the lone anchor of stability in the Arab Middle East.

Now, after three wars and thirty years of Egyptian government propaganda, even an Israeli government prepared to acknowledge the miracle of the revolution would find this a hard sell. Egyptians will change their minds about Israel when they see a few tangible actions indicating that Israel genuinely wants a peace settlement with the Palestinians. These days, such indications are in very short supply.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Where is Mohammed al-Tajer?

By William Fisher

Mohammed al-Tajer is one of Bahrain’s best-known defense lawyers. He was the leading defense attorney defending 25 opposition activists who were tried between October 2010 and February 2011 on charges of plotting to overthrow the government using “terrorism” and other means.

Today, April 25, marks ten days since Mohammed al-Tajer was arrested at his house in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. On the night of April 15, according to his wife, more than 20 security officers entered their house in the middle of the night. She says some were in uniforms, some were in plain clothes and all except one were wearing masks. They searched all the bedrooms and confiscated personal items, such as mobile phones, laptops and papers. Then Mohammad al-Tajer was arrested without explanation. No arrest order was shown to him or his family, she says.

Then came two days of silence. Finally, he phoned his family for two minutes on April 17 to let them know he was in the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in Manama’s al-‘Adliya district, and wanted them to bring him clothes. When the family asked him what the charges against him were he replied that he did not know.

They still don’t know because nothing has been heard from or about al-Tajer since then, Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch told The Public Record. Like hundreds of his fellow prisoners, he has been “disappeared.”

This prominent attorney, who has defended many cases of opposition and human rights activism, is but one of the more than 500 Bahraini’s who have been arrested and imprisoned by the country’s Security Forces since March. In addition, according to Maryam Al-Khawaja, Head of Foreign Relations Office for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, "More than 800 detainees were ‘disappeared’ within days of the imposition of a state of ‘national safety,’ (martial law) including 39 women."

According to local human rights groups, those who have been detained since March include opposition and human rights activists, teachers, doctors and nurses. They have been arrested for their participation in the February and March protests calling for far-reaching political and other reform in Bahrain. The government’s most recent concerted campaign has been against physicians, with the arrest and detention of an estimated three-dozen medical practitioners, including a number of one-of-a-kind specialists. The government’s reported motive is to prevent the treatment of people injured in the anti-government demonstrations, to silence their testimony to the horrendous wounds they treated, and to make Bahraini’s so suspicious of hospitals that they will avoid them rather than risk an encounter with law enforcement.

According to human rights groups, the whereabouts of the great majority of detainees remains unknown; many are believed to be held by the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF). If prosecuted, they may face unfair trials before the National Safety Court of First Instance and a National Safety Appeal Court, established under the State of National Safety (SNS) --martial law -- declared by the King of Bahrain on 15 March.

The US government has for the most part given King Hamid’s violent crackdown on demonstrators a ‘get out of jail free’ card. The White House and the State Department have used words such as “unfortunate” to lament the sporadic violence that has wracked this tiny island nation since January. And they have generally backed the King’s calls for a “national dialogue.”

Anti-government forces have rejected such a dialogue, believing that the King would only use it as a way of slowing the pace of protest. But, according to The Wall Street Journal, US President Barack Obama has said dialogue was an "opportunity for meaningful reform."

The Obama administration has repeatedly appealed to the Bahraini government for restraint, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week called for apolitical process that “advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain.” But the administration has neither recalled its ambassador to Manama nor threatened the kinds of sanctions it imposed on Libya — a striking disparity that is fueling ­anti-U.S. sentiment among Bahraini opposition groups.

“Even though the American administration’s words are all about freedom and democracy and change, in Bahrain, the reality is that they’re basically a protection for the dictatorship,” said Zainab al-Khawaja, a prominent human-rights activist who began a hunger strike after her father, husband and brother-in-law were arrested at her apartment over the weekend.

U.S. officials privately acknowledge that the administration has been
understated in its criticism of Bahrain, in part to avoid further strain in
relations with Saudi Arabia, a vital U.S. ally and neighbor to the tiny island

Why? Why when US and allied military forces are bombing Gaddafi’s Libya, and Obama Administration officials are regularly excoriating Syria’s Assad, is the US being so cautiously conciliatory concerning Bahrain?

There are five main reasons. First, Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is therefore of strategic importance for the US. Secondly, Bahrain is an important center for international finance and oil production. Instability here would be – and is -- felt in financial markets word-wide.

Third, Saudi Arabia is Bahrain’s neighbor – just 26 km away over a causeway connecting the two countries. The Saudis fear the rise of a pro-Iranian Shiite state on its eastern frontier and have urged Bahrain to deal firmly with the throng of protesters that occupied a central square and blocked access to Manama’s main business district. Saudi fear of the protests spreading is one reason that Saudi and UAE military units were sent over that causeway on last month. Their mission is to help the King put down the demonstrations and maintain order while holding onto his power.

Fourth, while Bahrain’s rulers are Sunni Muslims, the vast majority of its population is Shia. Bahrainis, Saudis and Americans all worry that the Bahrain’s Shias will feel an allegiance that could be exploited by Shia Iran.

Finally, with Saudi Arabia already annoyed at the Americans for throwing Hosni Murarak under the bus too soon, the US seems willing to search for ways to avoid further upsetting its longtime ally and oil-supplier.

Siras Abi Ali, an analyst on the Persian Gulf region, says, “There is no good outcome from this for Saudi Arabia. If Bahrain offers concessions, the Saudi Shia will demand similar concessions. If they crack down, they risk an uprising. These people do not want to live under the House of Saud.”

Sheikh Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, a cleric who was among political prisoners freed due to pressure from protesters, told AFP on March 1: "Dialogue is only an option once the regime steps down."

The Bahraini elite has raised fears about the “sectarian” nature of the protests. Most of the anti-government protesters are Shia Muslims, while Bahrain’s monarchy and elite consists of Sunni Muslims.

“Without Washington's support, Bahraini officials told the Americans, the kingdom risked slipping into a ‘sectarian divide,’ pitting a Shiite majority against ruling Sunnis,” the WSJ reported.

“Bahraini officials also warned the US that Iran would be the big winner should the ruling family fall.” This refers to speculation that a potential Shia-based Bahraini government might have closer relations with Shia-led Iran.

Ali Abdulemam, an activist and blogger recently released from prison, told on March 1: “The situation here is the same as in other places in the Arab world. There is similar anger and disillusionment. The ruling strata enjoy the same unjust advantages in distribution of wealth in the country. We have no freedom of expression or belief.

“We have the same anger as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. We also all share a desire to live in freedom and dignity." All of these are causes for the revolution.

“[The rulers] hate anyone who is opposition, it doesn’t have as much to do with sectarianism. It is known that the majority of Shia are opposition, but there are Shia loyalists, and there are Sunni opposition. They hate whoever opposes the system.”

Jawad Fairooz, a senior member of al-Wefaq, the largest Shia party, told the Financial on February 28: “The government is just inciting fear. We don’t want a Shia prime minister or a Shia state. We just want equal rights and an end to injustice.”

The US using weasel words to soften the reality of the police state Bahrain has become will be seen by ordinary people as the US waiting to see who wins before choosing sides. Those unfamiliar with the nuances and subtleties of foreign diplomacy will condemn American action – or inaction, in this case – as cowardice. They will wonder what’s become of the much-vaunted American principles of equality, tolerance and the rule of law.

And they will try to figure out how the world’s self-described human rights champion finds it possible to stand on the sidelines as a brutal police state does all the unspeakable things that brutal police states do.

I know making foreign policy isn’t easy. I know there are competing equities. I know that sometimes there simply are no good choices. I know about realpolitik.

Well, even knowing a bit about all those issues doesn’t really help me. Maybe I’m simplistic. I want my country to stand up – and speak out -- for what it believes. I want it to cry out to condemn the cruelty, the brutality, the mindless quest for power, going on in Bahrain today.

But I find my words ineloquent. So let me use those of Richard Sollom, of Physicians for Human Rights. Here’s what he said on his return from Bahrain:

“In two decades of conducting human rights investigations in more than 20
countries, I have never seen such widespread and systematic violations of
medical neutrality as I did in Bahrain. Bahrain's ambulances, hospitals and medical clinics as well as its physicians, nurses, and medical staff are all being targeted. It's pervasive and ongoing.

“In Bahrain, as they treat protesters and wounded civilians, they have borne witness to incredible human suffering. Treating these patients has provided physicians with unparalleled evidence of the atrocities committed by the authorities, the security forces and riot police. Their knowledge of these atrocities has also made them targets. At least 32 healthcare professionals have been abducted over the past two months and are being held incommunicado by security forces.

“Salmaniya, a large 821-bed hospital housing Bahrain's leading medical
specialists, is where the most serious injuries have been treated. Doctors there have seen evidence of gas inhalation, gunshot wounds and beatings. While in Bahrain, we documented evidence of the hospital administration at Salmaniya calling doctors and nurses in for appointments, from which they were never seen again. Presumably they are taken to places of detention.

“One notable detention center, Criminal Investigations Directorate at Adliya, is also an infamous center of torture. Unfortunately, the doctors do not have to be taken to detention centers to suffer violent attacks. We have documented the story of six doctors beaten by security forces in a Salmaniya staff room.

“When security forces are capable of such brutality in a hospital, one can only imagine what happens in a detention center.”

Think about it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lawyers Matter!

By William Fisher

The year was 1953. I was a bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, covering the Volusia County seat, Deland, Florida. That beat meant covering the cops and the courts.

As a young and arguably too idealistic reporter, I was profoundly disappointed in both. I learned that bad lawyering presents a real threat to some of our country’s most precious values.

I learned this by watching, on too many days, lawyers who showed up in county court visibly hung over, unable to address the bench coherently. I learned this by watching lawyers who showed up in court having never met their client and having never read his or her record (most of these defendants were black). I learned this by watching defense lawyers failing to object when prosecutors presented evidence the defense clearly never saw. I learned this by listening to prosecutors engage in rhetoric so inflammatory that it would have been thrown out by most any judge, assuming the judge was paying any attention. I learned this by watching prosecutors totally bamboozle juries by using over-the-top rhetoric and playing fast and loose with the facts of a case (this was a no-brainer in the Jim Crow era in the American South).

But the lawyers I heard all those years ago were not all bad lawyers; some of them were good lawyers practicing law badly. The reason they were practicing badly is that they were unprepared to defend their clients. And they were unprepared because they were appointed by the court. These reluctant volunteers earned a few dollars a day in fees, had little time for client contact, and had no resources to research the allegations against the accused..

That situation came about because there was no public defender, no legal aid organization, and virtually no lawyers who saw the defense of poor black men and women as any part of their responsibilities.

All of these memories came screeching back to me as I watched a meeting of the American Bar Association on C-Span. It was here that I first learned about one of the prices the Republicans in Congress expect us to pay in order to bring down the nation’s budget deficit: cutting $75 million from the budget of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the agency that funds civil legal services for the poor.

The LSC is a private, non-profit corporation established by the U.S. Congress to seek to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it. It was created in 1974 with bipartisan congressional sponsorship and the support of the Nixon administration, and is funded through the congressional appropriations process. Among other programs, LSC provides grants to help local legal aid groups to operate more efficiently for more poor people.

But none of this apparently impressed the Republicans in Congress. The cut in the LSC’s funds was part of their global plan to eliminate $74 billion from the federal budget. And to make matters worse, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee upped its overall cutting goal from $74 to $100 billion, bowing to pressure from the Tea Party. The increase would likely mean an even larger reduction in LSC funding.

The proposed $75 million funding cut would represent a 17 per cent reduction from the Obama Administration’s proposed increase in LSC funding for Fiscal Year 2011 to $435 million. The Congressional cut would amount to a 14 percent decline from LSC’s current funding of $420 million.

If it survived in the final fiscal 2011 budget passed by Congress, the budget cuts would seriously affect LSC grantee organizations, the local legal aid groups that serve low-income individuals and families throughout the U.S. These grantees are already struggling with recession-generated staff layoffs and office closures.

Professor Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told the ABA delegates that public defender offices across the country are overwhelmed with too many cases and too few attorneys. The result is that defense lawyers are forced to “meet ‘em and plead ‘em.”

This has caused what the American Bar Association calls a crisis within the justice system.

Bright explained, “There are massive amounts of federal funds for task forces and prosecuting indigents, but there’s no federal funding for representing indigents.”

Bright’s statement was backed up by Corey Stoughton, senior staff attorney and upstate litigation coordinator at the New York Civil Liberties Union. She said 20 people currently charged with a crime and receiving state–sponsored legal help are being denied their constitutional right to adequate counsel.

“The problem isn’t bad lawyers, it’s a bad system,” she said. She added that
the media often headlines the extreme cases of bad lawyers within a bad system. This makes it “hard to change the narrative,” she said.

Stephen Zack, the current ABA president, said in a statement, “Hard choices loom as to priorities for federal spending, but let’s be smart about where reductions are made. Slashing funds that keep working class and poor people from falling into a legal and financial tailspin is not the right decision in this economy.” The ABA is a long-time supporter of the LSC.

The proposed funding cut would only exacerbate the LSC’s problems. For the past several years, it has been attempting to operate with large chunks of its potential activity foreclosed. It has been unable to help, not only with programs that receive government funds but even those that use non-federal funds raised by legal services programs.

Since their passage, these restrictions have been plagued by repeated First Amendment questions and have sparked calls for change, says watchdog group OMB Watch.

Lee Mason, Director of Nonprofit Speech Rights at the Washington-based advocacy group, says, “The restrictions on the use of non-federal funds of the Legal Services Corporation amount to an all out attack on the constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment Rights of millions of citizens of America."

OMB Watch says the origin of the funding restrictions was a concerted effort by right-wing interests to deny low-income people access to the courts by destroying LSC. In “Mandate for Leadership,” the conservative agenda published on the eve of President Ronald Reagan’s first term in 1981, the conservative Heritage Foundation called for LSC’s wholesale destruction. Barring its complete demise, Heritage argued for steep budget cuts and the imposition of broad restrictions through LSC appropriations riders.

Should we be surprised that Congressional Republicans want to further cripple the LSC’s efforts to provide legal help to the poor? As noted above, right-wing ideologues have been trying to destroy the LSC since 1981. And the further reduction of these legal services is clearly of a piece with the GOP’s proposed “reform” of Medicaid – which would severely limit health care services to low-income families.

I wonder if the Republicans’ budget wunderkind, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, ever had to pay legal fees out of his own pocket. Even a Congressman’s salary ($174,000 a year plus benefits) could quickly be zeroed out.

But Rep. Ryan’s salary is not a major concern to me. Except that he’s probably being overpaid.

What is of concern to me that when only one side in a dispute has access to legal help, the rule of law becomes meaningless. And when that happens, one of the core principles that define America also becomes meaningless.

Though her talk was on the role of lawyers in the national security debate,
ABA President-elect Laurel Bellows captured the essence of the campaign to castrate the LSC. She said, “For lawyers to matter and for this association to truly matter, our voice must be heard on the great issues, issues that affect the rights and liberties of all Americans.”

Competent legal help for those unable to pay for it is one of those rights.

Bahrain: Do No Harm?

By William Fisher

Bahrain’s monarchy, struggling to hang on to power in the face of growing pro-democracy protests, is cracking down on doctors. Physicians for Human Rights says at least 19 doctors have been arrested by authorities since March 17, eight of them within the past week.

A month into the civil unrest, and under a state of martial law, police and soldiers have arrested or detained dozens of doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, paramedics, and other health care workers, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, advocacy group charges. The organization, which recently visited Bahrain to gather firsthand information on the government crackdown, says armed soldiers now stand guard at the entrances to Bahrain’s largest public hospital. It says, “The few patients who dare to seek help inside are interrogated and often detained.”

Among those detained by authorities is Dr. Sadeq Abdulla, a vascular surgeon at the Salmaniya Medical Complex. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that, according to a source close to the doctor’s family, Interior Ministry officials summoned Abdulla to the ministry’s headquarters in the capital, Manama, at around 11 p.m. on April 14.

HRW claims Abdulla’s wife and father-in-law accompanied him to the ministry. They waited there for several hours but Abdulla never emerged. The source told HRW that the family contacted an officer at the Interior Ministry on April 15 to inquire about the status of Abdulla and was told that he would be in custody for “a few more days.” No information was provided regarding the reasons for Abdulla’s arrest, HRW says.

It adds, “Later that day Abdulla called his wife and told her “he was fine.” The authorities allowed Abdulla’s family to drop off his medications at the Criminal Investigations Directorate in Adliya on the same day, but have so far not allowed his family or his lawyer to visit him. Abdulla’s family believes that authorities are currently detaining him at the Adliya police station.”

Local human rights organizations estimate that more than 600 men and women have been held in custody since the pro-democracy demonstrations began. “We have serious concerns regarding the well-being and safety of some of the detainees,” said HRW’s Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director.

“The authorities should immediately provide information on the whereabouts of all detainees arrested since March 17 and permit them to meet with their families and lawyers,” he said.

HRW called attention to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 1998, requires that anyone arrested shall be promptly informed of any charges and brought before a judge or other judicial authority. A refusal of the authorities to acknowledge a person’s detention or provide information on their fate or whereabouts would be an enforced disappearance, the organization said.

At the same time, the beleaguered Bahraini government appears also to be cracking down on human rights advocates. HRW is reporting that more than two dozen uniformed and plainclothes security officers, most of who were masked, raided the home of prominent defense lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer on the evening of April 15, 2011, and arrested him.

Neither he nor his family was given any reason for his detention, HRW says, adding that it believes that al-Tajer is the first defense lawyer detained in more than a decade. He is well known for defending opposition figures and rights activists arrested in security sweeps.

HRW says the arrest took place around 11 p.m. on April 15, when security officers surrounded and then entered al-Tajer’s home. Security officers searched his home and confiscated personal items including laptops, mobile phones, and documents, before taking him away. Al-Tajer is one of 499 people currently detained by the Bahraini authorities, according to a list compiled by the Wefaq National Islamic Society, an opposition political society.

HRW’s Stork charged that “The government’s arrest of a leading defense lawyer shows that Bahrain is taking a turn for the worse on human rights. The authorities should either release Mohammed al-Tajer or charge him now with a recognizable offense.”

HRW says it is concerned that al-Tajer’s arrest is an effort on the part of authorities to intimidate and silence defense lawyers. Al-Tajer is part of a group of Bahraini lawyers who have defended opposition figures and rights activists arrested and detained by authorities during the past several years, including those picked up during the most recent security sweeps.

He was one of the lead lawyers involved in the trial of 23 opposition and rights activists arrested during security sweeps last August and September and accused under Bahrain’s counterterrorism law. The government released all 23 defendants on February 23, 2011, but rearrested several of them following the latest round of targeted arrests.

HRW says it has gathered testimony indicating that prior to their release on February 23, authorities had subjected some of the 23 to “severe abuse and ill-treatment amounting to torture.”

Since March 15, Bahrain has been subject to martial law, officially labeled a state of “National Safety,” that gave authorities wide powers of arrest, censorship, and prohibitions on freedom of movement and association.

But HRW said, “Even during a state of emergency, fundamental rights – such as the right to life, the right to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the prohibition on discrimination – must always be respected.”

In a related development, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Bahraini authorities to conduct an “immediate and transparent investigation” into the death in state custody of Karim Fakhrawi, left, founder and board member of Al-Wasat, the country's premier independent daily newspaper.

Fakhrawi died last week, days after he was apparently taken into custody, according to news reports. Earlier this month, the government accused Al-Wasat of "deliberate news fabrication and falsification." Since then, the government has announced it would file criminal charges against three of the paper's senior editors and has deported two other senior staffers.

Fakhrawi is one of numerous investors in Al-Wasat, local journalists told CPJ. He is also a book publisher, the owner of one of Bahrain's biggest bookstores, and a member of Al-Wefaq, Bahrain's chief opposition party.

Bahrain's official news agency said on its Twitter feed that Fakhrawi died of kidney failure. Photographs published online, however, show a body identified as that of Fakhrawi with extensive cuts and bruises.

"The crackdown on dissent in Bahrain has taken a deadly turn with two deaths in custody in unexplained circumstances in less than a week," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. "The Bahraini authorities must clarify how they reached the conclusion that Karim Fakhrawi died of kidney failure when photographs show his body covered in cuts and bruises," Dayem said.

Online journalist Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri also died under mysterious circumstances while in government custody. Authorities claimed that al-Ashiri, who died April 9, had suffered complications from sickle cell anemia. However, his family denied he had ever suffered from this disease. His was the second case of death allegedly due to sickle cell anemia in detention centers by Bahraini Authorities, according to Maryam Al-Khawaja, head of the Foreign Relations Office for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).

Khawaja said, “All detainees (currently numbered at around 600, among them 25 women two of whom are pregnant) are at very high risk of torture, and their lives are at threat,” adding, “There are still ongoing protests and candlelit vigils which get attacked every night in different villages in Bahrain causing more injuries. Tens of people are staying at home despite serious injuries, some with shrapnel in their eyes, out of fear of going to the hospitals, which are still under the control of the security forces.

Bahrain, an archipelago of 33 small islands in the Arabian Gulf midway between the Qatar peninsula and Saudi Arabia, is ruled by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, a Sunni Muslim. The Bahraini demonstrations were initially aimed at achieving greater political freedom and equality for the majority Shia population, but expanded to a call to end the monarchy of King Hamad following a deadly night raid on February 17 against protesters at Pearl Roundabout in Manama.

As public protests intensified, Bahrain’s neighbor and close political ally, Saudi Arabia, sent 1,000 troops into the tiny island kingdom to help its rulers to remain in power by quashing all dissent. The United Arab Emirates, like Saudi Arabia a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, also sent troops into Bahrain.

Omar al-Shehabi, director of the Gulf Center for Policy Studies, has written of the numerous demographic tensions in Bahraini society, aside from those between Sunni and Shia Muslims. There is a large expatriate workforce, which is tightly controlled and has limited labor rights. Bahrainis currently constitute less than a quarter of the labor force and make up less than half of the 1.2 million residents of the island, down from roughly two-thirds a decade ago, al-Shehabi notes.

He says Bahrain’s current problems are “based on a ruling elite who use the large oil revenues at their disposal to appease local residents through an extensive welfare state, while ensuring that they are marginalized on the political and economic fronts.”

“Under this structure, it is much easier for locals to lay the blame on foreigners and vice versa,” he says.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

U.S. Influence Waning in the Middle East?

By William Fisher

As the U.S. State Department was releasing its annual report on the state of human rights around the world, a highly respected Cairo-based research and advocacy organization was publishing a document that could well have as much influence in the Middle East.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) last week issued its third annual report on the state of human rights in the Arab world in 2010, with a special focus on 12 countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen.

The report is entitled Roots of Unrest, speaking to the distinctive popular revolutions sweeping across the Arab world, which have thus far toppled two of the most entrenched police dictatorships in the region, in Egypt and Tunisia, and is striking at the seats of other dictatorships in Libya and Yemen.

The uprising is also compellingly imposing the need for serious, far-reaching reforms in several states, particularly Morocco, Bahrain, and Algeria, and is having repercussions in Syria, where people are living under a tyrannical regime that barely permits its citizens to breathe.

CIHRS says it hopes that” Roots of Unrest” “will sound a warning for some states and encourage their ruling elites to take the initiative - before it is too late -to adopt far-reaching reforms that meet popular aspirations for freedom and human dignity and a secure transition to democracy.”

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), an organization dedicated to protecting journalists and freedom of the press, said the CIHRS report “digs up roots of unrest in Arab world in new report.”

“As change continues to sweep across the Middle East, with citizens seeking
democracy and guarantees for their basic human rights, you've got to ask: what got them here? CIHRS seeks the answer to this question in "Roots of Unrest,” IFEX wrote.

It is likely that the CIHRS report will have an arguably disproportionate impact on “the Arab Street.” The reason is that, since The Arab Awakening in late January, many in the Middle East have perceived an ambivalence on the part of the U.S. to take strong positions in favor of pro-democracy movements. The U.S. is also seen by many as having applied a double-standard; for example, condemning the Gaddafi regime in Libya while remaining relatively silent on the brutal tactics of the governments in Yemen and Bahrain.

The CIHRS report finds some striking similarities among countries that are now the stage for popular revolutions. Among them: large-scale deterioration of human rights, even in those countries that are supposedly "stable", and a lack of political will to improve the human rights situation; laws that are used often to discipline and harass opponents, including emergency and counterterrorism laws; widespread impunity, often perpetuated by the authorities; and censorship of the media, especially on issues related to the royal family or Islam.

Country by country, "Roots of Unrest" describes in detail the "daily
accumulation of people's suffering and grievances, which led them to the point of no return as they faced their regimes, both those that have already fallen and those still waiting their turn,." IFEX said,

A thorough review of the CIHRS report reveals that the primary roots of unrest in the Arab world are:

• A large-scale deterioration in the state of human rights, even in
those countries that were, or still are, characterized by a level of
ostensible political “stability.”

• A lack of political will among the Arab regimes to advance the
status of human rights in their countries.

• Stagnant legislatures: Arab regimes have preserved an endless
supply of legislation hostile to human rights, that is used to
discipline and harass their opponents and prosecute reformists,
human rights defenders, and advocates. This report notes some
developments on the legislative front in 2010, mostly introduced to
further restrict and suppress liberties, particularly in Egypt,
Tunisia, and Sudan.

• The perpetuation of an authoritarian approach to entrench impunity
and immunity for gross human rights violations.

• The use of states of emergency and counterterrorism laws to
justify serious crimes, including extrajudicial killings, abductions
and involuntary disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and
unfair trials, particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria,
Bahrain, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.

• The continuation of policies that cement and perpetuate absolute
rule or hereditary succession, such as in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen;
or secure systematic ethnic or sectarian social and economic
discrimination and political exclusion, such as in Bahrain, Saudi
Arabia, and Syria.

• The falsification of citizens’ will through rigged general
elections. This report documents the contemptible practices of the
Mubarak regime in administering the so-called parliamentary
“elections” for the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council that
were to precede the presidential elections of 2011. In the run-up to
elections, the regime launched an unprecedented campaign of
suppression that included incitement to kill demonstrators, the
abduction of political activists, and a crackdown on media and new
technologies for information dissemination. The situation differed
little in Bahrain, where parliamentary elections were preceded by detention of hundreds of people, among them prominent
political opposition figures and human rights defenders. Many of the
detainees were brutally tortured before being referred to trial
under the counterterrorism law.

General elections in Sudan were also conducted in a repressive
climate that continued even after the vote. Election outcomes in
Sudan were rigged by manipulating the census and gerrymandering
electoral districts. There was open voter fraud, and the population
of South and West Darfur were unable to vote, while violence and
chaos prevented elections from taking place at all in several

• Blocking outlets for peaceful expression by placing pressure on
freedom of expression and the media, both traditional and new,
especially in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, and Bahrain. Morocco continued
its policy of stifling the press, especially on issues relating to
the King, the royal family, Islam, or the Western Sahara conflict.

• As for the regime of the now deposed Ben Ali in Tunisia, it
continued its absolute confiscation of media freedoms and deployed
the capacities of the police state to harass journalists and
prosecute them on false charges. Various human rights defenders and
political activists, as well as trade unionists, were placed under
close surveillance and endured various forms of harassment and
physical assault. Indeed, the media, totally dominated by the state,
launched smear campaigns against many of these activists.

In Syria, the regime maintained its hostility and intolerance for
freedom of expression and towards political activists and human
rights defenders in general. The regime’s hostility was also
particularly apparent when it came to the rights of the Kurdish

Yet, the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen surpassed even the Syrian regime over the course of last year, sending dozens of journalists to trial, where most of them received harsh prison terms and had their professional credentials revoked.

Newspaper offices were stormed by state security, and several journalists were targets for physical attacks or assassination attempts. Both journalists and human rights defenders faced abductions, temporary disappearances, and torture, while some were then referred to exceptional courts lacking all due-process guarantees.

• The grave assault on the right to equality and freedom from
religious or ethnic discrimination; especially in Bahrain against
the Shiite majority; and in Egypt against Copts, Nubians, and the
Bedouin residents of Sinai.

• The international community’s fading concern with human rights and democracy in the Arab region. Indeed, both the United States and the European Union increasingly allowed expediency and interests with authoritarian regimes trump the protection of human rights and the push for progress on democratic reform.

The report notes that Palestinians remain the targets of egregious abuses, both due to the Israeli occupation and the Fatah-Hamas conflict. Israeli crimes, most notably the use of collective punishment the siege of the Gazan population as well as the imposed blockade on Gaza continued. Last year, Israel attacked the Freedom Flotilla, a convoy ship attempting to bring in humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Israel also continued to implement measures to Judaicize Jerusalem, further entrench settlements, and enforce apartheid, as well as maintain its policy of extrajudicial killings.

The ongoing conflict between Fatah and Hamas was accompanied by the politicization of rights and liberties, which were routinely violated on the basis of political affiliation. Authorities in both the West Bank perceived opponents, including arbitrary detentions, torture, crackdowns on freedom of assembly, NGOs, and human rights organizations, in addition to harassment of journalists and media workers.

Iraq remained the theater of the most lethal violence in the Arab world, which claimed nearly 4,000 lives in just ten months. Religious and ethnic minorities were constant targets for violence and random killing as a result of the dominance of extremist religious discourses and groups in Iraqi political and cultural life.

Hundreds of civilians were killed in military operations against Houthis in Saada, in northern Yemen, as Saudi Arabia joined combat operations on the side of the Yemeni army. The report also documents how the Yemeni authorities have used the war on terror as a pretext to launch military campaigns against the southern provinces, whose residents are involved in widespread protest against the policies of marginalization and exclusion and the ongoing repression of southern citizens.

The U.S. will view much of the this Egyptian report with favor; it largely echoes the findings and conclusions of the State Department’s own Human Rights report.

Other assertions may be less palatable to the U.S. For example, the assertion that “the Yemeni authorities have used the war on terror as a pretext to launch military campaigns against the southern provinces, whose residents are involved in widespread protest against the policies of marginalization and exclusion and the ongoing repression of southern citizens.”

But the issue could be largely moot. The reason is that the views of the U.S. don’t have anywhere near the political clout they once carried among Middle Eastern Arabs. Today, we are being seen as favoring democracy and human rights selectively – willing to give the storied “get out of jail free” card to nations we need, no matter how repressive their rulers.

The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East

By William Fisher

In Bahrain, the daughter of one of that country’s most prominent human rights advocates has now been on a hunger strike for well over 52 hours. The whereabouts of her father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, and his family members, as well as many others, remains unknown after they were whisked out of their homes in a dead-of-night raid by 15 masked security forces dressed in black.

She told The Guardian newspaper of his arrest: "They broke the door of the apartment. My father didn't resist at all, he went to them calmly but straight away a policeman told him, 'Down, down, get on the floor' ... They dragged him down the stairs and started beating him," she said.

"They did not give any reason ... They were beating him very severely, on the ground, maybe four or five of them, kicking him and hitting him in the face."

She said her father had been calling for democracy and had been saying that the regime was guilty of killing, torturing and detaining people, and should be put on trial.

And then there is Ali Isa Saqer, who died in Bahraini custody. Nabeel Rajab,
the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is accused of posting a "fabricated image" of Sager on his Twitter account, showing that Saqer was beaten in custody. The images are graphic, showing Saqer's body covered with bruises and gashes.

According to the interior ministry, the Sager photos were fabricated.

As for Rajab, the official Bahrain news agency and a newspaper close to the government accused him of being part of a "terrorist network" and of passing "false information" to international organizations for the purpose of "harming Bahrain's reputation.”

Later, he was prevented from traveling to Saudi Arabia. In December, Rajab's computer was confiscated as he was about to board a plane at Bahrain international airport. It was returned with the power on, indicating that information may have been downloaded or copied.

Meantime, Maryam Alkhawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, reports, "The fourth death in detention in 10 days yesterday." Kareem Fakhrawi was a businessman who disappeared after he went to the police station to file a complaint. He was one of the founders of AlWasat Newspaper and was on the board of directors.

She writes, “You can see the footage of his body which shows torture marks here: The only official statement was on the Bahrain News Agency twitter account he died from liver failure complications:!/bna_ar/status/57938447310131200.”

In Yemen, violent clashes were also reported in Sana’a and Aden. Across Yemen, thousands continued protesting against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Arab Gulf states, involved in mediating the crisis in Yemen, made a more aggressive push for Saleh to step down, a move that Saleh has rejected. Meanwhile, opposition demonstrations grow and more protesters are killed, injured and jailed.

And in Syria, as Security Forces open fire on protesters, the Syrian branch of the International Federation for Human Rights calls for international pressure on Syria, denunciation of the repression by the UN Security Council and the convening of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council.

But Syrian security forces continue to fire on thousands of demonstrators in Deraa, killing more than 20. Mass demonstrations continue in Douma despite the cutting of phone lines. Over the weekend, clashes continued with security forces firing live ammunition on funeral processions and protesters in Banias and Deraa.

Some have suggested that Syria’s President Asad is changing his strategy, moving from “break up the demonstrations in any way necessary” to “just take photos of the main demonstrators and go to their homes and arrest them after the demonstrations.”

But perhaps the Security Forces didn’t get the memo. They are continuing to use tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to quell the massive disturbances.

Given what has already happened in Egypt and Tunisia, the rulers of Bahrain, Yemen and Syria must be thought of as “The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East.”

Despite incontrovertible evidence from Egypt that merely changing the government does not satisfy those who demand nothing less than the ouster of their present rulers, the Three Blind Mice nevertheless went through this ritual Kabuki dance.

Predictably, with no effect whatever.

In Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has been approached by various groups and individuals with suggestions for his orderly departure. The King is a Sunni Muslim; a sizable part of his population is Shia. But the uprisings against his rule have come from both Sunni and Shia. The Shia live mostly in the Eastern part of Bahrain, nearest to Shia copmmunitieuis in neighboring Sunni Saudi Arabia. That was a major reason the Saudis sent a thousand troops into Bahrain to help the King maintain law and order, Saudi style.

The United States, while excoriating Iranian ally Syria, has been largely silent on Bahrain, presumably because of the tiny Kingdom’s proximity to Saudi Arabia and the presence of sizable populatuions of Shia Musis in each couintry, and Bahrain’s strategic role as headquarters of the U.S. fifth fleet.

In Yemen, President Saleh first sought to mollify demonstrators by pledging not to run in 2012, when his term expires. Later, under still more pressure, he agreed to leave office by the end of this year. Still later, he appeared to reject both these positions and his current thinking remains unclear. Protestors are demanding nothing less than his immediate departure, as Egyptians did vis a vis Mubarak.

For the U.S., the Yemen situation is causing a major migraine.

In Syria, opposition groups say the Asad regime has reached out to them to begin talks. And Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has made some concessions to the demonstrators. For example, he granted Syrian citizenship to up to 150,000 Kurds living in eastern Syria, thus satisfying a long-standing demand of the Kurdish minority.

But these belated gestures will mean less than nothing if armed police and soldiers are killing, injuring and arresting protesters at the same time.

That is a fool’s strategy. And it is unlikely to satisfy the demands of the pro-democracy movement.

How is all this likely to play out? The honest answer is that no one knows. It is possible that The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East may for now be successful in putting down their rebellions using brute force, or some combination of the usual repression sweetened with a few crumbs of new freedom.

But history tells us that when movements such as The Arab Awakening reach the kind of numbers and intensity it took to oust Mubarak from Egypt and Ben Ali from Tunisia they become virtualy unstoppable.

They may be quieted for weeks, months, even years. But, one day, they will be re-galvanized by some random event, like a fruit-seller setting himself on fire.

So The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East shouldn’t bet on The Arab Awakening going back to sleep.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Are Mideast Women Being Sidelined from “The Arab Awakening”?

By William Fisher

During the pro-democracy demonstrations that ultimately brought down the dictatorial reigns of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, you couldn’t help noticing that these events were distinctly unisex, still a surprising development in the Middle East.

As a leading Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi, put it: “Women and girls are beside boys in the streets. They are -- and we are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy and a new constitution, no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians.”

There are hundreds of similar examples: Women of all ages, who have devoted themselves to securing equal rights and freedom from religious as well as political discrimination.

And in Egypt and Tunisia, women in the demonstrations didn’t just make the tea. They participated in –and sometimes led – virtually every facet of the protests. For that time, at least, they were treated more as equals than is usually the case in male-dominated Arab societies.

One of them is a young Egyptian activist named Esraa Abdel Fattah. Esraa has come to be known as “Facebook Girl” for her role in organizing what became known as the April 6th Facebook Protests, a mobilization of thousands of young people demanding political change.

Esraa is a leading Egyptian democracy and human rights activist. In April 2008 she was imprisoned for her Facebook organizing work, She played a leading role in the mass protests in Tahrir Square and is a prominent spokesperson for the youth protest movement in Egypt. Last month she was among a group of activists who met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo.

During the January 2011 nationwide protests in Egypt, Esraa was active on the Internet, on the ground in Tahrir Square, and in media—including on Al Jazeera TV, regularly updating the news on the opposition. Esraa is a prominent spokesperson for the youth protest movement in Egypt. On March 15, she was among a group of activists who met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo.

Esraa and her colleagues are known for their innovative use of social networking sites as an organizing tool.

And then there were Egyptian activists Mona El Seif and Salma al-Tarzi. These two courageous women, camped out in Tahrir Square during all the days of the protests, were the world’s eyes and ears. Western media reps had a tough time getting into Tahrir Square. So these two intrepids undertook to spend hours on the phone with CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC, and many other international networks. Without them, we would all have known a lot less about the details of what was going on in real time in Tahrir Square.

And these three women are far from alone; there is a virtual army of intrepids in Egypt, in Tunisia and throughout the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. The question is: What roles will these women be able to play after the demonstrations – when the hard work of nation-building really gets underway?

Will they occupy senior posts in new political parties? Will they join the men as political strategists? Or head up the ‘get out the vote’ programs? Will they lead the political parties’ new legal teams? Will they be welcomed as equals by the men who would customarily comprise the parties’ internal think-tanks to develop public policies for a new democracy?

The Public Record posed that question to a number of authorities who have reason to know.

Nadya Khalife, a researcher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, told us: “ As things stand right now in Egypt, women were unfortunately left out of the Constitutional Committee tasked with amending the Constitution [in Egypt]. Also, there were no women ministers in the newly appointed cabinet. In Tunisia, one female judge sits on the investigative committee to inquire and investigate abuses during the Tunisian revolution. There are also two female ministers (minister for women, and minister for health) in Tunisia’s government. Although there is some presence of women in Tunisia’s transitional government, this does not necessarily reflect the capacity of female politicians in Tunisia.”

Chip Pitts, a longtime human rights advocate and lecturer in law at Stanford and Oxford Universities, told us: “My survey population is a bit skewed, as my female friends and former students there tend to be human rights literate and conscious. But although it varies a bit by country, certainly in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, and even Syria, I don’t see a lot of satisfaction with the traditional role of women so much as a recognition that it could take some time and lots of persistent effort to overcome stereotypes and what is, ultimately, a cultural issue (even more than a religious issue).”

Pitts added, “In the meantime, I hear lots of frustration but continued determination and optimism to work for change. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, there’s more ambivalence, but even there I see repressed desires for political involvement and leadership roles beginning to be asserted in some quarters.”

Professor Nathan A. Brown, International Affairs Director for the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and a senior associate the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has a somewhat different viewpoint. He told The Public Record:

“There certainly were some women involved in the various opposition movements in leadership roles, but gender issues did not figure prominently in the demonstrations or the revolution. I don’t see any sign that changing gender relations is prominent in any way for any of the groups in question. If there is an effect on gender relations, it may be indirect. For instance, deteriorating public security may make public space even more male dominated than it has been -- though I did not see that happening in Egypt when I was there last month, it could be an indirect effect.”

“Should the salafis gain cultural influence, that will probably have some effect as well -- and salafis are certainly more visible now, but I don’t know if they are having much effect on social practice outside their own circles,” he said, adding:

“The groups involved are certainly mobilizing women voters. But in leadership roles? I don’t see any signs that special efforts are being made in that regard, though some women have emerged as leaders.”

Frida Ghitis, an independent journalist, recently wrote in the Miami Herald, “As far as I can see, the new reform structures are not making any provisions to ensure women's rights. In fact, reformists in Egypt were deeply disappointed by the outcome of a constitutional reform referendum a couple of weeks ago, which maintained Sharia as the basis of law. That could prove damaging for women's standing. The Muslim Brotherhood was very happy with the results.”

In Yemen, she added, “where a woman is one of the early leaders of the uprising, the movement is being taken over by the Islamists, who are no friends of women's rights.”

That women were every bit as able to be full partners in the history-making demonstrations that are still continuing in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as in many other countries throughout the region, has been proven. That there is an enormous reservoir of skills among the women of MENA is perhaps less known but no less true.

But integrating these women as equal partners in the post-demonstration phase of democracy-building is going to be tough on Arab men. To achieve that partnership, most Arab males are going to have to take on a really hard job: Changing their attitudes toward women.

Arab men are often heard saying that Sharia law treats women equally (it doesn’t). But if they really believe that, they’re going to have to shed some of the stereotypes that have plagued Arab women for centuries.

Not an easy task. But the incentive is huge. Because this is a time, arguably more than any other in recent history, when embryonic democracies need all the smart, motivated players they can recruit, regardless of gender.

And speaking of motivation, some of the most thoughtful, poetic, heart-wrenching descriptions of what the pro-democracy movement means, have come from women.

One that strikes me as particularly poignant comes from Egyptian-born columnist and speaker Mona Eltahawy. Writing in The Guardian, she said:

“To understand the importance of what's going in Egypt, take the barricades of 1968 (for a good youthful zing), throw them into a mixer with 1989 and blend to produce the potent brew that the popular uprising in Egypt is preparing to offer the entire region. It's the most exciting time of my life. Watching the uprising from New York City exhilarates me and makes me so proud to be an Egyptian. I cry when I see video footage of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, filled with thousands upon thousands chanting: ‘The people want to topple the president.’

“Tahrir means liberation in Arabic, and it gives me goosebumps as I watch my country people demand liberty,” she said.

For Mona, and women throughout the region, democracy is not something the women want the men to achieve for them. It is something they want to achieve with them. Together.

And if the guys in the Middle East are as smart as they’re going to have to be, they’ll figure out how to make that happen.