Five Reasons Why Awarding Tawakkul Karman the Nobel Peace Prize was the Right Choice

On Friday the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded three women’s rights activists: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and Tawakkul Karman from Yemen. All three are thoroughly deserving of the prize but it was the committee’s choice of Karman that was particularly inspired. Here I put forward five reasons why the choosing Tawakkul Karman was the right decision.

1.     It highlights the Role of, and Consequences for, Women in the Arab Spring
Many commentators have expressed their disappointment that the Nobel Peace Prize had got gone to the activists behind the Arab Spring. For example, Brookings Institute Director of Research Shadi Hamid tweeted:

“Women’s rights is an ongoing struggle, so seems odd #Nobel cmte would pick this yr, when Arab spring one of biggest events in decades”

It’s true that the realisation of women’s rights is an ongoing struggle but, precisely because of the Arab Spring, this is a crucial moment for women in the Middle East. The consequences of the Arab Spring for women have been widely varied. In Tunisia, the revolution has secured and built upon the culture of respecting women’s rights there with each political party now required to have 50% of its lists as female candidates. In contrast, the consequences have been very different for women in Egypt. As I said in last week’s blog, despite the role of women in the revolution and the abundant hopes that characterised the time shortly after the ousting of Mubarak, activists are now fighting just to hold on to what they had before.

As such, this is a pivotal moment for women in the Middle East. Women will either be carried with or left behind by the revolutionary momentum that has built up in the region. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an female revolutionary leader from the Arab world, a women who is called the ‘mother of the revolution’, is a step toward ensuring it’s the former and not the latter. It helps to keep the world’s attention of women’s rights in the Middle East serves as a reminder that there is more to the Arab spring than overthrowing dictators.

2.     The Impact on Yemen
As well as promoting women’s rights in the Arab world, the awarding of the prize to Tawakkul Karman also draws attention to Yemen for the rights reasons; for once Yemen is in the news for its revolution and activists and not al-Qaeda or political instability.

This put new pressure on the regime and provides a huge boost to those fighting for a revolution in Yemen. It is no surprise that a day after the announcement President Saleh ‘promised’ he would resign within days. Even if this promise is mere rhetoric, Salah had to react to the increase international pressure that awarding the Nobel Prize to Karman provided.

3.     It reinforces the notion of Islamism being compatible with Women’s RIghts
Over the last 10 years it has become increasing clear that the realisation of women’s rights in the Middle East can only be done in a manner consistent with Islamist discourse and with the consent or the main Islamist groups. This was most clearly seen in Morocco where a new family law was effectively vetoed in 2000 by the main Islamist groups only to be passed four years later once it had been reformulated according to Islamist language (with only small changes to the actual substance of the laws). With Islamist parties likely to be the largest in the new parliaments of revolutionary states and the largest opposition parties in other regional states, this pattern looks set to continue.

Despite the common conception that Islamism and women’s rights are incompatible, history shows that not to be the case and political reality means that it will be necessary for women’s rights activists to work with Islamist parties in order to get legislation passed.

Karman’s close relationship with the al-Islah party makes an interesting case in point. Her position as a both a women’s rights campaigner and an Islamist sympathiser in many ways gives her more scope to press for reforms beneficial to women. Though she has faced difficulties with some wings of al-Islah, most notably after she was critical after it blocked a law making it illegal for girls under 17 to marry, she sees it as the most effective way to pursue women’s rights in Yemen. This path will need to be well trodden over the coming years if the situation of women in the Middle East is to improve. It is for this reason that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakkul Karman and raising awareness of an Islamist campaigner for women’s rights is so important.

4.     Karman as a Role Model
Awarding such a prestigious prize to Middle Eastern women in itself encourages others to follow in Karman’s footsteps and demand their rights. Even before the prize was given to her, Karman was a role model for many women in her native Yemen. As she said to the Guardian:

“If you go to the protests now, you will see something you never saw before: hundreds of women. They shout and sing, they even sleep there in tents. This is not just a political revolution, it’s a social revolution.”

The Nobel prize projects Karman onto the global stage, inspiring thousands of Arab women. Karman described the prize as “a victory for Arab women” and there is real hope that it will turn out to be so.

5.     Promoting Women’s rights promotes democracy
Returning to the initial criticism of the choice of Sirleaf, Gbowee, and Karman – that the Arab Spring was more important than women’s rights – provides the fifth reason: that promoting women’s rights itself promotes democracy; women’s rights are a fundamental part of the Arab Spring.

This was explicitly noted by the Nobel committee:

“We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society”

Rather than choosing women’s rights over democracy, the decision recognises that democracy cannot be achieved without empowering women.

Why the SCAF announcement is not good for Egypt

On Saturday Sami Anan, chief of staff of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), released a document signalling a much awaited change in several key policies. The day before, Friday 30th September, protestors had flocked to Tahrir Square to protest against the ongoing military rule in Egypt and demand a transition to civilian rule. At the same time, political parties had threatened to boycott the upcoming legislative elections were there not changes to the electoral law, with the Muslim Brotherhood even threatening ‘a revolution’ on Sunday had its demands not been met. The SCAF announcement, coming a day later, seemed to be a direct result of such pressure.

News reports have tended to see Saturday’s statement by the SCAF as the result of pressure from mass protests and political parties thus implying some concession by the military leaders to democracy and popular will. The BBC stated that:

“Egypt’s ruling military council has decided to amend an article of an election law, state media report, following demands from protesters.”

The Egyptian Gazette goes further in describing the announcement as the SCAF “caving in” to popular pressure.

Initially, there seems to be reason to praise the SCAF’s announcement. It purports to set out a timetable to the handover power to a civilian government, promise the end of military trials for civilians and the emergency law and amend the controversial electoral law.  However, closer analysis of the document makes for a less optimistic reading.

Perhaps the issue that resonates most strongly with the public is the military trials of civilians. Since the revolution, more people have been tried under military law than under the entire 30 years of Mubarak’s reign. On Friday nearly every protestor and wall was covered with stickers saying الثوار مش بلطجيه – ليه نتحاكم عسكرية؟ (Revolutionaries are not thugs – why are we trying them militarily?) or, more simply, أنا ضد المحاكمات العسكرية للمدنيين (I’m against the military trials of civilians). The SCAF document only promises to ‘study’ or ‘look into’ ending military trials for civilians. Anyone who has lived in Egypt will tell you that promising to ‘look into something’ effectively means nothing is going to happen. On top of that, even this vaguest of commitments comes with an immediate caveat: the SCAF will study ending military trials for civilians إلا في الجرائم التي ينص عليها قانون القضاء العسكري (with the exception of crimes committed under the military code of justice). However, Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef points out that this military code includes penal code crimes and covers almost all crimes. In adding this caveat we see that the SCAF doesn’t understand, or is choosing to disregard, the issue at stake. The delineation should not be the type of crime committed but the status of the person committing the crime; military trials should be reserved for military personal – not civilians.

The second ‘concession’ the SCAF made was to set out a clear timetable for transferring power to civilian rule. The problem is that its not clear and barely a timetable. The schedule given by the SCAF is complicated and, crucially, non-binding. Deciphering the announcement reveals that elections for the Lower House (Peoples’ Assembly) are set to begin on 28th November 2011 and last until mid January 2012. Once results have been announced, this house will convene and on the 26th March, the upper house (Shura Council) will sit. Then, by early April, the two houses will come together to draw up a new constitution. This constitution will be written and put to referendum by October. Once the constitution has been passed, candidates will be able to put themselves forward for president and a presidential election will be held within 60 days. Assuming, as is probable, all parts of the process take the maximum amount of time, Egypt is effectively left with a military government until late 2012 or even early 2013 – and that is if there are no unforeseen delays. By that time the SCAF will have been in power for two years will have had the time to entrench its control over Egypt’s political institutions leaving the country in an Algerian-esque part-military/part-civilian political landscape.

Next, the SCAF promises to look into the possibility of “stripping former National Democratic Party members of political rights”. Not only is stripping anybody of their political rights deeply problematic from a human rights standpoint but it must be remembered that Egypt was a one-party state before the revolution. As such, vast numbers of NDP members will have joined the party out of necessity rather than any commitment to Mubarak’s dictatorship. This is especially the case in upper Egypt where big families were courted by the party often with little option other than to work with it.

The final part of the SCAF’s announcement concerns the largely incomprehensible electoral laws. Political parties have vociferously campaigned against article 5 of the new electoral law. As it stands, a third of the MPs in Egypt’s next parliament will be independent candidates. Political parties have decried the law as enabling former Mubarak supporters to gain seats in the parliament and for encouraging vote buying as people vote for individuals and not party manifestos. That political parties call for a larger proportion of seats to go to political parties should come as no surprise. Indeed, the amendment to article 5 should be seen more as the SCAF appeasing the parties than as a genuine concession to democracy and greater civilian control of Egyptian politics.

The argument that the SCAF gave in to popular pressure is undermined by the fact that Friday’s turnout, at between 5,000 to 10,000 was below expectations and far below the level needed to intimidate the SCAF.

Despite hopes that it was a response to democratic pressures, the SCAF document serves only to sap more optimism from those hoping for a democratic, civilian-run, Egypt. It is this dying optimism that is leading to a build up of tension against the SCAF. On Friday I heard for the first time mass chants specifically against leader of the SCAF FIeld Marshal Tantawi with 1000s of people chanting الشعب يريد إسقاط المشير (the people want the overthrowing of the field marshal). Without a genuine change in the direction of Egyptian politics an escalation in the tension is inevitable.