Female figures have taken pivotal roles during Middle East uprisings. But with women failing to be taken seriously in coming elections, human rights are under threat. Zahid Mahmood reports from the Youth Professionals Summit at the Brussels Forum
«What is the future for democracy in the Middle East, following the Arab Spring?»… «Depends how you define democracy», says Mahmoud Salem, a political activist from Egypt.
Speaking at the Brussels Forum 2012 some of the most influential North American and European political, corporate and intellectual leaders met to address the pressing challenges currently facing both sides of the Atlantic and how the issues were of global significance.
Running side by side with the main event was the Young Professionals Summit, where the big issue seemed to be democracy in the Middle East and how human rights were neither being protected nor promoted in the process of democratisation. What was crucial in the eyes of the speakers was that democracy was not simply voting within a political system, but it was more the «rights and values» which developed the term democracy.
While the Arab Spring or awakening has brought about a significant visible change from the longstanding dictatorships, little practical or efficient change has been made in terms of the promotion of basic human rights. This claim was supported by Mahmoud Salem who suggested human rights had taken a «downfall» within Egypt, especially in terms of women’s rights.
A further pressing question within the forum was whether or not a female candidate had any real opportunity to take the top seat as president in Egypt’s coming election. The speaker was far from convinced that a female candidate would be able to lead a country, laughing at the thought before continuing to answer the question. His words and body language seemed to suggest that the Arab Spring had made little impact on the rights of women and that the future was bleak for the women of the Middle East. Has the Arab Spring really brought about a significant change for all its citizens?
Referring to the Egyptian presidential election, the spokesman added: «There are so many candidates, many of whom were standing for personal or local issues», which were not going to take forward the Egyptian nation. When asked about the number of women standing for the presidential seat, the spokesman laughed. He said: «There is many, but no one takes them seriously». The strongest candidates would win.
Women have been seen in pivotal roles in the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011, though concerns rise for a reversal of women rights under the popular Islamist movements after the election. The Egyptian speaker felt «little has changed» and little can be expected to change in the near future.
He was convinced that a return to religious law would bring more security and peace to the country. The first two rounds of elections suggest that the Salafi Muslim Brotherhood party may take power with its majority stronghold candidates being male. But if the Arab Spring was considered a revolution of rights and democracy, then why are these rights being diminished in the process?
There was a real sense of negativity projected from the panel speakers on the aftermath of the Arab Spring. There was almost a loss of belief that anything could be achieved in the years to come and that a move towards the Islamic Brotherhood was a move in the right direction for the «time being». What had actually been achieved from these revolutions? Women’s rights seem to set to suffer and it is highly optimistic to believe that the Millennium Development Goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women by 2015 will be achieved in the Middle East.
A year on and the Arab Spring seems to be losing its way, with the Muslim brotherhood rising. What future do we see for a conservative group, which in the past has been criticized by Western governments? The revolution may have come to Egypt, but a male dominated presidential race will see the rights of women become restricted. What then for the progression of women, can democracy in terms of rights really prevail?
Zahid Mahmood is a member of the British Council’s Global Changemakers network and was the youngest British participant at the Brussels Forum 2012. He is also a member of the online editorial team at Publicservice.co.uk