What Comes Next For the Middle East?

The last few weeks in the Middle East have been a story of extraordinary courage and heroism. With dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia lying in ruins and the democratic revolt now spreading to Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, it’s not too early to start thinking about what will come next.

The omnipresent fear in Western media is that the newly free countries will be taken over by an Islamist majority. This isn’t an unreasonable concern (although it hardly justifies the West’s decades of supporting brutal, repressive dictators just because they weren’t theocrats). However, I think that at least in these two countries, there’s reason for optimism.

As this article points out, and as I’ve observed previously, one of the newest and most surprising things about the protests was the huge and crucial role played by women. Tunisia, in particular, had a strong tradition of women’s rights – its female citizens were among the first of any Arab country to gain the vote – and high rates of female education and literacy. The ex-dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali gambled that this liberality would keep people pacified, but it had the opposite effect: the educated populace was more able to see his corruption for what it was and less willing to tolerate it, and women joined the marches in vast numbers. Tunisia’s women played such a crucial role in the revolution that even the country’s formerly exiled Islamists feel compelled to recognize their leadership:

Crowds of women in traditional Islamic dress welcomed the long-exiled leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, upon his return to the country Jan. 30.

But, as Radhia Nasraoui, a prominent Tunisian human rights lawyer points out, unlike the Taliban in 1996 or Iran’s mullahs in 1979, Mr. Ghannouchi has felt compelled to repeatedly and publicly pledge to safeguard women’s rights in recent weeks.

“It may be tactical, but the fact that he feels he has to talk this way is a pretty good indication that wanting to roll back women rights is no way to gain support in Tunisia right now,” Ms. Nasraoui said.

Then there’s Egypt. On the surface, there’s less reason for optimism here. Before the revolution, aggressive sexual harassment of Egyptian women was routine and omnipresent, as dramatized by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab in his film 678. The savage sexual assault on Lara Logan in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall (whether by regime supporters or opponents will probably never be known) was a highly visible example of the brutality too often tolerated in Egyptian society.

But here, too, there are some green sprouts. Chief among these was the way that women fearlessly joined the crowds in Tahrir Square (and also see my earlier post):

Fatma Emam’s mother accused her of wanting to be a man and threatened to disown her if the 28-year-old joined the protests in Tahrir Square. She went anyway.

“There are so many women who like me defied their families,” Emam said after spending five days and four nights in downtown Cairo. “The revolution is not only taking place in Tahrir, it is taking place in every Egyptian house. It is the revolution of fighting the patriarch.”

…The 25-year-old who helped spark the demonstrations with an online video, Asmaa Mahfouz, said her father refused to allow her to stay in the plaza after dark. “No girl of mine spends the night away from home,” Mahfouz said he told her.

In the video, Mahfouz said: “I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square. Come down with us and demand your rights.”

I know better than to believe that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda have completely given up their theocratic aims, whatever they say in public. But it also seems clear that they’re biding their time, not wanting to move openly unless they believe they have a good chance of success – and if the Middle East’s young secular revolutionaries remain vigilant, the theocrats may never get that chance. Now that Egypt’s women have tasted real freedom, we can hope, they won’t be quieted – they know perfectly well what they’d stand to lose from the imposition of sharia, and they have the confidence that comes of having toppled one dictatorship already.

This is why groups like the Taliban are so fanatically opposed to schools for girls. The way to keep people under your thumb is to keep them poor, isolated and ignorant – because only then can they be persuaded to believe that no change is ever possible. The more educated a nation’s people are, the more they can look beyond their own circumstances to the wider world and imagine how things could be different. This is true for both men and women, but since patriarchal religions put special emphasis on controlling women’s lives, women’s education is particularly deadly to them. That’s a lesson to keep in mind as these nations begin to rebuild themselves.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Le Grolandais

    There is another interest for fanatics to forbid girls to be educated : by separating humans in 2 categories (here males, who are superior, and can be [under]educated, and female, inferior beings, unable to understand anything), you can more easily be approved by the group considered superior. After that, this superior group need to stay under-educated (religious stuff helps a lot for this job) and be re-assured that god tells that male are superior to female, and it’s done.
    Even women start to think it’s true.

    Let’s remember that during the Iranian Revolution, back to 1979, laïc, marxist and socialist groups stand next to religious against the Shah, but they were quickly declared against Revolution and pursued (like they were under the Shah’s dictatorship).
    I hope this example will lead Maghreb and Middle East away from religious integrists.


    As a first time commenter, i wish to thank all the persons who make this website possible.
    As a European (recently immigrant in North America), i feeled religion is too much present in every day’s life, and moderate opinion not enough publicized.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    The revolutions truly are historic in scale. I only hope against hope that their virgin victory does not fall into the honey-sweet clawed clutches of religion. Down with the dictators! Murderers they are, horrible is their fate!! Long live a secular Middle East!

  • http://forums.blueelephantbrigade.com John H.

    BBC had an article about the changes to the Egyptian constitution this morning. Unfortunately, there appears to be no change to Islam being the official state religion.

  • Rollingforest

    One thing I learned is that the general public in the Arab world and Middle East is more connected to the international media than I had thought. If the dictators had controlled the press they could have just not mentioned the revolts going on in other countries, thus removing the spark that has been starting the revolutions in so many other countries. The fact that the people found out anyway about the other revolts is testament to the fact that media (perhaps the internet) is harder to control than the dictators would like.

  • http://www.dsoat.wordpress.com Ben

    I think that only true peace can be found in the right religion. The problem with the middle east isn’t that they believe in God they believe in a god of hate and war.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I think that only true peace can be found in the right religion. The problem with the middle east isn’t that they believe in God they believe in a god of hate and war.

    Then I guess we can safely say that no religion ever invented yet is the “right religion.”

  • kennypo65

    I just hope against hope that the younger, educated, underemployed and discontented who began this revolution are the ones still standing when it’s over. I’m not holding my breath, however. This thing could just as easily go the way of Iran’s revolution.

    I am not suprised that the price of oil has gone up. Everytime that an arab scratches his balls they use it as an excuse to jack up the price.

  • Bob Carlson

    …and that a secular spirit is rising throughout the industrialized world.

    And per this optimistic video titledRushdie on the Secular Revolution in the Middle East, perhaps even in the less industrialized parts of the world. However, despite Rushdie’s claim that none of the uprisings has been about religion, I did see a video on Yemen in which there was a call for replacement of the current government with an Islamic one. Otherwise, the uprisings do appear to be secular in nature, and I hope that will ultimately prove true even in the case of Yemen.

  • Bob Carlson

    Oops. I had intended comment #8 for the post on Atheism breaking out all over, from which the block-quoted phrase came.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    There is another interest for fanatics to forbid girls to be educated : by separating humans in 2 categories (here males, who are superior, and can be [under]educated, and female, inferior beings, unable to understand anything), you can more easily be approved by the group considered superior. After that, this superior group need to stay under-educated (religious stuff helps a lot for this job) and be re-assured that god tells that male are superior to female, and it’s done.

    Thanks, Le Grolandais, that’s an excellent point. If you want to get people on your side, nothing works better than telling them that they’re a naturally superior class. People are all too willing to be fooled by that, despite the blatantly self-serving nature of the flattery – religion probably helps to disguise it by letting the speaker pass it off as God’s opinion rather than his own, which for some reason strikes many people as more plausible.


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