Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

Business Development for Democracy

by Isobel Coleman Thursday, June 30, 2011

A woman looks at clothes at a stall during the 2nd Asian Women Entrepreneurs Eid Festival 2005 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 10, 2005 (Rafiquar Rahman/Courtesy Reuters).

The role of a vibrant business community in promoting both economic development and durable democracy is widely acknowledged. But it is less clear how to foster a private sector that can serve as an engine of growth and participate constructively in the democratic process. The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) works on just this question. One of the four “core grantees” of the National Endowment for Democracy, CIPE aims “to strengthen democracy around the globe through private enterprise and market-oriented reform.” The organization helps business associations and other private actors in developing countries with such challenges as improving laws and regulations, bolstering corporate governance, boosting entrepreneurship, and combating corruption. In addition, CIPE works to educate government officials, businesspeople, the media, and the public about “the freedoms, rights, and responsibilities essential to market-oriented democracies.”

Last week my colleague Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, deputy director of CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Program, spoke at a conference hosted by CIPE in Washington. Here is Gayle’s readout of the conference and the trends in women’s entrepreneurship, a subject that is also the focus of her book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

When it comes to entrepreneurship and the power of economics to change lives, women face both promising opportunities and daunting barriers. Both were in focus at a conference hosted last week by the Center for International Private Enterprise entitled, Democracy that Delivers for Women. Read more »

Women Driving and Reform in Saudi Arabia

by Isobel Coleman Monday, June 27, 2011

Umm Ibrahim sits behind the wheel of her vehicle as she drives in Riyadh, an act that is banned in Saudi Arabia, June 21, 2011 (Amena Bakr/Courtesy Reuters).

Following up on my earlier blog post on this issue, I wrote an article about the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia, which appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post. The piece argues that although last week’s driving protest passed with a whimper compared to the uprisings shaking the rest of the Arab world, the ongoing debate over women’s rights is at the heart of tensions between reform and conservative religious tradition in Saudi Arabia. Read more »

Yemen’s Revolutionary Discontents

by Isobel Coleman Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Yemeni rights activist Tawakkol Karman shouts slogans as a policeman watches during an anti-government demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen, February 15, 2011 (Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Courtesy Reuters).

Yemeni politician and activist Tawakkol Karman published an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Yemen’s Unfinished Revolution.” A leader of Yemen’s democratic youth movement and founder of the NGO Women Journalists Without Chains, Karman is an outspoken advocate of reform in her country. For several years, she has led student protests at Sanaa University, demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s corrupt government step down. In January, as the turmoil of Arab discontent spread across the region, Karman’s protest movement became a focal point of opposition. Every day, she could be found in front of the main gates of the university, leading a growing group of protesters in chants of “No studies, no teaching until the president is out.” When I visited with Karman at her home in Sanaa in mid-January, she insisted that she would not be deterred, even if the regime arrested her—which indeed happened just two days later. True to her convictions, Karman continued her protests after her brief detainment. With President Saleh recuperating in Saudi Arabia from severe injuries sustained in a recent bombing of his palace, it appears that Karman’s first objective has been achieved: Saleh is out, and unlikely to return.

Yemen now suffers from a power vacuum. Karman voices the revolution’s demands that authority must pass to a “transitional presidential council approved by the people,” and that this council must manage the country until elections can be held. She reiterates that a democratic system supported by development and civil institutions is the way forward for Yemen.

Unfortunately, the longer instability persists in Yemen, the more divorced from reality this vision becomes. Yemen’s current situation is not so much a negotiation between the advocates of reform and the remnants of the old regime—as is the case today in Tunisia and Egypt—but instead looks more like a raw power struggle between rival armed factions. The sons and nephews of President Saleh have a monopoly on the country’s security forces, whereas the influential Ahmar clan, a rival family, has its own forces fighting Saleh and in recent months has been bankrolling the protests. A further wild card is General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (not related to the Ahmar clan), who defected from the military and brought loyal troops with him. These troops have been protecting protesters and have also clashed with Saleh’s forces. This situation could easily devolve into civil war. Moreover, the political opposition is relatively weak and not in a position to argue effectively for lasting reforms amidst this chaos. Most opposition parties are grouped under the umbrella of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which includes Islamists, socialists, and tribal leaders. The JMP lost the support of many protesters after it signed a deal with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC had attempted to broker Saleh’s exit, but the arrangement seemed to offer Saleh too much leniency.

Read more »

Saudi Women in the Driver’s Seat

by Isobel Coleman Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cars travel along King Fahd main road in Riyadh, as banners are hung to welcome Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, February 21, 2011 (Fahad Shadeed/Courtesy Reuters).

Last month, women activists in Saudi Arabia launched the Women2Drive campaign on Facebook, calling on Saudi women with international or foreign drivers’ licenses to get behind the wheel of a car on June 17 and demand the right to drive. Saudi Arabia has the distinction of being the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Indeed, in a region where women’s rights lag in many respects, Saudi Arabia stands out as the most oppressive place. According to a 2010 Freedom House study, Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia came in last on almost every measure of political, civil, economic, and legal rights for women.

While it is unlikely that the protest drive on June 17 will fundamentally alter the situation for Saudi women, it does represent a watershed moment. This is the largest organized protest by Saudi women and so far, the leaders of the campaign have refused to back down even in the face of harsh government repression. One of the organizers, Manal al-Sharif, has already spent more than a week in jail for her crime of driving publicly last month. Saudi authorities have made it clear that they will not tolerate this flagrant disobedience on the part of women, vowing to arrest any who dare to drive on Friday. The women have taken their cause to the global media, giving numerous interviews on international television and sending an open letter both to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and High Representative Catherine Ashton of the European Union asking for their support. Tens of thousands of people around the world have signed the letters. Read more »

Iran’s Green Movement: Awaiting Another Spark

by Isobel Coleman Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during a news conference in Tehran June 7, 2011. No offer from world powers could persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium, Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday. (Caren Firouz/Courtesy Reuters)

Sunday, June 12 marked the second anniversary of Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election that sparked massive public demonstrations, resulting in the arrest of more than 5,000 people and a surge in politically motivated executions. To mark the anniversary last year, Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi toyed with organizing big protests but ultimately called them off as authorities made it clear that no dissent would be tolerated. This year, there has been even less room for protest. Both Mousavi and Karroubi are under house arrest. They and their wives have been held since February, without any charge or trial, after calling for protests in solidarity with the Arab Spring. The Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope, the Green Movement’s decision-making body, invited Iranians to participate in a “silent march” through the heart of Tehran on Sunday. Thousands braved their way into the streets, walking quietly and wearing green scarves with their hands and faces painted green, some with photos of Mousavi pinned to their clothes. But far fewer than the million people the Green Movement had hoped for appeared. Still, the government took no chances. It lined the streets with security forces that in many spots seemed considerably to outnumber the silent marchers. Read more »

The Economic Approach to Middle East Democracy

by Isobel Coleman Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A vendor sells pulp and peanuts near Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo March 2, 2011. The souvenirs on the side of the cart display the date of the start of the Egyptian protests. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters)

There is considerable concern about the political transitions ongoing in Egypt and Tunisia—rightly so given the many obstacles to building a stable democracy. In this guest post, my colleague Charles Landow, associate director of CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative, takes a look at this process from an economic angle.

As Egypt and Tunisia navigate the perilous path out of autocracy, what can help make them enduring democracies? History suggests that one answer is economic development.

Empirical work by scholars shows that wealthier countries are more likely to sustain democracy than poorer ones. In a groundbreaking 1997 study and later work, political scientist Adam Przeworski of NYU and colleagues found that no democracy with a per-capita income higher than $6,055 in 1985 dollars had ever collapsed into autocracy. And even under this level, more income was associated with longer-lasting democracy. In their sample of 135 countries, the authors found that a per-capita income under $1,000 gave a democracy a one-in-eight chance of collapse in a given year. A per-capita income of $1,001-$2,000 lowered the chance to less than one-in-seventeen. And so on. Read more »

What Do Egyptians Say about the Military’s “Virginity Testing”?

by Isobel Coleman Friday, June 3, 2011

A protester shouts anti-government slogans during a protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo, April 8, 2011. Thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to re-energize demands for reform that they say have not yet been fulfilled (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

In March, Amnesty International began reporting that the Egyptian military had subjected seventeen female protesters at a Tahrir Square demonstration to “virginity tests.” The women told Amnesty that they had been handcuffed and beaten, strip-searched, and photographed by male soldiers, then restrained by female soldiers while a man in a white coat performed a virginity check. The military denied the accusations at the time, but in the past few days, a senior general has confirmed that the virginity tests indeed happened. The general justified the abuse by saying these women “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters…and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs.” The general went on to insist that the tests were necessary because “we didn’t want [the women] to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove they weren’t virgins in the first place.”

I wrote a piece for arguing that while virginity tests are a common cultural practice in rural Egypt (to ensure a bride’s reputation on her wedding night), their use by the military appears to be a new intimidation tactic, sadly consistent with the government’s tendency to arrest and detain its citizens for political reasons, but of course targeted specifically to humiliate women. The article seemed to hit a nerve among Americans, generating hundreds of responses. But how do Egyptians feel about the issue?

Read more »