Democracy Lab

Talking a Great Game

So far, Washington's pivot to Asia has included a lot of work on security and trade. Democracy, not so much.

Hillary Clinton is approaching the final phase of an astonishing 13-day tour of the world. She's spent much of her trip in Asia, including stops in Mongolia, Vietnam, and Laos. And that, of course, is entirely in keeping with the Obama administration's interest in re-orienting U.S. foreign policy to that part of the world as part of the famous "pivot."

The pivot, of course, is motivated by the realization that it's the rise of China (and certainly not a bunch of ragged Islamist revolutionaries) that poses the greatest challenge to U.S. dominance in the 21st century. It is Asia that is the new fulcrum of the global economy, and it is Asia that is home to some of the world's most pressing global security challenges -- especially now that some states in the region find themselves directly confronting the Chinese over territory and resources.

So it's no wonder that Washington policymakers describe both trade and security as central to their new Asian agenda. But in the meantime a lot of people have forgotten that the pivot was always supposed to be based on a third ingredient: support for democracy.

"If the secretary is serious that the values we hold are an important part of the pivot, then the administration needs to advance them alongside -- or ahead of -- security and trade," says Ellen Bork, a longtime Asia expert at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative Washington policy group.

Interestingly, Secretary Clinton has used her trip as an occasion to remind us of precisely that point. During her visit to Mongolia, she gave a stirring speech about U.S. efforts to bolster open societies in Asia -- even going so far as to describe "support for democracy and human rights" as the "heart" of the new American strategy. She also attended a high-profile meeting with a number of other leaders from the Community of Democracies, the club of democratic countries established in 2000 for the express purpose of furthering their common values. Their choice of venue for this particular meeting might seem a bit odd, but it was actually pretty appropriate, considering the remarkable progress that the Mongolians have been making with their own democratic system over the past two decades.

All fine and good. It's certainly important to talk about democratic values. It boosts the morale of activists and raises the blood pressure of despots. Beyond that, though, what has the shift in U.S. policy brought the region's would-be democracies so far?

Secretary Clinton cited several achievements:

So we speak out against repressive laws and harassment of civil society. We've created an emergency fund for NGOs and individuals who come under threat. We have strongly supported a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Assembly at the UN Human Rights Council. We have created a new global forum, the Open Government Partnership, to promote transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. And we speak out on behalf of marginalized people -- racial, religious, ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and yes, still women.

An emergency fund for NGOs sounds like a worthy initiative -- even if there is only a few million dollars in the kitty. The Open Government Partnership is admirable, too, at least in theory. But a new position at the U.N. Human Rights Council? Let's just say that I'm not holding my breath.

What else? While Hillary was in Ulaanbaatar, she also attended the launch of a new international initiative called the LEND Network, a State Department-assisted effort that aims to use personal contacts and state-of-the-art technology to provide leaders in places aspiring to democracy with urgently needed know-how. The idea is to let aspiring democrats schmooze with people from countries that have recently gone through their own democratic transitions. This seems eminently sensible. Nowadays, Egyptians or Sudanese are much more likely to listen to Turks or Indonesians lecture them on the values of democracy than to Americans or Europeans. But it is ultimately pretty modest stuff.

It's worth noting that none of the initiatives she mentions apply specifically to Asia. She cited the progress in Burma as evidence of the success of resolute American support for democracy there, and perhaps that's true. But I doubt that she scored many points. Many in the region continue to argue that it was precisely the engagement policies of regional organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that bore fruit there, and not any grand strategic design on the part of the United States. (What if it was the combination of both approaches that finally had an effect?) The discussion, at any rate, continues.

And what about speaking out on behalf of marginalized people? Hillary's speech in Mongolia did send a barb in the direction of China, Asia's biggest human rights abuser. "We need to make the 21st century a time in which people across Asia don't only become more wealthy," she said. "They must also become more free." Yes. But I doubt that this gentle rhetoric really caused any sleepless nights in Beijing -- especially considering that she never mentioned China by name in her speech.

Equally revealing were the remarks she made in Vietnam, her next stop after Mongolia. Facing the cameras after her meeting with the Vietnamese foreign minister, she spoke about the importance of "economic growth," and regional security cooperation, and then some more about economics and trade. Finally, near the end of her speech, came this:

Democracy and prosperity go hand in hand, political reform and economic growth are linked, and the United States wants to support progress in both areas.

So I also raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers, and bloggers, for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas. In particular, we are concerned about restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club. The Foreign Minister and I agreed to keep talking candidly and to keep expanding our partnership.

So she "raised concerns." It's good to hear that somebody is talking candidly about these things in Vietnam -- a country that remains under one-party rule just as onerous as that in China. Yet you can bet that her hosts carefully noted the order of priorities in her speech. As Hillary mentioned, trade between the two countries now amounts to $22 billion a year. Vietnam, with an eye to China's increasingly aggressive play in the South China Sea, is eager to rev up its military cooperation with Washington. With monster deliverables like these in play, surely even the Politburo in Hanoi ought to be ready to endure some serious lectures on human rights.

"We're always complaining that we don't have leverage in these countries," says Bork. "But here's a perfect case of one where we do. It makes sense for us to introduce us some respect for reforms, for human rights, demands for qualitative change, into our negotiations with Vietnam. But I don't see it happening." Human Rights Watch, for its part, has called upon Clinton to make human rights the centerpiece of her discussions at the ASEAN summit that she'll be attending in Phnom Penh beginning on July 11.

So what, in the end, is the United States specifically doing to support democracy in Asia? I can't really point to much that's substantial or concrete. Talk is cheap (particularly when you compare it with the billions, say, that Washington continues to send to the militaries in Pakistan and Egypt every year). How about some large-scale funding for civil society groups in Burma, for example? That's just the kind of thing that could really make a genuine difference in one of Asia's most strategically situated countries. But so far there's no sign of anything comparable in the offing.

Luong Thai Linh/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

The Women of Tahrir Square Fight Back

The revolution in Egypt isn’t over -- at least as long as female revolutionaries have anything to say about it.

On Friday, July 6, Egyptian women -- and not a few Egyptian men -- will be marching once again to the heart of Egypt's revolution. The demonstration could fizzle. But it could also become a key moment in the course of the country's revolution.

The marchers will be protesting against sexual harassment, a widespread problem on the streets of the Arab world's most populous country. But their protest will be aimed not at the government or the army or the Islamists, but specifically at Tahrir Square itself, the psychological -- and physical -- fulcrum of the rebellion that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Over the past few weeks, women have been the victims of a series of incidents of sexual violence at Tahrir. The young journalist Natasha Smith published a detailed account of the assault she endured at the hands of a male mob last month. Though her story was widely publicized, spreading far and wide across the Internet, it was far from the only case. Other journalists have chronicled what some are describing as "Egypt's sexual harassment epidemic."

The problem is, sadly, not new. American TV reporter Lara Logan first brought it to international attention last year, when she revealed her own harrowing experience with a Tahrir mob. But the phenomenon she described was already painfully familiar to her Egyptian counterparts. A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) found that 83 percent of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed at some point in their lives. Perhaps even scarier, 62 percent of the men surveyed admitted to having participated in acts of harassment. (ECWR activists have since created an online map to track harassment cases.)

Lately, however, it seems that the assaults at Tahrir have been increasing in frequency and viciousness -- a trend that is prompting this latest attempt to reclaim the square as a safe place for women. It's a bit of a gamble. A similar effort to protest harassment last month ended in a flurry of attacks on the women who participated. For that reason, the female demonstrators this time around will be accompanied by a protective screen of male companions -- a dreary commentary on the situation of women in Egypt.

But the story doesn't end there. You can rest assured that Egyptian women won't allow themselves to be typecast as victims. Indeed, it's important to remember that the course of Egypt's revolution would be unthinkable without the participation of women, who were an integral part of the protests in Tahrir -- and elsewhere in the country -- from the very start. Thousands of female demonstrators joined the crowds, often working as organizers, nurses, and even security guards. Young activist Asmaa Mahfouz made the video that brought thousands of protesters to the square at a crucial moment in the revolution. Journalist Shahira Amin galvanized the protests when she publicly announced her resignation from a state TV broadcaster in February 2011. Amid the turmoil of the uprising against Mubarak, some women re-established the long-dormant Feminist Union, adding another notable voice to Egypt's chorus of civil society groups.

The centrality of their role in the revolution is one more reason why we should pay attention to the protests against sexual harassment. They come at a watershed moment in Egypt's revolution. Egypt's first popularly elected president -- Mohamed Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- has just taken his oath of office. His election has left many women uncertain about their future status in a country with an Islamist head of state.

"[Women's] hopes for a better future have grown dimmer with a rise in conservatism following the victory of Islamists in Egypt's first post-uprising parliamentary elections," wrote Shahira Amin, the former TV journalist, in a recent article. "Recent news has highlighted an alarming rise in the numbers of women subjected to sexual harassment and assault." Activist Randa El Tahawy has noted that women have been largely excluded from the process of drafting a new Egyptian constitution, and that social pressures still make it hard for them to compete for jobs as judges or politicians.

Activists worry that some in the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) actively oppose the criminalization of female circumcision (though the party officially denies it). Members of the Islamist-dominated parliament (since disbanded by a military decree) abolished previously existing parliamentary quotas for women. Islamist lawmakers also discussed abolishing a Mubarak-era law that gave women the right to divorce -- a view advocated even by one of the FJP's leading female members, Azza al-Garf. Meanwhile, it's just been announced that Egyptians can soon look forward to their very own satellite TV channel for women, one in which all the presenters and newsreaders perform their roles fully veiled.

It's worth noting, of course, that many Egyptian women wholeheartedly support the Brotherhood and its call for the upholding of "Islamic values." Sondos Asem, a senior female member of the FJP, acknowledges some of the concerns raised by secular feminists and says that the party has a "holistic plan" for improving Egyptian society -- including active support for "female entrepreneurship." Morsi has pledged to appoint a woman as one of his two vice presidents -- an implicit acknowledgment, perhaps, that he must build political bridges to the millions of Egyptians who didn't give him their votes. (So far there's no indication who the leading candidate for that job might be -- or whether she might turn out to be a headscarf-wearing Brotherhood loyalist.)

What's clear is that the mindset exemplified by the brutal treatment of women at Tahrir Square certainly isn't about to disappear overnight. Some activists have argued that the sexual violence at Tahrir is essentially artificial, likely orchestrated by the security forces in order to keep women away from demonstrations. Unfortunately, that interpretation doesn't square with the prevalence of such behavior elsewhere in Egyptian society, and getting rid of it is far more likely to involve a long, hard struggle against deeply held attitudes. Some activists blame Islam itself. Others argue that Islam's inherent egalitarianism and stress on social justice offer a basis for challenging patriarchal traditions from within the religion. Still others insist that proper religious observance is the best way of preventing abuses.

One can only hope that Egyptian women will not lose heart and continue to press their demands for change in the months and years ahead. For all the challenges ahead, says Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed, she's encouraged by the extraordinary female activism that has come to the fore since the revolution began. After all, she points out, at least 10 million Egyptian women -- a quarter of the total female population -- are now university graduates, a group that has the confidence to publicly challenge wrongs.

Ahmed points to the story of Samira Ibrahim, one of many female protesters subjected to so-called "virginity tests" by the Egyptian security forces in March 2011. Rather than acquiesce to her humiliating treatment, Ibrahim opted to take the military to court, thus exposing its sleazy practices to national scrutiny. "In my day," Ahmed says, "someone subjected to ‘virginity tests' would have slunk away in shame. But now they sue the government.

She's right. That's why it will be interesting to see what happens as women seek to reclaim their rights at Tahrir and elsewhere. Long live the revolution.