Author Archives: Shirin Sahani

Algerian Elections and Prospects for Reform

President Bouteflika’s recent re-election highlights the need for meaningful reforms beyond the ballot box that can help Algeria address its security and demographic challenges. While the election results themselves were unsurprising, failure to deliver on election promises of stability and growth could have destabilizing consequences.

Although rich in hydrocarbons, Algeria’s economic prospects are threatened by weak institutions and the global economic crisis. One-third of Algeria’s population is comprised of those who are under 30 years of age. The public sector was already estimated as being incapable of absorbing many of these new job seekers. Declining oil prices are set to reduce public coffers and exacerbate this trend. Additionally, as the European economies contract, young Algerians will find fewer opportunities abroad, adding another layer to the government’s job conundrum. These challenges put a premium on boosting private entrepreneurship and small businesses as well as diversification outside the oil sector. However, for this to occur, the government will need to adopt more transparent and inclusive governance practices that create a level playing field for all entrepreneurs.

Corporate governance offers one avenue to ensure that businesses and governments act in a fair and transparent manner. By underscoring democratic values of fairness, transparency, accountability, and responsibility, good corporate practices can reduce opportunities and incentives for crony capitalism.

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Advancing Female Entrepreneurship in Morocco

On the heels of International Women’s Day, the Moroccan government has announced plans to increase women’s political participation at the local level. By raising awareness of a recent change increasing the minimum quota for women’s representation in local councils from 0.56 percent to 12 percent, the government seeks to reduce the marginalization of women from politics.

While the merits of the quota system can be debated, the reform presents an avenue for enhancing women’s advancement in Morocco following the modification of the Moroccan Family Law (Moudawana) in 2004. The government’s outreach and funding for political parties and civil society groups to help increase women’s political participation presents an opportunity for a variety of women’s groups to make their voice heard. For women entrepreneurs and business associations in Morocco, the reform affords the potential for more targeted advocacy at the grassroots level.

Formal estimates put Moroccan female entrepreneurs at 10 percent of all enterprises, which does not take into account the micro enterprise sector or women in the informal sector (see Gender Entrepreneurship Markets – Morocco Country Brief). Effective and targeted advocacy efforts that engage policymakers in a dialogue on better policies offer the opportunity to improve the business climate for female artisans and entrepreneurs as well as to assist them in making the transition from the informal to the formal market.

Debating the Future of Reform in MENA

With inflation and political backtracking competing with trends of economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa, the link between economic and political reform has increasingly come under scrutiny in the region.  It was a prevailing theme in the recent roundtable that CIPE held for key partners from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen in Hammamet, Tunisia.

Leading private sector organizations from around the region shared successful reform approaches, focusing on entrepreneurship, advocacy, public-private dialogue, and corporate governance.  Many of these programs underscore the need for institutions that promote better economic policies and expand growth dividends across a broader segment of society. 

It was interesting to see partners not only share their experiences but also discuss broader questions of democracy and economic challenges confronting the region.  It was especially striking to be able to openly discuss democratic values and reform in the highly regulated environment of Tunisia, highlighting again how economic growth concerns provide a unique opportunity to engage civil society and the public sector on larger questions of political and institutional change.

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Democracy in the Middle East: A question of modernity or freedom?

An interesting debate that I’ve come across lately is that of defining a democratic society as a “modern” vs. “free” society. With the various permutations and criticisms of modernization theory, rooted in Western modernization, and the UNDP’s choice of defining human development in terms of the protection and advancement of freedoms, I thought the debate had been settled in favor of freedom.

However, recent discussions on whether advancing democracy in the Middle East is a question of promoting a “modern” society that develops representative, accountable and just institutions has got me thinking. The development of institutions such as rule of law, representative government, human rights, etc. are most certainly critical to advancing and protecting freedoms.

What I’m wondering is whether stating the institutions are modern and therefore pertinent does more to advance their cause in MENA rather than stating that they are indispensable because they help protect inalienable individual freedoms. In other words, are we advocating these institutions because they are modern or are we advocating them because they help protect social, political and economic freedoms that every human being is entitled to. This, I believe, is the foundation of the Arab Human Development Reports call to furthering an Arab renaissance. According to the 2004 Report, “No subject excites stronger feelings in the region than that of freedom, whether among those denied it or among those who violate and confiscate it.” (AHDR 2004)

My concern is that by putting the argument in terms of “modernity” we are going back to the decades-old debate of what modernization is. Who is modern and who is not? Are the autocratic regimes who restrict political freedoms but have succeeded in providing economic growth and corresponding opportunities modern or not? Is UAE modern? It certainly has all the luxuries of a modern society.

The dimensions of modernity are murky and while for some a modern society may entail certain fundamental institutions, I’m not sure that everyone else sees it in the same light. And by correlating democracy to modernity what we may be in danger of doing is sidetracking democratic reform by resurrecting its ties to Westernization.

The US and the international community should certainly support building institutions that foster an open, transparent and accountable government and society. But our experiences have taught us that these institutions cannot be imposed and must be developed in conjunction with partners and reformers from within. And if Islamism and Islamists are on the rise in the region then that implies that they have a growing constituency that the international community will need to deal with if change is to come from the ground.

The million dollar question, of course is, how to do so in a way that doesn’t result in a reversal of democratic progress. I would argue, in the vein of Amartya Sen and the Arab Human Development Reports, that what we really are talking about in the Middle East is a desire for economic, political, and social freedoms and that the way to do so is to engage Islamists groups on where they stand on freedom and not where they stand on modernity.