Author Archives: Javier Barrera

Tunisian town hall on women’s rights

From Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media

TUNIS – The legal rights and freedoms which Tunisian women enjoy are unparalleled in the Arab world, thanks to the vision of former president Habib Bourguiba and his ability to institute sustained, far-reaching reforms. Among the first measures he took after independence was the introduction of the Personal Status Code to improve the social position and treatment of women.

But two weeks ago, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party proposed the controversial “Article 28” in the new constitution. The article has already been voted on by the National Constituent Assembly’s (ANC) Rights and Freedoms committee, but must be approved by all members of the ANC before it can be adopted.

The text outlines that, “The state guarantees to protect women’s rights, as they stand, under the principle of man’s complement within the family and man’s partner in developing the country.” In protest against the article’s use of the word “complement,” demonstrations were held in the capital Tunis as well as a number of other cities in the country.

Given these latest events, the main question that was asked in the most recent next town hall was: Are women’s rights in Tunisia under threat?

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Mexican court to rule on electoral challenge

Voting in Oaxaca. Photo:

Mexico’s electoral court will make their ruling known on Friday to challenges brought by opposition candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on allegations of vote buying and money laundering by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) during the recent presidential elections. Peña Nieto won the election by 3.3 million votes.

Mexico’s newly elected president, Enrique Peña Nieto, comes from a party that controlled the government for more than seven decades. The PRI was frequently accused of corruption and vote-rigging during its long rule. Peña Nieto is characterized by Lopez Obrador as a tool of entrenched interests in Mexico.

America Abroad’s Franc Contreras reports from the PRI stronghold of Mexico state on voters’ hopes for the party moving forward.

Enrique Peña Nieto is the new, telegenic face of Mexico’s oldest political party, the PRI, or the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The PRI has been governing several Mexican states non-stop for 83 consecutive years.

“I am a PRI-ista first because I was born into a PRI-ista family and after that because of my convictions. I think it’s been a party that has assumed a new political role at a new time in our history,” says Pena Nieto.

Read more from this report »

What will Mexico look like under new leadership?

AP Images

The teetering economies of Europe and unrest in the Mideast have dominated the headlines of late. But Americans would be unwise to neglect the major developments taking place to the south of us – in Mexico, the third largest US trading power, ahead of Germany and Japan.

Mexico’s significance to the United States reaches far beyond that of drug cartels and cross-border issues. Our relationship with this country could even provide a hedge against oil vulnerability in the Middle East. Mexico just recently returned the presidency to the party that ruled the country for over 70 years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), under president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto.

America Abroad discusses Mexico’s future and why it matters to the US with Manuel Suarez-Mier, an economist at American University’s School of International’s Service, and Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Excerpts from the interview. To read the rest, follow this link »

Ray Suarez: What’s the United States Mexico relationship right now, in terms of economics, diplomacy? What’s the state of play at as both the United States and Mexico looks toward the end of the year, and a change in administration?

Manuel Suarez-Mier: It’s a very complicated relationship, a very intertwined relationship in which we have all sorts of things going on all the time. But I would say the levels of cooperation have never been as good as you see them today.

We have glossed over our historical problems and forged ahead into working together in many areas. Mexico is the second largest buyer of US goods, way ahead of China. The US buys more from China than Mexico, but not that much. Mexico buys far more from the US than China does.

Ray Suarez:  Immigration has certainly been an issue between the United states and Mexico. But Mexican immigration to the US has reached the point that people are calling “net zero.” What does “net zero” mean, and why does reaching that point constitute a milestone in the recent history of this issue?

Eric Olson: Well it’s a very interesting phenomena, because I don’t think we’ve seen that before. But “net zero” means [a] roughly equal amount of people returning to Mexico that are going to the United States, either legally or without documentation. So it’s about roughly even.

What does that tell you? Well in part it tells you that there’s been an economic downturn in the United States – a lot of people lost their jobs. But it also tells you that there are reasons for people to be hopeful and want to stay in Mexico.

So the PRI government cannot go back to the good old times in which everything was centralized and all the threads of power went directly to the hands of the president. That Mexico is gone. I think Peña Nieto has, first of all, to define himself as a leader of the party and the government, and then really move on to find an ideology for the PRI.

Disappointment for Copts in new Egyptian government

Photo courtesy of Copts United.

The acting head of the Coptic Church in Egypt is disappointed that the government of newly-elected Islamist President Mohammad Morsi is failing to include adequate representation to the Coptic religious minority. Morsi appointed one cabinet seat to the Copts among the 35 ministerial positions. Archbishop Pachomius says the new government unfairly represents Christians and ignores their rights as citizens.

Coptic Christians make up almost 10% of Egypt’s 82 million people. From VOA:

Coptic Christians in Egypt constitute the largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as the largest religious minority in the region. In 2011, approximately 94 people – mostly Coptic Christians –died as the result of sectarian violence in Egypt, 70 since the fall of Mubarak.

Should religious minorities be concerned about the rise of Islamist governments?

America Abroad’s Katherine Lanpher discusses the issue with professors Aomar Boum, an assistant professor at the School of Middle Eastern and North African studies at the University of Arizona and Saba Mahmood, an associate professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Katherine Lanpher: Let’s start by looking at the current political situation in the Middle East, what the casual observer knows as “Arab Spring” or the series of uprisings that we’ve seen across the region. What has that meant for religious minorities?

Saba Mahmood: I think it differs from country to country. Let’s take the example of Christians in Egypt. The Coptic Christians are the dominant Christian population. They’ve refused European protection historically and said: “We are Muslim by country and only Christian by religion.” They have suffered a series of discriminations which only escalated under the Mubarak regime. Now you have the Muslim Brotherhood that won the presidential election and it’s often touted in the press as being very negative. My studies in the last 20 years shows that the question is really open. We do not know how Coptic Christians will be treated. The Mubarak regime itself was very discriminatory against Copts when sectarian violence began to erupt against them.

Aomar Boum: If you look at Morocco and Tunisia, for instance, the Tunisian case is still uncertain despite the fact that the government has promised to protect the rights of Jews, given the fact that there is the rise of Salafis in Tunisia. If you look at the main religious minority in North Africa, they still are Jews. There are less than a thousand Jews who live in Tunisia. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews live in Morocco. Their situation is much better than other minorities in other parts of the Middle East. Algeria is a different case because we really don’t know the exact number of religious minorities. They are not as visible as much as in Morocco and Tunisia.

Read more from this interview »

Fighting in Syria escalates with no end in sight

A major escalation of the bloody civil war in Syria is taking place in Aleppo. In Damascus, state security sources told the AFP news agency: “The army and the terrorist groups have both sent reinforcements for a decisive battle that should last several weeks.”

President Bashar al-Assad released a message today praising government troops and vowing that the uprising against his government would be put down. His whereabouts are unknown since a bomb attack killed four of his closest aids. From CS Monitor:

“Today, as every day, our people look to you as you defend their honor and dignity and give the nation back its stability,” his statement said.

The country’s large Sunni Arab majority is fighting for control of the government after nearly five decades of rule by the Assad family. They are calling for his immediate resignation, and as the fighting escalates, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. A new report from the International Crisis Group on Syria states:

“There are more than enough ominous trends, none more alarming than these: a regime seemingly morphing into a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival; an Alawite community increasingly embattled and persuaded its fate hinges entirely on the regime’s; and an opposition that, despite sometimes heroic efforts to contain them, is threatened by its own forms of radicalisation. Together, this could portend a prolonged, ever more polarised, destructive civil war.”

Syria’s diverse religious population has been torn. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and most top government officials are Alawis, a Shi’a-affiliated religious group that represents only 20% of the country’s populace. The rest consist of a large Sunni Arab majority. America Abroad’s Katherine Lanpher talks with Jocelyne Cesari of Harvard University about who the minority Alawis are and their role in Syrian society and politics. Read more »

Excerpt from the interview: 

Katherine Lanpher: If they are such a minority, how is it that they have such a strong hold on power?

Jocelyne Cesari: They have a strong hold on power because of the legacy of the French presence in the region. The French faced huge resistance from the Sunni. They were building alliances with other groups including the Alawi. That’s how they became so important in the military apparatus. It became solidified or established with the creation of the Syrian nation-state. Read more »

Photo essay: Coptic Christians in post-revolutionary Egypt

From Marcus Benigno, Cairo, Egypt

Photo by Marcus F. Benigno

CAIRO – The recent election of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi marks an outward shift from the 30-year rule by his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak. But as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces relinquished its transitional power to the Islamist president last week, members of the largest religious minority expressed concern.

See Marcus’s photos now »

Emad Gad, a former member of the dissolved parliament, spoke about the Coptic vote in the recent elections and his mistrust in the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential group supporting Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party.

“Not only Copts, but also the middle class and moderate people are afraid of the future,” Gad says. “They are afraid that the Muslim Brothers will do anything to change the identity of Egypt.”

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Searching for political solutions in Syria

Photo: FreedomHouse2 (Flickr)

After more than a year of conflict, the violence in Syria is finally being recognized as a civil war. This weekend, world powers are preparing for a high-level meeting that the US hopes will be a turning point in Syria crisis.

UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan is conducting a meeting this weekend in Geneva that will bring together the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the deepening unrest in Syria. Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, and the US disagree on the way forward. From the Chicago Tribune:

Lavrov, whose government has been the main supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he seeks to crush a widening rebellion, told reporters the meeting “must set the conditions for the end of violence and the start of an all-Syria national dialogue, and not predetermine the contents of this dialogue”.

But [US Secretary of State] Clinton, who agreed to attend the meeting on condition that it sets out a framework for Assad to step down, disagreed sharply.

“It was very clear from the invitations that were extended by Special Envoy Kofi Annan that people were coming on the basis of the transition plan that he presented,” Clinton told reporters in Latvia before heading to St Petersburg.

To discuss the international community’s search for solutions and the goals of protesters, AAM sits down with Ammar Abdulhamid, a leading Syrian human rights and pro-democracy activist, and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Watch »

Excerpt from the interview

AAM: We are hearing that the Free Syrian Army gave Assad’s government an ultimatum if they don’t follow the Annan plan. We are also hearing from the UN High Commissioner warning that Syria could descend into full-fledged conflict, especially due to the massacre that just occurred. Can you take us through an overview over what’s happening right now?

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: The reality on the ground is that of defiance. Defiance by civil means for the most part. We don’t hear a lot about it but it’s unarmed protesters taking to the streets. People saw what happened in Houla. They saw what happened in Homs. They know that thousands have died – 15,000 by the way. They know 60,000 are in prison, 200,000 are in exile, and a million people are displaced all over the country because of the fighting. They are not backing down. More and more communities are rising up and joining. It’s becoming a coming-of-age experience for the young population in many parts of Syria to become part of the revolution. Read more »

Minority rights in Tunisia

From Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media

TUNIS – Khemaies Ksila, a member of the Constituent Assembly, explains that even though Tunisia is going through a transitional period, it has been suffering from a “general narrow-minded mentality,” especially when it comes to accepting others’ differences. Yemina Thabet, head of the Tunisian Association to Support Minorities added:

“Minorities have their own particularities and needs that have to be protected by the law. It is our role as a civil society to raise awareness about the matter.”

Thabet also refers to the importance of including minorities’ rights in the Constitution as a way to ensure a culture of tolerance for future generations.

In collaboration with Attounsia TV, AAM’s Tunis-based office—Association Tunisie Media (ATM)—brought together a panel of three government and civil society officials and an enthusiastic audience to discuss the concerns, demands and future of Tunisia’s minorities. These audience members were represented by a group of eleven participants belonging to different minority groups in Tunisia.

Read more »

Greece votes, Europe and Germany hold breath

Photo: Erwss, peace&love (via Flickr)

Greece holds elections on Sunday and the rest of Europe is holding its breath. This will be the second time Greece goes to the polls to elect a government that will forge a clear path towards financial stability. The centrist, pro-austerity New Democracy party is tied neck-to-neck with the leftist Syriza party that favors a full renegociation of the financial bailout terms imposed by Europe’s banks and Germany. There is great fear, in both Greece and the rest of Europe, that the elections will continue to destabilize Greece’s financial future and threaten the financial stability in Europe.

Despite who wins, Greece still faces difficult negociations with European banks and lenders over the terms of its austerity programs to get Greece back on fiscal track. Many Greeks think the austerity measures are too strict and do not focus enough on economic stimulus to get the country moving again. Greece finds itself going deeper into recession. For certain, any new government will have to confront Germany for another leaner, and more forgiving, bailout package. From The New York Times:

“Everyone knows that whatever they call it — and they won’t call it a renegotiation — there will have to be a de facto renegotiation of the bailout memorandum,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If Syriza is the largest party, it will add to the general sense of panic and will push the Germans to do more” to ease pressure on the euro, he said. “The Germans are trying to slow things down, worried they’ll be forced into financial commitments without political commitments in place.”

Germany, most certainly, will not write the Greek government a blank check and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Greece’s bailout will not be renegotiated. America Abroad reports from Germany, long the economic engine of the EU, where citizens are losing trust in the European Union, and political leaders are struggling counter the discontent. Read more.

Photo essay: The struggle for water in Kenya

By Jonathan Kalan, Nairobi, Kenya

At a water trucking and distribution point in Lagos, 20 kilometers from Garissa, Kenya, over 3,000 pastoralists temporarily survive off water brought in each week by the Kenya Red Cross during severe droughts. Photo: Jonathan Kalan.

In the hot, dry and harsh landscapes of northeastern Kenya skirting the Somali border, hundreds of thousands of nomadic pastoralists continue to eek out a meager living from the land.

See Jonathan Kalan’s photos now »

Yet by September of last year, conditions were unbearable. It had been 16 months and counting since a single drop of rain touched down on the scorched earth, and the region was crippled by the worst drought in decades, forcing residents to survive near-famine conditions. The riverbeds were emptied, leaving nothing but dusty scars on the landscape. Carcasses of goats, donkeys and camels littered the side of the 370 km dirt highway between the two major towns of Wajir and Garissa, and thousands of people were forced to set up temporary shelters, kept alive by charity.

The rains in the horn of Africa are becoming more sporadic, erratic, unpredictable and unreliable. However, a lack of rain alone does not produce famine. While some countries have the infrastructure, policies, programs, and emergency relief services to be able to provide resources for their citizens in times of crisis, this area of Kenya, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.

When it comes to the basic necessity of water, the northeastern region of Kenya is plagued by both a lack of infrastructure and extreme marginalization. Inhabited by mostly ethnic-Somali pastoralists whose livelihoods depend on their livestock, people carry their homes on the backs of camels and move nomadically from one water source to the next. They don’t vote, and even if they did, their voice would matter little—the region has such little economic importance due to lack of resources. Its primary purpose is to serve as a buffer between Kenya and war-torn Somalia. An aid worker once mentioned offhand that “…elected officials want to keep these people poor. That way, come election time, they can easily buy their vote and retain power.” Though this can’t be verified, it certainly is a common perception here.

Across the region, infrastructure is still the greatest challenge: 96% of sub-Saharan African agriculture is still rain dependent, meaning only 4% can actually grow and harvest crops when the rains don’t come, or during the dry seasons. Resources are vastly underused, and the lack of agricultural innovation and investment is tragic. There is water, underground and above ground, that’s not being tapped into.

For example, along the Tana River in Garissa, the Kenya Red Cross estimates that only 10% of rivers capacity is actually being harnessed. The African Development Bank has cited that the region’s lack of infrastructure—roads, housing, water, electricity, sanitation—reduces its output by 40%.

While rains may be uncontrollable, famine isn’t. The ability to access, harness, and distribute what lies atop or just beneath the surface is perhaps both the greatest failure and opportunity of the region. This photo-essay explores the current situation of water in Kenya’s driest areas, and the multiple efforts of private and public organizations working around the region to fix it. See photo essay »