Democracy's gain in the Middle East

A turn toward one-man rule in Tunisia coincides with declining Arab confidence in elected government, but across the region support for female leaders is growing.

A woman holds up a banner during a protest in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. The country voted Monday for a new constitution expanding presidential powers.

In Tunisia, where the Arab uprising against autocracy began a decade ago, democracy has suffered an apparent setback. Voters approved a new constitution on Monday that gives the president unchecked powers. That marks an about-face for a country that just eight years ago adopted a progressive legal canon based on “freedom, dignity, justice, and order” after 24 years of dictatorship.

Tunisia’s turn may reflect a regional trend. A new survey of Arab public opinion found instability and weak economies are eroding trust in democracy across the Middle East and North Africa. More than 50% of Arabs express a lack of confidence in elected government, as do 7 in 10 Tunisians. Yet in one important way, the annual Arab Barometer noted, Tunisia remains a pacesetter: It saw the greatest increase in the percentage of citizens – from 40% in 2018 to 56% now – who support female leaders.

Most of that gain has come since the rise last September of Najla Bouden, a geology professor, as the Arab world’s first female prime minister. “We didn’t see a drastic shift in public opinion on women’s rights prior to this appointment,” Amaney Jamal, Arab Barometer co-founder and dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, told the BBC. Ms. Bouden’s prominence has “allowed people to say, ‘Guess what, women can be just as effective as political leaders as their male counterparts.’”

By one metric, the number of seats held by women in Arab parliaments, their gains appear modest. Since 2010, prior to the uprisings, female legislators in the region have increased from 10% to about 16%. In some countries, quotas have made a difference. The United Arab Emirates, for example, now requires gender parity in its parliament.

But representation alone may offer too narrow a view. Female civil rights activists fill prominent leadership roles in pro-democracy movements in countries like Iran and Sudan. Female filmmakers from Morocco to Kuwait are transforming narratives of the region. Their works are reaching a wider audience. Earlier this month, Netflix released 21 movies by Arab female directors.

“Women filmmakers have beautiful, complex, and nuanced stories to tell – stories which have the power to resonate with people not just in the Arab world, but across the globe,” the streaming company said. One depicts a young girl yearning for a normal childhood in the shadow of her father’s fanatical beliefs.

Not all the Arab Barometer’s conclusions are hopeful. It found that 61% of Tunisians, for example, think violence against women has risen. But two of its main findings – declining confidence in democracy and growing support for female leaders – may be two sides of the same coin. They show that the popular aspirations for equality and good governance that poured into the streets a decade ago remain.

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