Amir Taheri

May 20, 2009
Praise the Lord this is truly an amazing event, the woman’s right to vote in Islamic nations


FORMER President George W. Bush's policy of encouraging Middle East democratization has just produced spectacular results in the Kuwaiti general election.

In a major victory for the secular reformists over the Islamists, women -- four of them -- were elected to the 50-seat national parliament for the first time. The Islamists' share of Sunday's vote dropped almost 30 percent from the last general election, held just more than a year ago. The radical Muslim Brotherhood lost three of its four seats, while the hard-line Salafis dropped to two from four.

The election of women represents a political earthquake in the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of six oil-rich traditional Arab monarchies. Kuwait has had a parliament on and off since gaining independence in 1960, but the other GCC members entered the era of electoral politics largely due to pressure from the Bush administration. US pressure also played a crucial part in persuading Kuwait's leaders to enfranchise women for the first time in 2005.

The four female parliamentarians all represent the emirate's educated middle classes. The youngest, Aseel Al-Awadhi, is a US-educated philosophy professor. The best known, Rola Dashti, also a teacher, has campaigned for human rights for years. The third, Dr. Maasoumeh Mubarak, is the first Kuwaiti woman to have served as a Cabinet minister (she was health minister), and the fourth, Salwa al-Jassar, is a leading campaigner for women's rights. All managed to defeat prominent Islamists and tribal figures in their respective constituencies.

This was the second time Kuwaiti women were allowed to vote in a general election. The first time, their share of the vote was estimated at around 11 percent; this time it was almost 40 percent. The women won their seats largely because a majority of male voters decided to cast ballots for them.

"This was a triumph both for women and for Kuwaiti democracy," Al-Awadhi says. "Many voters were ready to go beyond the man-woman divide and vote for the candidates they thought most fitted for the job."

The other big winner was moderate Shiites, who represent a quarter of Kuwait's population. They were strengthened by the coming to power of moderate Shiite parties in neighboring Iraq.

The increase in voter turnout, to more than 70 percent, refuted any claim that democratization has little support in the Middle East.

In fact, the Kuwaiti election is the third in a year to produce a resounding defeat for Islamists. Last year, Pakistani voters reduced the Islamists' vote share to three percent from 11 percent. Then, Iraqi voters all but wiped out Islamists in crucial local elections.

The next battleground is Lebanon, where a general election is scheduled for June 7. A coalition of Islamists and Christian Maronites, headed by the Iranian-led Hezbollah, aims to win control of the government in Beirut. It's opposed by a coalition of pro-Western parties representing Muslims, Christians and Druze communities that support the current government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

On June 12, the Islamic Republic of Iran will hold its own presidential election, although only candidates endorsed by the regime are allowed to stand. In August, it's Afghanistan's turn to choose a president. There, too, the fight is between pro-Western modernizers and Iran-backed Islamists.

The biggest battle will come early next year, when Iraq holds its general election.

It's evident that the greater Middle East is witnessing a major struggle between forces of reform and of reaction. While President Obama appears to have abandoned Bush's push for regional democratization, America could play a crucial role by continuing to support the forces fighting for it.

Obama would do well to take a closer look at the Kuwaiti election before he goes to Egypt, where he's expected to announce a return to America's traditional policy of supporting the Middle East status quo.