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Reflections on Recent Trip to Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
December 6, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations


[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

Roundtable on Women and U.S. Policy

"Reflections on Recent Trip to Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan"

On the Record Meeting

Date: December 6, 2002

Speaker: Isobel Coleman, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider: Jennifer Whitaker, Council on Foreign Relations

Project Director: Isobel Coleman, Council on Foreign Relations

Dr. Isobel Coleman directs the Women and U.S. Policy project at the Council. During this project year, the focus is on the role of women in economic and political development in the Middle East and South West Asia. It examines how the advancement of women in this part of the world promotes U.S. foreign policy objectives of encouraging democracy and economic growth. The project focuses in particular on the enormous leverage of educating girls, the societal and economic benefits of creating economic opportunities for women through micro-credit, and the importance to democracy of advancing women's legal rights. It examines ways for the United States to engage constructively with the region in these areas.

During her recent research trip to Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Dr. Coleman met with officials from local NGOs and international donor agencies, including USAID and the World Bank. Given the acute religious/cultural and political/military context in which development must operate today, she also met with U.S. Embassy personnel, government ministers, and media/civil society representatives.

The meeting was on-the-record and followed a conversational format, during which Dr. Coleman reflected on her recent trip.

1. What we know:


The state is all-powerful in Egypt (Hosni Mubarak frequently being referred to as the Pharoah,) and hence all reform initiatives need the consensus and/or active cooperation of the State. Laws pertaining to NGOs are so repressive that they have resulted in the creation of the oxymoron GONGOs, i.e. government-organized NGOs. A new, more liberal law to govern NGOs has recently passed, but it is unclear how it will be implemented. Mrs. Mubarak is very active and supportive of various initiatives focused on the advancement of women's rights.

Egyptians are obsessed with the Israel-Palestine conflict and resentful and angry at the United States for its seemingly unstinting support for Israel. There is significant dissatisfaction that its "front line" role in this conflict has not been sufficiently recognized by the United States, in spite of Egypt being the second largest recipient of U.S. aid since Camp David. Conversely, there is much debate and criticism within the Administration of the ambiguous results of this "investment." (However, there is no control case for what would have happened if the money had not been spent.)

Most Egyptian NGOs with a politically-sensitive agenda will not accept funds from the U.S. government. These NGOs operate in a tenuous environment, squeezed between an overly controlling state, the Islamists and a not-necessarily receptive society: they fear that any direct association with the U.S. government would taint them and undermine their credibility. Other American-based donors, like the Ford Foundation, are more 'acceptable,' especially when they are perceived to have a "more correct" position on the Israel-Palestine issue, as demonstrated by funding multiple projects in Palestine.

There are several women's rights NGOs in Cairo which are quite active. They focus on improving the legal rights of women; for example, the acquisition of National Identity Cards, without which women cannot access services or vote. The divorce law is now more amenable to women seeking divorce, and initiatives are underway to reform the discriminatory Nationality law.

Girls' education is another area of focus for NGOs. There are significant gender gaps in literacy, with a 50% literacy rate for women, declining to as low as 10% in some parts of Upper Egypt. As Egypt's population begins to stabilize (projected growth from 70M today to 95M by 2020 due to population momentum) however, the opportunity exists both to reduce this gap, and to improve the quality of the education imparted.

USAID is also concentrating on education reform, and one of its latest, most interesting initiatives is the rollout of "model schools" in the remote regions of Egypt. This is being done in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and CARE, as the contract agency. The schools enforce a 4:1 girls to boys ratio, and use a student-centered methodology rather than rote instruction. These schools have the potential of becoming 'desirably subversive,' since they are based on community participation and have introduced parent-teachers councils to manage the schools. Parents are often voting for the very first time at these council meetings.


Afghanistan poses an enormous development challenge. It is an extremely poor country, the literacy rate for women is 5%, maternal mortality rate is 20+/1000, and beyond Kabul, the situation is often described as medieval.

President Bush signed the Afghan Freedom Support Act on December 4, 2002, which promises $3B in peacekeeping and reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan over the next 4 years. It is unclear what proportion will be devoted to development/reconstruction assistance.

The United States has undertaken the task of nation-building in Afghanistan, even as the search continues for a more politically sensitive moniker. It does not appear, however that Afghans are ready to submerge their tribal affiliations into a national identity. There is intense competition, suspicion and distrust of the 'enemy tribe' even at the level of Federal Ministers. Most Afghans have a horrifying story to relate, and this further impedes the task of reconciliation and nation-building. A revealing example of this are the various proposals from competing groups to establish a radio station to educate the largely illiterate population on human and women's rights. The proposal advocates, however seem quite naive about the resources and skills needed to launch and operate such a station, as well as the donors' willingness to fund parallel initiatives, and are not receptive to cooperating with like-minded individuals.

International organizations, which are providing "100% of the money, and doing 95% of the work," express frustration at their inability to eke the last 5% out of the Afghans. This absence of commitment and motivation in the Afghans results from their wait-and-see attitude about how the dice will roll once ISAF departs. That is unfortunate since the window of opportunity for Afghanistan is a very limited one, given that international interest and resources will inevitably be diverted to the next crisis.

There is a flurry of activity in Kabul, with various positive initiatives underway. The drafting of the new constitution for Afghanistan, now taking place, is crucial. It remains to be seen if the new constitution will move backward from the progressive 1964 Constitution currently in place, or improve on it.


The alliance of Islamist parties, the MMA, won 20% of the National Parliament seats in the recently held elections in Pakistan. They have also formed the provincial governments in NWFP and Baluchistan, the two provinces bordering Afghanistan, which are crucial to the United States in its current war against al-Qaeda. Several explanations can be offered for the Islamists' victory, but the recurrent one is the growing perception amongst the Pakistanis that America's war against terrorism is actually a war against Islam.

The Pakistani press, including the English language newspapers, is perpetuating this perception by continuously reporting on the 'persecution' of Muslims in America. While there is veracity to the incidents quoted, the Pakistani press does not attempt to present a balanced picture of the situation in America. For example, there is no coverage of the strict scrutiny and criticism generated within America for all such acts of human rights violation.

Family planning does not appear to be a big concern in Pakistan even though the population is set to double over the next 20 years. Classrooms for an additional 5M children will need to be built in the next 10 years.

USAID has initiated a 5-year $100M program for education in Pakistan, which aims to support the Government of Pakistan in implementing its new education policy. More generally, USAID is on an "AID-Lite" program in Pakistan, with an aim of investing in "bomb-proof" projects, which can be sustained locally when U.S. officials are next pulled out of the region.

The women's-rights NGOs are focused on advocacy and reforming family laws, and laws pertaining to the endemic sexual violence in Pakistan. Women's shelters are springing up, and going through the same learning curve that occurred in the United States.

The reservation of seats for women in the National and Provincial Assemblies, as well at the municipal level, is a very interesting experiment and might signal a new pattern in Pakistani politics. Women representatives increased from 4 in the last National Assembly to 73 in the current one: while many are stand-ins for their male relatives, and many are Islamists, the sheer number of female politicians gives hope to many. USAID, through a contract agency, is providing legislative training for the newly elected parliamentarians, which is of special benefit to many of the first-timer women politicians.

2. What are the next steps; what should be done and by whom?

There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for the Muslim world, since each country with a substantial Muslim population has its own dynamics and set of issues.

The United States faces a major public diplomacy challenge in the Muslim world, especially as tensions continue to brew over America's relationship with Israel, the mislabeled "war against Islam" and intentions to proceed against Iraq. Since the resentment is caused by U.S. policies rather than U.S. culture, it is unclear how a more favorable message regarding the United States can be delivered in the region. There is potentially an opportunity in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan which do not feel the Israel-Palestine issue as viscerally as do the Egyptians. But there is resentment in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for being used and discarded opportunistically by the United States in the past, which needs to be overcome.

The United States has a lot of leeway in assisting countries achieve their socio-economic development goals, which over the long-term will have a liberalizing political impact in those societies. While it is important for the United States to remind the aid beneficiaries that women are critical to the economic and political development of countries, overt political reform needs to be initiated and driven locally. The backlash against the U.S. intervention in the Saad Eddin Ibrahim case in Egypt is a perfect example of a good intention gone asunder.

The promotion of democracy in the Muslim world is a vital objective for the U.S. government, but needs to be handled extremely sensitively, so that indigenous democratic movements are bolstered rather than hindered by U.S. intervention.

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