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  • Red Card For Morsi

    Written on June 3, 2013

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Prof. El-Shazli  has 25 years of international experience in political and economic development, including democracy promotion programs and  support  for independent trade unions. She has worked with trade unions, political parties, and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views expressed here are her own.

    Egypt has become a land of stark, astounding contradictions. There is so little stability that political pundits cannot predict or even explain what is happening in the political sphere or society. As it is in politics, it is in daily life. Some examples:

    Driving in Cairo has become the art of the detour. Demonstrations and protests can materialize any time of day and anywhere. If a protesting mass of humanity does not impede your way, then one of the new cement block walls will. These walls are erected by the government across major streets to contain demonstrations. Surely the time is right for some inventor to launch a new app -- “Avoid Protests - Egypt” -- to guide drivers and protesters alike.

    Times are not tough for everyone. In the affluent areas of Cairo, youngsters still sport the latest fashions, shoppers carry home their purchases, and restaurants brim with high class clientele. New restaurants are opening and one even sells fancy “cupcakes," the craze imported from the US. One would hardly believe that, for the average Egyptian, the country is indeed sinking into a financial abyss. But that is what's happening.

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  • ‘A Single Garment Of Destiny’ For American And Bangladeshi Workers

    Written on May 2, 2013

    “Injustice anywhere," Martin Luther King famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

    Two events last week which might seem worlds apart provide evidence that working people around the globe are indeed tied together in King’s “single garment of destiny."

    In Texas, fourteen people died and up to 180 were injured in an explosion that obliterated a fertilizer factory and leveled the surrounding town. In Bangladesh, over 400 garment workers died when a factory building collapsed with thousands inside. Rescue and recovery operations continue to find additional Bangladeshi dead, with hundreds still missing. The human toll makes this the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry worldwide, even before the terrible final count is known.

    Neither of these terrible events was “an accident." In both cases, factory management engaged in dangerous and reprehensible conduct, creating entirely avoidable conditions that made these events possible, even predictable.

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  • Education Under Attack In Bahrain

    Written on April 4, 2013

    Our guest author today is Jalila Al-Salman, a Bahraini teacher and vice president of the Bahrain Teachers' Association (BTA). A leader in the Bahraini uprisings of Arab Spring, she was arrested, held in prison under abusive conditions, tortured and sentenced to three years in prison. Released late in 2012, Ms. Al-Salman continues to advocate for a peaceful, democratic transition in Bahrain.

    Since the outbreak of protests in Bahrain in February 2011, people there have faced varied and numerous forms of oppression by the Government of Bahrain. Peaceful protesters have been arrested and beaten, detainees have been tortured, public and private sector employees have been wrongfully terminated from their positions for participating in protests, and over 100 people have been killed.

    Shortly after the uprising began, the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA), of which I am the vice president, participated in a three-day strike from February 20 to 23. Up until then, we had been escalating our calls for improvements to the education system, so it seemed like an appropriate time to make our voices heard. In addition to calls for political reform, educators expressed frustration with the Bahrain government’s policy of hiring foreign educators from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - a practice that limits opportunities for domestic educators to teach in Bahrain’s schools. Following the strike, an estimated 9,000 teachers marched to the Pearl Roundabout, a traffic circle in the heart of Manama that served as the epicenter of the 2011 protests. It was the largest protest by educators in Bahrain’s history.

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  • Egypt's Islamist Government Reaches For Control Of The Unions

    Written on December 12, 2012

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Prof. El-Shazli  has 25 years of international experience in political and economic development, including democracy promotion programs and  support  for independent trade unions. She has worked with trade unions, political parties, and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views expressed here are her own.

    It is becoming uncomfortably clear that the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is to take control of many of Egypt’s major civil society organizations. While everyone’s attention is focused on the assault on the constitution and the judiciary, President Mohammed Morsi has strategically revised a trade union law that will affect millions of Egyptian workers.

    If successful, this move will affect the lives, jobs, and political freedom of millions of Egyptian workers, as well as renew the Egyptian Trade Union Federation’s (ETUF) longstanding role as an enforcer of government labor policy.

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  • College Attainment In The U.S. And Around The World

    Written on October 16, 2012

    A common talking point in circles in that college attainment in the U.S. used to be among the highest in the world, but is now ranked middling-to-low (the ranking cited is typically around 15th) among OECD nations. As is the case when people cite rankings on the PISA assessment, this is often meant to imply that the U.S. education system is failing and getting worse.*

    The latter arguments are of course oversimplifications, given that college attendance and completion are complex phenomena that entail many factors, school and non-school. A full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this post - obviously, the causes and “value” of a postsecondary education vary within and between nations, and are subject to all the usual limitations inherent in international comparisons.

    That said, let's just take a very quick. surface-level look at the latest OECD figures for college attainment (“tertiary education," meaning associate-level, bachelor's or advanced degree), which have recently been released for 2010.

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  • The New Middle East: Democratic Accountability And The Role Of Trade Unions

    Written on August 10, 2012

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Since the shock of 9/11 and the tragedy that ensued, many policy analysts have questioned whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, while  ignoring countries such as Indonesia (the largest Muslim nation in the world) as well as  India, Turkey, and  others with large Muslim populations.

    Now, in the aftermath of Arab Spring, Islamist political parties have gained political power through elections in the Middle East and, for many analysts, the jury is still out: Can Islamist governments be responsive to the people who elected them? Will it be one person, one vote, one time?  It appears that these questions are about to be answered:  The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which governs Turkey, has been in the forefront for many years. In Morocco, a majority of voters also handed power to the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a party inspired by Turkey's moderate Islamists. Tunisia’s Al-Nahda (Renaissance) party and its prime minister were elected to office after free and fair elections.  In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) established by the Muslim Brotherhood, won the Presidential elections and his new prime minister has formed a cabinet.

    Against this background, the fundamental challenge to these governments in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region is economic and not religious. The newly-minted Islamist governments are going to be tested daily and this time held accountable by voters who are no longer afraid to speak out.

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  • Are Americans Exceptional In Their Attitudes Toward Government's Role In Reducing Inequality?

    Written on January 10, 2012

    As discussed in a previous post, roughly half of Americans believe that government should take some active role in reducing income differences between rich and poor, though, as one would expect, this view is less prevalent among Republicans, more educated and higher earning survey respondents.

    These data, however, lack a frame of reference. That is, they don’t tell us whether American support for government redistribution is “high” or “low” compared with that in other nations. The conventional wisdom in this area is that Americans generally prefer a more limited government, especially when it comes to things like income redistribution.

    It might therefore be interesting to take a quick look at how the U.S. stacks up against other nations in terms of these redistributive preferences.

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  • Similar Problems, Different Response: “We Are Public Education”

    Written on October 28, 2011

    Thousands of people from all over Spain demonstrated Saturday October 22nd in Madrid against severe austerity measures affecting public education in several Spanish regions. The march on Madrid, which attracted more than 100,000 protesters – huge by Spanish standards – was jointly organized by national education unions and the national parents’ association, CEAPA. Taking part in the protest, a somewhat unprecedented coalition: educators, parents, and students.

    The economy in Spain is in terrible shape. Parents and teachers don’t always have an ideal relationship, yet  Spaniards seem to have avoided the divisive and unproductive quarrels we often read about in the US education debate – e.g., adults versus children or teachers versus parents – in an attempt to prioritize long-term educational investment over short-term, budget-driven savings. This broad alliance is building consensus around the notion of “the education community." As the protest’s manifesto notes, such community is “society as a whole," which must unite to oppose drastic budget cuts in public education and attacks by political leaders on public school teachers.

    The nationwide protest was triggered by a recent government decision that bans the temporary hiring of teachers as part of a plan to reduce government spending. In various parts of the country, teachers have already been laid off, class sizes and teaching hours have increased significantly, and teachers will have to teach subjects they are not specialized in. Many schools will have to reduce extra-curricular activities, remedial classes for struggling students and integration classes for the children of immigrants. This situation triggered a series of regional demonstrations across Spain throughout the months of September and October – including student demonstrations in defense of public education – with protesters arguing that education quality has been put at risk. National in scale, the march on Madrid sends a broader message, with the potential of immediate political impact.

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  • Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

    Written on July 7, 2011

    A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

    It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

    In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor?

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  • The Un-American Foundations Of Our Education Debate

    Written on April 21, 2011

    Being from Spain, one of the first things that struck me as odd about the U.S. education debate was the ubiquitous depiction of “bad teachers” as the villains of education and “great teachers” as its saviors. Aside from the fact that this view is simplistic, the punish/praise-teachers chorus seemed particularly off-key—but I wasn’t sure why. I think I may have figured it out. I think that it may be un-American.

    Let me explain. This is a nation that is supposed to be built around specific core values, such as individual effort, hard work, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. If so, isn’t the fixation on teachers—to the seeming exclusion of students and parents—an indirect rejection of basic American principles?

    This is not a discussion of what the good/bad teacher doctrine misses —we know it misses numerous dimensions of the education enterprise—but rather, what this doctrine assumes and how these assumptions conflict with the values that one expects most Americans to hold.

    One problem with the narrow focus on teachers is that it views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning. Not to get too technical here, this goes back to a central question in the social sciences: namely, agency versus structure. Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices. Structure refers to the conditions that shape and perhaps limit the range of alternative choices that are available. Western culture tends to favor agency over structure as an explanation for actions, a view which one would think would run particularly deep in the U.S.

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