Is the Arab Spring a Winter for Women?


President Obama backed the rebels in Egypt, abandoning our longstanding (and admittedly loathsome) quasi-ally Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptians in the street were, after all, demanding their freedom . . . or so it was presented. When Mubarak fell, Obama of course congratulated himself warmly.

However, some people were nervous at this spectacle. Especially nervous were people who recalled Obama’s spiritual guru, Jimmy Carter, who decided to abandon support for the Shah of Iran to help usher in the new “forces of democracy” there. The result was not democracy, but an even more authoritarian regime — indeed, a totalitarian one, driven by an Islamist ideology and implacably hostile to the United States.

Recent events in Egypt have ominously suggested that we may be seeing a similar devolution there, with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood looking to take control.

A recent story is both a disgusting and worrisome harbinger. It tells the story of a Cairo businessman trying to decide whether or not to “circumcise” (i.e., mutilate the genitals of) his daughter, who is — 12 years old! This procedure is a happy custom endorsed by many conservative Egyptians, and Mubarak’s regime struggled to suppress it. But with the winds of the Arab Spring, it is resurgent again.

Female genital mutilation (given the euphemistic acronym “FGM”) involves removing most or even all of the clitoris, and even the labia minora, followed by stitching up the vaginal opening.

All this, to make sure that young women remain chaste and “pure.” It is already incredibly common in Egypt, and is now likely to become even more so.

The Mubarak regime had banned the practice after a young girl died from it, and Suzanne Mubarak (the dictator’s wife) had spoken out continuously against FGM and had gotten religious leaders to oppose it. But the Muslim Brotherhood opposes the Mubarak ban, and it now appears that prior progress will be rapidly reversed.

We can only wonder what other treats are in store for Miss Liberty as the New Egypt evolves.

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paul thiel

The ongoing events in Egypt once again give evidence to the fact that any correlation between democracy and liberty are strictly coincidental. To the extent that the U S should have any policy regarding the internal affairs of another country, it should always be to further liberty and not necessarily democracy.

Rodney Choate

Kudos to Gary for criticizing Obama for taking credit for non-existent improvements abroad. Kudos to Jon for championing non-intervention (and for the right reasons).

The only real solution to FGM was clearly stated by JON in his reply. We think that (other things being equal), in the long run, non-intervention would lead to more enlightened societies.

But I'm curious. How many people here are ideologically consistent by fighting the MALE genital mutilation in THIS country?

Gary Jason

If you equate removing skin from the tip of a penis of an infant boy with cutting out the clitoris of a pubescent girl, then you ought to fight that practice as well. But I daresay most people don't make that equation.

Jon Harrison

Actually, Rodney, although I believe US interference in Iran and Egypt contributed to the bad situation that each country finds itself in, for me it doesn't necessarily follow that noninterference would have led to anything better. My personal opinion is that Iran would have turned into something like a European social democracy if the '53 coup had not occurred, but of course we can't be sure. And for me Iran is an exception. I'm a Spenglerian and a pessimist; I generally expect bad outcomes in places like the Middle East, whether we're involved or not.

I believe that the US should only intervene abroad if its vital national interests are threatened. Beating Hitler and the Soviets is one thing. But running around the world trying to remake places like Guatemala and Vietnam has proven disastrous both for us and for the peoples we have sought to "save." The British, by and large, knew how to conduct a world policy of enlightened imperialism. The United States, on the other hand, is a society too immature and barbarous to carry on such a policy successfully. With few exceptions, we have been ham-handed in our dealings with foreign peoples. Ham-handedness combined with overwhelming power makes for bad outcomes on the ground. And on those occasions when we are not ham-handed, we fall prey to our own naivete. Libya, I think, will prove to be an example of the latter. The lesson is: wish the rest of the world the best, but stay at home and tend to our own affairs. Only when a great danger, like Hilter or the Soviet Union (or China today?) threatens us, should we involve ourselves overseas.

I've never thought of male circumcision as genital mutilation. Granted, the infant has no choice in the matter, but the procedure does at least have a legitimate function. It is known that circumcised males have fewer health issues "down there." For example, circumcised males have a lower rate of penile cancer. In any case, it's been my experience that females prefer the unsheathed male member. And that's an important point to consider.

Jon Harrison

I was (and am) one of those nervous people -- see my feature "1989 in the Muslim World?" posted here in February 2011. However, the implication of this piece seems to be that an increase in female genital mutilation in Egypt is somehow Obama's fault. Obama made the best of a bad situation in Egypt. Even with continued American support, Mubarak was doomed. So too was the Shah in 1978-79. The latter's fall could have been delayed if the US government had encouraged him to shoot down his own people, and the same was probably true for Mubarak. But both the Shah and Mubarak had forfeited popular support. Their regimes had become so unpopular and despotic that they could not last. The successor regime in Iran was even worse than the Shah, and that fate may be what awaits Egypt as well. But to assess America's share of the blame for this, we need to look a bit deeper. We overthrew a democratic government in Iran in 1953. Had we not interfered, Iran might have become a rather more civilized country than it is today, or than it was under the Shah. Similarly, our 30 years of support for Mubarak helped stifle any possibilty that Egypt might develop along modern democratic lines. Carter and Obama had the bad luck to be present when matters came to a head, but neither man had the power to change history, beyond (perhaps) delaying the outcome for a few months or years. The real mistakes were made long before they came into office.

The United States ought to have stayed out of Middle East politics altogether. Our sole interest in the region is and always has been uninterrupted access to Middle Eastern oil. Only by intervening in the region have we put that access in jeopardy.

As a libertarian, and as the father of an adolescent girl, I find the practice of female genital mutilation loathsome and despicable. But there is very little the US can do to prevent FGM.
We should certainly condemn those who practice FGM, but it is hard to see what practical steps we can take to eliminate it. I can't imagine most libertarians want to wage a Wilsonian war to stamp out FGM around the globe. Our prior interventions in lesser-developed countries do not inspire confidence that we would finally reshape the world in our own image this time.


Well written reply Mr. Harrison.

By trashing Obama specifically, Mr. Jason gives the impression that a Republican president would have done something different. That is very doubtful.

Conditions for women, and girls, are dire all across the muslim world. Including "our brave ally" Saudi Arabia. Republicans and Democrats have been supporting this oppressive regime for years.

Gary Jason

It is always amusing for me to read what others read into my articles. I never "blamed" Obama for FGM (I doubt he would do that to his own kids), nor to I want to go to war to stop it. I merely wanted to point out the Obama's rash eagerness to get behind toppling Mubarak is already producing undesirable unintended consequences. Period. I was reporting, not pushing for war.

Jon Harrison

Shoe's on the other foot here, Gary. If you read my response carefully, you'll see that I wasn't saying that you advocate war over this or any other issue. I was well into my own riff by the time war got mentioned, and wasn't specifically criticizing your piece. On the other hand, the clear implication of your piece was that FGM has increased in Egypt because Obama's policy led to Mubarak's fall. If it wasn't your intention to imply this, well you sure fooled me.

The one criticism of you I do have is that you find a way to hammer Obama every time you touch a keyboard, no matter how far-fetched the connection may be. Thanks to you and our esteemed editor, this site has taken on the appearance of a blog for Republican talking points. I'm not going to say there's too much criticism of Obama in Liberty, but there's far too little when it comes to Republicans. I thought this was a libertarian pub.

Gary Jason

Of course I'm critical of Obama, and if that bothers you, don't read my stuff. I believe strongly in free markets--so excercise your right to shop elsewhere and read someone else.

Since the vast majority of news media outlets in this country are virtually uncritical of Obama, indeed, worship the guy, there is no shortage of places for you to turn.


I would have more respect for Mr.Jason if he shared is support for free markets more evenly. Where is his article condemning Herman Cains's additional 9% sales tax on food and clothing? These very unfee market market measures would severly hamper the poor's chance at ever entering a free market.

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