Religion: A Plural Reality with Multiple Meanings

This blog is written by Political Science Professor and former Parliamentarian Dr. Mona Makram-Ebeid


The effects of the restructuring of traditional state power engendered by globalization on the political, economic and security processes of different countries in the Arab World, particularly after the Arab spring uprisings, are still in the making.

The changes in each of the countries represent different paths leading toward a shared model of the “new” Arab state. Since the 19th century, religious life has witnessed changes of different kinds, but was unable to settle into a constant and sustainable model that could serve as the basis for a new religious order.

There is no doubt that disillusionment with government and religious authorities is helping fuel a re-examination of religious discourse. As citizens begin to read religious texts with critical intelligence they will see through the myths, the inconsistency with principles and the cultural prejudices and literary devices imposed by humans on interpretation of the text. A new understanding of religion is the pre-requisite of any social change.

Majority Muslim countries are today faced with a three sided “prison,” namely: an archaic Islamic past, a seductive Western future, and the problematic present.

Half an ounce of gold

In the seventh century, that is how much most of Eastern Christians had to pay for the privilege of living under the protection of the Caliphate. If they did not want to pay the Jizya (the levy) they could convert or “face the sword.” Today, in the 21st century, many Christians (mainly in Syria and Iraq) are given the same choice! But this time the offer comes from the Islamic State (ISIS also known as Daesh)! whose objective is to have a Christian- free Middle East.

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The Gender Gap Runs Deeper than Religion or Education

This blog was written by Rice University Professor of Economics and Statistics Mahmoud El-Gamal

CAPMAS, the official Egyptian statistical agency, announced in 2014 that job market participation rates were three times higher for males (at 72.3%) than for females (at 23.1%). The average figures for the entire MENA region are slightly more lopsided, as reported by the World Bank based on ILO estimates, at 75% for males, and 22% for females over 15 years of age. Researchers noted that the gender gap in labor market participation in MENA is three times its counterpart in other emerging regions. Had this gap been two thirds of its size over the past decade, International Monetary Fund researchers calculated (box 1.3, p. 29), regional GDP would have been a trillion Dollars higher for that decade.

Social attitudes may hold the key to this large gender gap in labor market participation. Wave 6 of the World Values Survey (WVS6), collected between 2010 and 2013, sheds significant light on this issue. This wave of the survey covered 55 countries, including twelve countries from MENA (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Tunisia, and Yemen), to which I added Turkey, which is one of the ERF countries, to form MENAT.


It’s Not Simply An Islamic Issue


In what follows, I will focus mainly on one question in particular that was asked in WVS6: “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women,” eliciting responses of “Agree,” “Neither,” or “Disagree.”

Affirmative responses to this question in MENAT (at 67.3%) were more than twice as high as they were for the remaining 42 countries (31.1%). The higher rates applied to both genders (74.7% for males and 60% for females in MENAT, as compared to 35.7% for males and 27% for females outside MENAT).

In the entire sample, the percentage of Muslims who agreed with the statement (at 61.8%) was nearly double the percentage of non-Muslims (at 32.5%). However, majority-Muslim populations do not entirely explain the difference in responses between MENAT and the rest of the world. In fact, within MENAT, the percentage of Muslims who agreed with the statement (at 66%) was less than the percentage of non-Muslims who did (at 68.7%).

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ERF to Hold Workshops on Education, Labor Market Dynamics and the Use of Labor Market Panel Survey Data in MENA

The Economic Research Forum (ERF) is organizing three workshops on “Education in the ERF Region,” “Labor Market Dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa,” and “The Use of Labor Market Panel Survey Data” from July 26-28, 2015, at ERF’s premises in Cairo.

During the workshops, participants will discuss the first drafts of a number of papers covering various topics related to incentives to learn in MENA, spending on education, returns to education, student achievements and the role of socioeconomic backgrounds, labor market dynamics, dynamics of informalization and household enterprises, migration and data collection methods, migration and labor market performance, labor mobility and employment outcomes, female participation and family dynamics, and inequality of opportunity in MENA.

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How “Private” are MENA Capital Markets?

This blog is written by Alissa Amico (Program Manager, MENA, Corporate Affairs Division, OECD).

Most stock exchanges in the Middle East, with the exception of the Palestine Stock Exchange, the Dubai Financial Market and a few broker-owned markets in North Africa are – unlike their largest global peers – state owned. While some exchanges in the Middle East have explored privatization or ownership restructuring, only the Kuwait Stock Exchange has moved in this direction. It is debatable whether and under what conditions other exchanges in the region will follow and if the timing is right, with the impending opening of Tadawul to foreign investors and the intense competition among financial centers in the region.

Even less known than the ownership model of exchanges, is the type of investors who dominate markets in the region. While the dependence of MENA markets on retail investors is no secret, less is known about the behavior and profile of institutional investors. And this is crucial as exchanges seek to attract foreign capital flows and encourage long-term investment. Institutional investors in the region are quite different in profile from developed or even other emerging markets, which are dominated by investment and pension funds and insurance companies.

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ERF Holds Workshop on the Political Economy of the Private Sector in the Middle East

The Economic Research Forum is organizing a workshop on “The Political Economy of the Private Sector in the Middle East,” June 5-6, 2015, in Oxford, UK. The workshop, being held in collaboration with the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, will discuss the first drafts of a number of papers covering various topics related to cronyism in the banking sector and capital markets, corruption in the job market, firm ownership, rules versus deals and public private partnerships, among others.

The event comes in the context of the MENA region’s suffering from a fragile private sector that is weakly connected with global markets and thrives largely under state patronage. Although extensive state-business interactions can form the basis for dynamic capitalism, they can also  become sources of insider influence, corruption and other forms of rent-seeking that distort politics, regulation, judicial functioning and business incentives. In MENA, the system of de facto privileges and restrictions has created a corporate pyramid composed of a small number of connected firms at the top, where competition is muted, and a large base of small firms at the bottom. Continue reading

Navigating the Transitions to Democracy

This post is written by Ahmed Goher (Economic Research Forum)

The Economic Research Forum (ERF) brought together speakers Eva Bellin (Brandeis University), Erik Berglof (London School of Economics) and Larry Diamond (Stanford University) on the third and final day of its 21st Annual Conference to explore how MENA countries can best manage their transitions to democracy.

Bellin began the session, chaired by Bassma Kodmani (Arab Reform Initiative), by presenting on ‘Lessons for Democratic Transition in the Arab World.’ The core argument of Bellin’s presentation was that established findings in the literature that economic development better sustains democracy, that neighborhood democratization has a high chance of leading to transition, anHB__8914d that a professionalized military apparatus is more likely to ensure a smooth transition to democracy; none of these findings are actually deterministic. In this sense, per Bellin, identifying lessons of what has worked elsewhere will not provide a definitive roadmap for Arab countries’ successful transition to democracy. For instance, the idea that higher GDP is more conducive to democracy is not a set rule, since half of the poorest countries in the world are democracies, Bellin argues, adding that some authoritarian regimes can have high levels of economic development as happened in the cases of Chile and Argentina.

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Growth or equity: which comes first?

In any discussion of development, one dilemma invariably comes to the forefront: which should come first, growth or equity? Nowhere is this debate more pressing than in transitioning Arab countries, where a new social contract is in the making. It is a dilemma that mDebateust be resolved if the lives of these Arab citizens are to see any real improvement.

The debate took place on December 10th, 2014 in Cairo at 4.00 pm; and organized in collaboration with IDRC. To advance this public policy debate, two teams of debaters  argued for and against the motion: The Economics of Growth is a More Urgent Priority than the Politics of Equity.

Our four debaters are Shantayanan DevarajanWorld Bank-, Hoda SelimEconomic Research Forum-,  Ahmed GalalEconomic Research Forum– and Ravi KanburCornell University-; it was moderated by Khaled EzzelarabAswat Masreya-.results_debate

The debate was preceded by brief remarks by Bruce Currie-Alder, Regional Director of the IDRC office in Cairo.

The crowd voted at the end of the debate; 53.9% were convinced that equity is more important than growth; while 33.3% voted for growth over equity.

You can now watch the debate online