News & Current Affairs

September 8, 2008

White House race enters high gear

White House race enters high gear

Barack Obama and John McCain, 5 September 2008

Candidates often see a surge in popularity after the party conventions

The US presidential rivals have begun campaigning in earnest, as a new opinion poll put Republican John McCain ahead of Democrat Barack Obama.

Fresh from being nominated at their party conventions, the two men are now gearing up for the 4 November poll.

A USA Today-Gallup poll put Mr McCain ahead for the first time in months.

Candidates often see a bounce in the polls after the conventions but Mr McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as running mate is being seen as key.

Mr McCain has tried to strike a balance between distancing himself from an unpopular presidency and rallying the party’s conservative base.

Mrs Palin wowed the Republican convention crowd with her speech, helping to re-energize his campaign.

Major test

Mr McCain said that “the electricity has been incredible” at rallies ever since he invited the Alaskan governor to join his ticket.

“She has excited people all over the country. I would love to say it was all because of the charisma of John McCain, but it is not,” he told CBS on Sunday.

Sarah Palin and John McCain (6 September)

Mr McCain said that “the electricity has been incredible” at rallies

Mrs Palin will face a major test this week when she gives her first nationally televised interview, following intense media scrutiny over her personal life and credentials for the ticket.

The USA Today-Gallup poll, which was released on Sunday, showed Mr McCain leading Mr Obama by four percentage points, 50 to 46.

A USA Today poll taken before the Republican convention showed Mr McCain trailing Mr Obama by seven points.

The latest poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The results of a Reuters/Zogby poll, also released over the weekend, gave Mr McCain the edge, with 50 percentage points to 46.

The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll showed John McCain with a one-point lead.

Mr McCain and Mrs Palin are scheduled to be in Missouri on Monday.

Mr Obama is campaigning in the crucial swing state of Michigan. His vice-president, Joe Biden, was appearing in Wisconsin and Iowa, while Hillary Clinton is on the campaign trail in Florida.

Despite the frenetic pace of the presidential race, the candidates will stop campaigning on Thursday to appear together in New York on the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

They said they would put aside politics to honour the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died.

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September 6, 2008

US campaign reaches final phase

US campaign reaches final phase

Barack Obama at a factory in Duryea, Pennsylvania, on 5 September 2008.

Republicans can’t be trusted with the economy, Mr Obama says

US presidential rivals Barack Obama and John McCain have begun the final phase of their campaigns following their anointment by the party conventions.

Mr Obama, the Democratic candidate, seized on high unemployment figures to tell a rally that Republicans must be driven from the White House.

Republican John McCain promised to work to fix the economy.

Both candidates are focusing on key battleground states ahead of the presidential election in November.

Campaigning in the industrial north-east, Mr Obama criticized Mr McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention on Thursday, citing the country’s economic woes.

“If you watched the Republican National Convention over the last three days, you wouldn’t know that we have the highest unemployment in five years,” Mr Obama told workers at a factory near Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Friday.

“They didn’t say a thing about what is going on with the middle class.”

John McCain (5 September 2008)
They’re tough times in Wisconsin, they’re tough times in Ohio, tough times all over America
John McCain

Government figures show that the jobless rate reached 6.1% in August.

Mr McCain told supporters in Wisconsin – another swing state – that the sagging economy had squeezed everyone in the country.

“These are tough times,” he said. “They’re tough times in Wisconsin, they’re tough times in Ohio, tough times all over America.”

But he promised that “change is coming”.

The candidates were gearing up for the last weeks of campaigning up to the 4 November election.

They used their respective party conventions to address vulnerabilities in their campaigns.

Mr McCain – who has a reputation as a maverick – tried to strike a balance between distancing himself from an unpopular presidency and rallying the party’s conservative base.

His selection of conservative Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential running mate helped rally supporters of President George W Bush.

A week earlier, Mr Obama – who needed to heal Democratic divisions after his primary election battle with Hillary Clinton – got a boost when her husband, former President Bill Clinton, gave him unqualified backing in his convention speech.

September 3, 2008

Palin case highlights teenage pregnancy

Palin case highlights teenage pregnancy

The Expressyoureself Blog looks at the problem of teenage pregnancy in the US after the revelation that the 17-year-old daughter of Alaska Governor and new Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is pregnant.

Bristol Palin, 17, holds her brother Trig during a Republican campaign rally in Dayton, Ohio, on 29 August 2008

Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was announced on Monday

The US is said to have one of the worst annual rates of teenage pregnancies in the developed world.

According to a report by Population Action International, published at the end of last year, there were 44 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 in the US for 2000-2005.

This compares with figures in the UK – itself said to be the country with the worst teenage pregnancy rate in Europe – of 27 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19.

Put differently, America is estimated to have some 750,000 teenage pregnancies a year.

Despite the continuous declines, the US teenage pregnancy rate is still among the highest among industrialised nations
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

According to America’s leading health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “About one-third of girls in the United States get pregnant before age 20.”

More than 80% of births in this group “were unintended, meaning they occurred sooner than desired or were not wanted at any time”, the CDC said.

Separately, in a report on 2002 data, the CDC said: “Despite the continuous declines, the US teenage pregnancy rate is still among the highest among industrialized nations. The costs of teenage childbearing in the United States are substantial.

“The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy recently estimated that $9.1bn in public funding was expended on teenage childbearing in 2004. These costs include public assistance, healthcare, child welfare and other expenses.”

Abstinence education

There is a debate state-side as to the reason for this high pregnancy rate.

The US offers government funding for health education programmes that promote sexual abstinence until marriage, although US lawmakers were investigating earlier this year whether to cut the funding.

State governments receive federal money they must match to fund abstinence programs.

Opponents of abstinence education say the approach ignores the fact that teenagers are sexually active and fails to give them accurate medical information or advice on safer sex.

Governor Palin herself has said she opposes funding sexual-education programs in Alaska and has supported abstinence programs in schools.

“The explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support,” she wrote in a 2006 questionnaire distributed among gubernatorial candidates, the Associated Press reports.

A social conservative who is opposed to abortion, she said in a statement her daughter Bristol would keep the child and was to get married.

And in 2005, presidential candidate John McCain, who picked Mrs Palin as his running mate, opposed a Senate Democratic proposal that would have spent tens of millions of dollars to pay for pregnancy prevention programmes other than abstinence-only education, including education on emergency contraception such as the morning-after pill, AP reports.

August 30, 2008

McCain unveils ‘The Barracuda’

McCain unveils ‘The Barracuda’

There were no late night text messages and perhaps not the same build up that preceded the announcement of Barack Obama’s choice for running mate.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (29 August 2008)

Mrs Palin has been credited with bringing in reforms in her time in office

But because it was kept a secret almost until the end, John McCain’s choice did generate a fair amount of rumor and speculation.

Was he going to pick a traditional candidate, a safe bet – someone like the young governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, or would the veteran Arizona senator go for the wild card?

The answer came on a private jet that flew in from the Alaskan city of Anchorage on Thursday night and landed outside Dayton, Ohio, apparently carrying on board a woman, two men and two teenagers.

All the journalists who were covering the story started looking up the biography of Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska.

‘Average hockey mom’

She may be seen by some as a rising star of the Republican Party, but she was relatively unknown on a national level.

As he took to the stage, in front of a packed audience, Mr McCain introduced her as “exactly who I need, exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of me first and the country second”.

For observers, it showed Mr McCain felt he needed to make a bold move to help change the course of the race to the White House.

SARAH PALIN

Elected Alaska’s youngest and first woman governor in 2006

Grew up in Wasilla, near Anchorage, and was voted Miss Wasilla in 1984
Studied journalism and political science at University of Idaho
Is mother of five, including a son with Down’s syndrome
Her husband Todd is an oil production operator
Likes hunting and fishing

The two presidential hopefuls have been running head to head, with Mr Obama gaining eight percentage points in the polls in recent days.

The choice of Sarah Palin is a high risk bet that could bring high rewards, but there are no guarantees.

Mrs Palin, a mother of five, is the first woman to be on a Republican presidential ticket.

Married for 20 years to Todd Palin, her high school sweetheart, she was nicknamed “Sarah Barracuda” during her college years for her aggressive basketball playing style – the name has stuck.

On stage, dressed in a conservative black power suit, her hair raised in a high ponytail, she described herself as “an average hockey mom from Alaska”.

She drew applause when talking about her anti-corruption drive, her standing up to big oil companies and even the “good old boys club”, which drew a smile from Mr McCain.

She eats moose meat and is an inveterate hunter, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

One of her sons is heading to Iraq in September. The other, born in April, is diagnosed with Down’s syndrome.

‘Exciting choice’

In many ways, her story is all American and her values will appeal to the conservative base and to blue-collar voters.

With 80% approval ratings back home, she seemed to also get the approval of the crowd she was addressing, drawing very enthusiastic cheers, as she spoke in a relaxed, accessible way.

It turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all
Sarah Palin

Mrs Palin also ticks several required boxes – she is fiscally conservative, in favor of drilling for oil and very staunchly anti-abortion.

Most of all she is a reformer and a fresh face for the Republican ticket.

President George W Bush said she was “an exciting choice” and Mrs Palin certainly adds energy and sizzle to the McCain campaign.

She also clearly reached out to disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters, who are disappointed their candidate did not make it on to the Democratic ticket, not even as vice-president.

“I can’t begin this great effort without honoring the achievement of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and of course, Hillary Clinton, who showed determination in her presidential campaign,” Mrs Palin said.

“It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”

The Democrats for McCain group sent out an e-mail saying its supporters, especially the women, were “ecstatic” about the choice of Mrs Palin.

But other Democrats said they felt insulted that Mr McCain thought he could woo women by just putting any woman on his ticket, with one sentence making the rounds: “Palin, you are no Hillary Clinton”.

Experience questioned

It all made for an exciting day in Dayton, a city of just over 150,000 that has been hard hit by job losses in the past few years.

But the whole of the US is probably now scouring the internet for more information about Governor Palin and trying to assess her credentials.

Sarah Palin visits troops in Kuwait (24 July 2007)
What is it exactly that a VP does every day?
Sarah Palin

Many will be wondering whether she is ready to be vice-president and even lead the US, should something happen to Mr McCain if he is elected president.

As commander of the Alaska National Guard, she visited troops in Kuwait last year, but has a very thin foreign policy background.

Similarly, while she does have executive experience, the Obama campaign wryly pointed out she had been the mayor of a town with just 9,000 people.

As governor of Alaska during the past two years she has gained more experience, but even some Alaskans calling into talk shows on US network television said they doubted whether that had prepared her for the challenge of national politics.

She did herself no favors in a recent interview.

“As for that VP talk all the time, I can’t answer until someone answers me. What is it exactly that a VP does every day?” she said just a month ago on CNBC when asked about her chances of being on the ticket.

“I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that this VP slot would be fruitful type of position especially for Alaskans and for the kind of things we are trying to accomplish here for the rest of the US.”

Investigation

By choosing her, Mr McCain may have undercut his best attack against Senator Obama – if he uses the inexperience card now it will be turned against him and his running mate.

While conservatives, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Bush adviser Karl Rove, hailed the Palin surprise, there were also dismayed reactions from some Republicans, who felt the choice underscored Mr McCain’s weaknesses and was too risky.

Polls in the coming days, and Mrs Palin’s performance at the Republican National Convention, will help assess the impact of Mr McCain’s decision.

In the meantime, Mr McCain and his new partner have something else to worry about – Mrs Palin is facing an investigation in Alaska for alleged abuse of power involving her former brother-in-law. Her deposition is expected to be scheduled soon.

She says she has “nothing to hide” and is “cool” about the investigation.

August 12, 2008

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Ghada Abdelaal with her book Ayza-Tgawwiz

Abdelaal’s story started as an online log – now she’s working on a sitcom

“I want to get married” is a perfectly normal thing to say for a young Egyptian man. But when a girl says it in such a conservative society – let alone writes a book with that title – she is making a political statement.

“Girls are not supposed to be actively seeking something, a girl simply exists for someone to marry or divorce her,” says the author of the top-selling book, Ghada Abdelaal. “To say she wants something is seen as impolite.”

The book started as a blog, before it was spotted by an Egyptian publisher and printed as a series of comic sketches in which flawed and failed suitors knocking at her parents’ door.

A paranoid policeman, a hirsute fundamentalist, a pathological liar and other hilarious caricatures portrayed in sparkling Egyptian vernacular.

Marriage anxiety

The veiled, softly-spoken Abdelaal is a sharp and witty observer of social incongruity in Egypt, a feisty spirit trying to tear up stifling tradition.

They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married
Ghada Abdelaal

She says her target is not Egyptian men but a tradition known as “gawwaz el-salonat” (living room marriage), where a stranger is brought to the family home and the daughter must decide whether to marry him on the basis of this brief encounter.

“People who go for a picnic need to know each other a little longer than that – let alone make a lifelong commitment.”

The book’s popularity – it is in its third print run with a sitcom in the offing – reflects a widespread anxiety in Egyptian society. More and more young people cannot afford to get married.

Although the book focuses on finding Mr Right, she acknowledges finding an affordable flat remains an almost insurmountable obstacle. Many young people stay engaged for years before they can save up enough money.

“By the time they actually get to live together, they are already tired of each other,” says women’s rights activist Nihad Abou El Qoumsan. This causes the unusually high rate of divorce among the newlyweds in Egypt, she says.

Such is the impact of property prices on the marriage crisis, a popular talk show has invited engaged couples to join a draw to win a flat.

A new apartment will be given away by a wealthy businessman every day of the fasting and holiday month of Ramadan, in September. Huge numbers have registered.

Sexual frustration

Some describe it as a social time bomb. Religious customs mean there is no sex before marriage. So how do young people react to this situation?

I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated
Anthropologist Hania Sholkamy

Sociologist Madeeha al-Safty of the American University in Cairo believes one consequence is sexual harassment of women and rape reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt.

“If you are frustrated, there is the possibility that you take it out [through] violence.

“Some people choose the safer way in moving towards a more religious attitude – not necessarily extremism, but it might reach the point of extremism,” she adds.

But anthropologist Hania Sholkamy hesitates to link the problems of sexual harassment and rape to the marriage crisis.

“I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated. There are many millions of people who are extremely frustrated, but they do not harass women.

“I think the issue is one of violence and gender disparities, pure and simple.”

Gender disparities is a theme running throughout Abdelaal’s book, from the provocative title questioning the woman’s passive role in a traditional society to the way children are brought up.

“They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married.

“Even after she goes to school they tell her that a girl’s only future is in her husband’s home. So what happens when a girl for any reason cannot get married. Should she set fire to herself?”

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