OSLO, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Arab uprisings risk being hijacked by old-style leaders and must not exclude women, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said on Friday after awarding the peace prize to three women.
This year's winners were Yemeni pro-democracy activist Tawakul Karman, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her anti-war compatriot Leymah Gbowee.
In an interview with Reuters, Thorbjoern Jagland denied that the committee had interfered in Liberian politics by honouring Johnson-Sirleaf, who is seeking re-election on Tuesday.
"We are not promoting her in the elections, but we are honouring what she has done in Liberia in the name of peace," he said. "We leave it up to the Liberian people. I am sure that she can carry on (her work) even if she does not get reelected."
Jagland also said that popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East would be condemned to failure if women were not part of the democratic process and that autocratic leaders in Syria, Yemen and other countries should resign immediately.
"I am worried about what is going on in several of these countries," he said. "It is important now that the revolutions do not get hijacked by the people that have been in power.
"We have to get a new system of governance based on equal participation in elected parliament."
This year's Nobel Peace Prize award was a "clear message" to those trying to build democracy in the Arab world that women have to be involved in the process," Jagland said.
"You cannot achieve welfare and prosperity without taking half of the population on board," he said, singling out what he said was the use of Islam to oppress women's rights in the Arab world.
"Religion is being used to exclude women and it should not be like this. No religion can exclude women -- half the population," Jagland said.
"The oppression of women in the name of God is not because of religion, but religion is used to secure the old, autocratic power structures. Religion is misused for political purposes."
He said Karman shows that Muslim women are not a threat to democracy, as many in Western countries believe they are.
"I don't agree with this view ... She proves that Islam and the liberation of women can be reconciled," he said.
Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, urged Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign immediately to spare their countries disaster.
"All these rulers ... should look at history. There is no way that they can escape the strongest transformative force in the world, which is the quest for freedom and human rights.
"We can't avoid it, and if you try to avoid it you are directing your country towards catastrophe, like in Syria.
"How can Assad in Syria keep his power by shooting down people? You can keep the power for a while, but not in the long run," Jagland said.
Jagland said he and his four colleagues on the committee, who are all women, had discussed Johnson-Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman as potential laureates early on in their deliberations.
"We discussed this team very early and then we looked at which personalities could ... symbolise that team. It was clear that we could not avoid what happened in Liberia and what happens now in the Arab world," he said.
The committee had discussed whether to recognise other activists from this year's Arab uprisings, but said a factor was how long such people had been active in politics.
"There were many of these bloggers, as they have been called. But we have to look at not only those who have been active during the days in January and afterwards but also those who were courageous enough long before that," he said. (Editing by Alistair Lyon)