Human rights in the Middle East since the Arab Spring: what’s changed?

Nearly 6 years after the first demonstrations of the Arab Spring, human rights violations in the Arab world seem more prevalent than ever. After International Human Rights Day last Saturday, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on what’s changed, and what hasn’t, over the past half decade.

The Arab Spring issued from a profoundly human inclination to procure natural and inalienable rights for each individual. Rousseau’s highly influential theories about the fundamental desire for freedom in all humans seemed to be being enacted on the ground all over the region. Here, there was no organised leadership, simply an innate recognition of every person’s right to liberty and dignity. ‘The people want the fall of the regime’. Suddenly, everyone was a member of civil society. Previously marginalised groups were now incorporated into the infinitely broad group of ‘the people’, all cognisant and demanding of their rights.

Flags wave during the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt in 2011 during the Arab Spring | AK Rockefeller

Flags wave during the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt in 2011 | AK Rockefeller

Historically, Arab leaders have tended to appropriate an anti-imperialist rhetoric to avoid ensuring their citizens were protected by International Human Rights laws. They claimed human rights were a western import, irreconcilable with Sharia.

This is at best debatable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed by the UN in 1948, with support from nearly all the Arab countries who were members at the time, as well as most (then) third world countries. Nevertheless, popular criticism of the UDHR – that it constituted a ‘secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition’– fed into the adoption in 1990 of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). Aside from CDHRI’s dogmatic and absolutist interpretation of a faith that has a rich history of pluralism and debate, reducing Islam to a specific religiously conservative interpretation, this declaration is not even close to being concerned with protecting universal human rights. Universal human rights are only accepted in so far as they do not impinge on Sharia, which has a huge bearing on state abilities to protect women and non-Muslim minorities. Freedom of religion is far from guaranteed, with Article 10 recognising the legitimacy of Apostasy laws, whilst Article 22 restricts freedom of speech to that which does not contravene Islamic law.

The states in the Middle East that underwent regime change after the Arab Spring were not immune to this either. Quite quickly, the universality of the human rights message advocated during the revolutions became obscured. After the election of Islamist parties in Tunisia and in Egypt, women’s rights, for example, once again took a back seat. In March 2013, Morsi outright rejected a draft UN declaration calling for an end to GBV (Gender Based Violence), claiming that ‘the document includes articles that contradict established principles of Islam, undermine Islamic ethics and destroy the family.’ It is however worth noting that since then, Tunisia has officially withdrawn all reservations on the Convention to Eliminate Discriminate Against Women (CEDAW), making it the first Arab country to do so.

then President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi meets with EU Council President Herman van Rompuy in 2012 | European External Action Service's photostream

President of Egypt in 2012, Mohamed Morsi meets with EU Council President Herman van Rompuy | European External Action Service’s photostream

The key question remains: where has the struggle for Human Rights moved to in the Arab World today? With the growth of religious and sectarian identity politics and its associated discourse, the concept of the universality of law becomes worryingly obscured. Identity politics, by its very nature, sets up parameters for exclusion and creates ‘others’, pitting them against us.

Today, the general rule of thumb is that state leaders claim they have been forced to restrict liberties due to extreme terror threats, a claim that has also been evoked widely in the West. Fighting terror has become an ideal façade for many Arab governments. They, to some extent, depend on ISIS’s continued existence as a crutch for holding onto power and maintaining their false legitimacy.

Many claim that the extent of repression in Egypt today is at its worst ever under the current president, Sisi. He set the tone for his leadership, implementing the Protest Law by executive decree as his first action after ousting the former President Morsi in 2013 – a law which permits the use of excessive and even lethal force by security forces against protestors. A popular joke makes light of what is in fact a sustained onslaught on press freedoms in the country: ‘in Egypt there is freedom of speech, but no freedom after speech’. But the facts speak for themselves, and Sisi’s Egypt has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world, after China.

In fact, the build up of popular resentment and frustration is at the root of both the Arab Spring and current extremist violence in the region. However, governments not only rely on the existence of violent extremism to deflect attention away from their own state-led injustices, they feed it. Regimes such as Sisi’s repress Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood to provoke radicalisation within those ranks and thus further legitimise the regime’s rule.

As long as ‘hard-line’ leaders are favoured and propped up by Western governments, and as long as these leaders’ solutions to the region’s problems include policies that ignore citizens’ rights, the prospects for an improved human rights situation in the Middle East are limited. In 2016, ‘security’ is the Arab regimes’ byword for systematic oppression. These regimes will continue to successfully justify their actions to the international regulatory body, operating on a ‘pick and mix’ basis with regard to international intervention, by framing their actions in those very terms.

Thumbnail Image: Tahrir Square 7Feb | Ramy Raoof


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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