Human Rights in the Arab World

Human Rights in the Arab World

The political “spring” occurred in the Arab world by utter surprise, in an absolutist environment of repressive dictatorial regimes that used corruption to buy people and time, torture and assassination to silence dissenters and create a sentiment of lasting fear within society. 

These regimes controlled the information by state-run media that glorified, all day long, the dictator and his clique and gave him a father figure (ab al-ummah) and the image of a leader (zaim).

Human Rights

But, while the government ad agencies beautified the face of the sanguinary dictator, his intelligence apparatus (mukhabart) and political police engaged in the dirty work of killing and maiming the underground opposition. Unfortunately, in many of these cases of abject violation of basic human rights, the Western governments hardly budged because of their important economic interests at stake, and if they did, through some civil society organization, it was only to remind the dictator in place that he is very fragile and better toe the line and stay obedient. This strange arrangement could have lasted as long as the interests lasted, but the digital revolution occurred and the world was no more the same. Every Arab who owned a personal computer and had a connection to the Internet controlled a fragment of power that was, exclusively, in the hand of the state in the past. Thus, he became a news agency on his own, able to dispatch news, communiqués, denials, calls, photos, videos, to denounce dictatorship and its recurrent violations of human rights, and, most importantly, to call for civil disobedience and revolt. 

Prior to the Internet, Arab people lived in utter despair, they wanted badly change but they had no means to make it happen. Only the military could make it happen, but, alas, only to move from one dictatorship to another, and most of the military were corrupted by the existing power anyway, so they were busy managing their riches rather than thinking about a revolution or a military coup. The other possibility for change, was a popular revolution, but most people did not consider that because it would have meant the loss of stability and the loss of work, therefore, their ultimate sliding into more poverty and utter hunger besides tremendous loss of human life, given that the dictators were ruthless and would not give in easily, and, instead, would put up a deadly and costly fight. For these reasons and more, the populace suffered the lack of freedom and lack of equal opportunity and put up with the recurrent violations of human rights. For millions of very poor Arabs, bread came, definitely, first, way before democracy. Actually a lot of people, in their majority illiterate, believed that democracy is the luxury of the rich.

Youth-driven change

While everyone considered the above-mentioned two options to bring the long-awaited change, nobody ever thought, in their wildest dreams, that the youth will trigger the change, armed only with their personal computer, tablets and smart phones. When Facebook and Twitter were created, they were meant to be media for social communication, but Arab youth made out of them powerful non-fire weapons that brought about the much-wanted and sought change. The irony of this event is that the dictators that America sought to protect, in many cases, because of national vital interest, were brought down by American non-lethal inventions. Detecting the vulnerability of Arab dictatorships, the Arab youth cut and pasted the Tunisian revolution in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and toppled in, no time, most of the colossal dictators, who in a move of “self-defense” released either their armed brigades and/or their thugs (baltajiya) to kill their “beloved” people and violate their basic humans rights, in a kind of last gasp before they were thrown in the waste basket of history.

In the case of Libya and Syria, the “zaims” used all kinds of weapons, at their disposal, to kill their people and stop the uprisings, including the deadly bacteriological warfare systems, as what happened in Syria. In Libya, if it were not for the intervention of the NATO aviation, Qaddafi could have easily annihilated half of the population without the slightest remorse. Has not he, after all, called his people “filthy rats” and used all kinds of street insults to condemn their uprising? The Arab uprisings have certainly brought about the change but they did not bring about the spring of democracy. It is true the Arab youth achieved the unachievable in, no time, but unfortunately neither they nor the secular forces were organized enough to win the ensuing elections. They lacked political experience and acceptable platform and program for that. On the other hand, the Islamist parties had succeeded in winning the allegiance of thousands of poor people, through their efficient social programs, their proximity of the electorate, and as a result they brigaded them into religious zealots, brainwashed into believing that giving their vote to the Islamists is a religious duty, because all the other political forces are miscreants and infidels.

The “Spring” of the Islamists

The political “spring” occurred in the Arab world unexpectedly, and everyone believed that democracy is finally at hand. But while the freedom-starved masses celebrated this unexpected happy event, the patriarchal Islamists, which arrived to power by democratic means, stifled this newborn baby in its cradle. This ruthless calculated move put a quick end to the hopes of the Arab masses that yearned, for centuries, to get rid of the undemocratic tribal systems that oppressed them either in the name of belief, ethnic identity or culture. It goes without saying that the Islamists achieved political supremacy thanks to democracy, but rather than empower this nascent form of political system, they declared their intention to reestablish the Caliphate form of government, and by so doing, reject the implementation of the universal human rights on the grounds that it is part and parcel of Islam, and there is no need to deal with it separately. Alas, this meant clearly that the Islamists had no intention of upholding democratic ideals and human rights and instead were determined to establish a theocratic form of government denying the rule of law, human rights and freedom of expression.

Human Rights in the Arab World

Thus the so-called Arab “Spring”, in less than three years of its advent, became an Arab Winter, harsh and apocalyptic, and the masses went from a military pro-Western dictatorships to Islamist absolutist regimes denying them their basic rights in the name of religion, and branding anyone who defied their power, a heretic miscreant (kafir mutazandiq). Actually, the Islamist form of government is no different from the military dictatorship, because they are both tribal and make use of the patriarchal time-old system whereby the individual has no existence on his own and no identity, and can only claim the identity of the community (jama’a), and such an identity denies him his basic human rights, in the name of the tribe and/or in the name of religion. But, in spite of the fact that these systems are an anachronism in the era of globalization, the Islamists use the weapon of faith (iman) to denounce any form of dissent or recalcitrant opinion. Their weapon works superbly well because over half of the population is illiterate, and these kinds of regimes do promise them paradise (jennah), in the afterlife, as a reward for their deprivation in this world and their devotion to their masters’ political line.  And if this promise does not work (targhib) with the other half of the population, they are literally terrorized (tarhib) and, if need be, muzzled, and in the last resort killed, in the name of public interest (maslha ‘amma.)

The missed opportuniy

Three years have elapsed, since the inception of the first wave of popular contestations and uprisings which aimed at achieving human rights in addition to civil and social rights and, ultimately, full democracy. As a result, the political panorama has changed in many Arab countries and many new political actors have surfaced, and the remaining authoritative regimes have, likewise, changed their tactics and security strategies, to stay in power, and handed generously material gifts to the population, to secure their much-wanted and sought allegiance. As for the Islamic movements, they have worked hard to adapt to the new reality disguising their traditional and stagnant ideologies into democratic political forces because they knew well that otherwise they were going headlong onto an unprecedented dead-end. The truth of the matter is that the political stagnation of these movements and, in other words, their ideological status quo is very complex and poses many political and scientific questions which require careful thinking and serious introspection. Political Islam has been able to land a golden opportunity after the uprisings of the Arab “Spring” by exploiting intelligently the fact it was the only well-organized and widespread political force in the former political regimes.

It smoothly accessed power through the ballot boxes and managed the challenges of the transitional period with all its political, economic and social obstacles and difficulties, with much ease. A situation which requires open and transparent national policies as well as social and economic programs to meet the expectations of the public to achieve the very objectives of the popular contestation movement which aimed at putting an end to all forms of corruption and mismanagement, protected by the state and its insidious agents. However, the experience of political Islam did go astray and committed, early on, a number of deadly political faux pas, by allowing the individualization of power and the celebration of the results of the ballot boxes without neither offering the masses anything tangible nor meeting the expectations of the youth and showing interest in their energy and dedication that led in the first place to uprisings of the Arab “Spring,” and which is able, in the end, to ignite other rebellions that will ultimately lead to the desirable total change. All in all, the final outcome of the sum of three years of the uprisings did not meet the demands of the Arab masses at large seeking, freedom, social justice and human dignity. The choices offered to the Arab people in the aftermath of these uprisings vary between limited offer of reform of the former system and much political verbiage promising freedom and democracy but delivering none, in the end.

The failed “Spring”

The aftermath of the “Spring,” has seen so many failures, be it in the field of human rights, during the transitional period, whereby there was an acute escalation of subjugation of the opposition and the return to the oppression of peaceful demonstrations and to the increase of pressure on the independent media and to assault on the organizations of human rights and civil society in  addition to the continuation  of mismanagement of justice and the semi-officialization of the lack of accountability, and violation of human rights. The violations of human rights have become a common practice, even though the actual neo-dictatorial regimes and governments try to live with human rights cause and adapt it as a strategy to get rid of this concept, once for all. However, human rights  and democratic freedoms culture is now fully entrenched in Arab societies and is not only the protected realm of the intellectuals and militants but is also the concern of the youth who have engaged in discussions about the subject in the social media. This culture has spread so fast to the extent that the actual regimes find it difficult to get rid of it. Instead, they have adapted this culture and linked it to the different spheres of the state to fight with it the demands of the rank and file for change and thereby continue the time-old violations unscathed.

To achieve this transformation successfully, the army and the security apparatus have literally embraced the philosophy of human rights to be able to violate them systematically in a fashion more efficient and less apparent than in the past. As for the Islamist movements, they have, up to now, been unable to find the formula by which to adapt human rights and democratic freedoms to their static religious ideologies. Nevertheless, The Muslim Brothers failed to adapt self-criticism and strategic evaluation. As result, they were unable to offer confidence to the democratic forces, as to what concerns their intentions and agenda, and this led to a counter-revolution in Egypt and full and vibrant contestation in Tunisia. It must be, also, pointed out that though the Islamist movements have been the first to infiltrate the women and minorities rights groups, they have failed to come up with policies related to issues of multiculturalism and women empowerment in largely virile and patriarchal societies.


The Arab “Spring”, which is almost defunct by now, might have brought about a change but unfortunately it has not been able to bring democracy and the respect of the individual and his rights, due to five important factors:

  • The heavy tug of tradition;
  • The tribal legacy;
  • The entrenched patriarchal system;
  • The illiteracy of the population; and
  • The weight of religion.

But even if this spring has never materialized, it has allowed the Arab masses to get some experience and maturity for the next wave of uprisings to come, in not so long, as those who assumed power in the first wave are making mistakes that will ultimately bring their downfall. So, be warned.