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Sacrifices are higher than societal gains a year after Arab Spring: Human rights report

A human rights report highlights that in all but one country has power-sharing and regime change come about after the large sacrifices of the Arab Spring uprisings

Bassem Aly, Saturday 9 Jun 2012
Arab Spring
A girl raises her hand with her fingers painted with flags of Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya as she marches during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, June 22, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)
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The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies published its fourth annual report on the state of human rights in the Arab world. The report is revealingly titled: Fractured Walls… New Horizons.

The Cairo-based research institution addressed the repercussions of the "revolutionary winds of change" which swept across the Middle East and succeeded in overthrowing autocratic and corrupt regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Some are optimistic about Islamist currents finally getting some power in many countries where they were previously repressed. Bashir Abdel Fatah, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, for example, said that the rise of Islamist governments in the Arab world might motivate their top-level members to push for democratisation and enhance mutual ties with other regional players, especially if they share the exact religious-politico orientation. 

The report, however, does not paint such an optimistic vision and argues that the outcome of the Arab Spring does not match the sacrifices made by the Arab peoples who revolted for the sake of freedom, social justice and human dignity. The report also points to war crimes and human rights violations committed against democracy advocates to counter their attempts for reform, especially in Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain.

Since Hosni Mubarak was toppled on 11 February, 2011, Egypt has been ruled by the military in a tumultuous transition. Protests against the generals have repeatedly turned into deadly clashes where dozens die. A series of military-installed interim governments have been largely ineffectual, hesitant to make significant decisions.

Police, angered and humiliated during the anti-Mubarak uprising have often refused to work, letting crime increase. As divisions run deep, human rights violation have run deeper. The 'exceptional' state of emergency and military trials of civilians remained in force. New legislations were issued to legalise the suppression of strikes, sit-ins and protests.

The increased likelihood that a new law that would impose further restrictions on civil society organisations has become highly anticipated. These sufferings coincided with an Islamist parliamentary majority (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party) that was careful not to question military supremacy over the political system.

The President Ali Abdullah Saleh fiercely defended his post throughout a year of nationwide protests. Major military units joined the opposition and a bomb blast at his palace badly burned him. He agreed to step down in return for immunity following a US- and Gulf-sponsored deal, leaving office to Vice President Abed Rabbo Hadi and a cabinet composed of coalition of parties after 33 years in power.

Nevertheless, Saleh's son and nephew still command elite military units and his loyalists remain in their posts throughout the government. This situation indicates that Saleh's state of emergency and his exceptionally powerful security apparatus give them the power to arrest anti-government activists and censor the media.

The Shiite majority in Bahrain, a vital US ally in the region, mounted a wave of protests against discrimination and disenfranchisement by the ruling Sunni monarchy, which responded with two months of martial law. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia led a Gulf military force into Bahrain that helped largely crush the uprising, disregarding its non-interference policy, fearing a growing role of Iran in Manama. 

Ironically, Saudi Arabia itself witnessed some demonstrations by its own Shiite minority, which its regime forces easily aborted and maintained the stability of the monarchical regime.

In all, at least 50 Bahrainis died. Restrictions on freedom of assembly and movement were enforced and foreign nationals were expelled. This is in addition to the special military court-managed trials which also issued arrest and search warrants against hundreds of human rights activists and organisations.  

The uprising that started in January 2011 as a wave of peaceful protests against President Bashar Al-Assad's regime has turned into a year-long bloodbath and near civil war, with over 10,000 dead. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), some of Al-Assad's opponents, have taken up arms in response to the unending crackdown by regime forces.

The military has responded with destructive assaults on opposition areas, using tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery to destroy neighbourhoods in various cities. The report states that nearly 5,000 people, among them 300 children, have been killed since the peaceful demonstrations erupted in March 2011.  

In addition to the pro-Assad military and security forces, armed militias known as the Shabiha, participated in the crackdown. The Shabiha are suspected of committing acts of murder, execution or forcible kidnapping. There is a special force in the Syrian intelligence service that tightened their control of hospitals and medical centres to prevent the provision of medical services to opposition injured.  

Demonstrations against Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s strongman for more than 40 years, quickly turned into a civil war. Gaddafi lost control of the eastern half of the country early last year and the rebels sought the West to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to block the highly aggressive military crackdown by pro-Gaddafi troops.  

It took months of NATO airstrikes to open the way for rebels to take the Libyan capital Tripoli. Gaddafi fled and two months later was caught and killed. However, more problems have arisen after Gaddafi’s 40-year governing reign was forcefully ended. The rebel militias refuse to disarm and have carved out fiefdoms, sometimes taking brutal revenge against suspected regime supporters.

The report claims that the "major test" of the country’s chances for stability comes in national elections next month and an effort to draft a new constitution. The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) proved unable to develop an alternative political system amid conflicts between warlords, who had already had run-ins in the past, erupted, despite the fact that all factions are united under the umbrella of political Islam as a single ideology. 

The Tunisian government was described as the "best example thus far" because it allowed social and political groups to form the so-called High Commission that would push forward the goals of the revolution. A roadmap was designed from day one for the transitional phase and required institutional and constitutional changes for constructing a democratically-based state.

The head of the Cairo Institute and one of the major contributors to the report, Bahey Eddin Hassan, told Ahram Online that three main factors encouraged a peaceful, efficient political process in Tunisia.

First, the Tunisian army had no ambitions to get involved in politics; monitoring the transition from a "reasonable distance" seemed more than enough for them.

Second, politicians were not left alone to draft the political roadmap amid apathetic social forces. Rather, the civil society worked enthusiastically to guarantee their socio-political rights in the post-Ben Ali period.

Third, the Islamists Ennahda party empowered all sects in a balanced manner within the new constitution, despite its plurality in the constituent assembly elections.

Hassan pointed out that the Tunisian Islamists were not concerned about the inclusion of an Islamic component in the constitution, whereas in Egyptian there is a major struggle over creating a secular, "civil" or Islamic state.

Tunisia, post-revolution, also ratified several international human rights conventions and lifted reservations on press and publication laws. They also limited their hold on freedom of speech to cases of incitement to hatred, discrimination or violence.

"Under such a healthy, democracy-yearning society, it would be rare for human rights abuses or a theocratic state to occur," Hassan said.

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© 2010 Ahram Online.