The euphoria of the Arab Spring has given way to abuses as new governments fail to respect freedom of expression and other basic rights, Human Rights Watch warned in its annual report Thursday.
The US-based group urged the fledgling regimes of countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to build "genuine" democracies, saying that even democratically-elected governments did not have a mandate to ignore human rights.
"It's been two years now, almost to the day, since the euphoria of those early days when we saw dictator after dictator toppling in the Middle East and North Africa," HRW's executive director Kenneth Roth told reporters in London.
"That early euphoria has given way to often despair and deep concern over what turned out to be a much more difficult situation than many perhaps had hoped."
Launching HRW's annual report on human rights around the world, Roth said the Arab Spring had seen "the rise of Islamist parties in particular who threaten to use religion to suppress the rights of women or dissidents or minorities."
HRW said that in Egypt, gripped by political crisis two years after the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, serious human rights problems continued, including torture and the "systematic" sexual abuse of women.
The group expressed numerous concerns over Egypt's new constitution, saying it contained "defects" with regard to women's rights, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and civilian oversight of the army.
"It turns out, in fact, the toppling of a dictator may have been the easy part," said Roth. "The difficult part is replacing that repressive regime with a rights-respecting democracy."
In Egypt and elsewhere in the region, freedom of expression is being heavily restricted, he warned.
"We've seen an unfortunate tendency on the part of new governments throughout the region to suppress speech that is critical of them, critical of the judiciary, critical of religion."
Ultimately, Roth said, it is up to the region's governments to build a brighter future for their citizens than the dictators they replaced.
"Treacherous as the path ahead is, it is simply wrong to consign people to the grim future of authoritarian rule and repression."
Even in Syria, where the brutal conflict goes on 22 months after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad started, Roth said it was "not too early to begin to try to prepare for a better future."
HRW has been closely monitoring rebel forces in preparation for a possible power transition, the group's director said.
"We've been highly critical of their resort at times to summary execution and torture," he told journalists.
"These are antithetical to the kinds of foundations that are needed if Syria is to emerge from its difficult past and have a promising future."