POMED Notes: Can the Arab Spring be a Human Rights Success Story?
As part of its inaugural Human Rights Summit, Human Rights First hosted a panel on Tuesday (11/4) entitled “Can the Arab Spring be a Human Rights Success Story?” The panel included Maryam al-Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; Dr. Adel Iskandr, professor at Georgetown University; Nadine Wahab, international advocacy director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egyptian human rights activist; and was moderated by Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Panelists were asked to address the current situation in the Middle East and to help determine what the Obama Administration could do to help foster a successful transition in the region.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
Michele Dunne began by pointing out that the Arab Spring has brought hope for new relations between governments and citizens; however that endeavor does not immediately translate to human rights advancements.
Maryam al-Khawaja said Bahrainis have a long history of civil rights movements dating back to the 1920s. During the uprisings of the last two years, 50 percent of Bahraini citizens came into the streets to call for reform, she added. Khawaja noted that other Gulf countries are becoming more fearful of demonstrations, some of which have spread to Kuwait and for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia In her mind, she sees these regional changes as proof that “something is happening.” Khawaja pointed to the fact that the West has been reluctant press the Gulf regimes on human rights, which “is a shame.” The monarchies have possessed international immunity for so long that they have not had to change. Yet, “change is inevitable, whether it be 10, 20, or 50 years from now,” she declared.
Adel Iskandr discussed media issues in Egypt. He pointed out that Egypt’s constitution has never been used to clamp down on the media as fully as the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to do today. Constitutions written by democratically elected bodies should reflect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said. Egypt’s constitution on the other hand challenges those rights and threatens dissenting journalists. In his opinion, Tunisian media has the most promise, while Egypt’s state media is now an instrument of the government. Iskandr also said Egypt’s current government is the same as the Mubarak regime, although with a different look. He concluded by saying, “Egypt’s press has not had a breath of fresh air since the 1952 coup d’état.”
Nadine Wahab was adamant that the U.S. should stay on the sidelines and allow the Egyptian transition to unfold of its own accord. She said the draft constitution is not a choice, and the withdrawal of all non-Islamists means the Constituent Assembly is unconstitutional. Therefore, the assembly and the constitution are no longer representative of the people. She recommended that the U.S. rethink its engagement with the Egyptian people and its military-to-military relations. “It’s time to break the cycle of supporting dictators,” Wahab said. The U.S. should take strong action based on its values which would include condemning the Egyptian NGO law, human rights abuses, and other issues.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim claimed that “history is not repeating itself.” He said everyone in Egypt is now critical and engaged in politics. The Muslim Brotherhood has ascended to regime status through a revolution of human rights, and their history of pain should make them more sensitive to those rights. “They never forget anything and they never learn anything,” Ibrahim quipped. He said the Muslim Brotherhood is making the same mistakes as Mubarak; however the people are no longer taking things lying down. Ibrahim noted that the Brotherhood’s attack on the Supreme Court was the first time the judiciary had ever been challenged so directly. Egypt throughout its history has been widely respectful of the Supreme Court, he said. The protesters’ slogan raised fears as they chanted, “Morsi calls us, and we will bring him the judges in body bags.” Ibrahim concluded that the only way to solve the issues of the constitution is to set it aside, hold new parliamentary elections, and construct a new Constituent Assembly from scratch.
The panel collectively noted that the police and security personnel in the Middle East are increasingly using force against protesters, a worrying prospect. Khawaja said Bahrain’s security force is largely non-Bahraini, composed of Jordanian, Syrian, and Pakistani expatriates. These personnel receive citizenship and housing upon arrival, while Bahraini Shia are barred from employment in the security sector. Khawaja said this is a regime tactic to alter Bahrain’s demographics and undermine the opposition movement. Ibrahim recommended the U.S. pay more attention to minority rights, rule of law, and security reform in the Middle East. Khawaja said regimes have tried to play up the notion of sectarian division during these revolutions. She requested the term “Arab Spring” be retired based on the fact that the revolutions have included many minorities who have paid a heavy price for their participation and support. She closed by saying, “The opposition has not lost hope because they know that governments cannot last without the people.”