The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Human Rights in the Transitioning Countries

More than three years have passed since tide of the Arab Spring swept through the region, carrying away in its undertow three Presidents-for-life as well as one Brother-Leader. At the heart of the movements that coalesced in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen was a desire for democratic reform and a final sunset on the decades-old systems of repression and human rights abuses. However, a comparative view of the current state of human rights today versus that of 2010 reveals the emerging patterns defining the people’s relationship with the state in the post-Arab Spring era. The US Department of State’s annual review of human rights provides an opportunity to assess what progress has been made as well as how very far the transitioning countries have left to go.

The Good

In the transitioning countries there have been improvements worth highlighting. The most obvious is the new found ability in the region for people to change their government, and to interact with it in ways unheard of under the former regimes. Free elections and referendums have been held in all four transitioning countries, and while not without flaws, in most cases they were considerably fairer than under the previous regimes. Successful national dialogue efforts, particularly Yemen, have paved the way for an open discussion between citizens and the state. Such initiatives are helping to redefine the relationship between the government and the governed.

The freedoms of association and speech have also improved in the transitioning countries—Egypt being the exception. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s Green Book totalitarianism in Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s paternalistic domination of Yemeni politics has led to a blossoming of civil society organizations and political parties. In Tunisia, in spite of only recently repealing the state of emergency that imposed restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, security forces were not enforcing such restrictions since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster, and few if any formal charges were pursued in courts.

Tunisia and Libya have also opened their doors to international human rights monitors and other non-governmental observers . Qaddafi’s rule was particularly closed-off in this regard; as the US State Department characterized it, “In practice, no NGOs functioned in the country” in 2010, while today numerous NGOs operate largely “without government restriction.”

The Bad

Unfortunately, more good news is hard to come by. Egypt has shown few discernible improvements. In 2013, Freedom House changed its rating from ‘Not Free’ to ‘Partly Free’ only to reverse its decision this year following the military intervention against Mohammed Morsi’s elected government. Since the January 25 revolution, Egypt has experienced no net change, if not a slip into the negative.

Free speech and association in Egypt deteriorated since 2010. Both the Morsi and interim governments pursued prosecutions based on perceived insults to various institutions. The military-backed interim government most recently tried citizens for “incitement to violence” that showed solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood, branded a terrorist organization at the end of 2013. While there is more potential for the people of Egypt to at least nominally change their government, the military clearly remains the ultimate, untouchable purveyor of political power.

Freedom of assembly has a mixed track record. On one hand, the renewed culture of protest and activism has resulted in levels of organization previously unheard of pre-2011. However, in the context of continued assaults on demonstrators, this cannot be called an improvement. In cases where protests were permitted, it was often the result of politicized cooptation of protests that suited the government’s interests. Post-revolutionary governments in all of the transitioning countries resorted to forcefully dispersing protests. Such practices were common before the uprisings, but have occurred on a much larger scale given the increased frequency of protests in recent years. In Egypt, under the cover of “regulating” protests, a new law banned unsanctioned public gatherings of ten or more people while granting police more power with which to crush demonstrations.

Rights of women and minorities remain secondary issues as transitions progress. Though steps to for larger political inclusion and representation have been noticeable, the failure to implement reforms and broader societal changes continues to relegate half of the population to second class citizenship. Because of social stigmas, sexual assault and domestic violence go unreported in the Arab world. Despite the lip service to equality, women continue to face widespread discrimination. Yemen suffers from women’s underrepresentation in education, political life, and the labor market, consistently valued less than men in terms of legal and social value. In Libya, Qaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa during the uprising led to discrimination based on skin color.

The Ugly

Additionally, there are human rights issues that have worsened or that are simply not on the radar of reform.

LGBT rights remain taboo and unaddressed. Such individuals are under constant attack, often being forced to live in secret under threat of injury or death. Officials at times derided them as mentally-ill or deviant, which led to a culture of intimidation that prevents them from reporting hate crimes or other abuses.

Prison conditions have shown no improvement either. Even in Tunisia, the inadequate, overcrowded, dilapidated prisons are largely the same as they were under Ben Ali. Despite recent amnesties, and fifty percent of the country’s prisoners—over 10,000 people—are being held in pretrial detention due to a slow-moving judiciary. In Libya, more than 3,000 detainees accused of fighting for Qaddafi in 2011 are being held by local and regional militias outside the purview of the government, many at makeshift facilities throughout the country. Yemen’s prisons demonstrate a severe diversion from international norms, overcrowded with seventy percent pretrial detainees. Egypt may be the worst off. The State Department’s account of the prison system for 2013 reports that prisons “were overcrowded, with a lack of medical care, proper sanitation, food, clean water, and proper ventilation. Tuberculosis remained widespread. Abuse was common, particularly of juveniles in adult facilities, and guards brutalized prisoners.”

2013 marked some of the largest massacres since those seen during original uprising three years ago, a distinct shift away from 2010, a year without such large-scale failings. Egypt had several notable cases, though none so infamous as the Raba’a Square massacre where more than six hundred people were killed when government forces violently cleared the area of demonstrators; in Libya, an armed militia from Misrata attacked peaceful protesters in Tripoli killing nearly fifty people and wounding hundreds more in the Gharghour massacre. Yemen was marred by violence associated with conflicts with Houthi rebels in the north and separatists in south, tribal related violence, and deadly al-Qaeda operations—all of which the state was unable to curtail or contain. These conflicts were certainly present in 2010, but they have intensified in the years since Saleh’s ouster and the continued erosion of the central government’s ability to impose an alternative order.

Impunity remains at the core of human rights abuses. Investigations into allegations of massacres, torture, politically motivated arrests, extrajudicial killings, if undertaken at all, go unpublished and rarely result in prosecutions and convictions. Where regimes of the past only protected their own, more fragile transitioning governments in Libya and Yemen are confronted by armed groups that operate outside government control. Militias in Libya and tribal factions in Yemen continue to escape accountability for abuses. As a part of existing security structures—Libya’s co-opted militias or Yemen’s officers and brigades with certain tribal affiliations—political sensitivities provide incentive for governments to overlook and excuse such abuses.

The Continuing Struggle for Human Rights

This analysis of human rights reveals how social contracts and state apparatuses have and have not changed. The areas of improvement—association and speech—signal changes in the popular culture of politics, and the capacity of the state to police personal and interpersonal politics, which diminished since 2010.

When it comes to confrontations with the state, authorities persist in attempting to uphold traditional red lines that demand the primacy of the state and its apparatuses. Elections—and their new-found fairness—appear among the few forms of engagement that state structures are prepared to allow; popular forms of resistance, protest, and activism being contained while state-regulated paths of access are favored.

Meanwhile, the larger structures of most states have not changed—the exception being Libya, where the country now negotiates the path out of a political vacuum. However, even in this context security forces and agents of the interim government continue to operate in authoritarian ways. Today institutions in Egypt remain largely as they were in 2010, save for the increase in frequency and severity of human rights vioations. In Tunisia and Yemen, the process of reform is underway, but the existing constraints of the previous system continue to go unaddressed. This is why issues like impunity and prison conditions—deeply and overtly two issues enmeshed in the state—have yet to be addressed. Three years on, the root causes and legal framework remain very much the same as human rights abuses persist.

Adam Simpson is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Meeting in Tunis, the Arab Women Organisation called on member states to implement a human rights culture and ensure gender equality, November 2010. (Photo: Magharebia/Flickr)