The Arab Spring and Human Rights: Slow Progress on a Long Road

A thousand days, roughly, after the Arab Spring revolutions swept away three Middle Eastern presidents-for-life and one Brother-Leader, how much has the democratic wave improved basic human rights? The US State Department’s report on human rights for 2013, released in recent weeks, offers us an overview, notably if we compare it to the same report issued for 2010, the last year of the old regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The Atlantic Council’s Adam Simpson has made that comparison in an article for MENASource, our regional blog on the Middle East and North Africa.

The improvements to human rights are as muddled and partial as the broader results of the Arab Spring, Simpson notes. The clearest advance is the newfound ability of people in those countries (total population 122 million) to change their governments. While elections and referenda in the four countries have had flaws, they in general have been considerably fairer than under the previous regimes.

Broadly, freedoms of association and speech have improved, except in Egypt. There, both the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of former President Mohamed Morsi and the military-backed regime that replace it, have prosecuted citizens for committing perceived insults to those regimes’ sacral institutions. Power in Egypt has come full circle, returning to the military as its ultimate, untouchable purveyor of power.

Rights of women and minorities remain secondary issues as the transitions progress, Simpson notes. And even in Tunisia, arguably the stablest of the four transitions, parts of the human rights picture are brutal as before. Prisons remain overcrowded and dilapidated, with half of the more than 10,000 inmates awaiting trial by a sclerotic judiciary. In Yemen, the pre-trial prisoners are 70 percent of detainees. Egypt remains a horror, the State Department’s 2013 report notes: “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.”

Perhaps most dangerous to the stability of these struggling countries is the lethal political violence that continued last year, especially in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Massacres such as the one that killed more than 600 in Cairo’s Raba’a Square took place in Libya as well, and tribal-political conflicts continue to kill Yemenis.

Read Simpson’s full article here.

Image: 22 June 2013. Fierce and dedicated football fans of al-Ahly club, Ultras Ahlawy, after they forcibly broke into a Cairo stadium, defying a police-imposed ban to attend matches following the Port Said massacre.