The recent history of the struggle for human rights in the Arab world is marked by some modest success, but the task remains enormous. The region is a disaster area in terms of human rights. Irrespective of the type of government, ideological coloration or foreign policy orientation, whether pro-West or pro-Soviet, conservative or “progressive,” theocratic or secular, nearly all regimes have displayed a thorough disregard for individual human rights. Most have been reluctant to cooperate with international human rights organizations; most have made it a criminal offense to disseminate information about human rights violations inside the country or abroad; most still have not ratified treaties such as the United Nations human rights charters. The Arab League drafted a human rights covenant in 1970. Despite the fact that it lacks any enforcement provisions, the states have failed to ratify it 17 years later. Arab governments are reluctant to admit international observers to their prisons or political trials; their responses to complaints raised within the UN or by Amnesty International or the Arab Organization for Human Rights range from procrastination to utter contempt.

Three events over the past year illustrate the problem. The first was a December 1986 meeting of some 70 Arab legal scholars, judges, journalists and social scientists in Siracusa, on the island of Sicily, to draft an Arab Covenant of Human Rights. The conference, convened under the auspices of an Italian — not Arab — International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Justice, drafted an alternative text to the Arab League’s 1970 draft charter. [1] The Siracusa conferees were inspired by the Universal Declaration (December 1948), the International Covenants on Economic and Social Rights and on Civil and Political Rights (December 1966), the African Charters on Human and People’s Rights (June 1981) and the European Human Rights Convention (November 1950), among other documents. Of the 87 and 83 states which ratified the Economic and Social Covenant and the Civil and Political Covenant respectively, only eight are Arab — Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Only five out of the nine Arab states located in Africa adhere to the African Charter. Whether these regimes will subscribe to a new covenant is a matter for grave doubt.

The second incident occurred weeks earlier, when the Egyptian government abruptly cancelled the first triannual meeting of the Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR) scheduled for November 24, 1986, in Cairo. The AOHR grew out of a call by a symposium of Arab intellectuals, many of them emigres to Europe and the United States, meeting in April 1983 in Hammamat, Tunisia. [2] The December 1983 founding meeting of the AOHR had to be held in Cyprus, as no Arab government would allow it. Its first general meeting since then ended up being held in Khartoum in January 1987. [3] These difficulties came despite the non-confrontational demeanor, non-political character and middle-class values of the organization.

The third telling moment was in February 1987, when all the Arab states blocked the bid of the Arab Organization for Human Rights for consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. This would have given the organization the right to submit statements to the council and be granted hearings, as well as international legitimacy. In a rare show of unity, states as hostile to each other as Syria and Iraq joined to oppose such recognition. Oman, the only Arab member of the 19-member Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, initially adopted a neutral stance. Intense pressure by other Arab representatives persuaded the Omani delegate to denounce the AOHR. He insisted that the Islamic tradition was capable of assuring protection of human rights in the Arab world and that the AOHR’s “political character and confrontational attitude harm the interest of the Arab individual.” The Iraqi observer accused AOHR of spreading chaos in the Arab world; the Syrian observer proposed postponement for two years to give AOHR a chance to prove itself. The decisive action was taken by Algeria’s observer, whose government was unhappy with AOHR’s support of ‘Abd al-Nur ‘Ali Yahya, president of the Algerian League for Human Rights (see interview in this issue). The Soviet Union aligned itself with the Algerian observer; under the rule of consensus, this was sufficient to deny the application.

These three events, over a period of two months, show two things: the preoccupation of a segment of the Arab intelligentsia with the defense of human rights as a means of confronting the social and political ailments of the Arab world; and the determination of the Arab regimes to muzzle the campaign.

The 90 founding members of AOHR four years ago have become 603, drawn from 18 Arab countries. Yet almost half the membership (293) comes from one country — Egypt — where there is somewhat greater tolerance for political activism than in other Arab countries. [4] Only Egypt and Sudan have allowed local chapters of AOHR. Most of the new chapters and what is known generally as membership development are taking place abroad. There are chapters in Britain, France and Austria; some are contemplated in the United States and other Western countries.

Perhaps one of the most serious drawbacks of the human rights campaign is that the AOHR draws almost exclusively on the liberal intelligentsia for its members. The movement lacks a broad popular base and is not likely to develop one in the foreseeable future, given the governments’ opposition to any organized expression of the need for human rights and a ruthless suppression of any form of activism. Human rights activities require organizing, and this means ultimately dealing with governments. It is easier for the general secretary and prominent officials of the AOHR to petition governments, to intercede on behalf of prisoners and to lobby for an improvement of human rights than it is for human rights workers and volunteers to work at the local level. Amnesty International’s volunteers in a small town in Idaho can relentlessly address the question of an adopted prisoner from another country using various means of persuasion and pressure; a similar endeavor in Bahrain or Morocco would be deemed seditious and nipped in the bud. The lack of grassroots support, and a meaningful local voice in AOHR policy, will help keep the organization the preserve of an educated elite, vulnerable to governmental suppression in the long run.

Yet the organization has embarked on a vigorous campaign. At the Khartoum meeting in January 1987, the AOHR reported that a record 155 complaints from 19 different Arab countries were registered with its secretariat. Government responses ranged from total rejection of the very concept of human rights to the usual denial of serious violations. At the same time, some governments expressed willingness to discuss practical steps to improve the situation on a modest scale. Egypt allowed representatives of AOHR to visit the Tura Prison in November 1985 and September 1986, pursuant to complaints of torture in the case of the Armed Communist Organization. [5] A published report of the visits, including testimonies by prisoners, officials and medical personnel, concluded that torture was indeed used. The Sudan government of Sadiq al-Mahdi welcomed a delegation comprising the AOHR, the Arab Lawyers Union and the Sudan Organization for Human Rights in February 1986 for a discussion of the “Intolerable September Laws” of the Numairi era. An AOHR delegation had gone to Sudan in January 1985 to try to persuade the government not to execute Shaikh Mahmud Taha, the 76-year-old-leader of the Republican Brothers, and four of his colleagues; [6] Numairi himself snubbed the delegation and the government ruthlessly carried out the executions, but the Sudanese public received the effort warmly.

Other modest achievements for the Arab Organization of Human Rights included the release of a prisoner in Jordan, a prison visit in Libya, and the Tunisian government’s decision to permit an AOHR board member to join the defense in the trial of al-Habib Ashour, secretary-general of the Tunisian Labor Union. Ashour was one of some 400 unionists held for questioning and about 120 who were tried on charges of incitement and participation in illegal strikes. He was sentenced to an eight month jail term; another court sentenced him additionally in April 1986 to two years on charges of mishandling union funds.

A few developments signaled improvements elsewhere: the trial of 41 secret police officers in Egypt accused of torturing Islamist activists; the release of Algerian activists detained for establishing an independent human rights organization; the transition to parliamentary rule in the Sudan; and the establishment of a human rights organization in Mauritania. [7]

The Tunisian Case

The Tunisian League for Human Rights celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1987, truly a landmark in a region so barren of human rights accomplishments. The Tunisian League boasts 3000 members in 31 regional chapters, and over the years has intervened to improve the lot of prisoners, protested repression, and resisted Islamist efforts to erode women’s rights. The organization maintains a woman on its executive committee.[8] But its 10th anniversary became a time of infamy. Habib Bourguiba, whose name was once considered in the West as synonymous with liberalism but who now prefers to be known as the Supreme Combatant, ordered the arrest of the League&rsuqo;s secretary-general, Khamis Chamari, and set up a pro-government organization in its place. The official charge was “spreading faulty news with the intention of harming public security.”

Chamari’s trial, on May 11,1987, helped prompt the formation of a broad human rights coalition inside Tunisia and at a pan-Arab level. The campaign to free Chamari, which included hundreds of telegrams and petitions as well as representations from AOHR, the Arab Lawyers Union, the Algerian League for Human Rights and others, can be credited in part for the postponement of his trial until October 10. But no sooner had Chamari been released than 15 members of the Progressive Socialist Grouping (Tagammu‘), including its leader, Ahmad Najib al-Shabi, were arrested on charges of establishing an illegal party. At the same time, the Democratic Socialist Party and its well-known leader, Ahmad al-Mistiri, were facing charges of holding illegal meetings. Al-Mustaqbal, the group’s newspaper, has been suspended four times since 1980.

Among the victims of human rights abuses in Tunisia are the members of the Islamic Tendency Movement. Hundreds have been imprisoned and tortured. The government put 90 on trial for conspiring with Iran to undermine the Tunisian state. In late September, the State Security Court sentenced seven to death and the leader, Rashid Ghannoushi, to life imprisonment. The chief judge, Hashimi Zamel, normally works as a government prosecutor.

Patterns of Violations

Certain patterns of violations of human rights tend to characterize particular geographical or cultural clusters within the Arab world. The Gulf/Peninsula region is particularly restrictive regarding rights of assembly, cultural freedoms, women’s and workers’ rights. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst violators. Kuwait, by no means a citadel of enlightenment, is probably least bad.

Syria and Iraq, ruled by rival factions of the Baath Party, are notorious in their treatment of political dissidents — detention without charge or trial, torture and executions are among the most common violations committed in these countries. [9] Iraq adds to its list expulsion of undesirable nationals and repression of ethnic minorities. Denial of freedom of association is a common trend in most of other countries in the Mashriq. Jordan adds infringement of academic freedom. In Lebanon the government is powerless to control militias that specialize in kidnapping and murder based on communal identification.

The Nile Valley countries display an exceedingly high number of emergency regulations. [10] The common denominator of violations in the Maghrib is located in the crises of labor unions. Algeria and Libya add rigorous limitations on political activity. Libya is somewhat unique in limiting all forms of expression, murdering dissidents and dealing ruthlessly with its workers. The most frequent political victims of these violations across the Arab world today are the Islamist and Marxist groups, and to a lesser extent some Arab nationalist parties. Ethnic minorities constitute important targets in Iraq and Sudan.

All but a few Arab countries have constitutions which prominently promote civil and political liberties and social justice. Many constitutions, however, effectively transfer the regulation of rights and assign authorities extraordinary powers, thus rendering constitutional protection abstract and superfluous. The AOHR report observes that “some legislation generates human rights violations while other laws codify or tolerate them.”

Some countries, such as Bahrain, have suspended the constitution; Kuwait suspended certain articles. Emergency regulations have rendered constitutions inoperable in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Sudan. The constitution in use in Egypt today, adopted in September 1971 at the beginning of the Sadat era and known as the “Permanent Constitution,” bestows sweeping powers on the president of the republic. Article 47, for example, grants the president emergency powers to combat imminent challenges to public security or threats to “national unity.” Article 108 grants the president full legislative powers upon authorization by the People’s Assembly. Under these articles, President Sadat decreed Law Number 2, following the January 1977 bread riots, which raised the punishment for “illegal assembly” and strikes from six years in prison to life with hard labor.

Syria’s constitution of January 31, 1972, similarly guarantees most individual basic liberties; yet these protections are subject to presidential edicts, military decrees and special laws. Article 37, for example, states that citizens enjoy their rights and freedoms in accordance with “the law.” An unusually high number of such restrictive measures and emergency laws have been in force in Syria since 1962. In effect, they suspend most basic liberties.

As for Iraq, the report of the AOHR presented in Khartoum in January 1987 begins its entry for that country:

The conditions of human rights in Iraq are unique in terms of the rampant flagrant violations of civil and political rights even before the Iran-Iraq war of 1980. The rights of citizens are almost non-existent, even if one is a member of the ruling party…. He is always subjected, without probable cause, to questioning, detention, disappearance, abusive treatment and torture. Many times, these violations include deprivation of life without due process and without a public accusation, hearing or trial. Such violations are practiced in an atmosphere of emergency regulations or decrees issued by the Revolutionary Command Council in violation of the state’s commitments to its own constitution or international obligations. [11]

Jordan, where martial law has been in effect since 1967, offers yet another example of constitutional subordination to emergency and special laws. The AOHR has identified these as martial law, the law of political organization, the anti-Communist law and the new election law of May 1986. [12] The Sudanese constitution of 1973 was supplanted by the September Enactments of 1983, which effectively transformed Sudan under Numairi into a police state.

Kuwait’s press, considered rather free during much of Kuwait’s independent period, is constrained by amendments to the Press Law adopted by the government after dissolution of the National Assembly on June 2,1986 and the subsequent appointment of the Wise Men’s Assembly (majlis al-hukama’a) in its place. Now the state can withdraw the license from a publication and close it for up to two years. [13] Kuwait’s new citizenship law of 1987 provides for withdrawal of citizenship from those who have received it since 1920 for three reasons: 1) corruption on the part of government employees; 2) economic sabotage; 3) undermining the political and social system. Furthermore, the law states that those who received their citizenship since 1963 will not have the right to vote in parliamentary elections in 1988; they will have to wait until 1993.

Laws permitting detention for mere suspicion are another characteristic of many political systems in the Arab world. Punishments normally reserved for criminal acts are frequently imposed in cases where the authorities allege the defendants to be a threat to security. Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Kuwait and Libya engage in this practice.

President Husni Mubarak reconfirmed Egypt’s Emergency Law of 1938 in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination. Preventive detention is one of more than a dozen special measures which this law permits. Preventive detention is difficult in Egypt under the regular legal code, which gives the court 48 hours in which to process the accusation. The right to bail affords added protection against arbitrary imprisonment. But under the Emergency Law, the president or his designees can order imprisonment as a “preventive” measure without formal accusation for a period of 30 days, renewable to six months. The president, moreover, has the power to approve or disapprove court verdicts in cases involving the emergency laws. [14]

Under these laws, no less than 500 Islamist activists and some 77 accused of organizing a communist organization were detained “preventively” in 1986. Amnesty International has protested widescale arrests immediately prior to the People’s Assembly’s elections on April 6,1987, presumably to keep activists out of the campaign. [15]

Freedom of Speech

Freedoms of speech and the press are often treated as procedural rather than substantive rights. The mass media are by and large owned by the state, which keeps close scrutiny on the flow of information and ideas by every medium.

Any criticism of the political system or irreverence towards the head of state is considered a crime, outside the parameters of acceptable public discourse. The Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, in November 1986, adopted an amendment to Penal Code Number 111 of 1969 which imposes life sentences together with confiscation of all fixed and movable assets for publicly insulting the president of the republic, his designee, the Revolutionary Command Council, the Baath Party, the National Assembly or the government. The death penalty is imposed if the insult is “flagrant” and if it carries the intention of incitement. The punishment for insulting a court or a government agency is a mere seven years. [16]

Bahrain’s 1976 Law of Punishment, enacted after dissolution of the National Assembly, was used to jail a number of former deputies in the National Assembly who had criticized the 1974 Law of State Security, which permits preventive detention. According to the Penal Code, anyone who offends the ruler is subject to the death penalty.

In Egypt in 1978, President Sadat used Article 74 of the constitution to issue the Law of Political Isolation, ostensibly for protecting the “domestic front and social tranquility.” Certain articles of that law effectively removed the opposition from the political arena. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the constitutional court on June 2, 1986.

With the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979, the Egyptian public had to ponder a series of laws which equated political commentary with sedition. The Law of Practicing Political Activity rendered electoral campaigns superfluous: speeches must conform to “principles” approved by a national referendum dated April 20, 1979. The punishment for violation was a jail term of three months to three years, plus a fine of 300-3000 Egyptian pounds. Law Number 95 (1980), known as the Law of Shame, makes it a criminal offense to publicize and promote views at variance with the peace treaty. Offenders were liable for criminal punishment and could be declared ineligible for local and national office and for membership in public corporation boards, labor unions, professional societies, clubs, media institutions, associations and cooperative organizations. Also in 1980, Law Number 148 (the Press Law) decreed the following persons ineligible to own, manage or edit any publication:

Those outlawed from political activities; those forbidden from establishing political parties; those who preach atheism; those convicted by the Court of Protecting Values from Shame and the Superior Court of Values.

These laws have evoked fierce opposition among various sectors of the Egyptian public. The First Justice Conference, organized by Egyptian judges in April 1986, demanded that all these restrictive laws, as well as the Courts of Values, be invalidated.

Egypt is actually among the least restrictive Arab states in this realm. Other Arab countries restrict the freedoms of speech and press routinely, in accordance with extra-ordinary and emergency measures.

Freedom of Association

The right of assembly, and the right to establish and belong to political organizations, unions, professional societies and even clubs is almost non-existent in the region. All political organizations in Jordan were declared illegal in 1975; the Communist Party had been illegal since 1953. Jordan's Election Law of May 1986 prohibits all candidates affiliated with illegal organizations from entering political campaigns.

Egyptians have the right to establish political parties, but the ability of these parties to function is seriously curtailed. Opposition parties are obligated to hold their meetings indoors, with the doors shut, thus proscribing election rallies and other popular gatherings.

The right to organize labor unions and professional organizations is subject to some restrictions in Egypt and is a principal source of confrontation in Tunisia and Morocco. It is not even an issue in Syria and Iraq, where non-government unions no longer exist. Jordan dissolved the Jordanian Writers Association in May 1987, ostensibly because it had become a forum for illegal political parties and political perspectives.

Bahrain still retains the colonial-era Governmental Declaration Number 55 of 1956, under which police may use force to break up demonstrations. The Law of General Security for 1965 prohibits demonstrations, marches and the distribution of pamphlets critical of the government. In the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), Amnesty International had identified 20 to 30 political prisoners who had been sentenced to long terms between 1967 and 1977. Internal political struggles there have led to secret arrests and executions of party leaders, prompting one sympathetic observer to note “a deplorable absence of acceptable methods of political retirement.” [17] After the civil strife of early 1986, the government resorted to dismissing and imprisoning leaders of political organizations and unions organized by the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party. [18]

Independent Judiciary

Judicial rules in practice permit the authorities to circumvent the normal jurisdiction of the courts. Most Arab countries — Jordan, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, and Libya — give military courts jurisdiction over the police and over civilians accused of criminal offenses which somehow relate to the armed forces. Numairi’s Law of the Judicial Authority rendered Sudan’s judiciary a virtual instrument of the executive. Judges with limited knowledge of the shari'a (Islamic law) were appointed to apply it as they chose. [19]

Most Arab countries have what is called a court of state security for trying prominent political prisoners. The 1987 report of AOHR shows that executions increased dramatically over the past three years in Syria after such star chamber proceedings, which provide no procedural protections. “The purpose of these trials,” the Report says, “is most likely to impose the death penalty, which is often carried out immediately and inside the prison where the trials are held.” [20] Speaking of Libya, the report observes that “there is no judicial system according to any internationally agreed definition of the term. There are, however, revolutionary courts, some of which are staffed by regime vigilantes. Verdicts of these courts are considered final, subject to no appeal.” [21] In Iraq, most political prisoners are tried before special courts staffed by members of the executive branch, including the military. Pronouncements are final. Right to counsel is highly restricted in the Revolutionary Court of Baghdad, while completely absent in the special military court of Kirkuk, which deals mainly with the Kurdish population. [22]

In Jordan, too, military courts tend to concentrate on cases of political prisoners. Their targets are commonly members of the Jordanian and Palestinian Communist Parties, the Islamic Liberation Party and the Palestinian resistance organizations.

Kuwait and Bahrain also employ state security and special courts to suppress dissent. Bahrain enacted a law on December 12, 1984, appropriately called the Law of Speedy Justice: a trial may be held within 24 hours of the arrest. Punishments up to 10 years in prison have been imposed under this law.

In the area of social rights, there are two main categories of violations: migrant workers, who are at the complete mercy of the authorities; and women, who are subjected to the double oppression of the state and of men in the family. The Arab Organization for Human Rights received a complaint from a woman in Oman who sought assistance from the central government against her father, who allegedly tried to force her to marry against her will. The vice-governor sent her to prison for one week, during which she was allegedly tortured and was subsequently sentenced by a judge who himself beat her during the trial, according to her complaint. [23]

Men and women in parts of the Gulf region are still subject to stoning in cases of adultery. In Saudi Arabia, women are not equal with men before the law. Their participation in public life is severely curtailed and so is their freedom of movement including the right to travel abroad.

Migrant workers have almost no rights whatsoever in most of the Gulf countries, where they are deprived of the right to own immovable property or to claim residence for their immediate families. Migrant workers are subject to immediate deportation in these countries, as well as in Libya and Iraq.

Causes of the Crisis of Human Rights

This dreadful record of human rights violations, in a region which has made splendid contributions to civilization in the areas of jurisprudence, science, architecture, medicine and political thought, is a product of the political development of the region. The legacy of the Islamic era for individual rights was mixed at best. The colonial period saw the establishment of legal means of repression, the emergence of the ideology of repression, and the creation of the apparatus of repression. The third period, since independence, has featured narrowly-based regimes which have inherited this colonial ideology, apparatus and legal structure.

The relationship of Islam to politics and human rights is complex and somewhat paradoxical. For the minorities whose existence in local vassal kingdoms of the Roman, Byzantine or Persian empires had been rather precarious, Islam conferred a special legal status and a significant degree of cultural freedom. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, this system of cultural autonomy became regularized through the millet system. The sultan appointed patriarchs to administer the civil and religious affairs of Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish communities, and autonomy was extended to the areas of education and property. Generally speaking, the domain of Islam was one of tolerance.

For Muslims, the shari‘a stood as the sacred law of the Islamic community. Shari’a courts applied the law subject to review by the caliph or his representatives. The judiciary was an extension of the political authority. The task of the Islamic community was to conform to the will of God. As Prince of the Faithful, the ruler enjoyed the powers of an absolute monarch who claimed to represent the will of God. At a time when Europe was shedding features of empire under the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Muslim world was breeding new empires. Muslims themselves were not citizens of a state but subjects of a ruler. The implications for personal liberties and human rights were not very healthy, since religious orthodoxy and the right of dissent are obviously incompatible. This legacy still lingers in some contemporary political systems in the region, either latently or manifestly. At the same time, dissent was not an unknown phenomenon in Islam. Eqbal Ahmad asserts that “the political culture of Islam is, by and large, activist and insurrectionary.”

In dissident movements, Islam has sometimes played a crucial role by galvanizing group support for opposition leaders around a reformist, often puritanical creed, attacking the corruption and profligacy of a ruling class. [24]

The British, French and Italian colonial interventions in the Middle East and North Africa politicized the millet system which protected minorities’ cultural autonomy. Many Western interventions invoked the cause of minority protection. This led to a perception in the region of these minorities, many of whom occupied key positions in the colonial bureaucracies, as agents of the West. The movements for independence held them in suspicion. The colonial regimes found it expedient to cultivate minorities as collaborators in the game of divide and rule. The movements for independence thus targeted not only the colonial powers but also their domestic allies. In Egypt, Syria and Iraq, for instance, Jews who worked with the Zionist movement were arrested, tried and in some cases executed.

Detention upon suspicion and without trial is a central feature of the sweeping “emergency” regulations that prevailed under colonial rule. In several Arab countries the 1945 Defense Emergency Regulations imposed by the British are still practiced. They also constitute the legal basis for Israeli repression in occupied Palestinian territories and in Israel proper.

When independence came in the 1940s and 1950s, repression continued under the new nationalist regimes. For the majority of Arab citizens, the stage was set for repression when the various groups and coalitions which constituted the independence movement began to fight over control of the state and army. There were victors and vanquished and consequent setbacks for human rights and civil liberties.

The Domestic Factor: Legitimacy

Legitimacy is an indispensable political resource, a precondition for a stable political order based on public acceptance of authority. It is absolutely essential for participatory democracy and good government. The shortage of this requisite factor in Arab politics is largely responsible for the autocratic nature of political processes in the Arab world, and for the scant regard for civil and human rights in that part of the world. The Arab regimes that have evolved since independence are characterized by a narrow social base. A major consequence of this is state coercion and repression rather than consensus politics.

This crisis of legitimacy is not confined to Arab political culture. Rather, it is typical of Third World politics, where civil society tends to be at a rudimentary stage of development. But the Arab crisis does have its own specific character. In early Arab-Islamic societies, the ‘ulama (Muslim legal scholars) tended to play an intermediary role between the ruler and his subjects. The impact of the West helped destroy this function of the ‘ulama. Those who proposed alternative institutions and ideas were often seen as (and often were) opposed to the movements for national independence that arose in the modern era. Concepts of parliamentary democracy were introduced to the Arab world starting in the late 19th century, mainly by Westernized intellectuals who failed to take into account the political culture and social structures in Western societies and who, in any event, were mainly interested in preserving their own elite status. The nationalist movements themselves tended to generate “organic” nation-state ideologies based on the German model, which incorporated an illiberal and anti-democratic view of the nation. [25]

Autonomous, non-state civil institutions, which collect perspectives from the popular base and transform them into concrete policy proposals to be debated and translated into public policy, are distinctly absent in contemporary Arab politics, particularly in the Mashriq. These autonomous institutions — such as universities, trade unions and professional associations — mediate between the state and its citizens. They create a balance between them and a space in which debate and dissent can occur. In the Arab world, the autonomous institutions which we associate with civil society have been dwarfed by omnipotent state structures. Interest groups, political parties, the media, and the various voluntary associations are either quite under-developed or have been outlawed and destroyed. To the extent that they exist, it is to represent the government rather than the populace. There are also factions and groups with differing degrees of access to those controlling the state. Personal political machines, often based on kinship relations (for instance, that of Rifa‘at al-Asad in Syria), provide the functional equivalent of mediating institutions elsewhere. But democracy and rule of law have no formal structure. This process excludes opposition forces, of course, and those lacking these connections.

Autocracy characterizes Arab monarchies and republics alike. The republican government of Iraq has established the closest thing to a totalitarian order in the Arab world, as real power is increasingly confined to a clan based in the town of Takrit. Libya has been ruled by the same two men — Qaddafi and Jalloud — since 1969. In Syria, the regime of Hafiz al-Asad has assured unprecedented continuity during the past 17 years at great cost in terms of political and human rights.

The regimes have promulgated a set of orthodoxies to disguise the absence of legitimacy. Nationalist forces which set up military republican regimes in the early 1950s subordinated political democracy to the pursuit of social and economic gains. According to this exchange, formerly rubber-stamp parliaments of the old order, such as those of Egypt and Iraq, became “people’s assemblies” beholden to the rule of a single party. Political democracy was dismissed as a luxury which post-colonial societies could ill-afford. The republican military regimes admonished the masses to close ranks, suspend differences and unite under the broad framework of the ruling political party. This would, in turn, mobilize national energies and resources in pursuit of a more prosperous and egalitarian socioeconomic order and, not incidentally, a more honorable strategic balance with Israel. The conservative monarchies sought a similar social contract. Here Western-style democratic institutions would be kept from corrupting “Islamic” traditions. Neither type of regime has been able to deliver on these promises. Their people have had to pay an exceedingly high price in terms of personal and political rights for goals that remain more distant than ever.

Political control of the state has been a means toward the accumulation of wealth. Hence political power is tantamount to state-sponsored social mobility. Meanwhile, the distance between the individual and the state has been filled by quasi-state institutions instead of autonomous and popular organizations.

The International Factor

The second dimension of the crisis of democracy and human rights in the Arab world is international and geopolitical. In their rivalry for position in the Middle East, outside powers including the United States, the Soviet Union and the major European allies of each have contributed to the buildup of the military, security and intelligence functions of allied and client states in the region. The security apparatus is generally the most modern institution in any given Middle East state. The applications of this particular brand of modernization for participatory democracy and human rights is self-evident. The United States has propped up the Arab counterparts of Somoza and Pinochet in persons and groups like King Hussein of Jordan, King Hassan of Morocco, the House of Saud and the Lebanese Phalange. The Soviet Union has bolstered its own Arab allies, such as Iraq, Syria and Libya, whose human rights violations are notorious.

Lacking the essential attributes of civil society, the Arab world largely deals with dissent as if it is treason. The concept of legitimate political opposition is not known in Arab politics. Together with the lack of a sense of political community consonant with other subnational identifications, this stands as the greatest impediment to participatory politics and legitimacy, which in turn are essential for civil and human rights.

This central problem is endemic and permeates Arab political life. Suspicion, paranoia and fear of assassination lead to repression, torture, physical elimination of dissenters. The cycle appears to derive rationally from an unhappy experience with “authorities” and their historical proximity to Leviathan. The regimes perpetuate crimes against their own people in order to compensate for the absence of security based on legitimacy and popular support.

The human rights movement in the Arab world, with all its limitations, has emerged in response to the crises that beset the Arab world. There is a growing awareness that the marginalization of the individual and the consequent absence of tremendous human resources from political and social development have aggravated the crises, which led to successive defeats of the Arab world in its struggles against foreign domination.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the struggle for human rights was dismissed by some progressive Arabs as a bourgeois luxury, and condemned by others as reactionary and even counter-revolutionary. Since the targets were largely military regimes who invoked non-alignment and Arab socialism, the human rights critics were seen as patsies for imperialism. Today, the human rights movement includes previous supporters of these regimes, most of which have been replaced by forces to their right, as well as liberal democrats genuinely concerned about the lack of popular participation in the political process. Their common denominator is the notion that the protection of human rights and the elevation of the role of the citizen in public policy formation are vital for a politically independent and socially autonomous Arab world. They see the violation of human rights as a sign of regime insecurity, which can only impede the struggles against foreign occupation and dependency.

The intensity of repression and the efficacy of the use of violence by the state have further accelerated this movement and contributed to its emergence as an important political current. The growing realization that earlier distinctions between “progressive” and “conservative” Arab states have little validity has made it easier for the human rights activists to spread their message. It is an uphill struggle which faces many challenges, from regimes for whom organized violence against its citizens has become a way of life, and from segments of the concerned public which tend to be skeptical about human rights activists pleading the case for Islamists as well as leftists. Still, the movement is growing and it is gathering support.



[1] “Draft Covenant of Human Rights in the Arab Homeland,” Conference of the Committee of Arab Experts, December 5-12, 1986 (Siracusa, Italy: Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences, mimeographed); “Arab Draft Covenant of Human Rights,” (Tunis: League of Arab States, Legal Affairs Department, mimeographed); see also “Alternative Draft for the Arab Draft Covenant” submitted to the Siracusa Conference by the Tunisian League for Defense of Human Rights, December 6, 1986.
[2] See the text of the Hammamat Declaration in MERIP Reports #120 (January 1984).
[3] The incident attracted wide press attention throughout the Arab world. Cairo’s Al-Sha‘b of November 25, 1986 titled its story “Arab Pressure to Cancel the Human Rights Conference.” Al-Khalij newspaper, which appears in the UAE, titled its editorial of November 21, 1986 “Until When?” Other newspapers such as Al-Wafd, Al-Ahrar, Al-Ahram and Al-Sha‘b of Egypt ran editorials on the AOHR.
[4] Human Rights in the Arab Homeland (Cairo: AOHR, 1987). This is the Triannual Report submitted to the General Assembly in Khartoum on January 30, 1987. Hereafter AOHR Report.
[5] Ibid., p. 12.
[6] See the interview with Abdullahi Ahmad an-Na‘im in MERIP Middle East Report #147 (July-August 1987).
[7] Jonathan C. Randall, “Arab Activists Opening Struggle to Improve Human Rights in Region,” Washington Post, April 8, 1987.
[8] Ibid.
[9] AOHR Report, pp. 73-84.
[10] See Amnesty International, “Torture in Egypt 1981-1983,” Al Index: MDE 12/03/85, October 23, 1985, p. 78. See also AOHR Report, pp. 32-43.
[11] AOHR Report, p. 78.
[12] Ibid., p. 85.
[13] AOHR Newsletter #3 (July 1986), p. 1.
[14] AOHR Report, p. 33.
[15] Amnesty International, “Egypt: Mass Arrests Under State of Emergency Legislation,” Al Index: MDE 12/02/87, June 22, 1987.
[16] AOHR Newsletter #10 (July 1987), p. 1.
[17] Helen Lackner, PD.R. Yemen: Outpost of Socialist Development in Arabia (London: Ithaca Press, 1985), p. 91.
[18] AOHR Report, p. 110.
[19] Ibid., p. 41.
[20] Ibid., p. 73. On Syria see also AI Index: MDE 24/11/85, October 23, 1985.
[21] AOHR Report, p. 44.
[22] See Amnesty International, Torture in Iraq, AI Index: MDE 14/02/85, April 15, 1985. See also three reports by Amnesty International on the death penalty in Iraq: “The Death Penalty in Iraq: List of Persons Reported Executed/ Sentenced to Death Between January 1985 and January 1987,” AI Index: MDE 14/4/87, May 21,1987; “The Death Penalty in Iraq: Legal Aspects,” AI Index: MDE 14/03/87, May 21,1987; “The Death Penalty in Iraq: Introduction and Background,” AI Index: MDE 14/02/87, May 21,1987. AOHR Newsletter #4 (August 1986) has a news item titled “Massacre of Abu-Ghraib Prison” which estimated that 5000 political prisoners and conscientious objectors were massacred by the authorities between September 13 and 23, 1984. On Syria, see AI Index: MDE 24/12/86, December 1,1986 and AI Index: MDE 24/09/86, August 14,1986.
[23] AOHR Report, p. 107.
[24] Eqbal Ahmad, “Islam and Politics,” in Haddad, et al, eds., The Islamic Impact (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984), pp. 15-18.
[25] On this point, see Bassam Tibi, Arab Nationalism: A Critical Inquiry (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1981).

How to cite this article:

Naseer Aruri "Disaster Area," Middle East Report 149 (November/December 1987).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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