The practice of human rights cannot wait until all political systems have become democratic. Human rights, in their vast range, can be protected under non-democratic regimes and violated under democratic ones. Still, human rights and democracy, though not interchangeable, can form the most humane relationship of all.

In the global trend towards neoliberalism, the Middle East is no exception. The situation is not stagnant. Something is happening here, too. But it is a matter of measure. It is not the swift change we have seen in Eastern Europe; it is in the same direction but not in the same proportion. The simple observation of the trend is no reason for complacency. The actual scores attained in the broad realm of democratic change remain subject to assessment, and a difficult one at that.

Four avenues help to trace what has taken place. First, a study of the dialectics of form and content can gauge the substance and significance of formal adoption of such items of democracy as constitutions, election, parliaments, parties and a free pass. Their introduction, restoration or reformation may mean little change in structures, despite the glossy paper on which they are advertised. Ignored constitutions, rigged elections, silent parliaments, harassed parties and an information-starved press offer little ground for speaking seriously of democracy. Restrictions on the establishment of political parties, especially for existing movements and de facto parties, deprive democracy of one key ingredient. An example is the Egyptian authorities’ adamant refusal to legitimize parties for the Islamist, Nasserist and communist movements, which are the most active in the country’s political life. [1] The attitude of the Tunisian authorities toward their Islamist movement, Ennahda, is similar. [2] But what is more significant about the neoliberal experiments of Middle Eastern countries is the fact that a transfer of power is not contemplated. Algeria, the only country in the region where events have forced such a possibility, is under some outside pressure not to let this happen. [3]

Second, a study of the dialectics of past and present, by examining the inertia of daily practices of despotism tells how little a measure of democracy most countries in the Middle East have attained. Such a study suggests the prospects of sustainable democracy in this part of the world. Present attempts at democratizing regimes are hampered by anti-democratic ideas and deeds in daily life, at different levels of politics and society.

Third, a study of the dialectics of elites and masses can outline a code of conduct between the two, on the basis of accountability and responsibility. The broadening of democratic processes should benefit both rulers and ruled. In neoliberal regimes of the Middle East, the elites are benefiting disproportionately. The opposition elite is less harassed than before, and has better opportunity for self-expression. Certain circles are allowed to be very critical of governments: opposition parties within their headquarters, the opposition press within its limited circulation, university professors within their auditoriums. But there has been no such allowance at the level of street politics. The more popular instruments for expression — e.g., television and workers’ and students’ movements — are more tightly controlled. At police stations or government departments, ordinary citizens may not detect any difference.

Fourth, a study of the dialectics of the whole and the part indicates that implantation of fragmented items of democracy does not necessarily provide a democratic whole. It could mean merely a change in technique, from wholesale to piecemeal authoritarianism. Regimes can be more selective in imprisoning political opponents, minimizing adverse reactions and fostering democratic pretensions. This is what actually happens in the Middle East.

It may be idealistic to seek in the Middle East, over a short period of time, a democracy that is substantive, devoid of despotism, popular and complete. Foundations for this are not sufficient. [4] The Egyptian journalist Ahmed Bahaeddin has often reminded his readers that what exists is “pluralism” rather than “democracy”; is the first leading to the second?

How appropriate is it to use the term “democracy” to describe these neoliberal regimes of the Middle East? It should be at least qualified as “elusive” democracy. Democracy itself is a relative proposition. The French prime minister, Michel Rocard, said in 1989 that the aim of his government was to establish “the democracy of daily life” — exactly 200 years after the French Revolution.

These elusive democracies furnish the paradoxical example of holding more elections but providing less selection to choose from. In Egypt and Tunisia, for example, the heads of state changed the constitution to allow them unlimited terms in office. The quasi-monopolistic position of their ruling parties is untouched.

These regimes provide another paradoxical example of wider representation coupled with narrower participation. While the number of political parties represented in parliaments and political life has generally increased, people’s participation in elections and politics has generally decreased. Under these regimes flagrant violations of human rights may be more subtle. The few who are imprisoned now endure the torture assigned to both them and their colleagues outside. Perhaps this amounts to an application of the Egyptian proverb: Hit hard the ones in chains; the free ones will be deterred. In many cases, physical torture has given way to forms of punishment that have long-run consequences, such as dismissal or transfer from work, affecting income. The apparent democracy of Middle Eastern regimes is inherently fragile, endangered from within and from without. Its weak foundations at home are worsened by the pressures of economic crisis. It is also threatened at the borders — by regional conflicts over Palestine, the Persian Gulf, the Sahara, southern Sudan and the rest. Some regimes, like Morocco and Jordan, have tried to broaden the national consensus by coupling support for external conflicts to a measure of political liberalization. Others pull the curtain on democracy by invoking the old slogan: No voice should be louder than the voice of the battle.

A clear setback has taken place in Sudan, and earlier pronouncements on pluralism in Syria and Iraq have come to an abrupt end. Before being invaded, Kuwait hesitated to expand political participation beyond the royal family, and the rest of the Gulf remained dormant. The principle of non-interference in the affairs of neighboring countries was used to isolate the relatively more democratic countries. The poorer countries raised the slogan of democracy while the rich ones did not need to add it to their wealth. Understandably, the needy turned a blind eye to human rights violations by the wealthy whose assistance they sought. Such was the case of Egypt vis-à-vis the Iraqi regime, as Baghdad was bombing its Kurdish population with chemical weapons and harassing Egyptians working in Iraq. Democracy has no regional power to advocate and defend it. None has had the luxury to do so.

The 1991 Gulf war, which broke out while the victims and costs of the first had hardly been counted, effectively arrested the slow progress of democratization in the region. Autocratic handling of the situation became the order of the day. The irony is clear in the case of a country like Egypt, which was caught by these events while its parliament was under dissolution and its cabinet busy negotiating the repayment of debts. President Mubarak formulated all policy and took all decisions. The scope for opposing official policy was narrowed to two weekly opposition journals; all daily press, weekly magazines, radio and television supported official policy. [5]

Human rights were affected in two ways. Besides people killed, injured, pillaged, raped and displaced, tens of thousands of foreign workers, especially Asians, escaped Kuwait and other countries, leaving their property behind and having to wait for weeks in border areas under appalling conditions until they found transport home. Most Europeans and Americans, those not taken hostage by the Iraqi authorities, had easier access home. [6]

Secondly, human rights became an issue in the propaganda war between adversaries. Baghdad was not only denounced for its violations of human rights during the war but for its long-standing record on this count. Egyptians remembered Iraq’s earlier victims, and everybody remembered the Kurds. The Iraqis, in their turn, reminded their adversaries of the Palestinians under Israeli siege, and of the Lebanese under Israeli and Syrian siege.

This war proved useful in one way. By exposing the scope of destruction to which despotic rule can lead, the limits of democracy of the alleged democrats and the fragility of regimes with oil as the sole property, it is challenging peoples of the region to find for themselves more valid regimes. The solid establishment of democracy and the preservation of human rights are clearly becoming the core of debate aimed at facing the challenge.

Human rights work might thus face good prospects, but so far it has been a precarious task, if not a nasty ordeal, which begins with controversy over the very meaning of human rights. [7] On a practical note, the conditions of elusive democracy and regional instability require human rights workers to make themselves less elusive and more stable. To prove their impartiality, human rights workers have tended to present themselves as apolitical. This reflects a pragmatic sense of service to the cause, and a reluctance to divert energy into areas of political controversy.

Such thinking is misguided. Human rights workers, many of whom are past and present activists of various political movements, need no facade or camouflage to present their case and defend their cause — neither the apolitical mask nor the legalist and judicial blanket with which they often cover themselves. The human rights movement is a political movement par excellence, and it should courageously present itself as such. It should advertise itself as the largest reservoir of consensus politics, where all political movements are represented and their activists are capable of surpassing their differences to uphold a common cause.

To argue their cause, human rights activists require a measure of political education commensurate to the requirements of the political context within which they act. They require training in the skills of political debate. The use of legal instruments should be seen as one of the political tools with which to hammer at human rights issues. Human rights organizations should be seen as broad-based “democratic fronts” rather than solely as offices of legal or humanitarian assistance (though this type of assistance should remain one of their primary tasks, to which they recruit the support of other movements, political and non-political). As political movements, human rights organizations must aim to be masters of objectivity and efficiency in speech and action.

With the scale of national violations and regional war tragedies in the Middle East, the defense of rights is a large enterprise, requiring resources and capabilities. One task is to devise how the human rights movement in the Middle East can claim its share of oil wealth. The finances of the movement cannot continue relying on small, unsteady, individual donations. The Arab Organization for Human Rights should be envious of the Arab Thought Forum in Amman, which gets donations from banks and companies to hold intellectual encounters. Alternative finances could include local and national taxes for human rights work and collective dues paid by all political organizations which benefit from the work of human rights organizations. Donations and payments should not translate into oversight. Human rights organizations should reserve the right to criticize the violations of members and donors, as well as the violations of victims who become perpetrators. [8] Financing ought to be similar to that at the UN, where members are obligated to pay dues even though they might disagree with the resolutions.

Finally, the enterprise of human rights is multifaceted. Human rights work entails a great deal of research, education, legal defense, humanitarian relief and political campaigning. It encompasses local, national, regional and international dimensions. The juxtaposition of these dimensions — mass apathy at the local level, power struggles at the national level, territorial claims at the regional level and claims of dominance at the international level — is what makes human rights work a complex matter in the Arab world, despite the apparent simplicity of the task.


[1] See “Forces Disallowed Legitimacy,” in Arab Strategic Report, 1988 (Cairo: al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 1989), pp. 510-542.
[2] See “State and Groupings of Political Islam,” in Arab Strategic Report, 1987 (Cairo: al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 1988), pp. 236-252.
[3] The worry over an Islamist takeover in Algeria expressed by Western ambassadors there is recounted in Husayn Ahmad Amin, “A Western Working Lunch and an Arab Working Dinner,” al-Ahali, December 9, 1990.
[4] Charles Issawi&squo;s classic essay on social foundations of democracy in the Middle East is in Walter Laqueur, ed., The Middle East in Transition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958).
[5] On the limits of freedom of expression in Egypt, see the report of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, June 27, 1990.
[6] See EOHR’s appeal for equality in treatment of victims, September 15, 1990.
[7] See, for example, Amani Qandil, “Human Rights: The Cause of the Future,” al-Ahram, August 7, 1987; Mohamed El Sayed Said, “Human Rights in the Third World: The Question of Priorities,” Journal of Arab Affairs (Spring 1990); Ahmed Abdalla, “On Human Rights,” al-‘Arab, September 15, 1987.
[8] I wrote about human rights violations by opposition forces in Egypt for the first conference of EOHR, Cairo, December 1988. The EOHR criticized Islamists for resorting to violence and sectarian confrontation in its September 1990 bulletin.

How to cite this article:

Ahmed Abdalla "Human Rights and Elusive Democracy," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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