As rioting resumes in Egypt, militias reign ominously in parts of Libya, and relentless slaughter proceeds in Syria, some are beginning to question whether the Arab Spring was such a good idea after all. But would we really want to condemn entire nations to the likes of Mubarak, Gadhafi and al-Assad? As we know from the fall of military dictatorships in Latin America and the demise of the Soviet Union, building a rights-respecting democracy on a legacy of authoritarian rule is not easy. However, there are steps that both the people of the region and the international community can take to make a positive outcome more likely.
The new governments in the Middle East and North Africa should remember foremost that an electoral majority does not grant them license to do whatever they want. Once they gain power, long-suppressed political movements may not be eager to hear that their latitude for governance is still constrained, but that is what international human rights law requires. Repression of basic rights can emerge as readily from majoritarian hubris as from a classic autocrat.
Egypt, the largest and most influential country of the region, epitomizes the problem. The Muslim Brotherhood has used its electoral mandate to push through a new constitution filled with potential threats to the rights of women, government opponents, and religious minorities, while enshrining a dangerous autonomy for the military. The government has exploited these compromised provisions to launch a raft of prosecutions against journalists and others who criticize it, while old police habits of torture and lethal attacks on demonstrators persist.
Between popular protests in Egypt and pressure from the international donors and investors needed to revive the Egyptian economy, there is reason to believe the government will moderate. But one would have hoped the Muslim Brotherhood, itself long persecuted by the Mubarak dictatorship, would have been more reluctant to replicate its predecessor’s repressive tactics.
International protests would be more credible if they were more consistent and principled. The people of the region notice, for example, when the West’s promotion of democracy seems to stop where other interests arise – whether accessing oil, containing Iran or defending Israel. It is easier for the Egyptian government to deflect Western protests when so few are directed to the unreformed repression of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates, let alone Israeli rights violations in Gaza and the West Bank. Nor do protests against torture resonate as powerfully when President Obama refuses to investigate torture by the Bush administration and the British government proceeds only reluctantly to examine its role in sending terrorism suspects to torture in Gadhafi’s Libya.
The region’s most acute problem is the slaughter of civilians in Syria. The West has imposed sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s government, but tougher measures, such as a global ban on sending arms to government forces or the invocation of the International Criminal Court, have been stymied by Russia’s veto, backed by China, in the U.N. Security Council. More should be done to highlight Putin’s callous indifference to the Syrian bloodshed and to ensure that the Russian arms supplier feeding Syria’s killing machine does not profit from Western purchases. In addition, the Arab League, ostensibly concerned about its brethren in Syria, should press its member Iraq to stop enabling the shipment of arms from Iran to Syria.
But al-Assad is not the only problem. The armed Syrian opposition is a varied collection of militias, some of which torture and execute detainees while articulating a narrow sectarian vision that allows no room for Syria’s minorities. That makes the minorities more likely to defend al-Assad than risk an uncertain future in opposition hands. Fear of strengthening abusive or potentially hostile forces is also a major reason why Western governments have been reluctant to send arms or provide military backing. But the jihadists among the rebels have their own networks to obtain arms, enhancing the most abusive elements within the armed opposition.
The Syrian National Coalition was created to provide a unified command structure for the opposition that could rein in abusive forces, guarantee minority rights, and pursue a negotiated departure for al-Assad and his henchmen that leaves intact enough of the state structure to avoid the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. Yet the SNC’s clout is waning because it has little to offer the Syrian people to relieve their suffering.
At the very least, a major influx of humanitarian aid is needed. But out of misguided deference to Syria’s sovereignty and overwrought concerns about taking sides in the conflict, most donors have sent aid via Damascus, meaning little gets to opposition-held areas where the suffering is most acute. Donors should also deliver massive quantities of humanitarian aid across the Turkish border and through the rudimentary civilian governance structures now being created in opposition-held areas of Syria. That would help to ease real suffering while enhancing the influence of both the West and the civilian governance structures in opposition areas that are most likely to promote respect for rights among opposition fighters and an inclusive vision of Syria for all Syrians. Ideally, such cross-border aid should be sent with U.N. Security Council approval, but if Russian intransigence precludes that, the international community should act anyway, operating as needed through non-governmental humanitarian groups.
Yes, it has proven difficult to build rights-respecting democracies in the Middle East and North Africa. But the international community should not condemn the people of the region to the grim prospect of authoritarian rule without end, let alone to massive bloodshed. They have risked their lives for a freer future, and it is our responsibility to support them. As the Arab uprising enters its third year, we should all redouble our commitment to a positive outcome.
Kenneth Roth is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch