Current Realities and Human Rights Alternatives

Common images of the Arab world coalesce around issues of extraordinary global impact. The most omnipresent image is of terror groups, as currently epitomized by al-Qaida and the events of 9/11. Equally appalling is the documentation of genocide(s) in Iraq and, among the more recent reports out of Saddam’s former killing fields, mass graves filled with children buried alive.5 Of continuing significance are Gulf Wars I, II, and III6—the last leaving in place a chaos in which one can find both optimistic and pessimistic portents. And seemingly eternal is the endless Palestinian and Israeli bloodletting, continued Palestinian dispossession, and aborted peace plans.

Behind these headline snapshots lies a drearily authoritarian landscape. The Arab world’s regimes give common levels of corruption and repression in other parts of the world a good name. Virtually all independent human rights monitors list the Arab world as among the globe’s worst violators of human rights. Over the last thirty years, notes one, ‘‘there is only one region of the world where the average level of

freedom has declined . . . the Middle East’’—with the Arab world having

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the least freedom within the Middle East.7 While two-thirds of former communist states have some measure of freedom and democracy, as do most Latin American states, one-half of Asian states, and two-fifths of African states, there are no democracies in the Arab world.

At best, one can hopefully note the region’s democratizing experiments in Bahrain and Yemen. Even in countries with irregular elections, however, the lack of institutionalized representative structures and a sustained commitment to the rule of law and human rights substantially depletes such elections of meaning. The region’s catalog of rights violations range from the most brutal—including torture, extra-judicial disappearances, and genocide—to the most systemic—including structural discrimination in the political, economic, social, and cultural status of non-Arab ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and women whether of those minorities or not. In short, political and economic rights violations are the regional norm, not the exception.

Scholars and practitioners have linked human rights implementation to equitable economic development.8 Hence it is not surprising that with a failure to implement such rights the Arab world has simultaneously experienced what can best be termed a proactive process of economic underdevelopment.9 Human rights relevance is here understood, therefore, as including economic, social, and cultural as well as political and civil rights. It is only when these various categories of rights are understood as mutually constitutive that they can be conceptualized in a manner that recognizes the context for rights violations and the range of issues that must be addressed if rights are to be implemented. The region has lost the comparative advantages it held coming out of the colonial era in measures of human development relative to both Asia and Latin America, a corollary to its relatively low levels of political and economic rights implementation compared to those regions. Instead of economic empowerment, regimes fearful of their own people have used centralization of economic resources as a tool of power—doling out economic favors to buy political support, compromise civil society independence, and punish opponents. There is no commitment to establishing rights to nondiscrimination, education, health, and political liberties as a method of sustaining equitable economic development within the region.10 Overall economic levels have been stagnant, therefore, as people have not been politically or economically empowered, but rather objects of political repression and economic dependence.

Inattention to political and economic development is counterbalanced by Arab regimes’ overdevelopment of external and internal security apparatuses. The region has the world’s highest percentage of GDP devoted to military spending, resulting in armies and militias well

stocked with arms by which to terrorize local populations. Especially

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ominous, however, have been the omnipresent mukhabarat in the service of so-called gomalikiyya, two terms fundamental to contemporary Arab political lexicon. Mukhabarat signifies intrusive and often overlapping internal intelligence services. They help maintain in power regimes which Saad Eddin Ibrahim famously dubbed gomalikiyya—a neologism combining the Arabic words for ‘‘republic’’ and ‘‘monarchy’’ (as in ‘‘repubarchies’’). Ibrahim, whose case is examined as part of Tamir Moustafa’s chapter on the Egyptian judiciary, aptly summarizes with the term gomalikiyya the evolution of the Arab world’s post-revolutionary republics into family- and clan-run empires.11 Whether formal monarchies as in the Gulf, Morocco, and Jordan, or formal republics as in Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, sons are groomed to take power from their fathers, and political structures are a patriarchal, family affair.

Last, completing this picture, there are the Islamist religious nationalist movements. There are variations among and within Islamist movements, and simply making reference to Islam as part of a platform does not make a party Islamic nationalist. Turkey’s Justice and Development party, for example, is more akin to a European Christian Democratic party than the Islamist nationalist movement. The true Islamist nationalist movements—i.e., those that believe societies can be ruled via a supposedly ‘‘literal’’ (a contested construct, in practice) application of God’s eternal law—also vary in moderation and radicalism, and in any case should not be conflated with Islam as a historical, religious experience. As a generality, Islamist movements both inside and outside the Arab world have served the convenient role of demonstrating that, in fact, things can get even worse than currently dismal realities.12 Both in opposition (in Algeria, for example) and in power (in Afghanistan or the Sudan, for example), Islamic nationalists have shown zealous enthusiasm for exacerbating already poor human rights situations by an absolutist demonization of their opponents, treating controversial speech and dissent as blasphemous activity to be punished by the state, conceptualizing the Muslim world’s historic pluralism and heterogeneity as a threat, and institutionalizing discriminations based on ethnicity and gender.

These are current realities, and they are not easy. Telescoping on these images means ignoring complexities and differentiations within the Arab world’s political and cultural life. But while insisting on acknowledging a richer reality behind these images, the fact is that these images are also a fair representation of the contemporary Arab political landscape and cannot be avoided in serious analyses of the region. Too often, however, such avoidance has been the case in intellectual work

that has seen political and economic rights violations as a troublesome

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footnote rather than as an essential issue regarding the region’s governance and sustainable political, economic, and cultural life.

The pathologies of the contemporary Arab political system—from al- Qaida and Islamist politics to the corrupt repressiveness of secular Arab nationalist and monarchist regimes—flow out of a lack of political, economic, and cultural freedoms and rights. This flourished in a climate in which systematic violations of human rights became a political norm. This climate was bred, in turn, by the ill-effects of colonial structures of power and autocratic republican and monarchical rule and enabled by the acquiescence of superpower patrons, international and regional organizations, domestic institutions, and intellectual elites. Civil societies have often been coopted into the system via patrimonial handouts or had attention diverted toward external threats. Organizations and individuals that have mobilized in opposition to the region’s dominant power structures and ideological formations (in power or in opposition) have, at best, been rhetorically tarnished as political or cultural traitors or, at worst, brutally repressed. The exclusionary power of these structures and ideologies have been and remain a threat to human rights in the Arab world. Focusing on a participatory politics that articulates tangible responses to the rights violations at the heart of these claims is part of a long-term answer to ideological mobilizations that maintain current structures of power.

Both outside powers and transnational intellectual elites have played a particular role in sustaining the region’s status quo. Superpowers like the United States, bilateral allies like France, and international and regional organizations have remained committed to a ‘‘realist’’ notion of stability rather than democracy and rights. This has led them to overlook or, at best, only weakly challenge regimes that ideologically demonize and physically marginalize opposition. This investment in stability, as well as regime self-interest in preserving their hold on power by any means necessary, may paradoxically be the ultimate source of the instability that has spilled out of the region. Political repression and gross economic inequalities create the frustration that characterizes popular sentiment. A lack of avenues for meaningful political participation toward internal reform creates the ideological context for valorizing the most extreme forms of opposition as the only viable path toward change. Thus, while the region has indeed been quite stable in a superficial manner, the rights violations that sustained regime stability have been the source of radical opposition to the domestic, regional, and global status quo, making the region’s politics a flashpoint for the spread of transnational violence and instability.

Repressive norms are so long-standing and challenges so feeble that

many dismiss the idea that human rights are a relevant discourse in the

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Arab world and despair of the possibility of an alternative. They believe the political culture of the Arab world is irremediably dictatorial, a sort of pick-your-poison menu of repression. This pessimism is not entirely unfounded, as there is a combination of repressive structures and ideological nihilism at the heart of the region’s current political formations. Islamist or secular, monarchical or republican, modes of sustaining power in the Arab world are akin in their patrimonial foundations and repressive results.13 Similarly, modes of ideologically legitimizing structures of power—from official nationalisms to oppositional Islamism— share a nihilistic foundation no matter their other differences. They have come to be defined by absolutist opposition to an Other (non-Muslim or non-Sunni; Zionist; American; non-Arab such as Kurdish or Persian; etc.). This is sometimes supported, at an extreme, by the totalitarian notion that purified of outside influence a utopia will emerge, and hence domination of governmental authority as well as civil society is a necessity if the Other is to be kept from infiltrating.

This oppositionally defined ideology is bereft of a positive, tangible vision of a political society that can emerge out of the participatory efforts of its citizens and is, therefore, nihilistic. This nihilism is demonstrated in the extremes of violence used to accomplish goals of either the most narrow or most abstract sort. Attempts to atomize societies in favor of personal power or ideological absolutes thrive on incapacitating the possibility of imagining an alternative to current political options. The possibilities become either an acquiescence to a status quo or a flight to utopian fantasies which are as much of an escape from reality as resigned submission.

This leaves the crucial question of whether there are alternatives in the Arab world and, if so, how they might be given the political space to emerge. A search that has been too often overlooked or even derided is one that seeks options that would advance the political and economic rights of peoples within the Arab world and a pluralist political culture accepting of the region’s heterogeneity. This search also responds to the geopolitical concern with the radical sectarian violence flowing out of the Arab world. Stability accomplished through maintenance of strong regimes in power is not a viable response to this violence. Rather, change in political and ideological structures that allow alternatives to flower is imperative if the roots of instability are to be addressed and if the energies of the Arab world are to be directed toward genuine economic and political development rather than flow into nihilistic vio- lence.14

But what are these alternatives? There are clearly none that are readily available or pre-packaged or can be imposed from the outside. Alternatives must emerge from within, but, as we have seen, political and ideo-

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logical structures are such that it is difficult for this to occur—and a military imposition from the outside is, obviously, ill-suited for what is fundamentally an internal process. Yet, despite this, as this volume hopes to highlight, there have been voices working from within the region’s monolithic authoritarianisms to develop alternatives that respond to the political, social, and economic demands of its populations. And so it must be. The construction of an alternative to the dominant paradigms of the Arab world’s politics can only occur indigenously.

‘‘Indigenous,’’ however, should not be understood in a naive, romantic manner. Amr Hamzawy’s conclusion gives some sense of the dynamism of current intellectual debates in the Arab world. Hamzawy both gives intellectual context for other chapters which deal more specifically with human rights issues and makes clear that, despite many obstacles, Arab world intellectual discourse continues to exist in a transnational context. This is not new. As Abdou Filali-Ansary notes by reference to the Middle East, ‘‘there has been a great effervescence of thought among Muslim intellectuals since the late nineteenth century. One cannot help but be struck by the breadth, intensity, and sustained character of the debates that have been going on within the Muslim world for over a hundred years.’’15 The Arab world’s political ideas, from secular and religious nationalisms to human rights-based critiques, have always been elaborated in a transnational context in dialogue with global currents; it is not a parochial backwater. It is important to take note of normative shifts that continue to occur in transnational interchange and to conceptualize the Arab world as open to change—given the political space—in response to the demands of its peoples and evolving normative paradigms.

It is this political space that is fundamental. In human rights terms there is the essential principle of rights as a path toward guaranteeing individual and group agency.16 This is to give space by which societies can use rights—pushed internationally, transnationally, and domesti- cally—to open up their political space to definition from the bottom up by their peoples, implying protection of rights that guarantee political participation (speech, dissent, nondiscrimination, etc.) and economic participation (health, education, nondiscrimination, etc.). These and other rights, in short, allow peoples to be the subject defining their political structures, rather than the object of structures imposed upon them from above. In this sense, human rights are not an imposed answer and should not be conflated with an ideology, but rather should be understood to provide a structure through which alternatives can emerge from within societies and out of global dialogue and interchange. This

is the fundamental appeal of a human rights framework.

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