Saturday, April 16, 2011

U.S. Influence Waning in the Middle East?

By William Fisher

As the U.S. State Department was releasing its annual report on the state of human rights around the world, a highly respected Cairo-based research and advocacy organization was publishing a document that could well have as much influence in the Middle East.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) last week issued its third annual report on the state of human rights in the Arab world in 2010, with a special focus on 12 countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen.

The report is entitled Roots of Unrest, speaking to the distinctive popular revolutions sweeping across the Arab world, which have thus far toppled two of the most entrenched police dictatorships in the region, in Egypt and Tunisia, and is striking at the seats of other dictatorships in Libya and Yemen.

The uprising is also compellingly imposing the need for serious, far-reaching reforms in several states, particularly Morocco, Bahrain, and Algeria, and is having repercussions in Syria, where people are living under a tyrannical regime that barely permits its citizens to breathe.

CIHRS says it hopes that” Roots of Unrest” “will sound a warning for some states and encourage their ruling elites to take the initiative - before it is too late -to adopt far-reaching reforms that meet popular aspirations for freedom and human dignity and a secure transition to democracy.”

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), an organization dedicated to protecting journalists and freedom of the press, said the CIHRS report “digs up roots of unrest in Arab world in new report.”

“As change continues to sweep across the Middle East, with citizens seeking
democracy and guarantees for their basic human rights, you've got to ask: what got them here? CIHRS seeks the answer to this question in "Roots of Unrest,” IFEX wrote.

It is likely that the CIHRS report will have an arguably disproportionate impact on “the Arab Street.” The reason is that, since The Arab Awakening in late January, many in the Middle East have perceived an ambivalence on the part of the U.S. to take strong positions in favor of pro-democracy movements. The U.S. is also seen by many as having applied a double-standard; for example, condemning the Gaddafi regime in Libya while remaining relatively silent on the brutal tactics of the governments in Yemen and Bahrain.

The CIHRS report finds some striking similarities among countries that are now the stage for popular revolutions. Among them: large-scale deterioration of human rights, even in those countries that are supposedly "stable", and a lack of political will to improve the human rights situation; laws that are used often to discipline and harass opponents, including emergency and counterterrorism laws; widespread impunity, often perpetuated by the authorities; and censorship of the media, especially on issues related to the royal family or Islam.

Country by country, "Roots of Unrest" describes in detail the "daily
accumulation of people's suffering and grievances, which led them to the point of no return as they faced their regimes, both those that have already fallen and those still waiting their turn,." IFEX said,

A thorough review of the CIHRS report reveals that the primary roots of unrest in the Arab world are:

• A large-scale deterioration in the state of human rights, even in
those countries that were, or still are, characterized by a level of
ostensible political “stability.”

• A lack of political will among the Arab regimes to advance the
status of human rights in their countries.

• Stagnant legislatures: Arab regimes have preserved an endless
supply of legislation hostile to human rights, that is used to
discipline and harass their opponents and prosecute reformists,
human rights defenders, and advocates. This report notes some
developments on the legislative front in 2010, mostly introduced to
further restrict and suppress liberties, particularly in Egypt,
Tunisia, and Sudan.

• The perpetuation of an authoritarian approach to entrench impunity
and immunity for gross human rights violations.

• The use of states of emergency and counterterrorism laws to
justify serious crimes, including extrajudicial killings, abductions
and involuntary disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and
unfair trials, particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria,
Bahrain, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.

• The continuation of policies that cement and perpetuate absolute
rule or hereditary succession, such as in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen;
or secure systematic ethnic or sectarian social and economic
discrimination and political exclusion, such as in Bahrain, Saudi
Arabia, and Syria.

• The falsification of citizens’ will through rigged general
elections. This report documents the contemptible practices of the
Mubarak regime in administering the so-called parliamentary
“elections” for the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council that
were to precede the presidential elections of 2011. In the run-up to
elections, the regime launched an unprecedented campaign of
suppression that included incitement to kill demonstrators, the
abduction of political activists, and a crackdown on media and new
technologies for information dissemination. The situation differed
little in Bahrain, where parliamentary elections were preceded by detention of hundreds of people, among them prominent
political opposition figures and human rights defenders. Many of the
detainees were brutally tortured before being referred to trial
under the counterterrorism law.

General elections in Sudan were also conducted in a repressive
climate that continued even after the vote. Election outcomes in
Sudan were rigged by manipulating the census and gerrymandering
electoral districts. There was open voter fraud, and the population
of South and West Darfur were unable to vote, while violence and
chaos prevented elections from taking place at all in several

• Blocking outlets for peaceful expression by placing pressure on
freedom of expression and the media, both traditional and new,
especially in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, and Bahrain. Morocco continued
its policy of stifling the press, especially on issues relating to
the King, the royal family, Islam, or the Western Sahara conflict.

• As for the regime of the now deposed Ben Ali in Tunisia, it
continued its absolute confiscation of media freedoms and deployed
the capacities of the police state to harass journalists and
prosecute them on false charges. Various human rights defenders and
political activists, as well as trade unionists, were placed under
close surveillance and endured various forms of harassment and
physical assault. Indeed, the media, totally dominated by the state,
launched smear campaigns against many of these activists.

In Syria, the regime maintained its hostility and intolerance for
freedom of expression and towards political activists and human
rights defenders in general. The regime’s hostility was also
particularly apparent when it came to the rights of the Kurdish

Yet, the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen surpassed even the Syrian regime over the course of last year, sending dozens of journalists to trial, where most of them received harsh prison terms and had their professional credentials revoked.

Newspaper offices were stormed by state security, and several journalists were targets for physical attacks or assassination attempts. Both journalists and human rights defenders faced abductions, temporary disappearances, and torture, while some were then referred to exceptional courts lacking all due-process guarantees.

• The grave assault on the right to equality and freedom from
religious or ethnic discrimination; especially in Bahrain against
the Shiite majority; and in Egypt against Copts, Nubians, and the
Bedouin residents of Sinai.

• The international community’s fading concern with human rights and democracy in the Arab region. Indeed, both the United States and the European Union increasingly allowed expediency and interests with authoritarian regimes trump the protection of human rights and the push for progress on democratic reform.

The report notes that Palestinians remain the targets of egregious abuses, both due to the Israeli occupation and the Fatah-Hamas conflict. Israeli crimes, most notably the use of collective punishment the siege of the Gazan population as well as the imposed blockade on Gaza continued. Last year, Israel attacked the Freedom Flotilla, a convoy ship attempting to bring in humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Israel also continued to implement measures to Judaicize Jerusalem, further entrench settlements, and enforce apartheid, as well as maintain its policy of extrajudicial killings.

The ongoing conflict between Fatah and Hamas was accompanied by the politicization of rights and liberties, which were routinely violated on the basis of political affiliation. Authorities in both the West Bank perceived opponents, including arbitrary detentions, torture, crackdowns on freedom of assembly, NGOs, and human rights organizations, in addition to harassment of journalists and media workers.

Iraq remained the theater of the most lethal violence in the Arab world, which claimed nearly 4,000 lives in just ten months. Religious and ethnic minorities were constant targets for violence and random killing as a result of the dominance of extremist religious discourses and groups in Iraqi political and cultural life.

Hundreds of civilians were killed in military operations against Houthis in Saada, in northern Yemen, as Saudi Arabia joined combat operations on the side of the Yemeni army. The report also documents how the Yemeni authorities have used the war on terror as a pretext to launch military campaigns against the southern provinces, whose residents are involved in widespread protest against the policies of marginalization and exclusion and the ongoing repression of southern citizens.

The U.S. will view much of the this Egyptian report with favor; it largely echoes the findings and conclusions of the State Department’s own Human Rights report.

Other assertions may be less palatable to the U.S. For example, the assertion that “the Yemeni authorities have used the war on terror as a pretext to launch military campaigns against the southern provinces, whose residents are involved in widespread protest against the policies of marginalization and exclusion and the ongoing repression of southern citizens.”

But the issue could be largely moot. The reason is that the views of the U.S. don’t have anywhere near the political clout they once carried among Middle Eastern Arabs. Today, we are being seen as favoring democracy and human rights selectively – willing to give the storied “get out of jail free” card to nations we need, no matter how repressive their rulers.

The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East

By William Fisher

In Bahrain, the daughter of one of that country’s most prominent human rights advocates has now been on a hunger strike for well over 52 hours. The whereabouts of her father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, and his family members, as well as many others, remains unknown after they were whisked out of their homes in a dead-of-night raid by 15 masked security forces dressed in black.

She told The Guardian newspaper of his arrest: "They broke the door of the apartment. My father didn't resist at all, he went to them calmly but straight away a policeman told him, 'Down, down, get on the floor' ... They dragged him down the stairs and started beating him," she said.

"They did not give any reason ... They were beating him very severely, on the ground, maybe four or five of them, kicking him and hitting him in the face."

She said her father had been calling for democracy and had been saying that the regime was guilty of killing, torturing and detaining people, and should be put on trial.

And then there is Ali Isa Saqer, who died in Bahraini custody. Nabeel Rajab,
the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is accused of posting a "fabricated image" of Sager on his Twitter account, showing that Saqer was beaten in custody. The images are graphic, showing Saqer's body covered with bruises and gashes.

According to the interior ministry, the Sager photos were fabricated.

As for Rajab, the official Bahrain news agency and a newspaper close to the government accused him of being part of a "terrorist network" and of passing "false information" to international organizations for the purpose of "harming Bahrain's reputation.”

Later, he was prevented from traveling to Saudi Arabia. In December, Rajab's computer was confiscated as he was about to board a plane at Bahrain international airport. It was returned with the power on, indicating that information may have been downloaded or copied.

Meantime, Maryam Alkhawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, reports, "The fourth death in detention in 10 days yesterday." Kareem Fakhrawi was a businessman who disappeared after he went to the police station to file a complaint. He was one of the founders of AlWasat Newspaper and was on the board of directors.

She writes, “You can see the footage of his body which shows torture marks here: The only official statement was on the Bahrain News Agency twitter account he died from liver failure complications:!/bna_ar/status/57938447310131200.”

In Yemen, violent clashes were also reported in Sana’a and Aden. Across Yemen, thousands continued protesting against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Arab Gulf states, involved in mediating the crisis in Yemen, made a more aggressive push for Saleh to step down, a move that Saleh has rejected. Meanwhile, opposition demonstrations grow and more protesters are killed, injured and jailed.

And in Syria, as Security Forces open fire on protesters, the Syrian branch of the International Federation for Human Rights calls for international pressure on Syria, denunciation of the repression by the UN Security Council and the convening of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council.

But Syrian security forces continue to fire on thousands of demonstrators in Deraa, killing more than 20. Mass demonstrations continue in Douma despite the cutting of phone lines. Over the weekend, clashes continued with security forces firing live ammunition on funeral processions and protesters in Banias and Deraa.

Some have suggested that Syria’s President Asad is changing his strategy, moving from “break up the demonstrations in any way necessary” to “just take photos of the main demonstrators and go to their homes and arrest them after the demonstrations.”

But perhaps the Security Forces didn’t get the memo. They are continuing to use tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to quell the massive disturbances.

Given what has already happened in Egypt and Tunisia, the rulers of Bahrain, Yemen and Syria must be thought of as “The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East.”

Despite incontrovertible evidence from Egypt that merely changing the government does not satisfy those who demand nothing less than the ouster of their present rulers, the Three Blind Mice nevertheless went through this ritual Kabuki dance.

Predictably, with no effect whatever.

In Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has been approached by various groups and individuals with suggestions for his orderly departure. The King is a Sunni Muslim; a sizable part of his population is Shia. But the uprisings against his rule have come from both Sunni and Shia. The Shia live mostly in the Eastern part of Bahrain, nearest to Shia copmmunitieuis in neighboring Sunni Saudi Arabia. That was a major reason the Saudis sent a thousand troops into Bahrain to help the King maintain law and order, Saudi style.

The United States, while excoriating Iranian ally Syria, has been largely silent on Bahrain, presumably because of the tiny Kingdom’s proximity to Saudi Arabia and the presence of sizable populatuions of Shia Musis in each couintry, and Bahrain’s strategic role as headquarters of the U.S. fifth fleet.

In Yemen, President Saleh first sought to mollify demonstrators by pledging not to run in 2012, when his term expires. Later, under still more pressure, he agreed to leave office by the end of this year. Still later, he appeared to reject both these positions and his current thinking remains unclear. Protestors are demanding nothing less than his immediate departure, as Egyptians did vis a vis Mubarak.

For the U.S., the Yemen situation is causing a major migraine.

In Syria, opposition groups say the Asad regime has reached out to them to begin talks. And Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has made some concessions to the demonstrators. For example, he granted Syrian citizenship to up to 150,000 Kurds living in eastern Syria, thus satisfying a long-standing demand of the Kurdish minority.

But these belated gestures will mean less than nothing if armed police and soldiers are killing, injuring and arresting protesters at the same time.

That is a fool’s strategy. And it is unlikely to satisfy the demands of the pro-democracy movement.

How is all this likely to play out? The honest answer is that no one knows. It is possible that The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East may for now be successful in putting down their rebellions using brute force, or some combination of the usual repression sweetened with a few crumbs of new freedom.

But history tells us that when movements such as The Arab Awakening reach the kind of numbers and intensity it took to oust Mubarak from Egypt and Ben Ali from Tunisia they become virtualy unstoppable.

They may be quieted for weeks, months, even years. But, one day, they will be re-galvanized by some random event, like a fruit-seller setting himself on fire.

So The Three Blind Mice of the Middle East shouldn’t bet on The Arab Awakening going back to sleep.