It has been a year since the start of the so-called Arab Spring. Several old regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have been overthrown; others are still clinging to power. Islamist political parties have taken a new place on the stage and old assumptions about the region are being challenged.
But has anything really changed in the past year? Or is it too early to expect change in countries which in many cases have endured decades of autocratic rule and repression? And what role can the West play in helping countries on the road to democracy – the road to the freedoms demanded by protesters across the region?
To try to answer some of these questions, we looked at the changes that have occurred from several perspectives: human rights, political change, the influence of Islam, and the U.S. role.
First on human rights:
Amnesty International recently released a report which said that though there have been changes – notably in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen – much remains to be done. Syria remains in turmoil, with thousands of demonstrators gunned down by security forces (with Damascus insisting that the number of troops killed by what it calls “terrorists” are also in the thousands); there are still protests on the streets of Bahrain; Yemen remains very much in flux and there are concerns that even with new faces at the helm, old power brokers will remain in charge. Even in Egypt, the military rulers have not brought about the change many hoped would have come by this time.
“We are yet to see evidence that many of the governments in the region have really recognized what they need to do to respond to these kind of unprecedented demands they are getting from their populations,” says James Lynch, an Amnesty spokesman.
“In many cases they are pushing back against protest, against reform, sometimes through offering piecemeal reform, sometimes through making some changes, but in other cases simply through brutal repression, at a high cost in human lives and dignity,” Lynch adds.
Maryam Al-Khawaja is with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. She says that in some cases, abuses have gotten worse since last January.
“The situation on the ground has not changed,” she said.
“If anything the human rights violations have rather increased. Almost on a daily basis we have cases of brutal arrests, kidnappings during which the victim is severely beaten, and then dumped somewhere, using excessive force, putting people on trial for participating in protests or practicing freedom of speech,” Al Khawaja said.
But is it too early to expect dramatic change after literally decades of repression?
Marwan Muasher is the former Jordanian Ambassador to the United States and the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. He says that expecting pluralistic democracies to emerge in the region in only one year’s time is not realistic.
“The romantic period is over now. I think everybody realizes that the expectation last January that in one month democracy would bloom instantaneously in the Middle East in the absence of civil society, in the absence of political party culture was totally unrealistic,” Muasher said.
“While the street has been able to start change, you know, institutionalizing it is going to take a very, very long time,” he added.
Stephen J. Hadley was National Security Adviser under former President George W. Bush. He says that there are concerns what kind of governments will emerge from the transition period.
“There is also concern that these governments that result from this transition process will be hostile to the United States,” he said. “Certainly they are going to be a greater challenge for American foreign policy; we are going to have to do some things differently with these regimes,” Hadley added.
A New Vision?
Part of ‘doing things differently’ will mean dealing with Islamist parties, which have made political gains in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, interim President Moncef Marzouki has promised a new constitution that includes provisions on women’s rights and human rights.
However, the most powerful position in the new government belongs to Hamadi Jbeli of the Islamist Ennahda party, which won Tunisia’s first democratic parliamentary election last October.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative Salafist Al-Nour party have won large blocks in the country’s parliament. But Marwan Muasher cautions that Islamism is not
synonymous with extremism.
“Islamists in the Arab world are neither the democrats nor the devils of the Arab world, and it’s about time that we treat them as they are,” he said. “First of all, political Islam is not monolithic. And when people talk here about political Islam, they probably have in mind forces similar to either al Qaida or at best Hamas or Hezbollah,” he added.
Stephen Hadley agrees, saying that trying to pigeonhole Islamist parties is not being realistic.
“When a party takes power that is in name Islamist, we should not despair,” he says. “That’s not the end because these parties are going to look very differently and the test will be how they govern – whether they are inclusive and whether they are agents of reform and change,” Hadley added.
James Lynch of Amnesty International says, regardless of affiliation, those who replace repressive governments need to recognize universal human rights.
”What we hope to see in this new era is where these groups have the opportunity to freely associate, freely express their views and take part in public life,” he said. But we also expect them to be part of the change, to live up to the same kind of human rights standards that we would expect of any other party,” Lynch added.
Marwan Muasher says the real battle in the Arab world is not for Islam vs. democracy, but for pluralism – for governments that allow free expression of ideas without fear of reprisal.
“If societies in the Middle East are to be sustainable and prosperous, the real battle is for the right to be different, for the right of everybody to organize, for the right of the peaceful rotation of power, for the right of personal and minority rights, etc.” he said. “And that is not going to be easy. That is not a concept that the Arab world has been accustomed to,” Muasher said.
What role should the United States and its Western allies play in this transition process? Will those who filled Tahrir Square in Egypt, fought Moammar Gadhafi in the sands of Libya, those who continue to shed their blood in Syria, and those pressing for change Bahrain look to the West for help? And should a country like the U.S. intercede?
Maryam Al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights says Washington has to earn the right to help.
“People on the ground regard the government of the USA as supporting the regime in Bahrain, because in their opinion, silence is complicity,” she said. “Statements condemning [human rights] violations, pushing for action through the United Nations, threatening economic sanctions, cutting off economic ties [would help],” she added.
James Lynch of Amnesty International says the first change in the Western view of the region has to be an internal, psychological one.
“They have to recognize that the situation has changed, the context has changed, they cannot return to business as usual,” he said.
Marwan Muasher adds that transparency and a commitment to follow through on reforms will go a long way.
“I think the United States does have a role to play here,” he said. “Not in pushing reform in a big brother kind of way, but in being candid in what really needs to be done,” Muasher said.
Time: Friend or Foe?
All those we talked to acknowledge that one year is not enough time for such massive change to take place. And time is a key factor. The experts we spoke with say time is needed for reform to take hold, but in cases like Syria, time could be the enemy – if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues its crackdown, the Syrian people will be increasingly tempted to take up arms and the situation would degenerate into civil war. That would leave the country’s future in the hands of whoever wins.
Experts agree that the dreams of reform that played out so dramatically in Tahrir Square and continue to motivate demonstrators on the streets in many cities and towns of the region will become reality. But that, they say, will take patience, and a concrete, face-to-face engagement that would bring about reform and avoid a descent into chaos.
David Byrd is a journalist, writer, video editor and photographer. He is also the host of VOA's American Cafe, a weekly show covering life and culture in the United States.