Tuesday, May 5, 2015

You are here

Experts Weekly: Human Rights in Tunisia and Egypt

Think Africa Press asks five experts whether constitutional human rights reform and the dismantling of previous regimes' apparatuses of state oppression represent the most-needed reform in the two countries.
Share |
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Badie casts his vote. AP

After the dissolution of  Egypt and Tunisia's hated secret police forces and Egypt's constitutional referendum, Think Africa Press asks five experts whether constitutional human rights reform and the dismantling of previous regimes' apparatuses of state oppression represent the most needed reforms in the two countries.


Sarah Leah Whitson, Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch:

Legal reforms in Egypt and Tunisia are indeed matters of first priority if there is to be any hope of real change in these countries. It is not enough to elect new leaders who promise change and to rely on their good will; so long as the law gives them the authority to restrict freedom of speech, assembly, and the right to form truly independent non-governmental organizations and political parties, it will be impossible to ensure that even new, well-intentioned leaders will respect the rights of their citizens. People need rights enshrined and protected in law, not just promises of good intentions. In the interim, until elections take place, it will be important to see the transitional governments in place in Tunisia and Egypt refrain from enforcing the bad laws now in place that authorize restrictions on internationally guaranteed human rights. That’s already happening in Egypt, with the Supreme Military Council continuing to rely on Egyptian emergency laws to arrest and arbitrarily detain Egyptians exercising their right to peaceful protest. The emergency laws in Egypt and the restrictive provisions in Egypt’s and Tunisia’s penal codes must be suspended immediately, until they are revised.


Phil Clark, Lecturer in Comparative and International African Politics, SOAS:

During post-authoritarian transitions, international actors tend to be more focused on the hated leaders to be deposed than on the incoming parties and their policies. It's incredible in the Libyan situation that we know so little of who the "rebels" are - their political motivations, the nature of their financial and political backing, their degree of internal cohesion, and their ability to govern. Policymakers, as well as our intrepid foreign correspondents, news editors and think tank wonks, have once again caught the fever of war and failed to analyse the forces that might replace Gaddafi if he falls.

These questions are essential because rebels and opposition parties that come to power after lengthy periods of authoritarian rule can quickly replicate the draconian policies of previous regimes. Robert Mugabe's guarantees of reconciliation after the end of white minority rule in Zimbabwe were ultimately - and destructively - empty. The international excitement over the toppling of Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo in 1997 soon gave way to concerns over the violent and autocratic tendencies of the new leader, Laurent Désiré Kabila.

Recent moves to dismantle some of the structures of state oppression in Tunisia and Egypt are welcome and perhaps promise genuine transitions to more democratic rule. However, the policies of these governments will require close scrutiny over the coming months because new regimes tend towards grand symbolic gestures in the early days of their rule. They are often effective at appearing reformist while entrenching their power and closing down political space - for fear of falling victim to the same forces that toppled their predecessors. New constitutions, in particular, are famously open to manipulation or neglect, as highlighted recently by Kenya where a constitutional referendum did little to alter the power dynamics within the state. Reforming political structures and constitutions are only meaningful if long-term policy fulfils these early democratic promises. The problem is that the same journalists and analysts who converge on countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as repressive regimes are toppled usually don't stick around long enough to dissect what comes next.


Keith Hart, Director, Postdoctoral Programme on the Human Economy, University of Pretoria:

In order to understand why these measures have been given so much priority, we have to see the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes through the eyes of the common people. Fortunately, English-speakers will soon be able to read Beatrice Hibou's remarkable Tunisian study, The Force of Obedience (Polity, Summer 2011) which shows in vivid detail how fear and anxiety were introduced into the daily lives of the vast majority of citizens. Hibou documents all the techniques of terror, but the most destabilizing were those that affected everyday economic life. Any transaction with the authorities involving tax, a permit or an inspection became a source of radical uncertainty. We should recall that the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the martyr whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution, was provoked by exactly this sort of arbitrary economic intervention. It is one sign of the democratic spirit of both these countries after the removal of their dictators that urgent steps have been taken to remove the immediate source of people's fear. Of course, this does not mean that corruption and arbitrariness will vanish from public life; further reforms will be necessary. But it is a promising start.


Stephen Chan, Professor of International Relations, SOAS:

I think constitutional reform is key to any country's emergence into democracy. In that respect, what is happening in Egypt right now has dangers, in that - given the very short time frame - the decision has been taken to amend the worst parts of the old constitution, but not devise an entirely new constitution. This is right in that a good constitution requires public consultation and debate. It takes time. However, elections will be held long before any proper debate can be completed. This means that the interim amendments assume great importance for the conduct of the elections. Some of the proposed amendments are genuine liberalisations. Others are not. So there is a mixed picture on this front. The abolition of state apparatus for oppression is very welcome - provided that apparatus is not simply dispersed to other agencies.


Ben Judah, Policy Fellow, European Council of Foreign Relations:

Tunisia and Egypt face a dilemma in re-building their states. The choice to dismantle the apparatus of the old regime's parties, secret police and financial networks, which is a key demand of the revolution - is creating cohesive groups of losers in both countries. Neither have any choice but to enter the area and attempt to disrupt the transition, such as the recent attacks in Cairo and central Tunisia have shown. What both states need is to learn from the Central European experience of how to establish a modus vivendi with lesser figures of the old regime and be warned of the consequence of liqudating the Ba'athists and army in Iraq.

Share |


I think Phil Clark has made some valid parallels between what has recently happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and similar periods of authoritarian rule in the past which were greeted with excitement, only to descend into another wave of oppressive rule. A long term focus is key to preventing a repeat situation of draconian rule.

I agree on the risk of a misplaced revolutionary optimism. But an element which has often been overlooked is the disorganisation of rebellion in Egypt, Tunisia & Libya contrasting with past organized and highly ideologised rebellions. The threshold of fear seems to have been elevated, popular aspirations are expected to take a greater role in the future of those countries and if things go wrong, not much will stop the people to go back in the streets and be disorganised once again.

I am surprised to see that no one here mentions the need for economic 'reform'. It seems to be easily forgotten that while democratic freedoms from the right to vote through to freedom of association were and are of critical importance to protesters, so to was the ability to to find a job and earn enough money to support a family. Yet again - as in Burma - it seems as though the structural issues underlaying these situations have been waylaid. One hopes that the reasons behind Mohamed Bouazizi's suicide will not be forgotten and that he will be remembered for more than bringing the term 'self-immolation' in to the vernacular.

This is the perfect way to break down this ifnoratmion.

"Yes we can!"

How often has the promise of 'change' dispatched a county's leader back into political obscurity, lifting someone new onto the pedestal of hope?

It might be easier to cite changes of leadership which have not come about alongside the promise of a change of policy direction, unfortunately I can't think of many.

So what's the difference between the hype surrounding Egypt and Tunisia, and the hype surrounding Obama or Cameron? It is just a question of scale, or is there a more fundamental difference?

It's tempting to distinguish between changes of general policy direction and more fundamental changes of constitutional reform. But this ignores the fact that many leaders are swept into office in the conventional manner with pledges that are constitutional in character. Cameron promised to alter the UK's relationship with Europe, repealing the Human Rights Act and refusing to let the EU 'steal any more of our sovereignty'. Obama promised to close Guantanamo and give all prisoners the right to a fair trial on US soil. And yet the idea of a mere change in the scale of expectation also fails to capture the character of what we are witnessing.

I think the difference between a the conventional hype of change, and the hype observed in Tunisia and Egypt, may be found in the immediacy of the change, and in the surety of change. In the usual course of events a leader inherits a working and relatively stable system. From that base change comes slowly, and too often change fails ever to materialise.

In contrast, in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, the system of governance has been effectively dismantled. Its restructuring is necessary and must happen now. Changes, whatever they end up being, may have a large or a limited effect. But there will be some change, there has to be. The question, therefore, is not "when?" - as it is when the populations of the US and UK sit and wait for their leader to act - but "what?". The immediacy and surety added by this change is incredibly exciting. It justifies the hype.

I don't recall any hype around Cameron...