A Bleak Landscape for Democracy and Human Rights in the MENA Region in 2022

Any survey of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa at the start of 2022 has to open with the bad news.

Promising protest movements that began in 2019 and extended into early 2020 lost steam once the coronavirus struck; governments in the region took full advantage to grant themselves emergency powers under the cover of public health dictates. The pandemic allowed them to go far beyond public health to lock in new restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, and they continue to restrict political space today.

Once hopeful transitions to democracy have now ground to a screaming halt. An authoritarian president in Tunisia suspended parliament and seized full executive powers in a Latin-America style “self-coup,” while in Sudan, the de facto military chief took power from a transitional council that was ruling the country in preparation for national elections for a civilian government in 2023.

Repression by governments in the region reached new levels of cruelty, with few signs of letup. The number of individuals imprisoned for political activities, including criticism of rulers or government agencies, remained high. Government surveillance of and crackdowns on online activity appeared to intensify. Reports of torture and abuse in jails and prisons—not only physical abuse but lack of access by prisoners to health care and legal due process—persisted stubbornly as well.

Foreign governments, including those with great influence on the world stage and close ties to regional leaderships, were largely passive or silent. The European Union appeared to ignore human rights abuses in favor of cooperating with governments to conclude economic and security deals or stem the tide of unauthorized migrants. The United States under President Joe Biden had promised tough action against human rights abusers in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but for the most part failed to deliver. The Biden Administration’s vaunted Summit for Democracy largely ignored the Middle East.

At the start of the new year, then, the picture for both democracy and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) seems bleak, with few prospects for improvement. Western nations have bigger, more worrisome issues, in particular the possible invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which frees up space for Middle East autocrats to do as they please. If there is good news, it is that the story is unlikely to end there.

As Global Democracy Declines, Human Rights Abuses Rise

Last year marked the 15th annual decline of global democracy, according to Freedom House, attributable not only to the rise of populist politicians and parties in younger and weaker democracies, but to backsliding in more established democratic systems as well, particularly the United States. This has helped autocratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa by subverting the supposed moral authority of western nations that might otherwise have  pushed back on concerted efforts by regional regimes to crush protests, hound dissidents in person and online, and delegitimize criticism of governments and leaders.

Governments in the MENA region have taken full advantage to extend their own powers, ostensibly to confront the burgeoning pandemic. But these new authorities are likely remaining in force even in a post-pandemic period.

Governments in the MENA region have taken full advantage to extend their own powers, ostensibly to confront the burgeoning pandemic. But these new authorities are likely remaining in force even in a post-pandemic period. Algeria leveraged public health pleas to persuade pro-democracy demonstrators of the “Hirak” movement to get off the streets, then pivoted immediately to a campaign of arrests targeting Hirak leaders as well as journalists and bloggers.  Egypt notoriously jailed doctors for criticizing the government’s COVID-19 policies, then passed a raft of emergency laws designed to extend governmental and, particularly, presidential powers. While Egypt recently ended its long-standing emergency law, which had been in force for the better part of the last 40 years, many onerous restrictions remained in place and the parliament passed new legislation codifying official powers that appeared to reproduce provisions in the emergency law.

There were no notable human rights advances in the region in 2021. Instead, many violations and systemic problems continued, to which the following examples attest:

  • Mass incarceration of individuals on political grounds remained a significant problem, with serious social repercussions in several countries. Among the worst was Egypt, which continued to hold some 60,000 political prisoners; Ramy Shaath, an Egyptian-Palestinian activistwho recently arrived in France after two and a half years in an Egyptian prison, says that “arbitrary detentions and arrests” account for “the majority” of prison inmates there. Torture and other forms of abuse remain endemic throughout the region.
  • Crackdowns on civil society expanded, as countries continued to impose major financial and operational restrictions on civic organizations and to intimidate civil society activists for challenging or questioning government policies on a wide range of issues.
  • Transnational repression, in which countries target dissidents abroad and/or their families at home for intimidation (or worse), was a feature of several Middle East countries’ foreign policy, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt.
  • Suppression of online activists, monitoring of digital expression, and concerted government efforts to seize control of electronic space have also become major features of “adaptable authoritarianism” in the Middle East. More than half of the nations in the region have enacted cybercrime laws that criminalize a vast array of political expression, and many of these countries cooperate to surveil, intimidate, and, if necessary, arrest each other’s dissidents.
  • New possibilities for Arab-Israeli relations created by the Trump Administration’s Abraham Accords have also opened up new opportunities for repression, as security ties between the Gulf states and Israel expand. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have employed the notorious Pegasus spyware made by Israel’s NSO Group to surveil rights activists; Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco have used it to monitor and harass human rights defenders and journalists as well. This confluence of security interests also has a diplomatic dimension: Israel and its Arab partners have a mutual interest in opposing Islamist movements and maintaining stability through autocratic rule, thus spurring them to make common cause against pressure from Washington on human rights and democratization.

Failures of US and European Governments

The Biden Administration so far has been reticent about the very human rights violations it promised to call out. Biden himself personally promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” both for its destructive war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden also said there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’”—President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

But the administration has not fulfilled either pledge with any consistency.

The Biden Administration so far has been reticent about the very human rights violations it promised to call out.

It did withdraw US support for the war in Yemen, halting export of some offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, and put regional arms sales under review. But after a brief pause, most arms sales resumed to Egypt and the kingdom, as well as the United Arab Emirates. The administration refused to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the Khashoggi murder, instead imposing visa bans on 76 other lower-ranking officials, thereby drawing heavy criticism from human rights groups.

Promises to hold the Sisi regime to account also fell short. A US-Egypt “strategic dialogue” in November 2021 concluded with a statement reaffirming the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised  Egypt’s new national human rights strategy as a step forward—although it is undoubtedly aimed at deflecting foreign criticism of Egypt’s record while limiting the very rights it professes to protect.

The administration split the difference on releasing a $300 million tranche of military assistance that was subject to human rights conditions withholding $130 million until certain human rights benchmarks had been met. To its credit, the administration said on January 28 that it would not release that portion of the aid, having evidently determined that the Egyptian government had not satisfied the benchmarks (which were not detailed publicly). While this decision was notable, because of its rarity, any effect on Cairo’s human rights policies was undermined by the announcement the same week of a $2.5 billion military sale to Egypt of C-130 aircraft and radar systems.

The European Union (EU) has likewise failed to live up to the standards it has set for itself regarding human rights in the Middle East. EU members have generally prioritized trade and amicable relations over the promotion of democratic values and human rights, especially in the turbulent years since the Arab Spring. President Emmanuel Macron of France said in December 2020, at a joint news conference with visiting President Sisi, that he would not condition arms and trade deals with Egypt on human rights concerns, preferring instead to respect Egypt’s “sovereignty” and engage in a vague “dialogue” on the issue.

In a sense, Macron’s undisguised cynicism was almost refreshing, but he is not alone in his opinion. As the European Council on Foreign Relations has reported, “European countries allow migration and security concerns to drive their relationships with governments in the region. They too often issue implicit and even explicit support for regimes – making them part of the problem on human rights.” For example, a joint bid by Egypt and the EU to run the Global Counterterrorism Forum, an organization intended to help set international global anti-terror policies, was denounced by Human Rights Watch for purposely disregarding Cairo’s abuses of human rights under cover of counterterrorism operations, as well as its use of anti-terrorism laws to arrest and silence critics.  A recent investigative report in The New Yorker highlighted Europe’s creation of a “shadow immigration system” that interdicted migrants before they could cross the Mediterranean to Europe; it involved payments to Libyan militias to detain migrants in camps under brutal conditions.

The Future Is Now

The opinions and policies of the United States and EU governments, however, may not matter that much in the end. The future of human rights and democracy in the region is more likely to end up in the hands of its citizens. Despite coronavirus restrictions, violence against demonstrators, and heightened repression, anti-government protests continued throughout 2021 in Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria. Civil unrest continues as well in Tunisia and Sudan.  Many of the protesters’ demands remain the same as they were in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring: adherence to democratic norms, effective redress of economic grievances, an end to corruption, and respect for the personal rights of individuals. These themes were repeatedly sounded in a recent survey of younger citizens in 19 Arab countries conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Asked to express their top priorities for improving conditions in their countries, respondents said “civil and political rights enshrined under the rule of law and existing alongside social justice topped the list… as well as respect for freedom of opinion and expression and the upholding of human rights.” This survey echoes the results of another conducted in 2019-2020 (and years prior) by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in 13 countries across the Arab world, which comprised interviews of over 28,000 individuals about their views regarding political, economic, and social conditions in their region.

The opinions and policies of the United States and EU governments, however, may not matter that much in the end. The future of human rights and democracy in the region is more likely to end up in the hands of its citizens.

In the minds of many Arabs, political rights appear to be inextricably linked to their personal living conditions, and both are seen as essential to their—and their countries’—well-being.  While governments typically try to de-link these, offering instead a Chinese model of economic freedoms and prosperity in exchange for political acquiescence enforced by the state’s repressive apparatus, this “authoritarian bargain” no longer holds much appeal. Citizens in the Arab region today are demanding both: human rights and democratization, coupled with economic opportunities and competent governance. regimes are, more often than not, offering neither.

This dynamic is likely to dominate Arab internal political discourse for years to come, resulting in a contest of wills between a mobilized citizenry and desperate governments seeking to cling to power (but with fewer cards to play). In the best-case scenario, this may end in peaceful transfers of power, but it appears more likely to engender extreme government violence before systemic transition occurs. Such an outcome will have serious impact on the order and stability that major powers, particularly the United States, have sought to nurture in the Middle East and North Africa for the better part of seven decades, often through friendly relations with dictators.

So how will those powers respond? Beset by their own internal political troubles, an aggressive Russia, and an increasingly assertive China, in the short term it will be all too tempting to retreat and leave the problems of the Middle East fester on their own, a risky and potentially dangerous policy choice.

Citizens in the Arab region today are demanding both: human rights and democratization, coupled with economic opportunities and competent governance. Regimes are, more often than not, offering neither.

If President Biden believes his own rhetoric, though, he will do no such thing. The Summit for Democracy, if allowed to remain as a continuing forum with standards of accountability, could serve as a means to draw international attention to democracy and governance deficits in the Arab region and encourage better performance, especially if augmented by diplomatic pressure and/or financial incentives. In this way, the summit could play something of the same role the George W. Bush Administration envisioned for its Forum for the Future. The Biden team could also work more closely with US allies in Europe to leverage their considerable political and economic ties to help foster change in the region. At the very least, the Biden Administration should make good on its own rhetoric with regard to holding prodigious human rights abusers Egypt and Saudi Arabia to account, in particular by subjecting arms transfers to more intensive scrutiny based on human rights grounds.

Do the United States and Europe truly believe human rights and democracy are essential components of stability in the Middle East? How they answer this question, through public heroic rhetoric and policy choices, will not be determinative; but it can help encourage outcomes for better or for worse. That—and the persistence of the people of the region in their own contest with regimes—will be an important factor in shaping the political future of the region in the years to come.