Conclusions of CIHRS 23rd Regional Forum: Prospects of Reform in the Arab Region in Post COVID-19 Realities

In Annual Regional Forums, Human Rights Extending Program by CIHRS

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies convened the 23rd Forum of the Human Rights Movement in the Arab region between August 31- September 7, bringing together over 50 human rights defender, civil society activist, and academic expert from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Germany, France, the UK, Belgium, and the United States.

The sessions of the Forum, which were held separately online, addressed the prospects of reform in different Arab states across the region on the eve of COVID-19 and its future impact. The papers of the Forum will be published in an ebook by CIHRS.

The following are the main conclusions of the Forum:

  • The structural challenges to governance across the Arab region are likely to exacerbate in light of the strain produced by the COVID-19 crisis.
  • The first wave of the Arab Spring witnessed in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and the second wave witnessed in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, were ruptures caused by Arab rulers’ resistance to genuine reform and blocking of channels of peaceful change for several decades.
  • The ruptures of the Arab Spring, and the different reactions to them by Arab rulers, political elites, and international and regional powers, led to disparate scenarios: Tunisia witnessed a political transition, Egypt faces a more brutal autocratic regime, while Syria, Yemen, and Libya risk state collapse amidst civil conflicts.
  • The grievances behind the Arab Spring remain unaddressed. The civil conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, regardless of how and when they end, will unlikely result in reformed states with better economic opportunities and political freedoms. Egypt’s trajectory since 2013 produced economic and political outcomes far worse than the conditions before 2011. The political and economic elites in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine continue to obstruct the political and economic aspirations of their peoples, while Israeli apartheid remains a primary contributor to the suffering of Palestinians. Tunisia faces existential economic challenges while Algeria and Sudan are going through delicate processes of transition. The COVID-19 crisis will very likely exacerbate those conditions and produce a rupture far greater than those of the Arab Spring unless genuine reform takes pace; a possibility in some Arab states, albeit an unlikely one for most of them.
  • Despite that the United States and many European governments, have over the past decades been vocally supportive of democracy, human rights, and reform, they played an active role in keeping Arab regime’s in their places. Their gradual loss of interest in the Arab region will likely accelerate given the pandemic and its effect on their economies. Most Arab regimes, in turn, will be far less able to uphold the decades-old bargain of providing government jobs, security, and services in exchange for absolute public acquiescence.
  • In the period after the first and second waves of the Arab Spring, entrenched political elites had an impact on enacting reforms and navigating transitions, such as the case in Tunisia, where reformists from the Ben Ali regime played a positive role. In other cases, the elites’ corruption, nepotism, and incompetence constituted a major impediments to reform, such as the case in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. The role of elites in transitioning countries (Algeria and Sudan) will be a potentially decisive one, especially in light of the heavy legacy of authoritarianism thorough the past decades.
  • COVID-19 had a demobilizing effect on some mass protests, as was the case in Lebanon and Algeria, however in Sudan mass mobilization persisted despite of the pandemic and managed to acquire concessions from the military wing of the transitional authorities. In some contexts, mass mobilization proved to be one of the most influential drivers of reform and a guarantor of its sustainability. The Hirak in Algeria and mobilization in Sudan remain to be the greatest points of strength to both peoples.  
  • International and regional powers continue, one way or another, to hold varying degrees of influence over how ruptures unfold. The West’s relative inaction in face of human rights and humanitarian crimes (in Egypt and Syria) emboldened the authoritarian rulers of both states. The indecisiveness, and occasionally conflicting goals, of Western states exacerbated the unraveling of Libya and Yemen. Russia’s military support to Bashar al-Assad and Khalifa Hiftar were key to the protraction of the conflicts in Syria and Libya. Through direct military interventions or financing counterrevolutionary actors, regional players, including some Gulf states, Iran, and Turkey have seized the vacuum and consistently acted as spoilers, cutting off the way to reform in many Arab states across the region.
  • COVID-19 will likely accelerate the ongoing shifts in the global order and great powers competition, especially in light of its potentially severe effect on global trends of trade. This, along with the expected medium and long-term trajectory of global demand on oil, may fundamentally alter the policies of regional and international powers in the region. Intervening regional powers (Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) may intensify their interventions, actively seek ending the ongoing armed conflicts (Yemen, Libya, Syria), or put an end to their financial support to their allies (Egypt, Libya, Syria).
  • Theoretically, transitional justice, as a technical set of steps including its economic, political, and psychological dimensions, could serve as a nation building tool in post conflict and post authoritarian settings. However the political and realistic actualization of transitional justice remains extremely challenging given the balances of power between different actors and the relative inability of civilian actors to work together.
  • The fluidity of the current context offers an opportunity for human rights to serve as a unifying force and a common goal for different local actors as means to establish a post-authoritarian and post-conflict orders. Arab diaspora, human rights defenders, and civil society activists in exile could play an active role, especially when it comes to mobilizing the international community.
  • Civi society may be well-positioned to explore new ways and mechanisms to push for reform in some post-conflict and post-authoritarian settings. However, playing such role necessitates overcoming their biggest challenge: develop the ability to organize and form shared visions to pursue such goal.

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