Because we can: Stability at the expense of human rights

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‘Because we can’ is a series of articles by the author on human rights and political freedoms. 11 years since the turn of the century, how are we doing in the struggle to uphold the concept of  ”human rights” across the world? We can ask these questions Because we can.

The last few weeks have had the world transfixed on North Africa. The results of protests and riots has resulted in one ousted dictator, with another at the time of writing hanging by a thread and talk of political reform is appearing all over the Middle East. Is this the time for democrats to push their agenda for democracy and it’s institutions such as the rule of law and a respect for human rights?

Egyptians along with other peoples in the Middle East have been ruled by autocratic regimes for a very long time. The last 30 years Egypt has been ruled by a single man, Hosni Mubarak. As with other autocratic states in the middle east, the process of economic improvement alongside stability and then followed by stagnation has been the norm. The crucial part of this process is stability.

How then is stability achieved in these regimes? I would say the answer is fear. Fear, achieved through torture, disappearances, a lack of information to the people due to political repression and total domination of private and public life by the security forces. Like in Egypt, these states are in “states of emergency” established by their leaders. While we consider these to be jolly nice places to holiday, life here can be a nightmare if you think anything different from the status quo.

Political repression and the abuse of human rights can only get you so far however. If you are an autocratic regime like Egypt (or even a totalitarian regime like Saudi Arabia) you need the support of the most supposedly free, open and liberal country in the world: The United States of America. This is a country which also has very strong interests in the region, such as oil, post-war Iraq, Israeli security and a nuclear Iran. Such interests are helped or hindered by the amount of stability in the region.

While the scale of these protests is new, there have been numerous attempts at trying to install democratic regimes in Egypt. There have been long running movements such as the Kifaya, Palestinian solidarity movements and opposition groups opposed to the Iraq war but these have always been brutally oppressed. In response, we may say that this isn’t our problem. We shouldn’t be worried about it because it isn’t our business to be involved in internal matters regarding other countries. I would agree that this is correct, but in reality these are events that the West has very strong influence over.

When former president George Bush started talking about democracy promotion in his State of the Union speech in 2002, he acknowledged that the United States had “privileged stability over democracy” in allowing and supporting authoritarian regimes. “Flowering democracy” was an idea which had heavy influence among neo-Conservatives in Washington. Was this the time for peoples of the Middle East to rejoice that their time for human rights and the rule of law had finally come? Unfortunately this was just rhetoric.

When Mubarak was asked to comply with these “demands” of democratisation, he did so in ways we would not call “democratic”. The opportunity for people to take part in the political process and improve their rights was folly. For a start, candidates in the election had to be approved by Mubarak’s parliamentary majority. The election also took place on a regional basis, which is a handy of way of trying to control which results win and where.

However, something interesting developed out of this election – the Muslim Brotherhood, a group recently shouted about in the news. Mubarak allowed this group to stand in regional elections for the specific reason they were seen as a fundamentalist group. By allowing this group to stand, Mubarak sent a very clear message to Washington at the time. If you want democracy, these fundamentalists will get in power and this will be a major headache for you. Since then, democracy promotion was “De-prioritised” on the agenda for the Middle East. The recent headlines and almost “reluctant” stance given by the United States on the build up of the protests now give a strikingly clear image…

…This image is that stability; not democracy, comes first. We again have an example of where human rights are not part of the calculus of cost-benefit decisions made by national leaders. If the United States and other countries such as the United Kingdom had really wanted to promote human rights, evidence in the curtailment of arms sales to such countries or blocking financial aid through sanctions could happen. It is startling to see that instead, we have American made Abram tanks pointing their guns at protestors.

It is naive to expect that we will have fully functioning “democracies” sprouting up all over the Middle East. What may be more realistic in a transition is to ask or pressure our leaders to say to powers in this region that they must observe and respect human rights for their citizens. What we have here is not an opportunity to force democracy onto the Middle East, but rather an opportunity to say that ensuring the protestors have their human rights respected can be a stability.

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