The 2018 International Human Rights Day was more of a funeral than a celebration in the Middle East. The wreckage caused by the autocratic crackdowns on the Arab uprisings of 2011 has created perhaps the worst regional human rights environment since the 1980s. But while few who work on or in the Middle East can be optimistic these days, there are reasons to believe that human rights norms are poised for a revival in the not-too-distant future.
The present situation offers few signs of such a revival. Saudi Arabia has captured the headlines over the past two months since the brazen murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi prisons are full of civil society activists, human rights campaigners, independent religious figures, and potential sources of opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The viciousness of the crackdown is directly related to the prince’s insecurity at home and the failure of his policies abroad.
However, the human rights catastrophe is not limited to Saudi Arabia. Bahrain remains unrepentant for its brutal, sectarian crackdown on the 2011 uprising. The United Arab Emirates retains an iron grip on its public sphere. Egypt is mired in perhaps the most oppressive environment since the years of president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Tens of thousands of political prisoners languish in Egyptian jails, while hyper-vigilant and capricious security services arrest a steady stream of independent voices for often minor displays of criticism. Harsh new laws governing the media and non-governmental organizations have constricted the margins of civil life.
Turkey, too, is in one of the worst human rights crises of modern times. Since the abortive coup against Recep Tayyib Erdogan in 2016, the Turkish state has undergone a systematic purge of alleged Gülenists, academics, journalists, and other critical voices. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank suffer from abuses at the hands of all parties, including Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. Yemeni suffering because of the Saudi-UAE blockade and severe Houthi rule has reached crisis levels, despite the fact that Yemeni parties reached an agreement on the port of Hodeida this week, which may improve the situation. Syrians continue to suffer war and displacement even as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime regains control over the country, and there are few signs that justice for its crimes during the conflict will be served anytime soon.
Even in the less openly abusive Arab states, the margins for political engagement have narrowed and scrutiny for human rights abuses has receded. Even more troubling, there have been open campaigns in favor of impunity, which seek to legitimize and even celebrate abusive practices rather than simply engage in them. Regimes have grown skilled at using media and online manipulation to generate nationalist support for their policies and divert external criticism.
Why would anyone see hope for human rights in this environment? The tragic trajectory of the region since those electric moments of hope in 2011 certainly chastens anyone even considering optimistic projections. But several recent events suggest that the moment of impunity may be nearing its final stages. The campaign for justice for Jamal Khashoggi has led a wide swathe of Western media to rediscover the escalating pattern of Saudi human rights abuses since the ascension of Mohammed bin Salman. The remarkable scale and endurance of the pressure on Saudi Arabia, its bipartisan backing in the United States (leading to a Senate vote on December 13 to end U.S. participation in the Yemen conflict), and the inability of Saudi propaganda to block the criticism, are all new.
The UAE’s release of British doctoral student Matthew Hedges, arrested on implausible spying allegations, came only after an unusually potent public campaign against the decision threatened to do real reputational damage. This shows that sometimes, under unusually favorable conditions, public pressure campaigns can still work against even the most impervious of targets.
There are several factors which suggest that human rights may soon return as a viable normative force in the region. The most important is the impending change in American politics. Whoever replaces Donald Trump as president of the United States is very likely to reprioritize human rights. The backlash against Trumpism is going to be fast and furious, and the next president—Republican or Democrat—will almost certainly seek to differentiate himself or herself as much as possible from the current administration. The autocrats of the Middle East who have taken full advantage of Trump’s disregard for human rights have in the process allowed themselves to become viewed through a partisan lens, and are not ready for the backlash that they may soon face.
Contempt for human rights is one of those core attributes of Trumpism that the bipartisan foreign policy community in the United States nearly unanimously rejects. Increasingly, so too is Trump’s uncritical support of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman. Since the Khashoggi killing this has been forcefully challenged by Republican stalwarts, such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker. The outlines of this post-Trump focus on reclaiming U.S. leadership on values can already be seen in the positioning of almost every plausible presidential candidate, and in the rapid rise of junior senators critical of the Saudi war in Yemen, such as Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Todd Young.
The form and nature of this post-Trump return to a discourse of American values is more likely to focus on human rights than on democracy promotion. While the next president will likely want to be seen as more committed to moral leadership, there is little appetite left (if there ever was one) in the United States for advancing true democratization in the Middle East. Focusing on human rights offers a way to reorient U.S. policy without entering controversies over democracy promotion or regime change. Everyone can likely agree on demanding that allied regimes scale back their arrests and torture of activists, ease their iron grip on media and civil society, and allow a wider margin of political opposition.
The regimes will of course aggressively resist any such pressure, but may find themselves hamstrung as they confront the reality of the political predicament they have created through their own post-2011 policies. Egypt since the 2013 coup is only the most extreme case of a wider trend in the region in which the hollowing out of political institutions has left few avenues for managing discontent. In the absence of serious domestic or external constraints, most regimes are relentlessly expanding their repression out of a profound sense of insecurity. But each incremental increase in repression only increases the likelihood of new political crises involving popular mobilization as economic hardship escalates, as civil society develops new forms of mobilization, and as the international arena grows less supportive. The underlying problems revealed by the Arab uprisings have only grown worse, and the restless, creative, and deeply unsatisfied force of Arab youth will almost inevitably seek an outlet for its frustrations.
Human rights could emerge as a useful compromise—a positive, normative set of values with indicators for which the next U.S. administration can push. Autocrats may reluctantly go along with this to avoid stronger demands. International Human Rights Day may remain a grim affair in the Middle East for the coming years, but prospects for something better may be closer than we know.