After decades of authoritarian rule, any opportunity for a popular election in Egypt should be a moment to celebrate. But today’s national parliamentary election, while representing another step toward democracy, is also one that comes with significant concerns.
In this season of uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, governments consider even poetry subversive. Now a young Bahraini student is looking at a year in jail for reading a poem criticizing the Bahraini king.
Ayat al-Qarmezi, 20, a poet and student was convicted by a military court after an unfair trial. She was charged with taking part in illegal protests, disrupting public security and publicly inciting hatred toward the regime. She was arrested in March for reading out a poem at a pro-reform rally in the capital Manama.
The poem’s lyrics include the lines:
“We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery/ Don’t you hear their cries, don’t you hear their screams?”
She was forced to turn herself in to the authorities on March 30 after masked police raided her parents’ house repeatedly and reportedly threatened to kill her brothers unless she did so.
Watching President Obama deliver a major speech today on the Middle East is a reminder that even major speeches go only so far: It’s what follows them that really counts.
Certainly there was something to like about some of the rhetoric: Obama specifically pointed to the government of Bahrain, a US ally, and told it to embrace political change and to release political prisoners. “You can’t have dialogue when parts of peaceful opposition are in jail,” he said.
Likewise, his call for peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine based on 1967 borders could shake up failed negotiations.
But the rhetoric on human rights and democracy was strong two years ago when the president spoke in Cairo. To many human rights activists in the region, the Obama Administration has spent the past two years failing to live up to that rhetoric in the region and being behind the curve of the Arab Spring.
When demonstrations broke out in Bahrian urging political reform, first the government’ s security forces went after protesters. Then they went after the doctors, nurses and other health professionals who treated the injured protesters.
Now they’re going after the health professionals who are speaking out against the security forces’ actions.
Even to long-time observers of Middle East human rights issues, the attacks on health professionals to prevent them from treating injured patients is surprising, a sign of the extent to which the governments are willing to respond to the Arab Spring by going after even the most fundamental of rights.
The Syrian government has once again responded to peaceful protests with bullets and armor. Amnesty International insists that the government halt its attacks and allow its citizens to fulfill their rights under international law to peaceful demonstrations.
The protests in Syria to demand political reform started on March 15, 2011, and scores of people have since been injured or killed. President Bashar Assad promised that he would reform the political system, but these promises remain hollow as the brutal crackdown on protesters and political critics continues.
The Syrian government has long imposed severe penalties on those demanding for political reform. Government critics are often detained for prolonged periods, or sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials. Torture and other ill-treatment is common, often committed with impunity.
The protests in Syria began in the town of Dera’a, where residents had asked, among other political demands, for the release of more than 30 children, many only 10 years old, detained for several weeks after being accused of writing “the people want the fall of the regime” on a wall.
One of the first acts taken by Hosni Mubarak when he became Egyptian president in 1981 was to release numerous political prisoners. Amnesty International applauded him but called on the new president to rein in Egyptian security forces and to dismantle the system of administrative detention.
Thirty years later, as Mubarak himself faces criminal charges in Egypt, Amnesty International renews its old call to rein in the security forces and to end the crippling extrajudicial legal system that facilitates torture, punishes political activists and ordinary Egyptians alike and has muzzled a once-vibrant civil society for decades.
This is a moment for fundamental change. It demands immediate concrete steps from the authorities so that those responsible for serious human rights violations are held to account. Egyptians must see justice done for the human rights abuses of the past.
Egypt workers were on the move this weekend, with significant ramifications we hope for the future of human rights in that country.
Just weeks after a court order forced the government to implement a new council intended to ensure workers receive a living wage, workers across the country went on strike and showed again that after years of muzzling civil society, the government has failed to stop opposition voices.
More must be done. It’s not enough that the government enforce minimum wage laws. The government must also, Amnesty International says, lift restrictions on the creation and functioning of independent workers’ unions.
“The authorities must mark International Workers’ Day by announcing sweeping legal and institutional reforms to promote and protect labor rights, including by allowing for workers to organize freely and form unions,” said Amnesty International in a statement this week.
“Setting up and enforcing a system to ensure a fair minimum wage, one which ensures that all workers and their families are guaranteed decent living conditions, is a necessary first step to realizing labor rights, as provided by the Egyptian Constitution, the Egyptian Labor Law and in accordance with Egypt’s international obligations.”
Egyptian authorities have in recent years attempted to orchestrate all union activity. Even in recent weeks, the Mubarak regime has thwarted efforts to create a Pension Holders Union independent of the government.
After decades of this kind of dance between government and workers, two things stand out: Egyptian workers are capable of standing up for their rights, and when they do, the government will offer concessions. What reform that has come to Egypt in the past 40 years has come from the work of activists in Egypt.
You can read Egyptian voices discussing the weekend protests on Twitter here. Several videos from Egyptians supporting the protests can be found on Vimeo here.
Abdallah Abu Rahme is affable and articulate. Last July, when I called to set up a time to talk before one of the weekly protests in his village, Bi’lin in the occupied West Bank, he made jokes and explained exactly the best way to get there from Jerusalem through all the checkpoints and roadblocks.
Abdallah’s vocation is teaching, but what takes up a good portion of his time is his involvement with the village’s non-violent popular committee which protests the wall/fence built by Israel that snakes through the occupied West Bank (WB). Israel says the wall is being built for security reasons; others that the wall is simply strangling villages’ economies by cutting them off from their agricultural lands and water sources.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the wall is illegal where it sits on Palestinian territory and should be removed. Eighty percent of the wall is built on Palestinian territory, but five plus years later, most of the wall continues to sit and be built on Palestinian land. Popular committees have sprung up across the WB to protest the wall and over the past 18 months, there appears to be an increase in the harassment and prosecution of activists involved in this and other non-violent actions.