The Regression of Human Rights in the Middle East

With a high death toll in Syria, intensified sectarian strife across the region and a sharp rise in conservatism, it's easy to forget why the Arab Spring actually began.

From autocratic regimes to deteriorating press freedoms to consistent corruption, the Middle East was, for the most part, decaying.

The past decades in the Middle East saw a decline not only in literacy and culture -- Arabs comprise almost five percent of the world's population, but publish just 1.1 percent of its books, according to the U.N.'s 2003 Arab Human Development Report - but it is also the consistent regression in human rights.

When Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, it was in protest against injustice, harassment and humiliation. In Egypt, 28-year-old Khalid Said died while in police custody. It was the brutality and abuse inflicted upon him that inspired many to take to the streets. Even in Turkey, an economically prosperous country, it was aggression against protestors that prompted outrage across the country.

Even so, human rights issues have taken a back seat as the region continues to face unprecedented change. Despite protests waning, divisions plaguing opposition movements and violence intensifying, one of the biggest challenges facing the Middle East today is the declining state of human rights and the silence of so many democratic governments across the world.

From Qatar to Tunisia, artists such as poets, musicians, bloggers have been imprisoned since the revolutions.

"The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether those uprisings give birth to genuine democracy or simply spawn authoritarianism in new forms," noted Human Rights Watch in its 2013 world report on challenges for rights after the Arab Spring.

"Turning a blind eye to repression may be politically convenient but it does enormous damage to the quests for rights-respecting democracies."

Dozens of social media users have been jailed in the Gulf for posting comments on Twitter.

"I see freedom of expression as a release valve: people have those thoughts, people have those concerns, they want to articulate them and when a government takes an approach (such as jailing dissidents), what you're really doing is forcing those concerns and debate internally, it doesn't go away," said Ross LaJeunesse, global head of Google's Freedom Expression project.

After 16 years of free and unfettered access to the Internet, Jordan blocked nearly 300 news websites this month and enforced an amended press law to regulate online content. And still despite the uplifting of a public assembly law, speech related crimes or simply participating in protests could send you to State Security Court, a special body that has jurisdiction over crimes considered harmful to Jordan's internal and external security -- involving drugs, terrorism, weapons, espionage and treason.

In Egypt, 20 organizations announced the decline in the status of human rights in Egypt since Morsi took office last year -- police beatings, torture, military trials and lack of accountability.

Earlier this year, an Egyptian prosecutor charged Bassem Yousef, a comedian whose satire brings relief to many Arabs bombarded by constant images of war and violence, of maligning president Mohammad Morsi.

Morsi's office claimed the show was, "circulating false news likely to disturb public peace and public security and affect the administration."

For many decades, Arabs were denied a platform for expression and in turn they were plagued by internal fear and self-censorship. There is no doubt, after the Arab Spring, an internal barrier of fear was lifted.

I see this during labor strikes and protests, in art exhibitions and plays that tend to push previous boundaries but where it will all end remains unclear.

Western democracies continue to send a message to people in the Middle East: Security and stability trumps human rights issues. But if there is any lesson to be learned from the Arab Spring, it is indeed that human rights is security.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.

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