Arab Spring: no such thing as ‘part-freedom’

by - 2nd March 2012

In Geneva on Monday UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay spoke at the opening of the new session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The 47-person council under the presidency of Uruguay listened as Ms Pillay observed:

‘People are demanding freedom: freedom from fear, and freedom from want. They are demanding respect of the rule of law, including in the economic sphere, and full participation in decisions that affect their lives.’

No one who has been alive over the last twelve months could doubt the truth of her words. Our screens have been filled with images of protest, fighting and frequently, a triumphant populous. Pictures of dictators on trial or meeting their doom satisfy our sense of justice: proof positive that, in the end, dictators get what they deserve. The problem is that, even when the trials end, the looting stops and the fresh, new government steps across the thresholds of their offices, the nature of ‘freedom’ suddenly becomes a lot less clear than before.

Take, for example, the experience of the newfound ‘freedom’ being endured by Christians and Shias across very many parts of the same Arab world whose efforts to throw off the shackles of dictatorship so captured the attention of the entire world. It has been hard to celebrate freedom from President Mubarak when post-Mubarak Egypt has been rife with incidents of violence against Christians and what appears to be a continuation of the Mubarak persecution of Shias in the country. The Egyptian online news portal ‘bikyamasr’ reported earlier in February that Shias were being detained by the police on blasphemy charges.

Egypt is not alone in this: incidents have been reported in Libya and Tunisia as well. Nor is it confined to countries of the ‘Arab Spring’ itself for it has been an ongoing problem in Iraq ever since the Allies ousted Saddam Hussein. Only yesterday the UN Special Representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, met with representatives of the Iraq Minority Council to encourage further steps towards creating an inclusive society. His words came on the back of the multiple bombings in Baghdad that left sixty Shias dead.

Nelson Mandela said, ‘There is no such thing as part-freedom.’ Those that have successfully thrown off the repression of one dictatorship have given themselves an opportunity to create something better. Of course, in any politically fluid situation when a government falls to revolution rather than the ballot box, there is always going to be rumour, accusation and counter-accusation whilst a new government is created. That said however, whatever negotiations and deals are done to create those necessary instruments of the state, those new leaders that have emerged from the chaos of the ‘Arab Spring’ need to set out their democratic stall early and effectively so their people and the watching world can see the value in what has emerged out of the bloody carnage.

Pope John Paul II said, ‘Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.’ His fellow countrymen in post-Communist Poland knew the truth of his words. Leaders and commentators around the world watching the aftermath of the Arab Spring are looking for the emergence of rulers across the Arab world that have the integrity to do what they ought. Then their countries will be truly ‘free’.