The Arab Spring Unleashed a Wave of Torture and Abuse
Nader Hashemi is an associate professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2008. Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and his research focuses on Islamic affairs, religion and democracy, secularism, comparative politics and political theory and politics of the Middle East.
Assad’s chemical weapons attack and the subsequent U.S. missile strike on Syria jolted our world. Most of the commentary that ensued, however, was about the West.
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What was completely ignored was a connection between these attacks and the broader politics of the Middle East.
Assad’s sarin gas attack was not a sui generis event that took place in a vacuum. It is directly related to longstanding trends that help explain the region’s turmoil. Two themes stand out: 1) the extreme measures that authoritarian regimes will adopt to retain power, and 2) the severe human rights crisis facing the Middle East.
Assad’s sarin gas attack must be understood in the context of the Arab Spring revolutions. Assad’s resort to chemical weapons has been frequent; one report chronicled more than 160 chemical attacks between 2011 and 2015. The political objective in all these cases was the same: perpetuating Assad’s rule.
When the regime’s power was first threatened by a peaceful uprising in 2011, it was met with merciless brutality. By the first anniversary of the conflict, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Special Commission of Inquiry on Syria had charged the regime with state-sanctioned war crimes and crimes against humanity.
With each passing year the conflict worsened: a mass politicide was underway. The documentary record on war crimes is so comprehensive that legal experts are confident that it establishes the strongest case “since Nuremberg.” Despite this discreditable record, however, Assad is not only regional dictator to use mass violence to retain power.
Saddam Hussein adopted the same policy in Iraq. Upon seizing power, he expanded the institutions of violence and ruled the country through a combination of lies, fear, show trials and a vast network of secret police and intelligence organizations.
The Shia suffered persecution and minorities like the Kurds were harshly repressed. When they resisted, they were subjected to what Human Rights Watch called “a campaign of extermination” that amounted to the “crime of genocide.”
In 1990, Iraq ranked number one in the world for the number of disappeared people. The U.N. characterized the human rights situation in the 1990s as being “of an exceptionally grave character—so grave that it has few parallels in the years that have passed since the Second World War.”
This mass trauma deeply sullied the social fabric of Iraqi society. The state breakdown, chaos and sectarianism that resulted from the post-2003 U.S. occupation, including the rise of ISIS, cannot be understood outside of this context.
Iranian politics are also characterized by crimes against humanity. The leading conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi, who is challenging Hassan Rouhani for president on May 19, was recently identified as a member of the “committee of death.” The reference is to the execution of roughly 4,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988–the worst case of mass murder in Iran’s post-revolutionary history.
At the time, the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was the designated successor to Khomeini. Upon learning of these executions he strongly condemned the killings. He told the members of the judiciary committee who presided over the massacre: “I believe this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the  revolution and history will condemn us for it. History will write you down as criminals.”
Last summer this audio tape was leaked by Montazeri’s son, bringing this issue to public attention and directly implicating Raisi. The issue now clouds Iran’s presidential election.
There are other examples of state-directed mass violence in Iran. The persecution of Baha’isstands out, alongside extensive use of capital punishment. According to U.N., Iran executed nearly 1000 people in 2015. After China, the Islamic Republic ranks first in the world, executing more people per capita than any other nation.
Currently there are 4,500 people on death row. While most of these executions are related to narcotics, the state sends a powerful political message about its ability to control the lives its citizens, notwithstanding international protest. Egypt’s story is similar.
The July 2013 coup that brought General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power took place against the backdrop of an orgy of mass violence. Human Rights Watch described one particular event as a “likely crime against humanity” and “what may have been the worst single-day killing of protesters in modern history.”
The reference is to the Rab’a al-adawiya massacre on August 14, 2013, that killed roughly 1,000 protesters in downtown Cairo. This event marked an end to Egypt’s post-Hosni Mubarak democratic transition; it ushered in the reign of military neo-fascism. Since then, there has been a significant rise in state-sanctioned violence and political extremism across the country.
This is a mere sampling of a broader trend. Nearly every country in the region has experienced state-directed violence of varying degrees. The social cohesion in these societies has been deeply undermined as a result.
While state-sanctioned abuses have not always risen to the level of crimes against humanity, torture, mass incarceration and enforced disappearances are routine practices aimed at crushing dissent and have existed in the region for decades.
Since the Arab Spring, the authoritarian arteries of the state have hardened leading to a drastic increase in the magnitude, scope and severity of repression. The common denominator that explains this regional phenomenon is the fear of ruling elites losing power.
Discussion of the Middle East in both scholarly and policy circles has noted the region’s democratic deficit. Why is there a persistence of authoritarianism, what are its social, economic and political roots, and how can it be overcome? These are important questions.
Equally important, however, is recognizing the critical deficit exemplified by Assad’s recent use of sarin gas –the human rights deficit. This deficit has grown worse with each passing decade, nearly every country in the region suffers from it and rise of religious radicalism cannot be understood without reference to it.
Until it is acknowledged and seriously addressed, prospects for the democratic development of the Middle East remain bleak.