Justice Agenda in the MENA Regime Change

kuvituskuva, katukuvaa ja ihmisiä


The MENA is in a flux of regime changes. The Justice deficit is both a driver of change and a growing problem. There are many painful issues: poverty, skewed distribution, unsustainable development, security and (anti)terrorism, Palestine… How to build a healthy and sustainable society on shaky ground? How to cope in the immediate future? How could the (global) West learn and improve its relations with the MENA? What is the role of justice – which justice, whose justice?

Obviously, this talk cannot provide answers to all the questions. Nevertheless, they need to be borne in mind when we discuss MENA at Crossroads.1 I start with the question of how to build a healthy and sustainable society on challenged and unstable ground. I propose that Justice (the experience of justice) is one of the first conditions for building community. There are many challenges to justice in the MENA.

First, a dictatorship or a severe autocracy is a permanent state of conflict, even if latent at times. The MENA region has been governed by the same families/clans, their cosmopolitan networks, oligarchs and military men for decades, sometimes centuries. Underlying social conflict has suffocated healthy contestation, pushing activity into grey areas: crime, radicalization and extremism. Post-Arab spring, politics have narrowed down to a choice between the Islamic Brotherhood and a military-backed secular regime empowering those who control the hardware, foreign investment or underprivileged masses. Transcending the suffocating legacy requires  engagement with its background drivers in culture, tradition, history and governance structures – including the relations with the West. Within the MENA there are competing autocrats in the different co-existing – more and less – visible power structures. It is clear that the demise of a spear-head dictator such as Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi is a symbolic achievement. It does not take long to find out that he was just the very tip of the iceberg and that there are multiple icebergs too.

To point the way to a (re)constructive path, the West has resorted to its familiar justice agenda for crisis territories. It requires reforms to integrate into global free trade, which is supposed to cure anything economics-related, and electoral democracy, which is supposed to cure anything related to social inequality. This two-prong agenda involves: fundamental rights, reduced to refraining from violence against civilians’ (which is complex in internal conflicts), a rush to parliamentary elections and constitutional drafting, and the anti-fraud/corruption and anti-terrorism fight. Preaching these has helped neither Syria nor Yemen. It is a meagre contribution in light of the complicity and the political/economic/military influence of the West. From the human rights perspective, one can criticize the elective use of the human rights tools: only very few of the so-called fundamental rights are even evoked when, at home, Westerners having more or less accepted that civil and political rights are interdependent with economic, social and cultural rights and even group rights. For instance that very little of the essence of the right to vote is realized if the voter is illiterate and so blinded by hunger that a bag of rice will swing her vote.

What about rights to education, economic rights and labor rights? These are, after all, some of the most robust drivers behind the turmoil. There are not enough schools, e.g. in Egypt or Palestine; the police and the military have been called to schools to maintain order; there is no paper, no pens, not enough teachers and the kids cannot fit in but in shifts. The same is the story with the environment, e.g. the Nile water battle, that persists and leaves many slums in a worsening situation of thirst. What about transitional justice: All the political prisoners, forced disappearances, mystery deaths, beatings by the police, the eternal questions about the Palestine, the right of return, the restitution of property – when will they be addressed? The free trade+free elections-recipe does not do much to answer these questions locally or globally.

The problem is not that we in the West or our MENA dialogue partners would not recognize the conflict drivers. We have carefully combined statistics2 that show that tens of millions of people live on less than 1 USD per day; the subsistence farmers live in conditions resembling feudalism; there is an uncontrollable youth bulge combined with massive unemployment providing ample material for radicalized movements; food prices have surpassed the subsidy-capability of large countries; post-colonial class-systems and social fragmentations have produced national populations that have nil in terms of common interests; the influx of weapons to both private and public actors has multiplied after the Arab spring.


View from the Outside

From the outside, the crossroads at which the MENA finds itself seem thus: One road is paved with hard security and dictated by interests of immediate stabilization. The other is the road of controlled regime change that would produce greater stability in the long term. Although we, as observers, do not  believe in the ingredients of the short-term stability achieved through hard security measures we are terrified of further destabilization, bloodshed, and escalation involving, ultimately, the chemical, nuclear and extremist arsenals in the region. It is not only because we are such pacifists but also because the foreign investment, particularly, in the energy sector are huge, the oil, the gas and the electricity grid are important for the Americans as well as EU member states, and increasingly also for the Chinese. What would it  do to the ailing southern EU economies if the instability in their nearest growth markets would not end soon? As the foundational rationale of the Union for the Mediterranean shows, these are emerging markets of 700+ million consumers that cannot be neglected in the EU’s search for growth. The crucial issue from the external perspective is whether the West can visualize a controlled regime change and transition in the MENA.


Internal Perspective

On the inside, the crossroads seems different. Although the paths to follow cannot be clearly discerned, some signposts have been erected, such as the amorphous principle of dignity.3 For many of the people on Tahrir Square, if the MENA is at a crossroads, the crossroads is about choosing a path of dignity and getting out of years of subjugation and disgrace – internally, internationally, regionally, morally, politically, economically, culturally and socio-psychologically.

All the political suffocation, the status of a rogue state or crisis region, the human rights abuses and the economic, environmental and socio-cultural degradation are heavy burdens to carry. People feel forced to live unenlightened lives without views beyond those that can be camouflaged as religious doctrines. People are starved for experiences of positively influencing their communities and environments i.e. engaging in politics of social justice. The dignity deficit has also been driven by the following experiences of grave injustice:

(1) There is a certain media fatigue vis-a-vis Palestine but in the MENA, on the streets and revolutionary squares, Palestine remains the most frequent topic. The Palestinian question is one of apartheid4 and the MENA population cannot not think about it. The trauma, shame and the loss of dignity stem from the forced détente, co-existence and trade, customs and security relations with Israel that the West has brokered and autocrats have swallowed to serve their interests. At the present crossroads, many in the MENA imagine an opportunity to finally stop compromising on the moral and legal justice for the Palestinians.

(2) Pawn in the West’s game for global control. Many different groups in the MENA societies feel that they are played as pawns in the West’s game. We are well aware of the Islamist criticism towards the demoralized West but there are also non-fundamentalist strands critique. The higher strata of the MENA societies feel a sort of contempt of an old society towards the nouveau riche of the West. From this perspective, dignity cannot be regained before the crimes of colonialism and its heir – neo-colonialism in its political-economic varieties – are recognized, rectified and sanctioned. True self-determination and a role on the world stage are the preconditions for an experience of justice in this regard. Related to this is the revisiting of sharia as a theory of social justice and organization. What Westerners know of sharia has discounted it into a primitive code that merits little interest in solving contemporary social justice issues. For many in the MENA, this is but a further indication of Western superficiality, brutality and lack of learning.

To build a workable justice agenda one should be sensitive to both the external and internal perspectives and their intertwining in history, culture and international affairs. The dignity-deficit related issues in the internal perspectives cannot be decoded based on Western policies. For instance, the underlying understanding of what the human person is, his/her agency, role and place in the world is different when viewed from the internal and external perspectives. An agenda of human dignity and justice in the MENA cannot be forced into compatibility with the dignity and justice agenda that we have, for instance, in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. There are a number of compatibilities and shared interests, but there are no easy equivalents. To address those in the MENA who find themselves at these crossroads today with a robust but simple Eurocentric justice agenda would become part of the problem rather than the solution – through the ignorance of situational knowledge, through producing alienation or, if only, as false promises.

Outi Korhonen is a professor in the Faculty of Law in University of Turku. She obtained her doctorate at Harvard Law School. Her main area of expertise is international law.


[1] This is a shortened version of a keynote address delivered at the MENA at Crossroads colloquium in the Tampere Hall in August 2012. The author expresses her gratitude to the organizers.

[2] UNDP, The Arab Human Development Report, Human Security (2009) available http://www.arab-hdr.org/contents/index.aspx?rid=5.

[3] See Shalakany and Dahshan in NYT blog-spots (dignity) during Tahrir; also Singh, J., And free flows the Nile, Aljazeera.net (18 Feb 2011 08:06 GMT) (last visited 19 Feb 2011) available at http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion.

[4] Tilley, V. (ed.), Occupation, colonialism, apartheid? A reassessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law (Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, 2009).