CAIRO — The United States and other Western governments must accept the new reality that Islamists have emerged to fill the power vacuum in the Arab world after a wave of popular uprisings, Human Rights Watch said in its annual report Sunday.
The New York-based group also urged Islamist parties, which have emerged as the biggest winners in recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt and are expected to fare well in Libya, to respect the rights of women and religious minorities, saying they cannot “pick and choose” when it comes to human rights.
Islamist parties are “genuinely popular” in the Arab world, said HRW’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, warning that “ignoring that popularity would violate democratic principles.”
“Being a political Islamic government should not be a reason to turn a government into a pariah,” Roth told reporters in Cairo, where the group released its annual report.
The Arab Spring revolts began in Tunisia in late 2010 and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, deposing or challenging authoritarian rulers as citizens who long seemed incapable or unwilling to rise against decades of repression took to the streets in a stunning awakening.
Since the collapse of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia a year ago, Islamist groups once largely confined to the political sidelines, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have formed parties and contested parliamentary polls, winning the greatest share of seats.
Even the ultraconservative Salafis, who abstained from politics under Egypt’s ousted President Hosni Mubarak, have fared well, winning more than 20 percent of the vote in the country’s first post-uprising ballot.
Roth was cautious when asked about concerns about potential human rights violations under Islamist rule. He said that so far, Islamists have said “a lot of right things,” but said the true test will be how they deal with the full sweep of human rights once in power.
“These are the big questions,” he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has been most interested in political freedoms, but Roth noted that “it is very difficult to secure political freedom if you are not respecting religious and women rights.”
In some ways, the unexpected Arab uprisings have amounted to a slap to the United States and other Western governments, which had supported autocratic regimes that served as bulwarks against Islamists hostile to the West and appeared to offer stability in a volatile region.
“The West backed an array of autocrats as long as they, in turn, supported Western interests,” Roth said. “The West is still adjusting to this historic transformation.”
He added that the wave of uprisings “show that the forced silence of people living under autocrats should never have been mistaken for popular complacency.”
Roth acknowledged Western governments were re-evaluating their policies as new governments emerge in the region.
Western nations have been accused of being selective in supporting the protesters, with NATO airstrikes proving key to the ouster of slain Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Meanwhile, the West has stood largely on the sidelines amid continued crackdowns in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
“The people driving the Arab Spring deserve strong international support to realize their rights and to build genuine democracies,” Roth said in the group’s annual report, which covers some 90 countries. He added that the Arab world is in a “transformative moment,” and it will not be an easy one.
Human Rights Watch pointed to five main issues that dominated the relationship between Western governments and their Arab autocratic friends: the threat of political Islam, the fight against terrorism, support for Israel, protection of the oil flow and cooperation in stemming immigration.
Even after the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were toppled, Western governments remained hesitant to lean too hard on other shaky authoritarian leaders, the group said. China and Russia acted “obstructionist,” using their veto power at the U.N. security council to halt pressure on Syria to stop killings of protesters.
The popular uprisings also have alarmed other repressive regimes such as China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan, where rulers were worried about facing similar fates.
“The worst response to the Arab Spring is the dictatorial world who are living in fear of the precedents set in this region,” Roth said. “China greatly deepened its repression in an effort to avoid jasmine rallies.”
Saudi Arabia also continues to discriminate against its citizens and workers, according to HRW, which said 9 million women, 8 million foreign workers and 2 million Shiite citizens are either suppressed or lacking rights in the country.
Outside the Arab world, the last year did not witness significant progress in countries with poor human rights records, including China and North Korea, according to the report.
Corruption, poverty and repression still prevail in Equatorial Guinea, the tiny, oil-rich nation off the western coast of Africa, which has been ruled by Africa’s longest-serving ruler, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the group said.
Eritrea continues to be governed by “one of the world’s most repressive governments,” and its citizens are subjected to torture, detentions and restrictions on freedom of speech, HRW said.
It also cited Colombia, saying armed conflict in the South American country has displaced millions while paramilitary groups with ties to the security apparatus are on the rise.
Cuba, HRW said, remains “the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.”
The group also claimed that even member states of the European Union have violated human rights through restrictive asylum and migration policies.