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Transitional Justice Elusive in Arab Spring Nations

Egyptian riot police take up positions outside the building where former president Hosni Mubarak is being tried in connection with the killing of Arab Spring protesters.
When Arab Spring revolutionaries took to the streets more than two years ago, they might not have had issues like reparations, truth-seeking or accountability on their minds, but among the ideals that motivated many of them was a hunger for justice.

Legal experts often call the process transitional justice and define it as the redress citizens seek for injustice or human rights abuses they or others sustained at the hands of a former repressive regime or as a result of conflict.

By definition, transitional justice can come only after a regime change, or a cease fire of some kind.

In the case of Arab Spring revolts, some authoritarian regimes did fall and new governments took their place, but overall, the changes most revolutionaries had hoped for have not happened.

Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international relations at George Washington University, says transitional justice is necessary for a country and its people to move forward.

Brown says transitional justice includes the prosecution of offenses committed under former regimes, reparations for victims, the establishment of truth commissions and the implementation of reforms in both the judiciary and law enforcement sectors.

These mechanisms have helped South Africa, the former Yugoslavia and countries in Latin America establish political stability and launch the economic development they needed to move ahead toward democracy. Legal and political experts say these steps have played a large part in addressing civic grievances, reconciling adversarial groups and building or restoring public trust in government.

Among the Arab Spring countries that have seen regime change are Egypt, Libya and Yemen, but the experts say none of them have fully implemented transitional justice mechanisms.

In a recent presentation before Egypt’s upper legislative chamber, the Shura Council, Appeals Court Judge Adel Maged spoke about the importance of transitional justice but said few, if any, took his words to heart.

“If there was a real political will, Egypt could have avoided the current political polarization and abuses of human rights after the revolution,” Maged said.

After the revolution that forced Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, Egyptian courts have put the long-time leader on trial for his alleged involvement in the killing of protesters during the uprising, and for using his position of power for personal financial gain. The trial has been going on for more than a year now as prosecutors struggle to produce solid evidence against the former president.

Claudio Cordone, Middle East/North Africa program director at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, says justice in Egypt leaves much to be desired.

“There have been many more trials of protesters and dissidents than of police officers and others who were involved in the repression,” Cordone said. “The trial of Mubarak was criticized for going after only a few people and perhaps not with the best of evidence.”

Cordone also said he is not convinced that Libya is moving in the right direction either.

“The biggest immediate challenge [in Libya] is that thousands of detainees remain held by various [revolutionary] armed groups,” Cordone said. “We find it problematic [as] a law was passed granting amnesty to revolutionaries who had committed crimes.”

Rays of hope

Cordone is more optimistic about Yemen, where he says positive steps are being taken. He noted that Yemen’s new government is considering a draft law to establish a truth commission that would look into abuses committed by the past regime and to set up a reparations program for victims.

A woman waves a Tunisia flag during a rally to protest against religious and political violence in Tunis, Oct. 22, 2012.
A woman waves a Tunisia flag during a rally to protest against religious and political violence in Tunis, Oct. 22, 2012.
The Tunisian government, too, has taken the first tentative steps toward a transitional justice strategy, he said.

“The Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice launched a process of consultation at the national level asking people what they think should be done in terms of truth, reparations, criminal justice and institutional reform, with the idea of drafting legislation that defines these measures.”

Challenges ahead

Still, some experts say even countries that implement transitional justice mechanisms will inevitably face challenges.

Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, says Tunisia could be an example of that.

“Remnants of the old regime remain opposed to transitional justice, trying to prevent the unveiling of the truth, and escape punishment of abuse and corruption perpetrators,” Masmoudi said. “The other important challenge is time. The victims of the past are asking for recognition, reparation, and persecution of the culprits immediately.”

If all goes well, Masmoudi says Tunisia could become a model for post-Arab Spring nations. He noted that authorities in Tunisia have so far been able to avoid the political polarization found in Egypt by taking their time to write a functioning constitution that is based on popular consensus.

“The Tunisian Constituent Assembly would vote on each article separately, and then would vote on the entire constitution as a package with at least two-thirds of the vote to be adopted,” he explained. “Tunisia planted the seeds of a comprehensive transitional justice process with the blessings of political parties, civil society and ordinary people.”