Position Paper– December 2023

The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades” was the characterization used by the White House National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, just eight days before the October 7th Hamas Incursion, to describe positive developments in the Middle East that were allowing the U.S. to focus on other regions. Ironically, this unprecedented escalation and the ensuing violence have proven this to be a stark misreading of the situation on the ground. One week was all it takes to move this lull into an all-out-war that has already dragged other regional players, albeit partially. In fact, the brutal war on Gaza has brought the Palestinian question back to the forefront of international attention and will have wide and large consequences on the middle east and the world at large.

This article endeavors to review the war’s potential fallout on democracy and human rights in the Middle East, that are already in the crosshairs of repressive governments. The political fallout of the war on Gaza and the intensifying hostilities go far beyond the starkly devastating possibility of embroiling the region in chaos and instability; it will most likely have short-term as well as far-reaching complex effects on local and national struggles for democracy and human rights all over the region. Although the war will have detrimental effects on democracy and human rights movements in the region, yet it offers opportunities for reviewing work strategies and overhauling the modus operandi altogether.

As for the detrimental effects of the war on democracy and human rights struggles in the region, the following can be included:

  1. Exacerbation of Abuses in the Time-being

Repressive governments across the region pays great attention to its international standing and heeds international public criticism, specifically from official circles within western allies, with so considerable care that they abstain from specific encroachments to avoid international condemnations. This deterrence is no longer in place so long as the onslaught on Gaza is ongoing. With all eyes literally on Gaza, repressive governments will feel empowered to suppress protest movements and opposition groups, without any fear of an international backlash. After all, scenes of violent dispersions of pro-Palestinian marches were not geographically limited to the Region but expanded to several western cities. Egypt’s assertion of its status as ‘a regional linchpin’ for example, as a recent Bloomberg report asserts, will buy the Egyptian regime western silence about its human rights record, even if in the short-term.

The ability of repressive Arab regimes to contain and devour anti-Israel street movements which took to the streets in support of Palestinians and in protest of the current carnage undergoing in Gaza will only embolden authoritarians across the region. The ethical quandary which embroils western capitals that support Israel’s atrocities under the guise of ‘the right to self-defense’, and their preoccupation with the unfolding war will resonate in the evaporation of public human-rights diplomacy and the absence of any real pressures. Under this silence, repressive measures are more likely to continue, expand and even intensify.

  • A hard blow to human rights values and rhetoric

Although the origins and early developments of the international human rights project are typically traced back to western values of liberalism and individualism, this discourse has gained traction all over the world and has been empowered by contributions from various corners the world over. This, however, doesn’t deny the fact that western governments are the most vocal advocates of human rights and democracy values in international fora and bi-lateral relations. Human rights and democracy have been one of the key normative underpinnings of the post-WWII rules-based international liberal order. They gained traction with ardent western support, and they are now under heavy fire in the public eyes due to the abholing western double-standards and unconditional support of Israel regardless of its stark violations of international humanitarian law. This will undermine efforts of the national human rights movements in the region that has normalized advocacy for western governments as the most viable means of exerting pressures on their own governments for improving human rights situation.

Any normative and/or material western support for human rights in the MENA region will be put on the back burner until the dust of bombing recedes, and even then, it is not easy to tell whether the west will recover from this ethical quandary without a much-needed substantial moral reckoning that demands a seismic shift in its unwavering support for Israel. It remains to be seen, however, whether this moral blow to western capitals will extend to reach the content of human rights and democracy values by and large.

  • A worsened situation for human rights organizations and defenders

Although national human rights movements in the region evolved in parallel to the evolution and growth of the transnational human rights movement in the late1970s and 1980s, it adopted several work strategies, independent of international support, including raising awareness; seeking alliances with like-minded policy makers in parliaments; litigation and dialogue with the ruling regimes. However, the international component of different national human rights movement across the region was present from the beginning and only gained momentum when most internal channels where blocked, accompanying the rising repression of the last decade.

The human rights movement in the region is highly dependent on foreign funding and support. A substantial part of this fund comes from western governmental programs. These organizations receiving such fund are now in a difficult situation; will they continue business as usual with western governments which turn deaf ears to the suffering of the Palestinian people. In light of these governments’ unwavering support for Israel, will they impose certain restrictions on the discretion of the recipient organizations in addressing the war and the accompanying atrocities? will democracy and human rights NGOs across the region review or even suspend, their programmes that are supported by western governments? All these questions bode ill for the functioning and operation of human rights organizations and defenders across the region.

  • Weakening the rules-based international liberal order

The paralysis of the international community, represented mainly in the UN, in effectuating even the slightest humanitarian influence by letting aid into Gaza Strip is further compounding the effects of this war on democracy and human rights, two of the key underlying values of the current rules-based world order. This will solidify voices already questioning the truthfulness and influence of the rules-based international order that followed the WWII and attest to its expected demise.

The Chinese and Russian defiance of the western support for Israel and their much favorable positions to the Arab publics will further the rapprochement of the already estranged political classes across the region with the Chinese and Russian models, which will have its own detrimental effects on democracy and human rights across the region. Losing faith in the international community in this case is supplanted by an increased admiration of Russia and China, for the two did not shy away from defying the unconditional western support for Israel. The current episode of escalation has presented China and Russia with a priceless opportunity to reaffirm their support for their allies in the region. Both China and Russia have vetoed the American Draft Resolution tabled before the UN Security Council that affirms Israel’s right to self-defense. Additionally, the Russian draft resolution, backed by China and only blocked by the American Veto, called for a ceasefire without condemning Hamas. These symbolic overtures only bring disillusioned Arab political elites closer to the Russian and Chinese models, and further away from the ‘hypocritical’ west, that preaches human rights, and yet support Israel’s atrocities in the Gaza Strip.

To look at the glass-half-full, the current crisis provides valuable lessons for democracy and human rights organization across the region, and offers them an opportunity to revisit their working strategies and fine-tuning their techniques. The following can be enumerated:

  1. People support can sway official postures

The crisis has asserted the importance of popular support among western audiences in changing official positions. When official circles of various western capitals remained silent on Israeli atrocities in Gaza Strip, the only pro-Palestinian calls came from marches on the streets of western capitals as well as some compassionate parliamentarians who are increasingly questioning their governments’ unconditional support for Israel regardless of its daily massive breaches of the laws of war.

This popular pro-Palestinian sentiment translated into a more cautious position among western governments which gradually started to call out Israel on its breaches of humanitarian law, and even call and work for humanitarian pauses or a cease fire to end hostilities and let humanitarian aid into Gaza Strip. Will the popular pressure translate into more than just lip-service to respecting humanitarian law is yet to be seen.

This however highlights the importance of investing in popular outreach activities with western parliamentarians and civil society organizations to grow seeds of popular support for the embroiled human rights movement. This burden will lie with diaspora organizations who are closer to the western street and civil society. Western and International human rights organizations are natural allies of such effort. After all, it was international human rights organizations, the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights watch, that remained true to their values and demanded an end to the war on Gaza for humanitarian reasons from the very beginning.

  • Restoring the efficacy of Arab Street

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations that took to the Arab streets will partially contribute to restoring a sense of efficacy among the Arab Public, particularly in countries with tight restrictions on the public sphere, and in particular on street movement. The merge between pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel and anti-regimes chants, that was witnessed in Egypt for example, and the apparently young ages of a substantial portion of demonstrators questions, if not outright invalidates, the widespread presumptions about increased political alienation and apathy of the Arab publics, especially young generations. This stresses the importance of investing in generation Z, which started to engage with public concerns and is expected to assume leadership within this or the following decade.

  • The UN is not Irrelevant after All

As the whole world watched the UN security council paralyzed towards the war on Gaza for over 30 days, and with the continued non-compliance with its recent resolution 2712, demanding “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors” in Gaza for “a sufficient number of days”, some would suggest the UN is an outmoded relic of a fast-changing international order.  Nonetheless, the UN remains relevant on so many fronts, not least coordinating humanitarian response. UNRWA has been pivotal for establishing safe shelters for tens of thousands of internally displaced Palestinians inside Gaza. Its hospitals and schools provided much needed support for the injured and those fleeing bombardment. The UN Secretary General and other UN top-echelon officials have been vocal critics of Israel’s breaches of international humanitarian law and have been pressing for a humanitarian cease fire, only a couple weeks after the outbreak of war. This only asserts that UN Agencies, other that the security council, can escape complixities of realpolitik and provide much needed help, whether that be in humanitarian response, documenting atrocities, or pressing governments to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law.


It remains to be said that the current war will not only have repercussions on democracy and human rights standards across Middle eastern countries; it is already posing important questions in the west about the conflated line between legitimate criticism of Israel and Antisemitism and the corollary limitations and self-censorship that result from this conflation. People across western countries are penalized for showing empathy for Palestinian lives or criticizing actions of the Israeli government; they are losing jobs and having their career opportunities cut short because of their opposition to the violence in Gaza.

The war also poses important questions about the tainted news coverage of the war across western media outlets and how this would negatively affect their credibility in both western and non-western eyes, especially that relatively open social media platforms, like twitter and others, have broken the monopoly of traditional media outlets on narrative development. Censorship of content across other social media platform, most particularly Facebook, also poses important questions about a social media governance scheme that respects freedom of expression and in the same time doesn’t incite violence, hatred or discrimination.