According to annual reports compiled by the U.S. State Department, most Arab nations are ruled by oppressive, dictatorial regimes that deny their citizens basic freedoms of political expression, speech, the press, and due process. The Arab Human Development Report, published by a group of Arab researchers from the UN Development Program, concluded that of the world's seven major geographic regions, Arab countries ranked lowest in terms of freedom, civil liberties, political rights, and independence of the media. Moreover, in most Arab countries the Shari'a, or Islamic law, defines the rules of traditional social behavior. Under that legal system, women are accorded a role inferior to that of men and are therefore discriminated against with regard to personal rights and freedoms. Below is an overview of the human rights situation in various Arab countries.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom declared that with the demise of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia is probably the worst oppressor of religious rights in the world. It is a dynastic monarchy governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Because the country has no democratic institutions, its citizens play no role in the government. Security in the country is enforced by both a secular police force and a religious police force (Mutawwa'in), the latter of which comprises the "Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice." The Saudi government has allowed both the secular and religious security forces to commit serious abuses.
Prisoners are commonly tortured and beaten by both the Mutawwa'in and officials in the Ministry of Interior. Numerous prisoners have been executed -- by means of stoning, beheading, or firing squad -- for crimes ranging from “deviant sexual behavior” to sorcery; other convicts have been punished by amputations or the loss of an eye. Prisoners are sometimes held for long periods of time without charge or trial.
In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to criticize Islam or the Royal family, a crime that can result in prolonged imprisonment without trial. Television, radio, literature, and the Internet are all heavily censored. Freedom of assembly and association are also limited, subject to regulations such as the segregation of men and women at meetings.
Women are the victims of systematic discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Domestic violence and rape are widespread problems, and women have no redress when victimized by such crimes. Nor can women travel, be admitted to a hospital, or drive a car without their husbands’ permission. Buses are segregated, and women must sit in the rear. Women not wearing an abaya (a black garment covering the entire body) and covering their faces and hair are harassed by the Mutawwa'in.
Saudi women are discriminated against as well by laws governing property ownership, testimony in court, inheritance, and child custody in cases of divorce. Comprising only five percent of the nation's work force, Saudi women find it nearly impossible to find employment in any but the lowest-level jobs. Also, female genital mutilation is practiced legally in some parts of Saudi Arabia.
All Saudi citizens must be Muslims, and only the Sunni branch of Islam can be practiced publicly; there is institutional discrimination against Shi’a Muslims. Religions other than Islam are tolerated only if practiced discreetly.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a constitutional monarchy. While direct elections are used to appoint representatives to the ineffectual 104-seat lower house of Parliament, the 40-seat upper house is appointed by the king. Virtually all governmental power is concentrated in the king, who can dismiss any representative or disband the parliament altogether. Thus, citizens of Jordan cannot change their government. Many serious human rights violations occur throughout the country and are condoned by the government.
Jordanian security forces use torture on a regular basis. It is common for prisoners to be held without charges, to be prevented from meeting with lawyers, and to be kept in unsanitary conditions; this applies also to journalists charged with “defamation,” meaning they criticized the government or the king.
Freedom of assembly, association, the press, and speech are all restricted by the Jordanian government; authors of articles critical of the government are often arrested and imprisoned. In August 2002, the Al-Jazeera television network's license was revoked for airing views critical of the government.
Women are at a distinct legal and social disadvantage in Jordan. Social security, inheritance, divorce, and testimony laws all favor men. Marital rape and wife-beating are permitted by law, and "honor crimes" (domestic violence committed against women by men who feel the women have undermined their honor by their "immoral behavior") receive minimal sentences. According to one study conducted in 2000, such honor crimes in Jordan comprised 25 percent of all the murders committed nationwide.
The Lebanese government and army do not respect human rights, and the several terrorist organizations that are headquartered within the country commit many abuses as well. Arbitrary arrests are common, and some prisoners are held for long periods of time without trials or charges. The use of torture is widespread. Many political prisoners have disappeared or died without explanation while awaiting trial.
In the areas of Lebanon controlled by the Syrian-backed militia Hezbollah, only Islamic law is applied; in the independent Palestinian refugee camps in the south, no specific legal system is empowered.
Domestic violence and rape are significant social problems in Lebanon, and they affect a large segment of the population. "Honor crimes" are illegal, but reduced sentences are applied in such cases.
While technically women can enter any profession they wish, strong societal pressure prevents most of them from doing so. Many other laws in Lebanon are based on Islamic law, and are discriminatory against women and children.
Forced labor is not illegal in Lebanon, and many foreign servants, women, and children are compelled to work against their will. Child labor in general is rampant. Child abuse, kidnappings, and even the sale of children to adoption agencies are relatively common, and are ignored by the government.
Technically, Syria is a parliamentary democracy in which officials are appointed through direct elections. In practice, President Bashar Assad wields virtually absolute power. Because of an emergency martial law that has been in place since 1963, powerful security services and militias operate independently of each other and, unimpeded by the government, commit many serious abuses.
Arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances of prisoners all occur regularly. Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian political prisoners have been held incommunicado by the government for long periods of time, as have missing Israeli soldiers captured by Syria and by Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization it backs. Prisoners captured as many as twenty years ago remain unaccounted for.
In Syria, publication of any “false information” that opposes “the goals of the revolution” is punishable by lengthy jail sentences. All press industries are owned and operated by the government.
Freedom of association is severely restricted by the Syrian government, and freedom of assembly does not exist at all.
Many financial laws, such as those pertaining to inheritance and social security, discriminate against women, and the punishment for adultery by women is twice as severe as the punishment for the same transgression committed by men. Women cannot travel outside the country without their husbands’ permission.
Freedom of religion is generally respected in Syria, with one notable exception: Jews are systematically excluded from government involvement and they lack many basic rights.
Kurds are systematically oppressed by Syria: they cannot become citizens, they have few rights, and the teaching of their language and culture is outlawed by the government.
According to its constitution, Egypt is a social democracy in which Islam is the state religion. President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party, however, exert absolute control over the political scene. An Emergency Law in effect since 1981 allows the government to arbitrarily detain persons without charge, and to regularly deny legal rights to Egyptian citizens.
Freedom of speech and of the press are guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution, but are often withheld in practice. The government owns and controls the three largest newspapers and holds a monopoly on printing and distribution. Scholars and officials who criticize the government are often imprisoned for the crimes of libel, slander, or “disseminating false information about Egypt.” Freedom of association and assembly are severely restricted.
Prison conditions in Egypt are squalid. The police routinely arrest suspects arbitrarily, often holding them for long periods of time without charge, trial, or access to a lawyer.
Domestic violence is a serious social problem in Egypt. A majority of the nation's women undergo female genital mutilation.
Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces use arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention as methods of quashing dissent. Lack of due process is prevalent in court proceedings. The PA executive and security services frequently ignore or fail to enforce court decisions.
PA security commonly closes down media outlets and bans publications or broadcasts whose reports paint the Palestinian Authority in an unflattering light, and periodically harasses or detains members of the media who are responsible for such reports.
Palestinian women endure various forms of social prejudice and repression within their society. Because of early marriage, girls frequently do not finish the mandatory level of schooling. Cultural restrictions sometimes prevent women from attending colleges and universities. Women who marry outside of the Islamic faith are often disowned by their families and are sometimes harassed and threatened with death
Adapted from "Human Rights in Arab Countries," by Mitchell Bard (Jewish Virtual Library).