UCSB’s Distinguished Alumni Award winner for 2012, Peter Bouckaert, and a Moroccan prince third in line to the throne, Prince Moulay Hicham, stopped in Santa Barbara to discuss the Arab Spring and their work for the watchdog organization Human Rights Watch (HRW). As media outlets have closed many of their foreign bureaus to cut costs, Human Rights Watch researchers have filled some of that void. Bouckaert explained to UCSB students there was no substitute for “real-time, on-the-ground investigations.”
As Bouckaert told a captive audience at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort for an HRW fundraiser:
“I had the privilege to be present at the first Friday protests in Egypt. The night before, the government had shut down the internet and mobile phone network, and arrested many activists. We watched in the city of Alexandria as the people came out of the mosques and began protesting, raising their hands to the police and shouting “selmiya, selmiya” [peaceful, peaceful]. They were immediately and viciously attacked by the police. We saw people killed in front of us.” Despite the police brutality, thousands more came to the streets and so began the work of documenting the crimes of the Egyptian regime.
Bouckaert said it was UCSB that guided him in this process that he initiated at Human Rights Watch when he set up the Emergencies Division he now runs. As a student activist, he headed the student lobby of the Associated Students calling for more diversity on campus and ousting then-chancellor Barbara Uehling, who later resigned. It was this experience “as an activist not as a researcher” that was critical in forming his current vision. In order to respond more effectively and immediately to human rights atrocities as they were occurring, Bouckaert set up the Emergencies Division at the organization. Their aim was “acting to save lives rather than just documenting killings afterwards,” he stressed. With links to thousands of national human rights groups across the globe, international bodies, government officials and media outlets, HRW has built an effective network to gather information and a strategy of whom to target for the maximum impact.
Both Bouckaert and Hicham see the events in the Middle East as hopeful and tremendous. For Hicham, who serves on HRW’s board and identifies himself as a “liberal Arab reformer” the changes were inevitable. “I’ve been saying for the last 20 years these regimes are unsustainable.” Despite the popular image in much of the Western media as the Middle East being antithetical to democracy, “We know from the Arab Spring that people in the region want democracy. It’s a universal aspiration.”
As Bouckaert explained to the Indy, “Very ordinary people who just ended up in the streets in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya Bahrain, Syria and Yemen to demand their rights and to demand not just the removal of people like [former President Hosni] Mubarak but an end to these repressive regimes.” Their goals were simple, he said, they wanted to join “the modern world” and an “end to living in fear.”
Yet many challenges lay ahead. “The façade of the Egyptian regime has been destroyed. which is the party and the Mubarak family but other than that the backbone of the regime is still there,” Hicham stated. HRW is monitoring the military detentions and trials in Egypt to ensure that the people’s home-grown aspirations are not stolen from them.
Syria presents an even bigger obstacle to stability in the region. While Syria remains closed to much of the Western media, Bouckaert and another HRW researcher traveled into the country by hiking across the Turkish border under the radar of the Syrian military that had withdrawn at the time. Using an already established in-country extensive network of contacts, Bouckaert and his colleague were “able to document what’s happening and we know it’s not an armed Islamist uprising against the government. It’s the government slaughtering peaceful protesters.”
Much of the political landscape in the Middle East has yet to be determined. If the Syrian regime falls because too many army defectors turn against the regime, what happens next? As Hicham emphasized: “Too many regional actors fear the unknown whether it’s Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia. and the US because of the Israeli dimension.”
Yet one thing is certain, the Middle East and the rest of the world watching have changed.
Hicham summarized this year’s events: “This is about universal values. There would have been no Arab spring if there weren’t the contestations of elections in 2009 in Iran. And paradoxically when that green movement [in Iran] died, it was the Arab Spring movement that energized it again. What happened in Wisconsin or what happened in Occupy Wall Street comes from the Arab Spring.”