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Transitional Justice in the Arab World

Transitional Justice in the Arab World

Photo Credit: Amr Nabil/AP

The Arab Spring, or rather the Arab Uprising, has made history.  Future generations will study this brave series of uprisings as a new chapter in the history of the Middle East-North African (MENA) region. Current generations are both proud and anxious as they watch history unfold before their eyes. Governments throughout the world are worriedly adjusting their policies towards this region as they well understand that the Arab Uprising has simply altered the realities of this region. While this uprising has led to regime change in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (with the intervention of NATO), countries like Syria are confronted with worsening sectarian conflicts and a dictator that simply refuses to step down. Regardless of the specific characteristics and outcomes of each of these settings, there remains one reality in common: the people’s quest for justice.

Today, the world is in awe of the emergence of new regimes in the Arab world. Experts and analysts continuously assess the degree and likelihood of the coming about of robust democracies in the region. Cultural relativists argue in favor of localized and, if necessary, minimalistic democratic systems that while observe free and fair elections, differ to adjust matters of civil liberties and the source of the law according to the Islamic traditions of countries confronting the Arab Uprising. Others worry that unless the new governments constitute democracy in its full existence, the outcome of the Arab Uprisings will lead to a new round of politically corrupt regimes. And, there are some who worry about the deteriorating economic conditions in these countries thereby prioritizing a short-cut to stability over other factors involved in the process of regime change and transitional justice.

Regardless of how concerned the world and the new leaders are with the urgency of stability, neglecting the necessity of a healthy system that constitutes comprehensive transitional justice will simply lead to generational hostility, resentment and conflicts. As the nations of discussions exit three or so decades of dictatorship, it is vital to initiate and facilitate national truth and reconciliation discourses aimed at acknowledging and confronting the sinister past. This process ought to be done above and beyond the ideology and agenda of winning political parties and candidates such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In other words, these reconciliation processes should not aim at condemning the past crimes to only legitimatize the current ruling parties. Rather, a robust and objective truth and reconciliation process will in turn add to the legitimacy of the ruling system facilitating this space for national dialogue.

We have already begun to see the advent of transitional justice in Egypt with the trial of Hosni Mubarak and his sons. With all their imperfections, events such as this trial are steps in the right direction. However, it is not only the legality of the matters that needs attention. It is equally vital to facilitate an ongoing procedure adjacent, but not only restricted, to the law through which victims and perpetrators are confronted with their difficult collective and personal past—the acknowledgment of which is necessary for the constitution of a healthy, peaceful and sustainable democracy.

Scholars favoring the urgency of transitional justice such as Nenad Dimitrijevic in “Justice Beyond Blame” argue that “different processes of obtaining knowledge, seeking recognition and, institutionalizing acknowledgement about the true nature and consequence of the misdeeds from the close past are necessary for democracy.” In explaining the contributions of this process, he highlights three attributes: (1) moral, political, and legal disassociation from the crimes of the previous regime; (2) establishment and stabilization of a new democratic legitimacy; and (3) creation of the basis of civil normality and justice after the period of barbarism.

All the aforementioned three attributes of transitional justice are, arguably, of high relevance in the post-Arab Uprising world. In addition to these attributes, there is one particular characteristic that the Arab Uprising contexts have in common: a significant young population. These youths are energized by the revolutions that took place with their determination and are anxious to experience a real change. Patience has never been the strength of the youths and the Arab youths are no exception to this reality. Therefore, the new governments will naturally continuously face the demands and frustrations of the youths who could turn into furious and resentful segments if their vision for change is not met in the near future. As such, facilitating a national dialogue for truth and reconciliation is fundamental to helping the young revolutionaries of the Arab world to overcome their sense of resentment and retaliation and to channel the negative sentiments of the past towards building an inclusive social, political and economic system with democratic values.

To do this, new governments should begin to look for lessons from countries such as South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and many others that have undergone the process of truth and reconciliation in the aftermath of apartheid, “dirty wars”, coups, civil wars, and genocides. While the experiences and characteristics of each society differ from the next, there are important lessons, that if appropriately contextualized, could serve as guidelines for the new governments of the Arab world. Similarly, countries and governments that have experienced transitional justice and reconciliation should step up to share their understanding of the process and its relevance with today’s Arab world. In fact, once the new governments settle into their routines, the international community should assist the emerging political and judicial systems in the Arab world to go beyond criminal procedures against the perpetuators of the past regimes, and to simultaneously create appropriate national reconciliation spaces that encourage dialogue about the crimes of the past.

One might think that mass uprisings and victorious revolutions suffice in helping a nation overcome its past. Nevertheless, nations that have experienced revolutions could attest to the fact that reconciling with a brutal past is indeed a long and fragile process that requires continuous national dialogue and acknowledgement of the true nature and consequences of atrocities committed by the former regimes.

Background Research Sources:

(1) Nend Dimitrijevic, “Justice Beyond Blame: Moral Justification of (the Idea of) a Truth Commission”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol 50, No. 3, June 2006, pp. 368-382

(2) Mistry, Hemi, “Transitional Justice and the Arab Spring”, Chatham House, 1 Feb. 2012: <>



Azadeh Pourzand

Currently a program manager at an international development institution focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region, Azadeh holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and an MBA from the Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The editor-in-chief of Women's Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2009-2010, her writings have appeared in places such as International Herald Tribune, CNN International and the Huffington Post.

Born and raised in Iran, in the past years she has worked and studied in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, China and the Netherlands and India. While in India, she worked at a Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, where she co-authored a comprehensive policy paper that explored India's view of the Arab uprisings.

Azadeh is the founder and president of a start-up organization (The Siamak Pourzand Foundation), promoting freedom of expression for artists, writers, journalists and creative minds in Iran and beyond.