MENA: Renewed wave of mass uprisings met with brutality and repression

MENA: Renewed wave of mass uprisings met with brutality and repression

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Amnesty International published MENA: Renewed wave of mass uprisings met with brutality and repression during ‘year of defiance’ on 18 February 2020. A year has now passed since Masses of Algerians surged through the capital and all other towns and villages throughout the country. It is as though nothing has happened insofar as the ruling elites are concerned. The current situation not only in this particular but all countries of the MENA is however as follows:

  • Report reviews human rights in 19 MENA states during 2019
  • Wave of protests across Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon demonstrates reinvigorated faith in people power
  • 500+ killed in Iraq and over 300 in Iran in brutal crackdowns on protests
  • Relentless clampdown on peaceful critics and human rights defenders
  • At least 136 prisoners of conscience detained in 12 countries for online speech

Governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) displayed a chilling determination to crush protests with ruthless force and trample over the rights of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to call for social justice and political reform during 2019, said Amnesty International today, publishing its annual report on the human rights situation in the region.  

Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019 describes how instead of listening to protesters’ grievances, governments have once again resorted to relentless repression to silence peaceful critics both on the streets and online. In Iraq and Iran alone, the authorities’ use of lethal force led to hundreds of deaths in protests; in Lebanon police used unlawful and excessive force to disperse protests; and in Algeria the authorities used mass arrests and prosecutions to crack down on protesters.  Across the region, governments have arrested and prosecuted activists for comments posted online, as activists turned to social media channels to express their dissent.2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived Heba Morayef

“In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for MENA.

“2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived.”

The protests across MENA mirrored demonstrators taking to the streets to demand their rights from Hong Kong to Chile. In Sudan, mass protests were met with brutal crackdowns by security forces and eventually ended with a negotiated political agreement with associations who had led the protests.

Crackdown on protests on the streets

Across the MENA region authorities employed a range of tactics to repress the wave of protests – arbitrarily arresting thousands of protesters across the region and in some cases resorting to excessive or even lethal force. In Iraq and Iran alone hundreds were killed as security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators and thousands more were injured.In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments Heba Morayef

In Iraq where at least 500 died in demonstrations in 2019, protesters showed tremendous resilience, defying live ammunition, deadly sniper attacks and military tear gas grenades deployed at short range causing gruesome injuries.

In Iran, credible reports indicated that security forces killed over 300 people and injured thousands within just four days between 15 and 18 November to quell protests initially sparked by a rise in fuel prices. Thousands were also arrested and many subjected to enforced disappearance and torture.

In September, Palestinian women in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories took to the streets to protest against gender-based violence and Israel’s military occupation. Israeli forces also killed dozens of Palestinians during demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank.

“The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for MENA. “Meanwhile, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel’s policy of using excessive, including lethal, force against demonstrators there continued unabated.” The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent Philip Luther

In Algeria, where mass protests led to the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in power, authorities  sought to quash protests through mass arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of peaceful demonstrators.

While the mass protests in Lebanon since October, which led to the resignation of the government, began largely peacefully, on a number of occasions protests were met with unlawful and excessive force and security forces failed to intervene effectively to protect peaceful demonstrators from attacks by supporters of rival political groups.

In Egypt, a rare outbreak of protests in September which took the authorities by surprise was met with mass arbitrary arrests with more than 4,000 detained.

“Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully,” said Heba Morayef. 

“Instead of launching deadly crackdowns and resorting to measures such as excessive use of force, torture, or arbitrary mass arrests and prosecutions, authorities should listen to and address demands for social and economic justice as well as political rights.”

Repression of dissent online

As well as lashing out against peaceful protesters on the streets, throughout 2019 governments across the region continued to crack down on people exercising their rights to freedom of expression online. Journalists, bloggers and activists who posted statements or videos deemed critical of the authorities on social media faced arrest, interrogation and prosecutions. Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully Heba Morayef

According to Amnesty International’s figures, individuals were detained as prisoners of conscience in 12 countries in the region and 136 people were arrested solely for their peaceful expression online. Authorities also abused their powers to stop people accessing or sharing information online. During protests in Iran, the authorities implemented a near-total internet shutdown to stop people sharing videos and photos of security forces unlawfully killing and injuring protesters. In Egypt, authorities disrupted online messaging applications in an attempt to thwart further protests. Egyptian and Palestinian authorities also resorted to censoring websites including news websites. In Iran social media apps including Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube remained blocked.

Some governments also use more sophisticated techniques of online surveillance to target human rights defenders. Amnesty’s research highlighted how two Moroccan human rights defenders were targeted using spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group. The same company’s spyware had previously been used to target activists in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as an Amnesty International staff member. 

More broadly, Amnesty International recorded 367 human rights defenders subjected to detention (240 arbitrarily detained in Iran alone) and 118 prosecuted in 2019 – the true numbers are likely to be higher.

“The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders,” said Philip Luther.

Signs of hope

Despite ongoing and widespread impunity across MENA, some small but historic steps were taken towards accountability for longstanding human rights violations. The announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that war crimes had been committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and that an investigation should be opened as soon as the ICC’s territorial jurisdiction has been confirmed offered a crucial opportunity to end decades of impunity. The ICC indicated that the investigation could cover Israel’s killing of protesters in Gaza.  The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders Philip Luther

Similarly, in Tunisia the Truth and Dignity Commission published its final report and 78 trials started before criminal courts offering a rare chance for security forces to be held accountable for past abuses.

The limited advances in women’s rights, won after years of campaigning by local women’s rights movements, were outweighed by the continuing repression of women’s rights defenders, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a broader failure to eliminate widespread discrimination against women. Saudi Arabia introduced long-overdue reforms to its male guardianship system, but these were overshadowed by the fact that five women human rights defenders remained unjustly detained for their activism throughout 2019.  Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights Heba Morayef

A number of Gulf states also announced reforms to improve protection for migrant workers including promises from Qatar to abolish its kafala (sponsorship system) and improve migrants’ access to justice. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also signalled plans to reform the kafala system. However, migrant workers continue to face widespread exploitation and abuse across the region.

“Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights. Instead of ordering serious violations and crimes to stay in power, governments should ensure the political rights needed to allow people to express their socio-economic demands and to hold their governments to account,” said Heba Morayef.

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Factbox: What became of the ‘Arab Spring’?

Factbox: What became of the ‘Arab Spring’?

In a would-be factbox enumeration, what became of the ‘Arab Spring’ by is explored in the aftermath of the not-so-well-mediatised people’s mass movements in specific countries of the MENA, Here is perhaps the exception give or take a few other countries such as Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, etc. 

July 25 (Reuters) – Tunisian President Kais Saied is set to secure more power under a new constitution that is expected to pass in a referendum on Monday, in what critics fear is a march to one-man rule over a country that rose up against dictatorship in 2010. read more

Saied’s opponents fear the changes will deal a major blow to democracy in Tunisia, widely seen as the only success story of the “Arab Spring” uprisings against autocratic rule that elsewhere ended in renewed repression and civil wars.

Here’s a recap of how the Arab Spring panned out for the countries affected:

TUNISIA

Fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010 after a local official confiscated his barrow.

Protests spread from his town, Sidi Bouzid, across the country, turning deadly. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14, 2011, inspiring revolts elsewhere.

Factbox: What became of the 'Arab Spring'?

Police officers control the crowd while surrounding a man suspected to be involved in opening fire on a beachside hotel in Sousse, as a woman reacts, Tunisia June 26, 2015. REUTERS/Amine Ben Aziza

Tunisia held a first democratic election that October, won by the moderate Islamist Ennahda which had been banned under Ben Ali.

A new constitution establishing a parliamentary system was agreed in 2014, and Tunisians choose their lawmakers and president in free and fair elections, most recently in 2019.

However, economic troubles caused hardship and disillusionment. Illegal emigration to Europe increased. The economy, heavily dependent on tourism, was hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

In July 2021, President Kais Saied froze parliament and sacked the government – moves his opponents called a coup but which were welcomed by those Tunisians who were fed up with political bickering and paralysis. read more

A year later, Saied called a referendum on a new constitution that strengthened the presidency, capping what his opponents called a march to one-man rule. Saied has said freedoms will be protected. read more

EGYPT

President Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1981, but massive anti-government protests began on Jan. 25, 2011 as activists called a “day of rage”, inspired by Tunisia. As hundreds of thousands of protesters massed after Friday prayers three days later, Mubarak deployed the military.

Factbox: What became of the 'Arab Spring'?

Egyptians rally at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo February 1, 2011. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Protests gathered momentum, and the army pulled its forces from the protests and Mubarak stepped down – to be tried in August on charges of abusing power and killing demonstrators.

The once-banned Muslim Brotherhood won the 2012 election but a year later the military, encouraged by anti-Brotherhood protests, toppled the new president, Mohamed Mursi, who was put in prison and died in 2019.

Army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi replaced him as president. Rights groups documented abuses in a crackdown on dissent and the military faced a long-running insurgency from Islamist militants in Sinai.

Mubarak died a free man in 2020 aged 91, the case against him having been dropped in 2014.

YEMEN

Crowds took to the streets against President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Jan. 29, 2011, aggravating splits in the army and between political blocs. Saleh was hurt in an assassination attempt in June 2011, forcing him to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia.

Gulf states brokered a transition deal including a “national dialogue” aimed at resolving Yemen’s problems, with Saleh’s old deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to be president until elections.

With an al Qaeda insurgency raging in the east, Sanaa faced new problems in the north from the Iran-allied Houthi group and from a revived southern secessionist movement.

In 2015, after the Houthis seized Sanaa, Saudi Arabia and its allies began a military campaign to keep Hadi in power – a war that soon reached bloody stalemate, aggravating food shortages and cholera outbreaks.

Ex-president Saleh was killed in a roadside attack in 2017 after switching sides, abandoning the Iran-aligned Houthis for the Saudi-led coalition.

A U.N.-backed ceasefire took effect in April, 2022 and Hadi, who had spent years in exile in Saudi Arabia, was replaced by a presidential council.

LIBYA

In first Benghazi and then Misrata, protests broke out in February, 2011, soon turning to armed revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.

In March, the United Nations Security Council declared a no-fly zone to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s forces and NATO started air strikes to halt their advance on Benghazi.

By August, rebels had seized Tripoli and in October Gaddafi was captured hiding in a drainpipe outside his hometown of Sirte and killed.

Local militias seized hold of territory and, as chaos took hold, the country split in 2014 between western and eastern factions. The U.N. helped broker a political agreement in 2015, but in practice the country stayed divided and Islamic State seized control of Sirte for more than a year.

In 2019 eastern commander Khalifa Haftar launched a new war, assaulting Tripoli for 14 months before his forces turned back. By now the conflict was international, with Russia, the UAE and Egypt backing Haftar and Turkey the Tripoli government.

A U.N.-backed election – part of a peace process aimed at knitting Libya back together – was cancelled in December, 2021 for reasons including disputes over the rules.

In March 2022, the Sirte-based parliament appointed a new prime minister but the government based in Tripoli refused to step down, leaving Libya split between rival administrations.

BAHRAIN

On Feb. 14, 2011, the biggest protests in years erupted in Bahrain as demonstrators echoed the Egyptian crowd’s call for a “day of rage” to demand the ruling monarchy grant democracy.

As protesters and police clashed over the coming weeks, sectarian tensions rose in a country where many majority Shi’ite Muslims had long chafed against the Sunni ruling dynasty.

On March 14, neighbouring Sunni kingdom Saudi Arabia sent tanks across the causeway linking it to Bahrain to guard major installations. The authorities declared martial law and cleared protesters from the camp that had become their symbol.

Protests continued for months, leading to at least 35 deaths, but the monarchy suppressed the uprising and restored control.

SYRIA

When the first protests began to spread through Syria in March, 2011, President Bashar al-Assad sent in security forces and there was a wave of arrests and shootings.

Factbox: What became of the 'Arab Spring'?

A youth with his back painted with the colours of Syria’s opposition flag marches during a demonstration demanding that relatives of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh be dismissed from senior army and police posts in Sanaa May 14, 2012. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By July, protesters were taking up arms and army units were joining the gathering revolt, later backed by Gulf monarchies and Turkey, as Assad hit back with air strikes. Full-blown war erupted.

As chaos engulfed the country, the Islamic State group in 2014 seized a swathe of territory, drawing a U.S.-led coalition to back Kurdish fighters in the northeast.

Support from Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement helped Assad claw back control over much of the country, defeating the rebels in areas including Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta from 2015-18.

By the end of the decade, hundreds of thousands were dead and more than half the country’s pre-war population was displaced with the country partitioned between Assad, Turkey-backed rebels and Kurdish-led groups.

Writing by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; Editing by William Maclean

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