A weaponized hashtag and fake Twitter accounts seek to blame the small Gulf nation for the spread of COVID-19
The ongoing blockade of Qatar by its neighbors is being further intensified by a new round of disinformation blaming the Gulf country for the spread of COVID-19.
Last week, Noura Almoteari — a Saudi Arabia-based journalist — posted on Twitter, saying that Qatar has known about the existence of COVID-19 since 2015. Earlier this month, she accused Doha of paying billions to China “to grow the virus.” She also coined the Twitter hashtag “Qatar is corona,” which has now been used hundreds of times on the platform. Almoteari stated that the country was spreading the virus in order to damage both the UAE’s upcoming Expo 2020 and Saudi Arabia’s future plans to diversify into a post-oil economy.
In addition to this, Qatar has come under attack from Twitter bot accounts that blame the country for the coronavirus outbreak. In January and February, numerous fake Twitter profiles advanced the theory that Qatar was responsible for spreading the virus to Argentina. The accounts have since been suspended.
In today's disinformation weirdness: New accounts created in Feb 2020 and Jan 2020 featuring pictures of attractive women are saying Qatar has been negligent in spreading #coronavirus to Argentina. What's also weird is their overlap with BTS fandom. Seeing a lot of this. pic.twitter.com/XEsj7CdCyn
The land, sea and air blockade of Qatar began in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic links with the gas-rich country, after years of rancor over Doha’s foreign policy.
The blockading quartet issued a list of demands, which seemed designed to turn Qatar into a client state. The orders included that Doha cut all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements, and that it shutterits media operations, including the broadcaster Al Jazeera.
In the years since the blockade was launched, Qatar has faced repeated accusations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE of supporting terrorism. Armies of Twitter accounts and carefully orchestrated disinformation campaigns have become a prominent and ongoing feature of this diplomatic quarrel.
“The coronavirus campaign against Qatar began online as early as January, long before the current corona outbreak,” said Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, in a phone interview with Coda Story.
“There were definitely some early disinformation campaigns on Twitter, which were basically saying that Qatar was responsible for the coronavirus, and that it had played a role in spreading it. People are trying to preempt the crisis and exploit it politically.” Subscribe to Coda’s Coronavirus Crisis newsletter
The disinformation campaign has also targeted Qatar’s labor camps — institutions common in Gulf nations, which house thousands of low-paid migrant workers. One Saudi newspaper has published a number of stories about the outbreak of COVID-19 affecting “hundreds” of people in the industrial areas outside Doha, where many of Qatar’s 1.9 million migrant workers live.
Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health says the total number of reported coronavirus cases in the country currently stands at 481.
“I would say this is a continuation of the verbal barrage of misinformation and disinformation that is part of the Qatar blockade,” said Dr Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow with the Middle East & North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. “In this current iteration, it accuses the Qataris of spreading the virus. This will continue for quite a degree of time, and these sorts of campaigns are a reflection of how deep seated the tensions are.”
Vakil said the disinformation about Qatar echoed how other countries are trying to internationalize the cause of COVID-19. In recent days, China has sought to blame the U.S.; earlier this month, Bahrain accused Iran of “biological aggression” by covering up the spread of the coronavirus.
“While it is interesting these bots are blaming Qataris, I think it is part of a nationalist impulse that is not just unique to the Gulf in using an external crisis to whip up support,” Vakil added.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of “Qatar and the Gulf Crisis,” believes that the outpouring of digital disinformation about Qatar on Twitter must at least have the tacit approval of authorities in countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where social media is closely monitored.
“The fact that such comments have been made by high-profile individuals in Saudi Arabia and the UAE without facing any official censure suggests that their messaging carries the implicit approval of authorities, who are in other circumstances extremely quick to police and respond harshly to commentaries that they do not agree with,” he said.
Burhan Wazir is the Managing Editor of Coda Story’s Authoritarian Tech and Disinformation channels. He’s an award-winning journalist and editor, based in London, who previously worked at The Observer, The Times and Al Jazeera. He lived in the Middle East from 2008-2016.
COVID 19 pandemic has created a responsibility for global media, but they’re not meeting it, according to Dr Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at QF (Qatar Foundation) member Hamad Bin Khalifa University. He argues on why worldwide news coverage of COVID-19 risks adding to public panic. “I would say the global media is being absolutely irresponsible. They haven’t struck a very good balance between not trivializing issue, but also over-sensationalizing it. Everywhere you look, there seems to be this polarity of opinions: it’s either that COVID 19 isn’t so bad and it’s just like flu versus the constant coverage of COVID 19 -related issues, constant reports and numbers about how many new cases there are and where they are. I think this just inflames tensions about the issue,” he said in an email interview with media persons. “I was asked to write a piece recently, and the whole underpinning of this piece was that people are interested in stories. They drive a lot of clicks for advertising revenue, so media corporations that rely on advertising business models basically make money from clicks. And COVID 19 gets a lot of clicks. COVID 19, as well as being a virus, is actually going viral, so I think there is a big problem there,” he added. According to Dr Jones, it’s important to be transparent about any public health issue. The problem is that, often, the reporting of deaths happens as breaking news in big, garish headlines and is top of the news bill every day; that has certainly been the case in recent weeks and months. It’s not so much the reporting of figures that is the issue; it’s the constant reporting of new deaths every day in a way that occupies headlines. “I think this exaggerates the dangers and the impact of coronavirus in people’s heads. There are countless other illnesses or conditions or social issues that result in more deaths, but these are not reported on every day,” he said. It is difficult to determine what is a reliable source of news, said Dr Jones. “It is not always easy. I don’t like to say you should rely on established news media, but in times like this, I do think it’s important to stick with something reputable, Don’t just retweet something you see on social media. Be very clear about whether the news you are reading has some sort of pedigree: is it linked to a well-known news site? Is it quoting, for example, a health official from a public ministry? That is always a good barometer to follow,” he added. Referring to overwhelming information spreading on COVID 19, Dr Jones said that ‘Infodemic’ is a very important term. “We are getting a lot of information from a plurality of sources – too much information. This prevents people from being able to synthesize and process all this information, and what tends to stick in people’s heads is the more dramatic or sensational coverage. Too much exposure to news is more likely to promote a sense of panic, and I think it’s actually healthy to isolate yourself from this infodemic,” he said. According to Dr Jones, there is clearly an impact of relentless coverage of COVID -19 on people’s behaviors, and that it is not constructive. He also said that COVID- 19 has occupied news coverage more than other issues for several reasons. “The absence of anything else substantial in the current news cycle is also perpetuating this. It is a global issue, not a parochial issue affecting one country, so it will be reflected in country’s media. And it captures the imagination. People click on it because they find it fascinating and viscerally scary. And it’s been weaponized, which is contributing to this large media storm around the issue,” said Dr Jones. He also insisted that there needs to be more responsibility in news coverage. Dr Jones said that media should perhaps have an updated set of best practices and recommendations, endorsed by the World Health Organization and public health officials, in a standing location on their web page. “This can be done in an understated way and a way that suggests this is about reporting and not sensationalizing,” he said. “The media has a responsibility to do this because, at the moment, the role they’re playing is to promote panic. Constant breaking news and red ticker tape on many news websites is not helping, and neither is the way coronavirus dominates headlines. The constant repetition of stories about deaths and new cases in bold front-page headlines is a problem,” he added.
High unemployment rates, oppressive regimes and a desire for better education are some of the reasons cited by Arabs who express a desire to leave their countries.
The Arab world has seen a lot of its youth move in search of better opportunities for employment, freedom of expression, in addition to escaping from social and cultural norms they find oppressive.
According to an August 2019 poll by the Arab Barometer company, titled “Youth in the Middle East and North Africa,” the daily living situation in the region is far from ideal.
Noting that youth between the ages of 15 to 29 comprise about 30 percent of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, the Arab Barometer finds a significant number of them dissatisfied with their economic prospects.
They are also not happy with the education system. Moreover, “less than half say the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed”. Then there’s the high unemployment rates and widespread corruption.
This is why, Arab Barometer suggests, youth in the MENA region are more likely to consider emigrating from their country than older residents. The preferred destinations are varied, including Europe, North America, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Another survey by Arab Barometer, titled “Migration in the Middle East and North Africa,” published in June 2019, notes that across the region, “roughly one-in-three citizens are considering emigrating from their homeland.”
The surveys were conducted with more than 27,000 respondents in the MENA region between September 2018 and May 2019 in face-to-face interviews.
According to the Arab Barometer’s findings, there had been a decrease in people considering emigrating from 2006 to 2016. Yet since 2016, the trend is no longer in decline but has shown an increase “across the region as a whole.”
The Arab Barometer finds that citizens are “more likely to want to leave” if they are young, well educated and male. The survey has found more than half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 in five of the 11 countries surveyed want to leave.
While older potential migrants are more likely to cite economic factors as the primary decision, the survey suggests, younger ones “are more likely to name corruption, for example.”
As for the desired destination countries, they vary according to the homeland of potential migrants. Among those living in the Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, Europe is the favoured destination.
Whereas migrants from Egypt, Yemen and Sudan point towards Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The survey has also found that those from Jordan or Lebanon prefer North America, notably the US or Canada.
The survey also notes that while most would only depart if they had the proper paperwork, young males with lower levels of education who may not see a positive future in their homeland have said they would be willing to migrate illegally, “including roughly four-in-ten in six of the 11 countries surveyed.”
In a blog post for Unesco’s Youth Employment in the Mediterranean (YEM) published in January 2020, Sabrina Ferraz Guarino observes that “Migration is a coping mechanism based on the assumption that moving to another country is the best and most efficient investment for their own and one’s family future” and that improving people’s lives in their home countries will likely result in less desire to migrate.
Guarino says the unemployment rates in the Mediterranean region affect youth the most: “Unemployed youth are the highest in Palestine (45%), Libya (42%), Jordan (36.6%) and Tunisia (34.8%), while Morocco (21.9%) and Lebanon (17.6%) fare relatively better.”
She adds: “Viewing this together with the share of the youth that is not in education, employment or training (NEET), reveals how the challenges of youth employment remain self-compounding. The youth NEET rates tally around 14% in Lebanon and 21% for Algeria, but progressively increase across Tunisia (25%), Jordan (28%), Morocco (28%), and Palestine (33%).”
In its MENA report published in October 2019, the World Bank says growth rates across the region are rising but are still below “what is needed to create more jobs for the region’s fast-growing working-age population.”
The World Bank recommends reforms “to demonopolise domestic markets and open up regional trade to create more export-led growth.” Source: TRT World
The Syrian province of Idlib, the remaining holdout of rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has experienced fierce fighting in recent months as the Syrian army, supported by Russia, has pushed to reclaim the territory.
Meanwhile, the expansionist impulses of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in north-west Syria brought Turkey into direct confrontation with Assad’s forces in Idlib and exacerbated tensions with Russia. A ceasefire was agreed in early March, but tensions in the region remain high.
Even before the military escalation in Idlib, the Turkish attack on Kurds in north-eastern Syria in October 2019 had added a layer of complexity to the conflict. Now the recent assaults on Syrians in Idlib have led to the exodus of an estimated 1 million civilians. UN officials said it was “the fastest growing displacement” they had ever seen in Syria.
Many people fled to Turkey, already home to around 3.5 million Syrian refugees. On February 29, Turkey opened its border with Greece, apparently to put pressure on Europe to support its operations in Idlib.
Sadly, this wave of migration is only the latest flashpoint in the worst humanitarian crisis since the horrors of the second world war. But even this crisis, with thousands now stuck in no-man’s land on the Greek-Turkish border, hasn’t triggered a way through the regional and domestic blockages that have prevented an end to the bloodshed in Syria. This is something we’ve written about in a new book on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Since 2011, the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis have spilled over several Middle Eastern countries. But there has been no collective, regional response – largely because of political fragmentation and competition for power.
One striking illustration of these dynamics is the inertia of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The two organisations have repeatedly failed to provide effective responses to regional issues such as the turmoil in Yemen and Libya or the rise of extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian refugee crisis, and more recently the situation in north-west Syria, are no exceptions.
The Arab League has limited its intervention to support for efforts by the international community to mitigate the impact of the refugee crisis. As for the GCC, its actions were overshadowed by an internal rift and the involvement of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the Syrian chaos. This means that the humanitarian burden has continued to be borne by countries that host Syrian refugees.
Some may have expected Arab solidarity in the face of a crisis that emerged in the context of wider Arab uprisings. Yet even in the Arab countries that have hosted the bulk of refugees from Syria, such as Jordan and Lebanon, the government and people distanced themselves from their Arab brothers as the crisis became protracted.
The national borders in the Middle East that were drawn up after the first world war still remain contested by pan-Arab, pan-Islamic and pan-Kurdish movements. Nevertheless, the Syrian refugee crisis showed how these borders and national identities are powerful drivers of everyday politics.
A crisis politicised
The stance of the governments in Jordan and Lebanon towards the Syrian conflict shaped the countries’ refugee policy. What started as a policy of open doors evolved from 2014 when restrictions were imposed on Syrians entering and staying in both countries. Jordan and Lebanon then began to cooperate with the international community to mitigate the refugee crisis in early 2016, and eventually began to actively encourage the return of refugees to Syria in 2018.
Lebanon’s ruling elites capitalised on the humanitarian crisis by portraying the Syrian refugees as a security threat. Pro-Assad political parties Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement used this narrative to undermine anti-Assad political forces in Lebanon, namely a party called the Future Movement. This, in turn, created a sense of urgency which encouraged the flow of foreign aid into the country in an attempt to bring stability. But this foreign aid fed corruption.
The media has also played an important role in shaping the perception of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon by circulating a twofold government-sponsored narrative about the crisis. On one hand, this narrative tried to reassure Lebanese people of a sense of normalcy and fostered patience and societal strength. On the other, the government framed the refugee crisis as an emergency to convince international donors to channel humanitarian aid to the country. But as we found in our research, it was the second narrative that dominated, causing confusion among Lebanese and Jordanians who have started to ask for their share of the foreign aid.
Stuck in the middle
Amid this fragmented regional landscape and the politicisation of the crisis at the regional and national levels, the fate of Syrian refugees remains unclear. Russia has offered to facilitate dialogue between host countries – mainly Lebanon – and the Assad regime regarding the return of Syrian populations. But the ongoing process of their return to their home country might now be hampered by diplomatic tensions between Syria and its neighbours, especially Lebanon and Turkey.
The safe return of Syrian refugees will also be restricted by the demographic changes initiated by the Turkish government in efforts to eliminate the Kurdish presence along its border. The fate of returnees is also jeopardised by the Assad regime’s policies against those who took part in the uprising, those who didn’t answer the conscription call during the war or those who own properties in former rebel-held areas.
The Syrian refugee crisis will remain a major card both in the hands of the countries involved militarily in the conflict, and those hosting refugees. As for the Syrian refugees themselves, their lives, rights and future are precarious. They remain the primary victims of the regional competition for power.
Carolyn Lamboley of BBC Monitoring thinks that One year on, Algeria’s protest movement is soul-searching. Yesterday, people filled, as usual, all main streets of Algiers and other cities in the country, It was the 53rd consecutive Friday, thus marking the anniversary of the pro-democracy mass protest movement that carries with demands for a radical regime change.
21 February 2020
Around a year ago, on 22 February 2019, Algerians thronged the streets to protest against then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term after nearly 20 years in power.
Mr Bouteflika stood down in April. But Algerians kept on protesting. By this time, the protests had a name – the Hirak (movement).
Ten months into the protests, an election ushered in Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president. But the demonstrations continued.
One year on, some political players and national figures have sounded alarm bells, warning of the movement’s “failure” and “radicalism”. They have called for dialogue with the authorities and the pursuit of “achievable” goals.
But others are more optimistic and insist that things will never be the same again in Algeria.
Has the movement failed?
In January this year, Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud wrote an article in which he said the Hirak had “failed”. His analysis appeared in French weekly Le Point, and made waves in Algeria.
He cited the “myopia” of the “urban elites of the opposition” and a “quixotic war” against perceived foreign intervention – in particular from France, the former colonial power. Daoud concluded that the movement had failed and had met an “impasse”, albeit “temporarily”.
He is not the only one to have said so. Others have warned that the Hirak has reached a standstill as the authorities plough on with their agenda.
Since the start of 2020, President Tebboune – who briefly served as Mr Bouteflika’s prime minister – has been consulting political figures about amendments to the constitution.
A referendum on the amendments is expected in the summer, followed by legislative elections by the end of the year.
This month, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad pitched his government’s plan of action – dubbed “a new deal for a new Algeria” to parliament, promising to “cleanse the disastrous heritage” of past governance.
But many are sceptical about the authorities’ promises. More than 100 protesters are reportedly still in detention, events organised by the opposition are still often banned, and the judiciary continues to show subservience to the executive branch.
As for the authorities’ purge against former officials and powerful businessmen, it has actually drawn criticism from many protesters and political players, who have called instead for a transitional justice system to be put in place.
“Nothing has changed” is the leitmotiv repeated by human rights lawyer and political activist Mostefa Bouchachi, a familiar face at the protests who gives frequent interviews to the press. That is why Algerians will carry on, he says, far from being discouraged.
To talk or not to talk with the authorities?
Whether or not to engage with the authorities has been a bone of contention, causing divisions in the movement.
Sofiane Djilali, the leader of the Jil Jadid (New Generation) party and erstwhile coordinator of the Mouwatana (Citizenship) movement has warned against the “radicalism” of some segments of the Hirak and argues that cooperating with the authorities is the only way to effect real change. But he has stopped short of saying the movement has failed.
Jil Jadid was set up in 2011. Mouwatana, which was launched in 2018 and has often come under pressure from the authorities, played a leading role at the start of the demonstrations, calling for fresh protests just two days after 22 February, crystallising the Hirak’s momentum.
Mr Djilali met the president in mid-January, drawing the wrath of those advocating a more radical stance.
In an interview with El Khabar, he warned against the Hirak espousing “goals which cannot be achieved” and voiced his opposition to a constituent assembly process like that in neighbouring Tunisia, which has been advocated by some protesters.
“In my opinion, the demands of the Hirak are clear and do not require much discussion. Everyone is demanding rule of law, balance of powers, respect for the people’s sovereignty and an independent judiciary. It is easy for the new constitution to guarantee… all this directly.”
Organizing outside the framework of the state – an approach advocated by some – would be a form of “civil disobedience”, he said, warning that “this approach cannot change the system”.
In contrast, some have called for a complete separation from the authorities. The Political Pact of the Forces of the Democratic Alternative (PAD) – launched last summer by seven established opposition political parties including the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Workers’ Party (PT) – is working on organizing a national conference which will exclude the authorities.
The PAD had opposed the holding of a presidential election and called for a constituent assembly.
Other prominent figures such as human rights lawyer Mostefa Bouchachi have called for more goodwill gestures – in particular the release of detainees – from the authorities as a prerequisite to any form of dialogue.
Despite diverging opinions about the road ahead, many Algerians share the same demands – as Mr Djilali said – and many feel that things have changed permanently.
Some observers are confident that a new dynamic and social pact have been established and will bear fruit. One word that crops up again and again in commentaries is “opportunity”, conveying the sense that the Hirak is a work in progress.
“Some people think the Hirak has failed because there was a presidential election… They see the Hirak as a political party that failed to make it to power. But, that’s not what the Hirak is… The Hirak is political, but it’s not a political party,” journalist Said Djaafer said in an episode of Radio M’s flagship Cafe Presse Politique programme.
“It’s a movement that comprises all political currents, all social classes, which wants to change the rules of the political game. They don’t want to take power.”
“Those who say it has failed are not looking at this new dynamic: students are organizing, there are people who have never taken an interest in politics who suddenly are interested, it is these things that are being sown… you cannot talk about a failure.”
“It’s a movement that will not stop, even if the demonstrations stop.”
One journalist threw the ball back at the authorities, saying they were the ones who had “failed”.
“The regime has failed. It is over, and the democratic revolution is only beginning,” Amin Khan said on the Radio M website. “The equation is simple. This is a historic opportunity for the country. The regime is faced with a popular movement characterised by rare wisdom. Algerians are not hungry for violence, revenge, expeditious justice or a witch hunt.”
“They want the peaceful and orderly departure of the regime through the law, via… democratic elections [and] the establishment of legitimate institutions… in other words, the complete opposite of a wild adventure or extravagant ambitions.”
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.
There is a soft smile on Hany Abdel Kader’s face as he takes out the carefully folded cotton piece, kept at the back of his small shop.
As he unfolds the fabric, a decorated front appears, with carefully stitched appliqué in bright colors – typical of Cairo’s long-established khayamiya (needlework) tradition. But this piece is unlike any other in the neighborhood’s workshops, where the art has been practiced for centuries. It has none of khayamiya’s customary patterns, based on geometry or Arabic calligraphy, but army tanks and masses of people – scenes from the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
‘That’s when I did my first piece, when we were all unsure about what would happen in the future,’ Abdel Kader, 44, told Asia Times.
He points to images stitched along the borders of the quilt, each depicting a different scene during the revolution. One shows a figure trying to climb the enormous government building, the Mogammaa; another, the infamous camels brought in to fight protesters in the street. Most of the scenes are set in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the revolution.
Details from the quilt show state violence and wounded protesters being carried away. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer ‘I felt the need to describe what I saw. And I had the fabric at home, so I just laid out a big piece on the floor and started creating the design,’ said Abdel Kader.
As the days passed he added elements to the outer border, based on what he saw himself, heard from friends, or watched on TV. He embroidered words like ‘Peacefully’ and ‘Step down’.
He also stitched the slogan heard across the Arab world in 2011: ‘The people want the fall of the regime’.He added protesters getting hurt by bullets – and others coming to their rescue.
Eight years ago, on 25 January 2011, Egypt witnessed the start of mass protests. They came on the heels of similar demonstrations in Tunisia, which set the Arab Spring in motion. After 18 days of protests in Cairo, which spread to cities across Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak – in power since 1981 – was forced to resign.Protests continued throughout 2011 demanding the armed forces that took power after Mubarak’s resignation hand over the reigns of power to civilian rule. Elections in 2012 brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, but the elected President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a military coup led by current ruler Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who has since been accused of rights abuses and criticized for giving the military unchecked power.
Abdel Kader recalls the period of the revolution eight years ago as a step into the unknown.
‘It was a very strange and unknown time for us. Suddenly, there were tanks underneath our windows. We had never seen that before,’ he said.An ancient craft Khayamiya, which takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘tent’, historically involved the production of tents and panels to be used in a range of settings, from political gatherings to funerals to celebrations. Its usage dates back at least one thousand years in Egypt.
The view over Cairo’s ancient Al-Darb Al-Ahmar quarter, where many of the city’s craftspeople are located. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Throughout the centuries, the craft has evolved. Ottoman rulers, kings Fuad and Farouk, presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat would all receive guests in rooms decorated with khayamiya.The opening (and, almost one century later, nationalization) of the Suez Canal had tents to host guests and officials.
Traditional celebratory tents are seen at a festival in the Egyptian city of Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, for the occasion of the canal’s grand opening in 1869. Photo: Collection of Roger-Viollet Egyptian musicians, when traveling, would often bring stitched panels to put up as backdrops at their performances.The popularity of khayamiya remains until present – only now, fabrics are mostly printed by machine.
‘You find them all over Egypt, they are so common that people rarely think about them,’ said art historian Seif El Rashidi, who recently co-authored a book on the topic.The most revered work done by Cairo’s khayamiya guild was doubtless on the kiswa, the elaborate cover for the holy Kaaba, the black cube in Mecca, which was historically produced each year in Cairo’s alleys and ceremoniously brought all the way to the holiest city in Islam. Abdel Kader comes from a family of such prominent crafters: his grandfather Mahmoud earned the name Al-Mekkawi, ‘of Mecca’, from being one of the leading kiswa artisans.
Amm Hassan, the colleague of Abdel Kader, works on a piece of khayamiya. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Seated in the inner corner of his shop, with his long-time colleague Amm (uncle) Hassan working on a cushion next to the entrance, Abdel Kader takes out images of his first two revolution pieces.Both are in museum collections now, at Durham University and Victoria and Albert Museum in London – destinations he never imagined when drawing that first design during the revolution.
It is not entirely uncommon that political art develops this way, historian Rashidi tells Asia Times: ‘It might be spontaneous at first. An artist starts working on something, and only later on it takes on a specific meaning.
Transforming folk art
Many of the most powerful artworks from 2011 were street art, such as Ammar Abo Bakr’s portraits of martyred protesters with angel-like wings, or Bahia Shehab’s stencilled blue bra for the protester who was dragged in the streets by members of the military until her clothes ripped – creations symbolizing the ongoing regime brutality. Or the dozens of artists who came daily to the sidewalks around Tahrir, to draw what was happening. Abdel Kader’s work is different, belonging as it does to the much less utilized craft tradition.
Usually, Abdel Kader’s work is not a commentary on society. Like all of Cairo’s khayamiya artists, he spends his days cutting, folding and stitching colorful pieces of cloth onto canvas to create vivid and detailed tapestries.
“Khayamiya is usually not a form of art that lends itself to this kind of work. That’s what makes Hany’s pieces so interesting,” said historian El Rashidi.
Eight years after the onset of the revolution, under another strong and repressive state apparatus, looking back at what happened is for many Egyptians associated with gloom, even a sense of despair.
But for Abdel Kader, the events that took place in Tahrir Square still form a source of inspiration.
In his home on the top floor of an apartment building in Muqattam, a dusty hill on the outskirts of Cairo, he has several sketches for new pieces.They portray the same crowds, the same skyline of Cairo and the same commemorative date, January 25th.
‘If I think about my craft there is something else that I would like to do,’ he said. That is to work on a big, traditional tent. But, he says, with the advent of machine printing, no asks for them these days. ♦
In Equal Times (a trilingual news and opinion website) OPINIONS, an article by Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde titled Something is shifting in the MENA region – and it is happening from the ground up brings to light a near year-long movement of streets protests. These are affecting nearly all the so-called republics type of countries of the MENA. Fun fact, it was at the beginning generally thought of as being only a short trip by all leading elites. What they ignored then and/or overlooked was Mobile telecommunications and social media making quite a difference. Tomorrow will be the 50th Friday of streets pavement beating in Algiers as well as other town and villages of Algeria with yet again and as highlighted here by Nunez Villaverde, to no significant and noticeable effect.
With all the caution that any generalisation implies, the central feature of the mobilisations/revolutions now taking place, with varying intensity, in a growing number of countries – Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan being the most recent cases – is the huge public frustration with failed, corrupt, inefficient and totalitarian rulers who are incapable of guaranteeing decent levels of wellbeing and security for all. In this image from 11 January in Tehran (Iran), a woman chats with a policeman.(AP/Mona Hoobehfekr)
For too long, the Arab and wider Muslim world of the Maghreb, the Near East and the Middle East, has been perceived as synonymous with underdevelopment, instability and violence. Within the framework of imperfect systems – socially, politically and economically – the interests of dominant elites, determined to maintain their privileges at all costs, clash with those of increasingly critical citizens, driven by the inability to satisfy their basic needs, the violence they suffer in the flesh, the daily rights violations committed by their rulers and the denial of their right to a decent life.
Added to this is the traditional and pernicious interference of regional and global powers, much more attentive to the local elites than to the local populations, determined to meddle in the affairs of their neighbours and increase their global sway, with no regard for the malaise and insecurity generated for others.
A structural hotbed has thus been created, a breeding ground for the temptation to resort to violent repression, for some, and for social unrest and protest, for others. The result is a highly worrisome situation with no way out, or so it may appear at first sight.
For decades, violent repression has been by far the preferred option of the governments in the area, combined with variable doses of patronage and paternalism aimed at maintaining social peace. To maintain their grip on power whilst showing little sensitivity to the needs and demands of their respective populations, it has become commonplace for them to resort to punishment as the preferred method for preserving, in clear collusion with many foreign governments, a status quo of which they, and their allies, are the prime beneficiaries. Hardly willing to allow free speech, and even more so after the experience of the so-called Arab Spring, a real counter-revolution is now underway, the protagonists of which are the regimes of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Egypt (not forgetting Iran on the Shia side).
With the passing of time and the impact of the successive crises that have seriously impaired the capacity of the aforementioned regimes and most others to continue ‘buying’ social peace, what they are left with, above all, is their repressive capability, and they are applying it with great resolve. This means that no substantial change can be expected in their behaviour, as they cling on to a strategy that primarily seeks to keep them in power without giving up anything substantial in return.
And the same can be said, unfortunately, of the external actors with interests in the region, given that they generally prefer to deal with the current rulers – no matter how uncomfortable it may make them feel and no matter how much their own civil societies may criticise them for their crude ‘realpolitik’ – rather than risk allowing grassroots mobilisations to bring new rulers to power and jeopardise a regional order that has long served their interests.
This powerful dynamic is countered by another, driven by a growing number of citizens who want to find a way out and see a substantial change in their situation.
It is they who are really trying to overcome the current challenges and to find solutions to the problems that define their lives and life in their countries. They have far less power than that accumulated by their rulers and those who support them from the outside. But they have lost their fear of repression and their resolve seems to be growing ever firmer, fed by the visible disgruntlement that has built up over the years.
With all the caution that any generalisation implies, the central feature of the mobilisations/revolutions now taking place, with varying intensity, in a growing number of countries – Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan being the most recent cases – is the huge public frustration with failed, corrupt, inefficient and totalitarian rulers who are incapable of guaranteeing decent levels of wellbeing and security for all. All it takes, on such potentially explosive ground, is a simple spark to ignite the flames of revolt – such as the young man who set himself on fire in front of a police station in Tunisia; the repression of children who painted political slogans against the government in Syria; the attempt to apply a monthly fee of almost €6 for WhatsApp calls in Lebanon; the increase in the price of fuel, in Iran; or less outstanding factors, in the case of Libya, Yemen, Syria or Algeria.
The substantial difference with previous episodes of grassroots mobilisation – when the application of structural adjustment programmes at the end of the last century triggered revolts that were limited to demanding the reinstatement of subsidies for basic necessities – what we have been witnessing since 2011 is a movement with a decidedly political profile, demanding not only the removal of the ruler of the day, but also the dismantling of a status quo that, at best, offers no more than the crumbs of paternalism and clientelism. The more recent protest movements have been, and continue to be crosscutting (going beyond the usual signs of ethnic or religious identity), young (in keeping with the demographic structure of these countries), spontaneous (in the sense that they emerge from society itself and not out of foreign manipulation) and peaceful (it is the powers that be, faithful to their repressive pattern, that resort to violence as the default option).
Support for legitimate and representative regimes without delay
What is also clear, however, is that these movements have yet to be structured and the only factor seemingly uniting them is the desire to rid themselves of the current establishment. In many cases, this means that they have even stopped identifying leaders and do not, as a rule, have coherent government programmes. And all this reduces their strength to overcome the resistance of actors who are better organised and experienced when it comes to seizing and maintaining power.
This is why simply wishing them luck, trusting that they will finally succeed in overcoming all the obstacles in their path, will not suffice. It is likely that in addition to the persistent repression and in keeping with the Lampedusa paradox [“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”], some of these governments will be willing to accept cosmetic reforms to ultimately prevent any substantial change.
It is essential that Western democratic governments actively support these movements, overcoming the traditionally short-sighted approach that is content with merely patching up the surface in the hope that time will eventually bring all the pieces of the puzzle together.
The current rulers are not going to relinquish power without a fight, and even less so if they feel that they are supported by Washington, Brussels, Moscow or so many other administrations with interests in the region. The current socio-political and economic management model is totally spent, and the millions of people living in these countries no longer expect anything from leaders who have amply demonstrated that the only thing that moves them is the desire to increase their privileges. The elites have squandered any political capital left in the eyes of citizens who, fully aware of their plight and the fact that there are other ways, in the 21st century, of ensuring that their basic needs are met and their security guaranteed, are calling for a thorough clean-up of a profoundly dysfunctional system.
Although many unknowns remain, there is already scope for concluding that, without public pressure, none of these imperfect regimes is ready to change course. The problem is that the foreign powers involved in the region seem no more ready to stop aligning with them. They do not yet appear to have realised that backing failed governments is not the best way to defend their real interests, not to mention the fact that such behaviour clashes head-on with their own values and principles. It can only be hoped they will eventually come to the realisation that the best course of action would be to contribute to the establishment and consolidation of legitimate and truly representative governments.
It shows a score of 39, the same as last year. There seems to be little progress in improving control of corruption in the Middle East and North Africa region generally but the massive protests currently thronging the streets in mostly the republics types of states of the MENA could be taken as seeking for improvement. Excerpts of the Khaleej Times follow.
With a score of 71, the United Arab Emirates is the best regional performer, followed by Qatar (62). At the bottom of the region, Syria scores 13, followed by Yemen with a score of 15. Both countries are significant decliners on the CPI, with Yemen dropping eight points since 2012 and Syria dropping 13 points during the same period.
Lack of political integrity
The region faces significant corruption challenges that highlight a lack of political integrity. According to our recent report, Global Corruption Barometer — Middle East and North Africa, nearly one in two people in Lebanon is offered bribes in exchange for their votes, while more than one in four receives threats if they don’t vote a certain way.
In a region where fair and democratic elections are the exception, state capture is commonplace. Powerful individuals routinely divert public funds to their own pockets at the expense of ordinary citizens. Separation of powers is another challenge: independent judiciaries with the potential to act as a check on the executive branch are rare or non-existent.
To improve citizens’ trust in government, countries must build transparent and accountable institutions and prosecute wrongdoing. They should also hold free and fair elections and allow for citizen engagement and participation in decision-making.
The UAE has been rated least corrupt country, yet again, in the Middle East and North Africa by the Berlin-based Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2019.
Globally also, the country retained its 21st ranking, scoring 71 points.
At the bottom of the region, Syria scores 13, followed by Yemen with a score of 15. Both countries are significant decliners on the CPI, with Yemen dropping eight points since 2012 and Syria dropping 13 points during the same period.
“The region faces significant corruption challenges that highlight a lack of political integrity. According to our recent report, Global Corruption Barometer – Middle East and North Africa, nearly one in two people in Lebanon is offered bribes in exchange for their votes, while more than one in four receives threats if they don’t vote a certain way,” said Transparency International said in the report released on Thursday.
“To improve citizens’ trust in government, countries must build transparent and accountable institutions and prosecute wrongdoing. They should also hold free and fair elections and allow for citizen engagement and participation in decision-making,” it said.
With a score of 53, Saudi Arabia improved by four points since last year. In 2017, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman carried out an “anti-corruption” purge as part of his reform of the country.
Regionally, the UAE is followed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Globally, the top countries are New Zealand and Denmark, with scores of 87 each, followed by Finland (86), Singapore (85), Sweden (85) and Switzerland (85).
More than two-thirds of countries score below 50 on this year’s CPI, with an average score of just 43. Similar to previous years, the data shows that despite some progress, a majority of countries are still failing to tackle public sector corruption effectively.
“Governments must urgently address the corrupting role of big money in political party financing and the undue influence it exerts on our political systems,” said Delia Ferreira Rubio Chair Transparency International.
A good point in case would be the Algerian people that are out in the streets protesting. Peacefully though, and since February 22, 2019. It has been calling week on end for a transition to a democratic order, the guarantee of all human rights, freedom of expression, equality and most importantly an end to corruption.
In response, the Algerian authorities organised repression with the help of a justice that was subservient to them. Hundreds of men and women, including many human rights defenders and self-governing trade unionists, are being prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned.
A vibrant protest movement is visible in Iran and across the Middle East — but it isn’t calling for Islamic revolution, much less the tired misrule of the mullahs, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes. It’s a bottom-up rebellion against the corrupt elites who rule Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries. The Iraqi version of this movement is sometimes called “madaniyya,” which Iraq expert Nibras Kazimi translates as a call for civic rebirth. The autocrats have tried everywhere to crush or manipulate this movement, but it persists, he adds.
As the tenth anniversary of the first uprising of the Arab Spring approaches, massive and sustained popular uprisings in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon have shown that the Arab world is far from finished with the question of democracy, according to a leading analyst. In each of these countries, protesters have connected grievances about economic hardships and corruption to issues of governance. They have demanded changes to undemocratic aspects of current power structures: sectarian bargains in Iraq and Lebanon, and military dominance in Sudan and Algeria, notes Carnegie’s Michele Dunne.
Protesters in Sudan and Algeria also seem to have learned, perhaps primarily from their own countries’ experiences, that only by overcoming fears of violence can they begin addressing the problems of authoritarian rule, she writes for The Journal of Democracy:
The specific grievances of protesters—economic hardships and injustice, high-level corruption, poor government services—cannot be addressed without deep alterations in the power structure and political economy of Arab states. Given this, it is not reasonable to expect that change will come quickly, easily, or evenly across the region. Nor can one takefor granted that all change will be in the direction of democracy.
The conundrum for those calling for and seeking “freedom” in the Middle East is that, as layers of “nonfreedom” are peeled back, new layers of nonfreedom appear, argues analyst Sam Sweeney. A legitimate political system that can guarantee freedom remains elusive in the Middle East. Identifying such a system, and figuring out how to implement it, should be the primary task of serious thinkers in the region, he writes for The National Review.
One of the remarkable developments of 2019 was a fresh wave of anti-government and anti-graft protests in Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon, one that revived the hopes of the 2010-2011 Arab Spring that had been dormant because of counterrevolutions, notes the Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) in a discussion of “Prospects for Democratic Change in the Arab World in 2020.”
To be sure, the slogans shouted by demonstrators in the five countries highlight a clear demand for political and socioeconomic changes that are no different from those heard in the first wave, the analysts suggest. However, there appear to be some important differences in the way demonstrators are voicing these slogans and how they are going about making them actionable, effective, sustainable, and eventually, successful.
The region’s Islamists and secularists need a pact that allows them to compete and survive when the other side is in power, according to Jamal Khashoggi fellow Ezzedine C. Fishere. It is a difficult but not impossible task: World history is rife with examples of societies that have traveled down this road. The warring factions in Germany’s Thirty Years’ War, for instance, killed a fifth of its population and destroyed its economy without achieving a meaningful victory, and ultimately had to settle for coexistence, he writes for The Washington Post.
Governance in Arab states a decade from now will probably involve a patchwork of systems, adds Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. Nascent forms of democracy have the best chance of taking root in those countries where levels of human development are relatively high, states are less able to rely on hydrocarbon rents, and intervention by regional or outside frenemies is less prevalent. RTWT
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