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MENA: Repression and violence fail to stamp out Arab activism 10 years since mass uprisings of 2011

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Over the past 10 years, since the mass uprisings of 2011 that became known as the ‘Arab Spring’, activists and human rights defenders across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have continued to demand their rights in the face of relentless repression, said Amnesty International, marking the anniversary of the protests.

Instead of addressing the root causes that drove people to take to the streets, authorities in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen have crushed protests and attempted to silence dissent, using extreme violence, mass arrests and arbitrary detention to intimidate critics.

Yet despite the risks and challenges, people across the region have continued to demand economic and labour rights, accountability, respect for the rule of law and basic freedoms. New generations of MENA activists are continuing to work online, in the diaspora or setting up new organizations even in the most repressive of contexts.

“The mass uprisings of 2011 sent shockwaves across MENA. The demonstrations broke the taboo surrounding popular protests and triggered an irreversible shift in the political imagination of young men and women. People in the region recognized the true power of peaceful protest and learned to dream of a different future for themselves, one where they seize control of their rights – and there’s no turning back,” said Heba Morayef, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

“Ten years on from the mass protests the human rights situation across much of the Middle East and North Africa paints a bleak picture; Syria and Yemen are suffering the devastating human costs of armed conflict, lawlessness in Libya continues unabated and authorities in Egypt and Bahrain have intensified their crackdowns on freedom of expression and human rights defenders. Yet despite all of this, there are clear signs that brave young people have not given up on demanding their rights.”

Protests across MENA in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran in 2019 demonstrated that people’s belief in the right of peaceful assembly as a tool to bring about change has not faltered and that they will not be cowed by authorties’ brutality.

Unfaltering belief

In Tunisia, where the 2011 revolution led to the growth of a vibrant civil society, popular activist movements such as Manich Msameh have lobbied against impunity for corruption. The struggle for accountability has been tough, with the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) facing strong resistance from parliamentarians and only reluctant collaboration from successive governments. Broad civil society coalitions supported the IVD to complete its work and prevented problematic security bills pushed forward by the Ministry of Interior from being passed. LGBTI campaigners have also stepped up their work on taboo issues, despite the fact that consensual same-sex relations are still criminalized and men suspected of engaging in such relations are routinely subjected to anal examinations, in violation of international law.

In Libya, 10 years on, justice for war crimes and other heinous abuses remains elusive and leaders of militias responsible for serious human rights abuses have been promoted instead of being held to account. Yet activists now campaign online and offline and speak out to demand human rights despite facing a real threat of abduction, arbitrary detention and even assassination, at the hands of unaccountable militias.

Newly founded Libyan organizations and platforms focusing on justice and human rights documentation have worked tirelessly to break the cycle of impunity and played a key role in the successful establishment of the UN Fact-Finding Mission at the Human Rights Council.

In Syria, the armed conflict born out of the uprising has displaced 6.7 million people within Syria and left 5.5 million seeking refuge outside the country. Tens of thousands of opponents of the Syrian government have been arrested and forcibly disappeared since 2011, including demonstrators, political activists, human rights defenders, media workers, doctors and humanitarian aid workers.

Amidst this bleak picture, new organizations led by people from the MENA region have been set up abroad to push for justice, accountability and documentation of human rights abuses. These include groups founded by Syrian diaspora communities in collaboration with European organizations to document crimes under international law, leading to prosecutions in Germany and France. Just this week Eyad al-Gharib became the first Syrian government official to be convicted for crimes against humanity for his role in the torture of detainees in Syria.

Yemeni human rights group Mwatana has led international initiatives in lobbying for accountability at a global level and was just nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

In Egypt, repression has been on the rise since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the authorities have tightened restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and have made widespread use of arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and unfair trials to silence peaceful critics. Authorities have continued to target human rights defenders, arresting and detaining them or subjecting them to travel bans and asset freezes. Yet despite this, the past 10 years have seen human rights activists in the country continuing their work, with a number of new organizations founded inside the country and abroad.

In Bahrain, authorities have intensified their crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful activism, targeting dissidents, human rights defenders, clerics and independent activists. Bahraini activists abroad have rapidly organized in recent years becoming a leading voice on human rights within the country.

In an illustration of the fact that the struggle for human rights still resonates with people in the region, across MENA over the past three years, more than 630,000 have signed up to become international members or supporters of Amnesty International.

“The prevalence and gravity of human rights violations across the region is a deeply sobering reality that makes it difficult to celebrate the 10-year anniversary. But what is clear is that governments who dismissed genuine grievances in 2011 are making the same mistake today. Human rights demands for a more dignified future are not going to go away,” said Heba Morayef.