Activists across the Arab world continue to fight for human and civil rights despite violence and intimidation.
Ten years after the start of the Arab Spring, many of the countries with demonstrations for dignity, freedoms, democracy, and justice have spiralled into war, or re-instated suppressive autocratic regimes. The mass uprisings in 2011 were met with brutal clampdowns and violence, arrests, enforced disappearances, and intimidation campaigns in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain.
Despite these challenges, activists in these countries continue to demand their rights. “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,” said Amnesty International on the ten-year anniversary of the uprisings.
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.
In 2019 and 2020, fresh waves of protests in countries like Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon showed 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 authorities’ brutality,” the rights watchdog said.
Here’s a brief look at how activists in these countries continue to strive for human and civil rights, even under some of the most difficult conditions after the Arab uprisings.
The self-immolation protest of Mohammed Bouazizi sparked Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” and the wave of protests across the Arab world. The demonstrators succeeded in securing a democratic transition for the North African country, though many challenges remain. Today, civil society and rights organisations that flourished after the toppling of Ben Ali continue to lobby against corruption and for rights, through movements like Manich Msamah.
The Assad regime's violent crackdown on demonstrations turned into a war that has killed half a million people and displaced 6.7 million people within the country, and 5.5 million refugees outside the country. Despite bombardment, torture, disappearances, and other war crimes perpetrated by the regime, Syrian civil society, humanitarian, and health organisations within opposition-held Idlib and other areas maintain their efforts for rights and against oppression despite funding cuts, near-constant bombardment, and additional challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Syrian diaspora have also established countless organisations and centres in Turkey, Europe and beyond, as well as online efforts to document war crimes, abuses, and advocate for Syrians. Just this week, Eyad al Gharib, a Syrian government official was convicted for crimes against humanity in a landmark case in Germany, thanks to hours of work by Syrians working with local rights groups.
The revolution that swept Egypt managed to topple dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, who was replaced by Muhammed Morsi in the country’s first democratic elections. The democratic experiment, which had a shaky start, was short-lived. A coup replaced the Muslim Brotherhood leadership with autocrat Abdel Fattah al Sisi, under whom the rights situation in Egypt has deteriorated rapidly, with mass arrests, torture, disappearances, intimidation, and extra-judicial executions.
Despite the stifling environment, including the passage of laws severely limiting NGOs and civil society organisations, Egyptians at home and abroad continue to advocate for their fellow countrymen.
More than 2,000 people died in the uprising before Ali Abdullah Saleh yielded to pressure from the United States and Gulf Arab states to step down in 2012 after 33 years in power. He was the fourth autocrat to be toppled in the Arab Spring. The war that has gripped the country since 2014 has killed, directly and indirectly, nearly a quarter million people including civilians. Human rights activists like Nobel Laureate Tawakol Karman, and lawyers like Huda al Sarari have “no plans to give up, and [will] continue the fight for victims’ rights across Yemen.”
Libya has become one of the most intractable conflicts, along with Yemen and Syria, left over from the 2011 uprisings. In the years that followed Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, the North African country has descended into chaos and has become a haven for militants and armed groups that survive on looting and human trafficking.
The oil-rich country has also been split between rival administrations: a UN-backed government in Tripoli, and an eastern-based government backed by strongman Khalifa Haftar. Each is backed by foreign governments.
Human rights defenders, activists, and local watch dogs are attacked, threatened, detained and disappeared, yet continue their work. Groups like the Coalition of Libyan Human Rights Organisations, an umbrella organisation for rights groups, continue to monitor, document, and share rights violations in the country.
Bahrain was the only Gulf country to see mass upheaval during the regional uprisings, and tens of thousands took to the streets to demand reforms. Violence spread as members of the Shia Muslim majority rose up against the Sunni royal family. Martial law was declared, and, with the help of Saudi forces, Bahrain cracked down on dissent.
In the time since 2011, the rights situation is reported to be even worse: authorities have targeted not only Shia political groups and religious leaders, but also human rights activists, journalists and online opponents. Mass trials have become commonplace. Political parties have been dismantled. Independent news gathering on the island has become nearly impossible. Meanwhile, there have been sporadic, low-level attacks on police and other targets by Shia militant groups. Human rights defenders, opposition activists, journalists, and others, including those abroad, continue their work.