Uprisings in MENA Region: the Amnesty International denounce

  • 7 February 2013

For Middle East and North Africa Countries the 2011 was the year of mass revolts. The Amnesty International annual report 2012 described the chronology of events and the contagion among the Countries of the area.

«2011 dawned with Tunisia in ferment. For a time, President Ben ‘Ali sought to quash the protests in the same way that he had crushed earlier protests in the Gafsa region in 2008, through the application of brute force. In a few short weeks, some 300 Tunisians met violent deaths but, this time, without the resolve of the protesters being diminished. On 14 January, Ben ‘Ali’s nerve gave way. With other members of his clan, he boarded a plane and flew away to seek safe haven in Saudi Arabia. It was an electric moment, as both governments and people across the region recognized that what had until then seemed almost unthinkable – the enforced flight of an autocratic ruler of more than 20 years – had just been achieved. For the other repressive governments of the region, Ben ‘Ali’s abrupt demise sounded the alarm bells; for the mass of people watching events unfold on Al Jazeera and other satellite TV stations, the Tunisian uprising inspired new hope and a sense that they too could obtain for themselves what Tunisia’s people had achieved.

Within two weeks, what had occurred in Tunisia was being mirrored on an even greater scale in Egypt. Cairo’s Tahrir Square had become the fulcrum and a key battleground in which Egyptians set forth their demands for change. Using the internet, social networking sites and mobile phones to help organize and co-ordinate their activities, within 18 days the protesters wrought the “25 January Revolution” and provoked the downfall of President Mubarak after 30 unbroken years in power. This they achieved in the face of extreme repression by the security forces and thugs hired by the government. At least 840 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured, with thousands more arrested, beaten or tortured. On 11 February, Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation and was replaced by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He retreated to his villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, from where he was summoned to a Cairo court in August to stand trial for corruption and ordering the killing of protesters.

Mubarak’s fall, which occurred in the full glare of the worldwide media, had the effect of spurring calls for mass protests in a rash of other cities and towns across the region. In Bahrain, starting in February, protesters belonging mostly to the country’s Shi’a Muslim majority mounted peaceful demonstrations and set up a protest camp at the capital Manama’s Pearl Roundabout to demand a greater say in the running of the country and an end to their alleged marginalization by the ruling Al Khalifa family. The protesters were cleared away with excessive force days later and then with even greater brutality when they resumed their protests in March.

In Iran, the leaders of mass protests crushed by the government in 2009 called for new demonstrations, and were shut up under house arrest in response.

In Algeria, the government called out the security forces in large numbers to deter demonstrations but also sought to reduce tension by lifting the 19-year-long state of emergency. Oman’s Sultan Qaboo bin Said promised to create thousands of new jobs and improved benefits for the unemployed, and ordered the release of detained protesters. In Saudi Arabia, the government was reported to have paid out more than US$100 billion to citizens while warning that all public demonstrations were banned. It mobilized the security forces to deploy against anyone attending a planned “Day of Rage” in Riyadh.

In Yemen, protests had begun in January, sparked by proposed constitutional changes that would enable President Ali Abdullah Saleh to remain in office for life and then hand power to his son. The protests continued throughout the year, spurred by the events in Egypt and elsewhere, while President Saleh’s forces fired indiscriminately into crowds of demonstrators and he manoeuvred to try and maintain his long monopoly of power. By the end of the year, the Yemeni President’s position had become seriously eroded. Nevertheless, he still clung to power as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) offered him immunity from prosecution despite the grim toll of unlawful killings and other gross human rights violations committed by his forces. That he and others responsible should be afforded impunity was an affront to justice and an outrageous betrayal of the victims of his regime’s crimes.

In Libya, geographically lying between Tunisia and Egypt, the events in those countries brought new hope to a population that, after 42 years under Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, was denied freedom of speech, independent political parties, trades unions or civil society organizations. Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi had maintained power for so long by playing one section of the population against another, favouring those who he considered loyal and clamping down ruthlessly on those who expressed dissent. Formerly an international pariah for his alleged sponsorship of terrorism, in recent years he had enjoyed a blossoming rapprochement with Western democracies as Libya’s oil extraction industry developed and Libya assumed a new importance as a means of transit for African refugees and migrants seeking to gain entry to Europe. Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi appeared confident and in firm control as first Ben ‘Ali and then Mubarak fell, but in February anti-government demonstrations erupted into a popular revolt in Libya too. This quickly developed into an international armed conflict in which NATO became involved and culminated on 20 October in al-Gaddafi’s capture and violent death as he sought to flee from his besieged stronghold in the city of Sirte. A National Transitional Council then took office but by the end of the year it had yet to establish its authority and Libya was awash with arms and armed militias which carried out reprisals against suspected al-Gaddafi loyalists and presented a continuing threat to public security. In Syria, where the regime headed by the al-Assad family has been in power since 1970, the first stirrings of protest in February were low key and hesitant. However, when security forces detained and reportedly abused children who had chalked up anti-government slogans in the southern town of Dera’a, they set off mass protests that rapidly spread from city to city. Caught off guard, the government closed the country to the world’s media and to independent observers.

It launched a crackdown of vicious intensity against unarmed protesters, using snipers on rooftops, firing into crowds and deploying army tanks in towns and villages, while all the time claiming that the killings were the work of shadowy anti-government armed gangs. By the end of the year, the UN reported, some 5,000 people, mostly civilians, had been killed while thousands more had been wounded or arrested or both. In some pockets of the country, an incipient civil war appeared to be developing between the regime’s forces and soldiers who had defected to join the protests.

Syria’s government tried to conceal both the extent of the protests and the violence of its response but was largely thwarted due to the courage and determination of local activists and witnesses who recorded the carnage on mobile phone cameras and uploaded hundreds of videos onto the internet. Some showed the bodies of individuals who had been tortured to death in detention and, in some cases, mutilated; among them were children».


The international response

The events that involved MENA population had an inevitably impact at international level.

«The US and other Western governments that had long been principal allies of the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt initially failed to grasp the significance of the protests and were slow to react. Soon, however, they were hurrying to reformulate policy, now finally acknowledging the abusive nature of the regimes at risk. When Libya descended into armed conflict, they intervened decisively against Colonel al-Gaddafi, with the support of the key Gulf states, using a UN Security Council mandate to protect civilians that paved the way for a NATO air campaign which swung the balance against the Libyan leader.

In Bahrain, where the US navy’s Fifth Fleet has its base, and particularly in Syria and Yemen, protesters were also in desperate need of protection from the murderous policies of their governments. The international community, however, was notably less inclined to offer them support. While the Security Council had referred Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court, it took no such action against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad despite compelling evidence that his forces were committing crimes against humanity.

The Russian Federation, China and the governments of the emerging powerhouses of Brazil, India and South Africa all used their leverage at the Security Council to forestall effective action on Syria even as the UN’s own human rights chief spoke out against the crimes being committed by the al-Assad regime. Saudi Arabia also denounced the Syrian government’s crimes while denying Saudi Arabians the right to demonstrate and after sending troops into Bahrain only hours before the authorities there launched a bloody crackdown in March. Overall, it was a depressingly familiar story, with governments of all political hues continuing to operate selectively and whatever their rhetoric, to subordinate human rights to their own perceived and partisan interests».


  • 6 February 2013

«We are not scared of being killed, injured or tortured. Fear does not exist any more. People want to live in dignity. So we will not stop». The overview about the situation in Middle East and North Africa, contained in the Amnesty International Annual Report 2012, begins with Ahmed Harara words, a dentist blind because injured in one eye by gunshot pellets during protests in Egypt.
For the peoples and states of the Middle East and North Africa, 2011 was a year of change: «a year of unprecedented popular uprisings and tumult, a year in which the pent-up pressures, demands and protests of a rising generation swept aside a succession of veteran rulers who, almost until they fell, had appeared virtually unassailable».

At the end of 2011 all the MENA region still reeling amid the «continuing tremors and aftershocks of the political and social earthquake that exploded in the first months of the year. Although much remained uncertain, the events of 2011 appeared likely to be every bit as significant for the peoples of the region as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire had been for the peoples of Europe and Central Asia».

Uprisings broke out « for greater liberty to speak and to act, free from the suffocating fear of state repression; for government transparency and accountability and an end to pervasive high-level corruption; for more jobs and fairer employment opportunities and the means to seek a better standard of living; for justice and human rights, including the right to live one’s life and bring up one’s family in dignity and security».

These demands led hundreds of thousands of people, including women, to fill the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, Sana’a and many other cities and towns across the region to demand change. People continued street protests «despite the carnage wrought among them by government security forces», and they did so «with determination, resolution and naked courage, and in doing so freed themselves from the fear that their governments had for so long sought to imbue in order to keep them quiescent and in their place».

Amnesty International annual report 2012 included also an analysis of the Arab Spring: «initially, the protests mostly voiced popular frustration against the failure of national leaders to address people’s needs and aspirations. Those leaders responded all too characteristically by sending out their riot police and security agents to crush the protests by force; they succeeded only in pouring fuel on the flames and further igniting public outrage and defiance. As protesters were shot down in cold blood, rounded up in mass arrests, tortured and abused, so the popular mood hardened. Unintimidated by the bloodshed, more and more people rallied to the streets to demand the replacement or overthrow of national leaders who had become both discredited and despised as they sought to consolidate family dynasties to maintain their grip on power. The rapid fall of Tunisia’s President Zine El ‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali and then Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak resounded all across the region, sending a message of hope to advocates of change and reform in other states. For a time, it seemed that a new form of domino effect was taking place that would sweep out other repressive and authoritarian rulers from power. Within months, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s 42 years of abusive rule in Libya had been brought to an abrupt and bloody end, and in both Yemen and Syria long-standing regimes were fighting a rearguard action – literally – for their survival in the face of continuing mass demands for their demise. In Bahrain, the government used excessive force and repression to quell the protests yet ended the year committing to political and human rights reform. Elsewhere, in states such as Algeria, Jordan and Morocco, those in power were urgently promising the people reform and a greater say in government. In oil- and gas-rich Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, rulers used their financial reserves to try to address social grievances and try to keep the people sweet».