MENA’s Winter of Discontent: Old grievances, new suppression tactics

January in the Middle East and North Africa: A free expression roundup produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Naseem Tarawnah, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.

A young woman in front of a line of riot police during a demonstration against police repression and calling for the release of recently detained protesters, Tunis, Tunisia, 30 January 2021, Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ten years on, the Arab Spring has come full circle with the start of 2021 in the region looking terribly reminiscent of a decade ago when protests erupted in response to an unbearable status quo. The past month saw continued anti-government demonstrations throughout the region in the face of COVID-19 lockdowns, and a hardened clampdown on free expression and assembly:

Bread, dignity, and justice for all

As the new year began, the struggle for bread, dignity and justice persisted with people in the region taking to the streets once more. Having failed to address long-standing grievances and demands for better education, jobs, and an end to corruption, authorities have instead carried out violent clampdowns on freedom of expression and assembly to silence critics. Amidst a global pandemic and perpetual states of emergency imposed on economically-starved communities, a myriad of issues have served as the moment’s fuse, while the devastating impact of COVID-19 lockdowns has provided the spark.

In Lebanon, amid a rising coronavirus death toll, the country is also grappling with its most drastic deterioration of rights in decades, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Six months after the Beirut port blast, victims continue to demand accountability. Considered one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, the blast killed 200 people, left thousands injured, and left a city scarred in its wake. While investigative journalism has provided more >insight into the tragic event, a domestic investigation has been riddled with due process violations. Families of the victims leading a demonstration outside the home of investigative judge Fadi Sawan to demand justice were violently suppressed by riot police.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, demonstrators faced off with police forces in deadly clashes that left hundreds of protesters wounded and at least two dying in custody. Anger erupted over the impact of strict lockdown rules on the already economically-deprived city suffering amid a collapsing economy. In typical fashion, security forces responded with brutal force, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and live ammunition.

The clashes coincide with an Amnesty International report condemning the French sale of weapons to Lebanese security forces that include tear gas canisters, grenade launchers, and armoured vehicles, saying they had played a ‘shameful’ role in suppressing peaceful protests between 2015 and 2020.

‘Political lockdowns’ and violent suppression

In the Maghreb region, protesters in Tunisia also returned to the streets bearing similar grievances, only to be met with familiar repression at the hands of authorities. Amidst a struggling economy and coronavirus restrictions, hundreds of mostly young Tunisians rallied throughout the country last month in response to a strict four-day lockdown.

Coinciding with the ten-year anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution, protesters dubbed it a ‘political lockdown’ designed to stave off mass protests in response to the government’s failure in managing the health crisis. In a country where the police harassment of a single street vendor ended up overthrowing a dictator, a recent viral video showing a police officer beat a shepherd in the country’s Siliana region did not help matters.

Chanting slogans reminiscent of the country’s 2011 revolution, demonstrators decried the security forces’ brutal response to the unrest, which included the arrest of over 1,000 people in two weeks, and also called for changes to the political system. Bloggers and activists also faced arrest for their critical social media posts, highlighting the continued exploitation of vague laws by authorities intent on curbing freedom of expression, especially throughout the pandemic.

In Iraq, a deadlier situation has been playing out. Anti-government demonstrations that began in October 2019 persist, with protesters, activists, and journalists being subjected to some of the most violent forms of suppression in the region at the hands of authorities and various militias.

In a testament to Iraqi mettle, thousands protested the country’s dire economic situation outside the prime minister’s office in Baghdad last month, just days after twin suicide bombings rocked the capital for the first time in nearly two years. As Iraqis struggle to make ends meet amidst a pandemic, an economy in crisis, and an unstable security situation, the recent decision to postpone elections scheduled for this summer has done little to restore confidence in the country’s leadership.

Journalistic perils and seven deadly trends

The past decade has seen an increasingly hostile environment for journalists covering the region’s political shifts. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), authorities in the region have employed novel and traditional means to suppress independent reporting and target individual journalists. The rights group documented seven trends from the past decade, ranging from imprisoning journalists and targeted assassinations, to censoring online media, criminalizing journalism via “false news” laws, and the ongoing surveillance of journalists and media organizations.

In this regard, Egypt’s media landscape stands out. Ten years after its 25 January revolution, the country has less press freedom than ever before, with media workers still targeted by an aggressive crackdown that has rendered the country one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists. At least 33 journalists are behind bars, alongside bloggers, activists, and human rights defenders, each with a harrowing tale.

“When I told him I wouldn’t do that, he threatened me, saying he would never let me see my son or my husband again…”

Take imprisoned journalist couple Solafa Magdy and Hossam al-Sayyad, who have been separated from each other and their son for the past 14 months. In January, disturbing reports emerged of the psychological pressure Magdy has been subjected to by prison authorities, including body searches and being forced to strip naked. An interrogator reportedly pressured Magdy to become an informant. “When I told him I wouldn’t do that, he threatened me, saying he would never let me see my son or my husband again,” she told her lawyers.

Like many of her imprisoned colleagues, Magdy has seen her health suffer, and her requests for urgent medical care denied. In a damaging report from Amnesty International, authorities have deliberately denied prisoners of conscience health care to punish dissent, leading to numerous deaths during the pandemic in what the rights group says constitutes “torture”. According to the report, female prisoners also said they were sexually assaulted and harassed by prison medical staff.

Creatives have not fared better under Sisi’s rule. Animator Ashraf Hamdy was arrested on 25 January after posting a video marking the revolution’s anniversary. “I’m getting arrested,” wrote Hamdy in a Facebook post as authorities seized him from his home. In a demonstration of the regime’s low tolerance for satire, authorities charged the filmmaker with misusing social media and spreading false news. According to Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) Director, Gamal Eid, Hamdy’s arrest “makes it clear that the police and authorities have not changed and that this approach is an inherent feature of the police apparatus.”

In Brief:

In Iran, facing a five year prison sentence for his critical work about the country’s pandemic mismanagement, journalist Mohamed Mosaed crossed the border into Turkey last month on foot and applied for asylum. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Turkish authorities to conduct an expedited review of his request, and ensure he would not be deported. Mosaed’s case also topped One Free Press Coalition’s list of the “ten most urgent” press freedom cases around the world today.

In Bahrain, over 100 organizations called for the immediate release of prominent human rights defender Abdul-Hadi Al-Khawaja in a signed letter to Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Al-Khawaja, who is a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, has been held behind bars for nearly ten years for exercising his right to free expression. Denied books, or regular contact with family, the human rights defender has more recently been arbitrarily denied medical treatment for surgeries he requires.

In the UAE, new details emerged last month about the plight of imprisoned prominent Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who is serving a ten-year sentence on speech-related charges. The report by IFEX members HRW and Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) highlighted Mansoor’s inhumane prison conditions, and provided previously unrevealed details of his closed trial and appeal hearing that the rights groups say represent grave violations of due process and fair trial guarantees.

In Morocco, prominent human rights defender and co-founder of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism, Maati Monjib was sentenced last month to one year in prison for endangering state security and fraud.

“The Moroccan government has been surveilling and harassing journalist Maati Monjib for years, and with this move to imprison him, authorities are telling us they can’t even bother with a pretense of press freedom,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. Also charged for endangering state security, exiled journalists Hichem Mansouri and Samad Ait Aïcha were sentenced in absentia to one year in prison and a fine of 5,000 dirhams (US$558).

Also Noteworthy:

  • New research from IFEX-member SMEX examines the use of biometric ID for voters in Lebanon ahead of 2022 elections, and in the absence of real data protection laws, the potential for such a system to grow into a broader, national scheme that “could facilitate surveillance and increase civic exclusion”.
  • On a regional level, new Access Now research delves into how inadequate data protection laws in Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Palestine, are harming people and communities who are already vulnerable to attacks, discrimination, and oppression, including women, people living under occupation, refugees, and LGBTQI+ people.
  • The Palestine Digital Activism Forum (PDAF) will be held between 29 March and 1 April 2021. Organized by IFEX-member the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh) the online event will look to engage activists, digital experts, civil society, technology companies and governments to focus on Palestinian digital rights during the coronavirus pandemic.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on February 3, 2021.

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org