Spyware, hunger strikes, and alleged coups: A summer of suppression in MENA

July 2021 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.

Supporters of President Kais Saied set up the Tunisian flag on the roof of a store as riot police stand guard in front of the parliament building, in Tunis, 26 July 2021, after Saied decided to freeze parliament and sack Hichem Mechichi’s government. Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto

Power grab in Tunisia amidst a clampdown on free expression, judicial harassment of Egypt’s rights defenders, and Israeli Pegasus spyware revelations spur calls for a moratorium on surveillance technology to MENA’s autocratic governments:

Tunisia: Muzzled press and a power grab

On 25 July, Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the constitution, freezing parliament and sacking Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in a move widely described by critics as a ‘coup’.

Despite Saied’s assurances to civil society representatives of there being “no possibility that rights and freedoms will be trespassed, and that principle of equality between all Tunisians remains the same,” the following day saw the Tunis headquarters of Al Jazeera TV raided by security forces, with its staff evicted, equipment confiscated and office shut down.

Independent parliamentarian and influential blogger, Yassine Ayari, was among those arrested for calling the president’s move a coup. The political crisis comes in the midst of heightened attacks on freedom of expression in the country, including the persecution of critical bloggers, journalists, and political opponents of the president over their online posts.

Egypt: Judicial harassment and solidarity hunger strikes

While July saw several prominent prisoners of conscience released — including human rights lawyer Mahienour el-Masry, as well as journalists Israa Abdelfattah, Mostafa al-Asar, Moataz Wadnan, and Gamaal el-Gamal — the judicial harassment of rights defenders continued unabated.

Director of IFEX member the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) Gamal Eid was one of several prominent human rights defenders summoned by judicial authorities and questioned over Case 173 of 2011 — a decades-old case that Human Rights Watch (HRW) says authorities have used to arbitrarily prosecute prominent rights defenders and organizations over allegations of receiving foreign funds.

IFEX called on Egyptian authorities to immediately drop their politically-motivated prosecution of Eid, describing it as the latest example of a sustained program of judicial harassment against him.

“Gamal is one of the strongest independent voices still fighting for human rights in a country that has been dismantling civil society and closing the space for freedom of expression and information for far too long,” said IFEX Executive Director Annie Game. “The trumped-up charges against him should be dropped immediately, along with the travel ban and assets freeze. Furthermore, those responsible for the previous attacks against him must be held accountable.”

Also questioned over the politically-motivated case were women’s rights defenders Mozn Hassan and Azza Soliman, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hossam Bahgat, and human rights defender Begad al-Borie. The long-running case has seen dozens of civil society organizations and activists banned from travel and their assets frozen over the years. According to independent reporting, these latest interrogations may signal an intent by authorities to bring to a close the long-running case amidst increasing criticism from international rights bodies.

Last month, IFEX also joined rights groups in calling on President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to quash the unfair verdict against researcher and graduate student Ahmed Samir Santawy, who was sentenced to four years in prison on “false news” charges. Santawy launched a hunger strike on 23 June to protest his unjust conviction, sparking a series of solidarity hunger strikes by public figures calling attention to the continued unjust detention of Egypt’s political prisoners.

How to catch a Pegasus: Israeli spyware run amok

Israeli authorities cannot evade responsibility for the country’s dangerous surveillance technology exports that have enabled governments to monitor thousands of critics and dissidents, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last month. Recent revelations exposing the staggering scale of surveillance by autocratic governments in the region facilitated by Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware have spurred calls by rights groups to curb the sale of Israel’s surveillance technology.

The “Project Pegasus“ investigation, led by a group of news organizations around the world, identified thousands of citizens from the region targeted by the spyware at the hands of security agencies in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE. The list of targets includes friends and family members of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as Moroccan journalists Taoufik Bouachrine, Soulaimane Raissouni, and Omar Radi.

The MENA Surveillance Coalition called for an ‘immediate moratorium’ on the sale, export, and use of surveillance technologies, as well as an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into those targeted by regional authorities. IFEX member Privacy International has released “Taming Pegasus: A Way Forward on Surveillance Tech Proliferation” — a global report on challenging the surveillance tech industry.

For a deeper dive into this issue, check out IFEX’s new Regional Spotlight: ‘The Smartphones are listening’: Regulating exports and abuses of cybertools . It examines how these increasingly sophisticated digital surveillance tools are being sold to and deployed by authoritarian states in the region to target human rights defenders, and how civil society is defending the right to privacy and digital free expression.

Iran: Water protests, internet blackouts, and kidnapping plots

Authorities have violently suppressed recent protests in Khuzestan and other provinces over access to water, resulting in the death of at least nine people, including a 17-year old boy.

Suffering from severe water shortages, protesters throughout the south-western region took to the streets to express their anger with the government’s mismanagement of water resources that has deteriorated living conditions, and, according to experts, left the area increasingly in danger of becoming ‘permanently uninhabitable’.

Protesters and activists faced live bullets from security forces on the streets and communication disruptions online, all part of an effort to prevent the sharing of media content documenting the clashes. According to NetBlocks, internet outages that began on 15 July had the effect of “a near-total internet shutdown that is likely to limit the public’s ability to express political discontent or communicate with each other and the outside world.”

Internet control in Iran is also set to see further state encroachment with parliament prepared to push through a “Protection Bill” that would effectively hand over complete control of the internet to authorities. IFEX member ARTICLE 19 described the bill as a ‘devastating blow to the rights to freedom of expression online and the privacy of internet users.

Meanwhile, an FBI investigation revealed a shocking plot orchestrated by Iranian authorities to kidnap Iranian-American activist and journalist Masih Alinejad, and forcibly return her to Iran for persecution. Four Iranian Intelligence agents were charged with plotting to kidnap the New York-based journalist in what rights groups say demonstrates Iran’s willingness to exercise transnational repression against activists in exile.

In Brief

Lebanon: Protesters took to the streets throughout July to mark the one-year anniversary of Beirut’s deadly port explosion that claimed the lives of over 200 people. Families of victims joined thousands of protesters demanding justice and accountability for the horrific explosion, with security forces using tear gas and batons to violently suppress the demonstrations. An HRW report found evidence of senior Lebanese officials bearing responsibility for the blast, and pointed to systemic problems in Lebanon’s legal and political system as facilitating their impunity. The report follows calls by the rights group for the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to establish an international, independent, and impartial mission to investigate the tragic event.

Morocco: Investigative journalist and Pegasus spyware target Omar Radi was sentenced to six years in prison over charges of sexual assault, undermining state security through espionage, and illegally receiving foreign funding. Radi’s colleague, journalist Imad Stitou, was also sentenced to six months for complicity in the same alleged sex crime. In another case, journalist Soulaiman Raissouni received a five year prison sentence on sexual assault charges in what rights groups have said is a pattern of sex crime allegations being used to target critical journalists.

Saudi Arabia: Sudanese media personality and journalist Ahmad Ali Abdelkader was sentenced by a Saudi court to four years in prison for “insulting the state’s institutions and symbols” and “negatively speaking about the kingdom’s policies”, among other vague charges. According to HRW, Abdelkader’s sentence is related to tweets and media interviews he shared online in which he discussed and expressed support for Sudan’s 2018–19 revolution and criticized Saudi actions in Sudan and Yemen.

UAE: Rights groups voiced their growing concerns over possible retaliation against imprisoned prominent Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor after a private letter detailing his extensive mistreatment was leaked to regional media. The letter detailed grave violations committed by the UAE’s state security agency against Mansoor since his 2017 arrest and detention, including being held in indefinite solitary confinement, deprived of basic necessities, and left incommunicado with the outside world.

Bahrain: IFEX also joined rights groups in calling for the immediate release of prominent Bahraini human rights defender and academic Dr. Abduljalil AlSingace, who launched a hunger strike on 8 July 2021 to protest his mistreatment by prison authorities. AlSingace, who has spent a decade behind bars for his role in Bahrain’s 2011 pro-democracy movement, has reportedly faced degrading and punitive treatment in Jau Prison, including having a book he was writing confiscated by authorities.

New & Noteworthy

The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh) has released a report examining how young Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem have seen their digital rights systematically violated through continuous digital harassment, censorship, and online surveillance by Israeli authorities.

A new study by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression found significant gaps in the Syrian media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in disseminating accurate, depoliticized information, and countering misinformation in the highly restrictive media landscape managed by the Syrian government.

Global Voices has published an article on how Arab content creators are breaking social stigmas and leveraging social media platforms to engage on issues related to sex, sexuality, and reproductive health — creating critical alternatives in the notable absence of sexual education in school curricula.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on August 10, 2021.

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

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