Middle East protest movements 'have proved astonishingly resilient' - Report summarises historic year

Warning over ‘cosmetic’ changes or ‘brutalising’ tactics

Repression and state violence is likely to continue to plague the Middle East and North Africa in 2012 unless governments in the region and international powers wake up to the scale of the changes being demanded of them, Amnesty International warned today (9 January) in a new report into the dramatic events of the last year.

In its 80-page report, Year of Rebellion: State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa , Amnesty describes how last year governments across the region deployed extreme violence to try to resist unprecedented calls for fundamental reform. But Amnesty said that the region’s protest movements appeared to show few signs of abandoning their ambitious goals or accepting piecemeal reforms.

Despite great optimism in North Africa at the toppling of long-standing repressive rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Amnesty said that these gains had not yet been cemented by key institutional reforms to guarantee that the same kinds of abuses would not be repeated. Elsewhere, Amnesty said that governments remained grimly determined to cling onto power, in some cases at almost any cost in human lives and dignity.

Amnesty International Interim Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:

“With few exceptions, governments have failed to recognise that everything has changed.

“The protest movements across the region, led in many cases by young people and with Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights playing central roles, have proved astonishingly resilient in the face of sometimes staggering repression.

“They have shown that they will not be fooled by reforms that make little difference to the way they are treated by the police and security forces. They want concrete changes to the way they are governed and for those responsible for past crimes to be held to account.

“But persistent attempts by states to offer cosmetic changes, to push back against gains made by protesters or to simply brutalise their populations into submission, betray the fact that for many governments, regime survival remains their aim.

“The refusal of ordinary people across the region to be deterred from their struggle for dignity and justice is what gives us hope for 2012.”

Meanwhile, Amnesty said the response of international powers and regional bodies such as the African Union, the Arab League and the EU to developments in 2011 had been inconsistent, and had failed to grasp the depth of the challenge to entrenched repressive rule in the region.

Human rights were espoused as a reason in favour of military intervention in Libya, but the UN Security Council, stymied by Russia and China in particular, had by the end of the year only issued a weak statement condemning violence in Syria.

And while the Arab League acted quickly to suspend Libya from membership in February and later suspended Syria and sent a team of observers, it remained quiet when Saudi Arabian troops, acting under a Gulf Cooperation Council banner, backed the Bahraini government’s efforts to crush protests.

Philip Luther added:

“Support from world powers for ordinary people in the region has been typically patchy.

“But what has been striking about the last year has been that - with some exceptions - change has largely been achieved through the efforts of local people coming onto the streets, not the influence and involvement of foreign powers.”

Brief summaries of key countries and main events (for more detail, see full report):

Egypt

Egypt's military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), pledged repeatedly to deliver on the demands of the “January 25 revolution” but Amnesty found that they had in fact been responsible for a catalogue of abuses that was in some aspects worse than under Hosni Mubarak.

The army and security forces have violently suppressed protests, resulting in at least 84 deaths between October and December 2011. Torture in detention has continued while more civilians have been tried before military courts in one year than during 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights appear to have been targeted for humiliating treatment to try to deter them from protesting. In December the offices of a number of Egyptian and international NGOs were raided by security forces in an apparent attempt to silence critics of the authorities.

Amnesty said it feared that 2012 could see further attempts by the military council to restrict the ability of Egyptians to protest and freely express their views.

Tunisia

The uprising in Tunisia brought significant improvements in human rights, but one year on many consider that the pace of change has been too slow, with families of the victims of the uprising still awaiting justice.

Following elections in October a new coalition government was formed. Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist and former Amnesty prisoner of conscience, is the country’s interim president.

Amnesty said that in 2012 it was critical that Tunisians seized the opportunity of drafting a new constitution to ensure that it guaranteed protection of human rights and equality under the law.

Libya

In Libya there are significant questions about the ability of the new authorities to control the armed brigades that helped oust pro-Gaddafi forces and prevent them from replicating the patterns of abuse learnt under the old system.

Despite the National Transitional Council calling on its supporters to avoid revenge attacks, serious abuses by anti-Gaddafi forces have rarely been condemned. In November the UN stated that an estimated 7,000 detainees were being held in makeshift centres under the control of revolutionary brigades, with no prospect of a proper judicial process.

Syria

The Syrian armed forces and intelligence services have been responsible for a pattern of killings and torture amounting to crimes against humanity, in a vain attempt to terrify protesters and opponents into silence and submission. By the end of the year there were over 200 cases of reported deaths in custody, over 40 times the recent average annual figure for Syria.

Yemen

In Yemen the standoff over the Presidency caused further suffering for ordinary Yemenis. More than 200 people were killed in connection with protests while hundreds more died in armed clashes. Tens of thousands were displaced by the violence, causing a humanitarian crisis.

Bahrain

There were hopes in Bahrain that the November publication of an independent report by international experts on protest-related abuses might mark a fresh start for the country. At the end of the year the strength of the government’s commitment to implementing the commission's wide-ranging recommendations remained to be seen.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian government announced major spending packages in 2011, in what seemed to be an attempt to prevent protests spreading to the Kingdom. Despite that - and the drafting of a repressive anti-terror law - protests continued at the end of the year, in particular in the country’s eastern region.

Iran

In Iran, whose domestic policies remained largely out of the spotlight during 2011, the government continued to stifle dissent, tightening restrictions on freedom of information and specifically targeting journalists, bloggers, independent trade unionists and political activists.

Amnesty International UK will stage a “day of solidarity” event with the human rights activists of the Middle East and North Africa in Trafalgar Square in central London on Saturday 11 February 2012 (marking the climax of Egypt’s revolution last year). This will be part of a global day of Amnesty events in numerous countries. 

  • Read the report: Year of rebellion: The state of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (PDF)

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