OVER A YEAR has passed since Tunisian fruit and vegetable trader Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation kick-started a series of protests that brought down the leaders of four states in a series of popular uprisings termed ‘the Arab Spring’.
The uprisings called for political reform and change in leadership, and the spread of protests across North Africa and the Middle East saw Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh fall from power.
Here is TheJournal.ie‘s guide to the main political, human rights and security changes that the Arab Spring protests have – or haven’t – enacted in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Tunisia:
Politics: who’s in and who’s out
Human rights activist and former exile Moncef Marzouki has become the interim president of Tunisia following the ousting of President Ben Ali. Marzouki is to remain in office until later this year while overseeing the creation of a new constitution and new elections. A new constituent assembly was elected in the country’s first free elections in October. The once-banned moderate Islamist Ennahda party won with 89 of the 217 seats. Ben Ali is being tried in absentia for allegedly ordering the deaths of protesters, and has already been convicted of embezzlement and the abuse of power.
Yemen is preparing for presidential elections next month to replace Saleh after he finally agreed to cede power in November after 33 years (but actually handed it over this week). His vice-president is expected to be the leading candidate in the election, after a deal was agreed with opposition politicians. Under the transition agreement, Saleh is granted immunity from prosecution and he is travelling to the US for medical treatment (he was seriously wounded in a bombing outside the presidential palace in June). Parliamentary elections are also to be held in 2012, having been postponed last April. State security has largely collapsed since the uprising, and al-Qaeda militants have been launching attacks.
The armed forces have been running Egypt since Mubarak’s resignation in February, pledging to oversee the transition in power to an elected parliament. However, discontent with military rule escalated throughout 2011 as protesters called for swifter political reform and concern grew that the military would not relinquish full political control. The first post-Mubarak elections began late last year. One of the main political parties to poll strongly in the election was the Muslim Brotherhood, which had previously been banned from participating in elections. The new Islamist-led parliament held its inaugural session earlier this week. A presidential election is to be held before 30 June 2012. Mubarak is currently on trial for corruption and for allegedly ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising.
Syria‘s President Assad said in a US television interview late last year that he would resign his post immediately if that was the will of the people, but despite ongoing protests and clashes between protesters and government security forces, he has shown no intention of stepping down. Unrest has escalated in recent days, with children reportedly among the dead in one massacre and Arab League observers apparently preparing to withdraw. Assad has been in power since his father’s death in 2000.
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebel fighters on 20 October while in hiding from revolutionary forces. The anti-Gaddafi National Transition Council assumed power and appointed a caretaker cabinet in December 2011 ahead of parliamentary elections which are due to be held before April. Skirmishes have broken out between rival groups in Libya since Gaddafi’s death, suggesting it could be difficult to build unity in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Protests in the Kingdom of Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, broke out in March and primarily focused on calls for political reform rather than the resignation of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who remains in power. The government cracked down heavily on protests symbolically centred at Pearl Square in the capital Manama, and arrested protesters, opposition figures and medics who treated injured protesters. The monarch imposed emergency law for three months (ending in June), but further protests have been held which continue to call for reform.
[caption id="attachment_338942" align="alignnone" width="630" caption="A Bahraini anti-government protester gestures to riot police on an overpass near Pearl roundabout on 13 March 2011. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali/PA Images)"][/caption]
Human Rights: improvements and setbacks
Pro-reform activist Tawakkol Karman, 32, from Yemen was one of three women to jointly receive the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in organising Arab Spring protests in her country and campaigning for women’s rights. In December, the country’s new minister for human rights pledged that an independent commission would be established to investigate alleged abuses during the uprising last year; such a commission has not yet been established.
Human rights activist and former exile Moncef Marzouki has become the interim president of Tunisia following Ben Ali’s resignation. Marzouki has pledged to support ten key human rights measures, according to Amnesty International. However, women activists have complained that women were denied equal status in the October elections.
Bahrain has yet to act on the damning report compiled by an independent inquiry into the government’s crackdown on dissent, despite pledges by the ruling monarchy. The report accused the government of using torture on detainees and excessive force in the crackdown on protesters. The army has also been criticised for misusing tear gas, possibly contributing to more than a dozen protester deaths. The UN has condemned the trials of medics and doctors for allegedly assisting the uprising while treating protesters.
An Arab League observer mission is investigating the Syrian government’s use of force against protesters. President Bashar Assad has denied that government forces were ever ordered to kill or harm unarmed protesters, and has ignored growing international pressure to resign or introduce substantial reforms to appease protesters.
Torture remains a serious concern in Libya, where both pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces have been accused of abuse and mistreatment. Fighters supporting the former leader have been accused of killing rebels and burying dissidents in mass graves. In August, the African Union accused rebels of rounding up and killing immigrant workers in the mistaken belief they were fighting for Gaddafi. Earlier this week, human rights groups voiced concern that pro-Gaddafi detainees being held by revolutionary forces since Gaddafi’s fall have been subjected to torture. There are also concerns about the high number of weapons that were distributed to households during the civil war.
Since Mubarak’s fall from power, the Egyptian military has been running the country. However, the armed forces have been accused by Amnesty of using the same tactics of repression as Mubarak’s regime in their attempts to quash protests pushing for swifter reform. Women protesters were also subjected to ‘virginity tests’ while being detained. Thousands of women marched on Cairo in December to protest soldiers’ violent assaults on women protesters. Amnesty says it contacted 54 political parties in Egypt and that although it found it “encouraging” that so many of the parties engaged with the organisation over human rights concerns, some of the main parties refused to commit to a number of measures, including equal rights for women.
[caption id="attachment_338913" align="alignnone" width="630" caption="Rebel fighters fire their guns into the air during the funeral of Hussein Saad Al Awami, a rebel fighter who was killed fighting against pro-Gaddafi troops in Benghazi, May 2011. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd/PA Images)"][/caption]
The Department of Foreign Affairs advises Irish citizens not to travel to Syria, Yemen and Libya.
The UN has expressed concern over the level of ‘unsecured’ weapons in Libya (much of which was distributed among pro- and anti-Gaddafi groups during the war), and the danger of weapons being smuggling out of the country.
A number of bomb attacks have targeted Syrian security forces over the past month. Although Britain has an embassy in Syria, it advises its citizens not to travel to the country and says that any British citizens there should leave as soon as possible. It is also discouraging any British companies “from trading with or investing in” Syria.
In Yemen, recent attacks by al-Qaeda prompted calls for the presidential election to be delayed to allow time to better control the security situation, but the election is still due to take place next month.
The Depart of Foreign Affairs warns that “political demonstrations and disturbances are still liable to occur” in Tunisia and advises exercising caution if visiting the country. It also recommends caution when visiting Egypt and Bahrain.
[caption id="attachment_338901" align="alignnone" width="630" caption="6 February 2011: "We are the men of Facebook" is written on the ground as anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill, PA File)"][/caption]
Freedom of Expression
Social media has been credited with helping protesters organise the Arab Spring campaigns and to share information with those outside the protests, with reports and photographs being spread on Twitter and Facebook. However, analysts and commentators differ on how big an impact the internet really had in the Arab Spring; some maintain that social media inflated the numbers who turned out to protest (as in this Atlantic article), while others say that social media is not as widespread in this region as in other parts of the world and so had a limited impact (see this NATO review).
The Arab Spring has had mixed results in terms of reducing restrictions on, or the initimidation of, media workers or bloggers. In its latest Press Freedom Index for the Middle East and North Africa, Reporters Without Borders says that efforts to crack down on protests influenced some of the rankings, while transitions in power are not necessarily bringing improvements in the area of press freedom.
Tunisia has risen in the ranking from 164 to 134 since its uprising because the end of Ben Ali’s regime has facilitated “the emergence of real pluralism” in newspapers as well as brought about the end of systematic website filtering. Libya rose from 160 to 154 in the wake of a huge expansion in media outlets across the country in the wake of the uprising. However, it’s ranking still reflects the abuses perpetrated against journalists during the war.
Egypt fell sharply in the ranking from 127 to 166 because of efforts by Mubarak’s regime and the armed forces to suppress protests throughout 2011, and the arrests of and assaults on media workers and bloggers.
Bahrain, Yemen and Syria – all low-ranking countries already – fell further in the index due to violence used by security forces against journalists covering the anti-government demonstrations and efforts to block reporting. Bahrain was also criticised by Reporters Without Borders for using the media to promote the government’s agenda. Reports of violence in Syria have been difficult to verify for months because foreign reporters have been banned and the movement of national reporters is being restricted by the government.
According to figures from Amnesty International and the UN at least:
- 300 people died in Tunisia in December 2010 and January 2012
- 846 were killed in Egyptia in January and February 2011
- 5,000 were killed in Syria between March and December 2011
- 200 were killed in Yemen between February and December 2011
- 40 were killed in Bahrain between February and December 2011
No final figure has been reached for the number of people killed in Libya‘s civil war due to difficulties in accessing parts of the country during the conflict and the number of missing persons. The interim health minister estimated in September 2011 that 30,000 people had been killed between March and September 2011.