The Year of Rebellion

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egypt demonstration protest

Demonstrators' resilience in 2011 has changed the regional context for human rights © AP Photo / Tarek Fawzy

This week, we  approach the first major anniversary of the popular uprisings that began to sweep through the Middle East and North Africa last year. On January 14, 2011, Tunisia’s long time president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country to Saudi Arabia. Since December Ben Ali has been on trial – in absentia – along with about 40 other senior officials, for the killing of protesters.

The following weeks will be marked by the anniversaries of uprisings and the resignations of repressive dictators who were ultimately swept away by “a power governments cannot suppress” (transporting a Howard Zinn term to a different region).

No matter what repressive politicians would like you to believe (yes, I am especially referring to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad here) the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa are not driven by foreign intervention, but by one of the most impressive grassroots movements of my lifetime. Denying this fact would not only be a mischaracterization of the protests, but would also be an insult to the many protesters who are marching relentlessly through the capitals and towns of the region in pursuit of their basic human rights.

Reflecting on this tumultuous and inspiring year, I can only express my admiration for the hundreds of thousands of people across the region who are risking their lives for human rights and dignity. Being a human rights campaigner myself, I am humbled in the presence of the masses of people that organizers were able to mobilize—often led by tech-savvy young people and women.

The role of women in the uprising should be undisputed, and the October awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a leading pro-reform activist from Yemen, Tawakkol Karman, is the first recognition of the central role women have played in the uprisings in the last year. Whether in Bahrain, Syria, Iraq or Egypt, women have been at the heart of demonstrations and activism, and have not been exempt from some of the worst violence.

Throughout the last year, staff and activists at Amnesty International have sought to support the mass uprising as best as we could, trying to mobilize as much as possible to advocate for human rights protection for the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters, demand accountability and to simply show our solidarity. Rest assured that we’ll continue to stand with you until all rights for all people across the region are fully realized.

A challenging way forward
It will take a while to get to this point, but I am optimistic that we’ll get there—despite the many challenges ahead. Many of the ongoing issues and remaining human rights challenges have been identified in the new Amnesty International report, Year of Rebellion: State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa. The report concludes that despite the great optimism over the toppling of brutal regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, fundamental reforms to prevent continuing repression and abuses remain unfulfilled, with governments failing to address the scale of change demanded by the protest movements.

In Egypt for example, the abuses committed today by Egypt’s military rulers are in some aspects worse than those under Hosni Mubarak’s rule. I was shocked to learn that between October and December 2011 at least 84 people died due to the violent suppression of ongoing protests by the army and security forces. Torture in detention has continued, and more civilians have been tried before military courts in one year than during the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. Women have been targeted for humiliating treatment in order 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.

Inconsistent International Response
The international community failed impressively to put human rights first in its response to the popular uprisings. Although the international community had used the protection of human rights as a reason for military intervention in Libya, the U.N. Security Council, stymied by Russia and China in particular, has only issued one weak statement condemning the violence in Syria.

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

The inconsistent response by international actors couldn’t be more visible than in the U.S. government’s actions. I am quoting my colleague Sanjeev Bery here, who makes a great point:

The Obama administration has been a forceful advocate for human rights in countries like Syria but in Egypt, where the United States maintains diplomatic and military relationships, hostile security forces continue to use U.S.-supplied weapons to violate human rights. In Bahrain, the administration has suspended a proposed $53 million shipment of U.S. weapons. But we believe this sale should be cancelled outright.

Please follow this blog over the following weeks for a series of postings on the MENA anniversaries that will include updates on how you can support activists and human rights defenders throughout the region in their work.

Learn more about the Year of Rebellion

Take a look at this slideshow of pictures from the last year:

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