Middle East and North Africa

Human Rights by region

Yemeni rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman shouts slogans as a policeman watches during an anti-government demonstration in Sana’a, Yemen, 15 February 2011.

© REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

“We are not scared of being killed, injured or tortured. Fear does not exist any more. People want to live in dignity. So we will not stop.” Ahmed Harara, who worked as a dentist, was injured in one eye by gunshot pellets during protests in Egypt on 28 January 2011, then a second time in the other eye on 19 November 2011, leaving him blind.

For the peoples and states of the Middle East and North Africa, 2011 was a truly momentous year. It was a year of unprecedented popular uprisings and tumult, a year in which the pent-up pressures, demands and protests of a rising generation swept aside a succession of veteran rulers who, almost until they fell, had appeared virtually unassailable. Others, at the year’s end, were still clinging to power but only through the most ruthless means, their futures hanging in the balance. The region as a whole was then still reeling amid the continuing tremors and aftershocks of the political and social earthquake that exploded in the first months of the year. Although much remained uncertain, the events of 2011 appeared likely to be every bit as significant for the peoples of the region as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire had been for the peoples of Europe and Central Asia. 

All across the Middle East and North Africa, 2011 was marked by mass demands for change – for greater liberty to speak and to act, free from the suffocating fear of state repression; for government transparency and accountability and an end to pervasive high-level corruption; for more jobs and fairer employment opportunities and  the means to seek a better standard of living; for justice and human rights, including the right to live one’s life and bring up one’s family in dignity and security. It was in support of such demands that hundreds of thousands of people, with women conspicuous in the vanguard, thronged onto the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi,  Sana’a and many other cities and towns across the region to demand change. They continued to do so despite the carnage wrought among them by government security forces. They did so with determination, resolution and naked courage, and in doing so freed themselves from the fear that their governments had for so long sought to imbue in order to keep them quiescent and in their place. For a time at least, the notion of people’s power gripped the region and shook it to its core. 

Initially, the protests mostly voiced popular frustration against the failure of national leaders to address people’s needs and aspirations. Those leaders responded all too characteristically by sending out their riot police and security agents to crush the protests by force; they succeeded only in pouring fuel on the flames and further igniting public outrage and defiance. As protesters were shot down in cold blood, rounded up in mass arrests, tortured and abused, so the popular mood hardened. Unintimidated by the bloodshed, more and more people rallied to the streets to demand the replacement or overthrow of national leaders who had become both discredited and despised as they sought to consolidate family dynasties to maintain their grip on power. The rapid fall of Tunisia’s President Zine El ‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali and then Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak resounded all across the region, sending a message of hope to advocates of change and reform in other states. For a time, it seemed that a new form of domino effect was taking place that would sweep out other repressive and authoritarian rulers from power. Within months, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s 42 years of abusive rule in Libya had been brought to an abrupt and bloody end, and in both Yemen and Syria long-standing regimes were fighting a rearguard action – literally – for their survival in the face of continuing mass demands for their demise. In Bahrain, the government used excessive force and repression to quell the protests yet ended the year committing to political and human rights reform. Elsewhere, in states such as Algeria, Jordan and Morocco, those in power were urgently promising the people reform and a greater say in government. In oil- and gas-rich Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, rulers used their financial reserves to try to address social grievances and try to keep the people sweet.

The uprisings

2011 dawned with Tunisia in ferment. For a time, President Ben ‘Ali sought to quash the protests in the same way that he had crushed earlier protests in the Gafsa region in 2008, through the application of brute force. In a few short weeks, some 300 Tunisians met violent deaths but, this time, without the resolve of the protesters being diminished. On 14 January, Ben ‘Ali’s nerve gave way. With other members of his clan, he boarded a plane and flew away to seek safe haven in Saudi Arabia. It was an electric moment, as both governments and people across the region recognized that what had until then seemed almost unthinkable – the enforced flight of an autocratic ruler of more than 20 years – had just been achieved. For the other repressive governments of the region, Ben ‘Ali’s abrupt demise sounded the alarm bells; for the mass of people watching events unfold on Al Jazeera and other satellite TV  stations, the Tunisian uprising inspired new hope and a sense that they too could obtain for themselves what Tunisia’s people had achieved.

Within two weeks, what had occurred in Tunisia was being mirrored on an even greater scale in Egypt. Cairo’s Tahrir Square had become the fulcrum and a key battleground in which Egyptians set forth their demands for change. Using the internet, social networking sites and mobile phones to help organize and co-ordinate their activities, within 18 days the protesters wrought the “25 January Revolution” and provoked the downfall of President Mubarak after 30 unbroken years in power. This they achieved in the face of extreme repression by the security forces and thugs hired by the government. At least 840 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured, with thousands more arrested, beaten or tortured. On 11 February, Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation and was replaced by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He retreated to his villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, from where he was summoned to a Cairo court in August to stand trial for corruption  and ordering the killing of protesters. 

Mubarak’s fall, which occurred in the full glare of the worldwide media, had the effect of spurring calls for mass protests in a rash of other cities and towns across the region. In Bahrain, starting in February, protesters belonging mostly to the country’s Shi’a Muslim majority mounted peaceful demonstrations and set up a protest  camp at the capital Manama’s Pearl Roundabout to demand a greater say in the running of the country and an end to their alleged marginalization by the ruling Al Khalifa family. The protesters were cleared away with excessive force days later and then with even greater brutality when they resumed their protests in March.  In Iran, the leaders of mass protests crushed by the government in 2009 called for new demonstrations, and were shut up under house arrest in response. 

In Algeria, the government called out the security forces in large numbers to deter demonstrations but also sought to reduce tension by lifting the 19-year-long state of emergency. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said promised to create thousands of new jobs and improved benefits for the unemployed, and ordered the release of detained protesters. In Saudi Arabia, the government was reported to have paid out more than US$100 billion to citizens while warning that all public demonstrations were banned. It mobilized the security forces to deploy against anyone attending a planned “Day of Rage” in Riyadh.

In Yemen, protests had begun in January, sparked by proposed constitutional changes that would enable President Ali Abdullah Saleh to remain in office for life and then hand power to his son. The protests continued throughout the year, spurred by the events in Egypt and elsewhere, while President Saleh’s forces fired indiscriminately into crowds of demonstrators and he manoeuvred to try and maintain his long monopoly of power. By the end of the year, the Yemeni President’s position had become seriously eroded. Nevertheless, he still clung to power as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) offered him immunity from prosecution despite the grim toll of unlawful killings and other gross human rights violations committed by his forces. That he and others responsible should be afforded impunity was an affront to justice and an outrageous betrayal of the victims of his regime’s crimes. 

In Libya, geographically lying between Tunisia and Egypt, the events in those countries brought new hope to a population that, after 42 years under Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, was denied freedom of speech, independent political parties, trades unions or civil society organizations. Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi had maintained power for so long by playing one section of the population against another, favouring those who he considered loyal and clamping down ruthlessly on those who expressed dissent. Formerly an international pariah for his alleged sponsorship of terrorism, in recent years he had enjoyed a blossoming rapprochement with Western democracies as Libya’s oil extraction industry developed and Libya assumed a new importance as a means of transit for African refugees and migrants seeking to gain entry to Europe. Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi appeared confident and in firm control as first Ben ‘Ali and then Mubarak fell, but in February anti-government demonstrations erupted into a popular revolt in Libya too. This quickly developed into an international armed conflict in which NATO became involved and culminated on 20 October in al-Gaddafi’s capture and violent death as he sought to flee from his besieged stronghold in the city of Sirte. A National Transitional Council then took office but by the end of the year it had yet to establish its authority and Libya was awash with arms and armed militias which carried out reprisals against suspected al-Gaddafi loyalists and presented a continuing threat to public security. 

In Syria, where the regime headed by the al-Assad family has been in power since 1970, the first stirrings of protest in February were low key and hesitant. However, when security forces detained and reportedly abused children who had chalked up anti-government slogans in the southern town of Dera’a, they set off mass protests  that rapidly spread from city to city. Caught off guard, the government closed the country to the world’s media and to independent observers. It launched a crackdown of vicious intensity against unarmed protesters, using snipers on rooftops, firing into crowds and deploying army tanks in towns and villages, while all the time claiming that the killings were the work of shadowy anti-government armed gangs. By the end of the year, the UN reported, some 5,000 people, mostly civilians, had been killed while thousands more had been wounded or arrested or both. In some pockets of the country, an incipient civil war appeared to be developing between the regime’s forces and soldiers who had defected to join the protests.

Syria’s government tried to conceal both the extent of the protests and the violence of its response but was largely thwarted due to the courage and determination of local activists and witnesses who recorded the carnage on mobile phone cameras and uploaded hundreds of videos onto the internet. Some showed the bodies of individuals who had been tortured to death in detention and, in some cases, mutilated; among them were children. 

The international response

The US and other Western governments that had long been principal allies of the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt initially failed to grasp the significance of the protests and were slow to react. Soon, however, they were hurrying to reformulate policy, now finally acknowledging the abusive nature of the regimes at risk. When Libya descended into armed conflict, they intervened decisively against Colonel al-Gaddafi, with the support of the key Gulf states, using a UN Security Council mandate to protect civilians that paved the way for a NATO air campaign which swung the balance against the Libyan leader. 

In Bahrain, where the US navy’s Fifth Fleet has its base, and particularly in Syria and Yemen, protesters were also in desperate need of protection from the murderous policies of their governments. The international community, however, was notably less inclined to offer them support. While the Security Council had referred Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court, it took no such action against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad despite compelling evidence that his forces were committing crimes against humanity. 

The Russian Federation, China and the governments of the emerging powerhouses of Brazil, India and South Africa all used their leverage at the Security Council to forestall effective action on Syria even as the UN’s own human rights chief spoke out against the crimes being committed by the al-Assad regime. Saudi Arabia also denounced the Syrian government’s crimes while denying Saudi Arabians the right to demonstrate and after sending troops into Bahrain only hours before the authorities there launched a bloody crackdown in March. Overall, it was a depressingly familiar story, with governments of all political hues continuing to operate selectively and, whatever their rhetoric, to subordinate human rights to their own perceived and partisan interests.   

Conflict and intolerance of dissent

The uprisings that dominated the headlines throughout 2011 overshadowed other deep-seated problems that retained disastrous potential for human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, and beyond. 

Israel maintained its blockade of Gaza, prolonging the humanitarian crisis there, and continued aggressively to expand settlements in the Palestinian West Bank territory it has occupied since 1967. The two leading Palestinian political organizations, Fatah and Hamas, despite a reconciliation agreement signed in May remained divided and targeted each other’s supporters, while Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups mounted tit-for-tat attacks in Gaza. It was a sorry and all too familiar tale that continued to wreak a heavy cost on so many people’s lives.

Iran’s government became increasingly isolated internationally and tolerated no dissent at home; human rights defenders, women’s and minority rights activists were among those persecuted, and the death penalty was used on an extensive scale, ostensibly to punish criminals but also to intimidate the populace. Globally, only China carried out more executions.

Elsewhere in the region, it was unclear how the withdrawal of all US military forces from Iraq would impact security there after eight years of conflict. The issue of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara still remained as a running sore, poisoning government relations in the Maghreb.

Other patterns of human rights violations remained and were both central in driving the popular uprisings and protests and also deepened by governments’ responses. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials, and unlawful killings by state forces remained common and widespread across the region. Almost without exception, those in power allowed their forces to kill and torture with impunity. In Egypt, the SCAF bowed to popular demands and disbanded the State Security Investigations service, which was notorious for torture under Hosni Mubarak. Torture, however, did not cease; the army simply took it over, even subjecting some women protesters to forced “virginity testing”, while also arresting and sending thousands of civilians for trial before unfair military courts. Yet thousands of Egyptians remained stubborn in the face of the new authorities’ repression and continued to demand political, social and human rights changes. 


Discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity, religion, national origin and other factors, such as sexual orientation, remained. To a large extent, the sense of injustice this engendered was reflected in the wave of protests, as when stateless Bidun gathered together in Kuwait to demand that they be recognized as citizens. At the same time, the turmoil also deepened divisions. In Libya, both Libyans and foreign nationals were targeted by militias because of their skin colour. There was growing fear within the Syria’s complex of different faiths and communities that the country might descend into a civil war of such bitterness and hatred as the one that tore Lebanon apart from 1975 to 1990 – a war whose legacy of enforced disappearances and distrust still remains conspicuously unaddressed. In Egypt, discrimination against Copts remained rife. In Iran, religious and ethnic minorities continued to face discrimination in law and, in the case of the Baha’i minority, persecution.

Migrants, many of them originating from sub-Saharan Africa, were among the principal victims of the Libya conflict. Thousands were forcibly displaced by the fighting. Many escaped to Egypt or Tunisia but others were trapped for weeks or months and subject to racist attacks in Libya, often accused of being African “mercenaries” recruited by Colonel al-Gaddafi. Some who reached Egypt and Tunisia, many of them Eritreans and Somalis, were unable to return to their home countries for fear of persecution and at the end of 2011 were consigned to desolate desert camps to await resettlement in European or other countries where they would be safe. Still others lost their lives trying to cross the sea to Italy.

All across the region, migrant workers from poor and developing countries were abused and exploited even though, as in several Gulf states, they were the lifeblood of the economy. They were inadequately protected, if offered any protection at all, under local labour laws. Women domestic workers suffered worst of all – they were victims all too often of multiple discrimination, as women, as migrants, and as foreign nationals whose own governments frequently took little or no interest in their plight.

Economic concerns - housing and livlihoods

At the end of 2011 it was still too early to assess how Egypt’s “25 January Revolution” had impacted, let alone improved, the lot of the millions of poor and marginalized residents of the country’s teeming informal settlements. Many lived in areas officially designated as “unsafe” due to unstable rock formations or other hazards, without access to basic services – clean water, effective sanitation, electricity – and were liable to be forcibly evicted from their homes without adequate notice or any consultation. During the year, further forced evictions were carried out in Manshiyet Nasser, the sprawling slum-like informal settlement on the outskirts of Cairo in which over 100 residents were killed by a rock fall in 2008, under the SCAF’s authority, perpetuating the policy pursued under Hosni Mubarak and rendering more families homeless. 

The Israeli authorities also continued to force people from their homes – both Palestinians resident in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Arab Israelis resident in officially “unrecognized” villages in the Negev and elsewhere – as they continued their policy of demolishing homes and other buildings erected without official permits that they themselves withheld. By contrast, thousands of Jewish Israelis living in settlements unlawfully established on occupied Palestinian lands received every encouragement to further expand, develop and consolidate the settlements even though these settlements are prohibited under international law. Meanwhile, Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip continued to suffocate the local economy and prolong what is a deliberate humanitarian crisis whose heaviest impact is on the most vulnerable – children, the elderly, those needing specialist medical care not available in Gaza. The blockade constituted nothing less than collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.6 million inhabitants, and breached international law.

When 24-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on 17 December 2010 in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, few could have predicted the regional firestorm of protest and change that his tragic and fatal act would ignite. A year later, the outburst of euphoria had all but evaporated. The early gains of the popular uprisings remained in the balance and the struggles for change in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere continued to levy a heavy cost in people’s lives and gross abuses of human rights. Yet at the end of 2011 there was a palpable feeling that the old discredited order was in the process of being consigned to history through the valiant and determined efforts of the people. For the peoples of the region, it appeared that the long march to freedom, justice and human rights for all had undoubtedly begun.

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