Paris – In 2019, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was stirred by a staggering amount of anti-government protests with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, demanding political transformation and denouncing their government’s rampant corruption and intolerance towards freedom of expression. Despite brutal crackdowns from security forces and government lockdowns to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, one year on, protesters are still gathering in large numbers demanding the very same thing.
Demonstrations in Algeria notably began in February 2019 with many of Algeria’s youth leading protests to demonstrate their distaste for the country’s long-standing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika who was seeking a fifth term in office. Despite agreeing to military demands to resign in April 2019, demonstrations intensified in the build up to the December 2019 elections, with many unconvinced that the election process would be fair and that the same group of people would maintain political power and therefore continue their record of corruption and self-serving behaviour.
As the presidential election garnered widespread opposition, an estimated 1 million protesters around Algeria participated in the country’s 37th consecutive weekly demonstration calling for the military to allow a civilian elected government and the release of all protesters that had been arrested during protests. On 12 December 2019, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected president and protests consequently continued. President Tebboune announced that the government would be “open to a dialogue” with the Hirak movement and wanted to “integrate democracy, rule of law and respect human rights,” by releasing some prisoners of conscience detained for their participation in the protests; hundreds still remain behind bars for their peaceful activism and participation in the Hirak movement. Since February 2019, the number of peaceful protesters that had been prosecuted reached more than 1,400 according to many local human rights organizations and lawyers.
On 5 October 2020, 400-500 protesters gathered calling for the release of Hirak members still detained, which according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD) includes journalists, activists and other civil society actors. The police dispersed demonstrators and made a number of arrests. With only a few weeks before the country’s constitutional-reform referendum, undoubtedly there will be more rallies and demonstrations in the lead up to the referendum and likely afterwards should demands not be met.
17 October 2020, marked one year since anti-government protests broke out across Lebanon, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Uniting against the political elite, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding an end to the country’s sectarian regime and economic calamity. In October 2019, demonstrations continued to grow as anger mounted over a proposed tax on messaging services such as WhatsApp and decades of pervasive corruption which provoked Lebanon’s rubbish crisis, water and electricity shortages and multiple banks’ decision to limit foreign transfers into the country and cap cash withdrawals to $200. Calling it “the revolution,” protesters continued with demonstrations periodically for the better part of a year, despite security forces responding with excessive force such as tear gas, water cannons, rocks, firecrackers, rubber bullets, metal bars and sticks; resulting in the injuries of hundreds of protesters and authorities.
The situation in Lebanon was exasperated by a deadly explosion on 4 August 2020, triggered by roughly 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate carelessly stored in a warehouse in the Beirut port, killing at least 204 people, injuring more than 6,500 and over 300,000 people homeless in the city. An estimated 70,000 people also lost their jobs. The devastating incident angered the Lebanese people with many seeing the blast as the final stroke of prolonged suffering after the country’s long string of economic woes and undemocratic governance. Amnesty International and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) reported, “It is increasingly clear that the current Lebanese authorities have no intention of conducting an effective, transparent and impartial investigation into the explosion – denying victims their right to truth, justice and remedy, including the families of the firefighters who died doing their jobs at the port.”
Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis in decades with its local currency losing 75% of its value. On the anniversary of the country’s anti-government demonstrations, the people of Lebanon, still feeling betrayed, reiterated that one year on, “the revolution” is here to stay and the people will continue to call for a complete transformation of the country’s political landscape, until radical change and support towards Lebanon’s economy and society is at the forefront.
Iraq has had a long-standing history of unrest with various wars with neighbouring countries, suffered through multiple UN sanctions and endured two US invasions which lead to the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Moreover the country has undergone sectarian violence as well as the rise and fall of the Islamic State group, leaving millions of displaced persons, devastated infrastructure and an enraged, helpless nation.
On 1 October 2019, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Baghdad and southern cities of Iraq to express their anger with corruption, unemployment and poor public services. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation in November 2019, however his departure did not put an end to the country’s turmoil. Demonstrations quickly became violent when security forces responded with live ammunition, tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse mass demonstrations. Authorities also introduced an open-ended curfew to control demonstrations and blocked the internet to hinder communications to organize more protests.
The authorities’ use of lethal force to silence dissidents has been alarming, with varying reports finding at least 550 people killed in protest-related violence. Over 27,000 people have been injured since protests began and 2,800 arrested. From October 2019 to March 2020, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) confirmed the enforced disappearances of 123 people for their participation in protests.
To mark Iraq’s first anniversary of the demonstrations that demanded the dismantling of the ruling elite, thousands re-kindled protests by challenging youth employment, decent public services and fair elections. Remembering those that died, protesters chanted slogans like, “We want the fall of the regime,” and called for justice for those that lost their lives in protests last year. Demonstrations have since continued, with many turning violent and resulting in the injuries of both security personnel and protesters.
These uprisings that continue to unfold in the Arab world are a striking reminder of the Arab Spring which called for freedom and an end to totalitarian regimes and their corruptible leaders. Bravely risking their lives, thousands of people continue to challenge their leaders out of anger and complete desperation, but with what goal? Governments have fought back with sweeping campaigns that have put people behind bars, humiliated, tortured, abducted, injured and killed thousands. While protesters have made some progress with the resignations and oustings of long-term leaders, it appears that their successors only continue with the same repressive inequality.
These systems need to evolve, instead of changing the names of the players the game needs to change. Moreover, the international community must change its policies and put an end to their open handed support to tyrants and dictators in the MENA region.
For the situation to change in the region, a new generation must move forward and demand change by which the youth invest in their political future as well as themselves. This can only happen if they are allowed to question, protest and vote. Security services need to be reined in while civil society organizations must be allowed to develop.