The 'Arab Spring': Five years on

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© John Moore/Getty Images

Protesters took to the streets across the Arab world in 2011, pushing their leaders to end decades of oppression.

The Middle East and North Africa was engulfed in an unprecedented outburst of popular protests and demand for reform. It began in Tunisia and spread within weeks to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria.

Long-standing authoritarian leaders were swept from power, including Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.

Many hoped that this “Arab Spring” would bring in new governments that would deliver political reform and social justice. But the reality is more war and violence, and a crackdown on people who dare to speak out for a fairer, more open society.

Hussein Ghrer, human rights activist, Syria
At some point we decided to stop being silent and our revolution started.
Refugees make their way across Europe, September 2015. © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Refugees make their way across Europe, September 2015. © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Refugees make their way across Europe, September 2015. © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Residents inspect a site hit by airstrikes, Syria, October 2015. © REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah Residents inspect a site hit by airstrikes, Syria, October 2015. © REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Residents inspect a site hit by airstrikes, Syria, October 2015. © REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

What happened next?

Five years later, human rights are under attack across the region. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children, have been killed during armed conflicts that continue to rage in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Syrian conflict has created the largest refugee crisis of the 21st century.

Most human rights activists and political leaders in Bahrain are behind bars.
Nabeel Rajab, human rights defender, Bahrain

In Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and other countries, governments are attacking free speech by locking up human rights activists, political opponents and critics, often in the name of counter-terrorism. What’s more, few have been brought to justice for the violence, killings and torture which took place during and after the protests of 2011.

What are we calling for?

Together, we need to push countries to stop attacking civilians during armed conflicts. They must also stop locking people up just for criticizing governments, and bring to justice the people responsible for human rights crimes.

Family of detained political activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, June 2015
The Regime in Egypt is waging war against the young who dare to dream of a bright future for themselves and their country.
The al-Shaymeh Education Complex for Girls after it was struck by missiles fired by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, Hodeidah, Yemen, 9 November 2015. © Amnesty International The al-Shaymeh Education Complex for Girls after it was struck by missiles fired by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, Hodeidah, Yemen, 9 November 2015. © Amnesty International
A school in Yemen struck by missiles fired by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. © Amnesty International
People in Tunisia celebrating during the first presidential elections, October 2014. © FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images People in Tunisia celebrating during the first presidential elections, October 2014. © FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
People in Tunisia celebrating during the first presidential elections, October 2014. © FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

After the "Arab Spring": Country by country 

Tunisia
The only relative “success story” with a new constitution and some justice for past crimes. But human rights are still under attack, and reforms are urgently needed. 

Egypt
Peaceful activists, critics of the government and many others remain in jail. Torture and other ill-treatment is rife. Hundreds have been sentenced to death and tens of thousands put behind bars for protesting or for their alleged links to the political opposition.

Bahrain
The authorities are silencing dissent by using unnecessary force, arresting and jailing protesters and political opposition leaders, and torturing detainees.

Libya
There are many armed conflicts across this deeply divided country. All sides have committed war crimes and serious human rights abuses.

Syria
The region’s bloodiest armed conflict, which emerged in response to the brutal suppression of mass protests by the government of Bashar al-Assad. Atrocious crimes are being committed on a mass scale and half the population has been displaced.

Yemen
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s air strikes and shelling by Huthi forces have killed more than 2,500 civilians. Some of the attacks amount to war crimes.

The "Arab Spring": in numbers

11m+

People forced from their homes in Syria since 2011.

50

People killed and hundreds injured during protests in Sana’a, Yemen, on 18 March 2011.

6,000

People injured by Egyptian security forces and "thugs" assisting them during the “25 January Revolution” in 2011.

Walking through the ruins of Kobane, Syria, March 2015. Credit: YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images Walking through the ruins of Kobane, Syria, March 2015. Credit: YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images
Walking through the ruins of Kobane, Syria, March 2015. Credit: YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images
The aftermath of air strikes in Aleppo, Syria, January 2016. Credit: KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images The aftermath of air strikes in Aleppo, Syria, January 2016. Credit: KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images
The aftermath of air strikes in Aleppo, Syria, January 2016. Credit: KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images

Syria since the ‘Arab Spring’: 8 key facts

  1. Bashar al-Assad’s government brutally suppressed mass protests which began on 15 March 2011. The violent response sparked the region’s most severe armed conflict in which more than 250,000 people have been killed, according to the UN.

  2. Since then, more than 11 million people have been forced from their homes, including around 7 million people within Syria and more than 4 million who are now refugees abroad, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

  3. Government forces have repeatedly shelled and bombed civilian areas using indiscriminate weapons, including barrel bombs. They’ve also bombed hospitals, targeted medical workers and mounted long-running sieges of opposition-held areas, depriving people of food, medicines and other necessities.

  4. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, approximately 65,000 people have been arrested by government security forces and are now missing in a network of unofficial detention centres. Others have been jailed for helping people forced from their homes by the fighting, or for speaking out about the situation in Syria.

  5. Intelligence agencies and other government forces continue to use torture on a massive scale. Thousands have died in custody since 2011 due to torture and other factors, including lack of food and medical access.

  6. The armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) has shelled civilian areas and killed scores of civilians and prisoners.

  7. Other armed groups including Jabhat al-Nusra have also attacked civilian areas, abducted suspected opponents and killed captives.

  8. Russian air strikes in support of the al-Assad government have killed hundreds of civilians and struck medical facilities. 

Syria since 2011: In numbers

65,000

People missing after being arrested by government forces, according to SNHR

250,000

People have been killed, according to the UN

4M

People are now refugees abroad, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan

A Saudi soldier near the Saudi-Yemeni border, April 2015. © FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images A Saudi soldier near the Saudi-Yemeni border, April 2015. © FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
A Saudi soldier near the Saudi-Yemeni border, April 2015. © FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
A man walks through rubble of a home destroyed by an airstrike in Dammaj al-Safra, Sa'da, July 2015. © Amnesty International A man walks through rubble of a home destroyed by an airstrike in Dammaj al-Safra, Sa'da, July 2015. © Amnesty International
A man walks through rubble of a home destroyed by an airstrike in Dammaj al-Safra, Sa'da, July 2015. © Amnesty International

Yemen after the ‘Arab Spring’: An overview

Mass protests erupted in January 2011 when President Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to change the constitution so he could stay in power for life. There followed months of political turmoil in which government forces killed hundreds of protesters.

In an event on 18 March 2011 that became known as the “Friday of Dignity”, around 50 people were killed and hundreds injured in Sana’a after armed men, including snipers positioned on the tops of surrounding buildings, opened fire at peaceful demonstrators.

President Saleh was forced to resign in February 2012 and a transition process followed which raised hopes of substantial reforms. However, the process was derailed in September 2014 when the Huthis, an armed group whose members adhere to Zaidi Shi’a Islam, entered Sana’a, helped by forces loyal to Saleh. 

Eventually, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government were forced to step down in early 2015. Then, in March 2015, a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition of at least ten Arab states began air strikes against the Huthis, sent ground troops, and imposed an air and sea blockade.

Read more: ‘Yemen: The forgotten war’.

Anti-Huthi forces have committed war crimes and other serious abuses. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate air-strikes, targeted civilians, and killed more than 2,000 people. The so-called Islamic State armed group has attacked Shi’a mosques, killing civilians.

Huthi forces have also committed war crimes and serious human rights abuses, including indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, attacks on hospitals and medical workers, and use of lethal force against protesters. They have also abducted and tortured people who opposed them.

© FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Political activist, Tunisia, December 2015
The only gains we achieved during the revolution were our individual and collective freedom. This freedom is now being destroyed in the name of terrorism.
A fighter from the Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) coalition at the entrance of Tripoli international airport, August 2014. Credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images A fighter from the Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) coalition at the entrance of Tripoli international airport, August 2014. Credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
A fighter from the Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) coalition at the entrance of Tripoli international airport, August 2014. Credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
Street battles and destruction in Benghazi, February 2015. © Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images Street battles and destruction in Benghazi, February 2015. © Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images
Street battles and destruction in Benghazi, February 2015. © Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

Libya since the "Arab Spring"

Five years ago, an initially peaceful uprising in Libya quickly developed into armed conflict involving Western military intervention and eventually ended when Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi was killed in October 2011. Successive governments then failed to prevent newly-formed militias of anti al-Gaddafi fighters from committing serious crimes for which they never faced justice. The country remains deeply divided and since May 2014 has been engulfed in renewed armed conflict. Here are seven ways human rights are under attack across the country:

  1. All sides have committed war crimes and serious human rights abuses, including indiscriminate and direct attacks on civilians and their property.

  2. Armed groups are out of control. The so-called Islamic State (IS) took over certain areas where it has carried out public execution-style killings, sometimes leaving victims’ corpses on public display.

  3. Migrants and refugees face serious abuse. Many are tortured, exploited and sexually abused along the smuggling route in and out of Libya. Thousands have also sought to leave Libya and cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in unseaworthy vessels.  

  4. Civilians bear the brunt of the conflict and violence across the country. Nearly 2.5 million people need humanitarian help including clean water, sanitation and food.

  5. Free speech is under attack. Journalists, human rights activists and NGO workers have been threatened, abducted and assassinated by various armed groups. TV stations have been vandalized, set ablaze and attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.

  6. Women’s rights are in retreat. Women activists have been intimidated and threatened.

  7. The legal system is barely functioning. Courts in some cities are closed because it’s so dangerous, and judges and lawyers have been attacked and abducted. Thousands of people seen as being loyal to al-Gaddafi have been detained for years without charge or trial.

LIBYA AFTER THE “ARAB SPRING”: IN NUMBERS

Approx 2.5M

People need humanitarian assistance and protection, including asylum-seekers, migrants and refugees.

435,000

Internally displaced people living in makeshift camps, schools and warehouses.

0

Militia members held to account for human rights abuses.

An anti-government protestor, Pearl roundabout, February 2011, Manama, Bahrain. © John Moore/Getty Images An anti-government protestor, Pearl roundabout, February 2011, Manama, Bahrain. © John Moore/Getty Images
An anti-government protestor, Pearl roundabout, February 2011, Manama, Bahrain. © John Moore/Getty Images
Protests at Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain, 2011. Credit: Mahmood Al-Yousif. Protests at Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain, 2011. Credit: Mahmood Al-Yousif.
Protests at Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain, 2011. Credit: Mahmood Al-Yousif.

Bahrain after the "Arab Spring"

When mass protests demanding reform broke out on 14 February 2011, they were met with violence from the Bahraini security forces. Since then, the country has become increasingly politically polarized, and those who have dared to speak out about the tragic human rights situation in the country have been punished.

Five years on, the people of Bahrain are still waiting for justice. Security officers act is if they have little fear of ever being held to account.
Amnesty International

Following the protests, the King set up the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), headed by independent international experts, to investigate crimes committed by the security forces. He publicly committed to implement its recommendations, which included the need to prosecute those responsible for torture and other serious human rights violations. Five years on, the people of Bahrain are still waiting for justice for both past and current abuses. Security officers act is if they have little fear of ever being held to account.

The Bahraini authorities have continued to crack down on dissent, and increasingly target people who take to social media to criticize the government. Protesters are met with tear gas and shotgun pellets, and some are beaten, arrested and jailed, often after unfair trials. People waiting to face trial have been tortured. And opposition political leaders – mostly belonging to the Shi’a majority population – are imprisoned.

Injustice in Bahrain: Selected sentences for different “crimes”

Life

imprisonment for leading the 2011 protests.

0 years

for a security officer who fatally shot a protester, acquitted of all charges on the grounds of “self-defence”.*

4 years

for an opposition politician who made a peaceful speech.

0 years

for a security officer acquitted of torturing a journalist in detention, despite multiple medical, forensic and other reports supporting her allegations.

* Since 2011, the Bahraini authorities opened cases against a number of officers for fatally shooting protesters. In some cases, investigations were closed without anyone being prosecuted. Several officers were acquitted on the grounds that they acted in “self-defence” and a small number received prison sentences of up to 10 years, reduced on appeal to between six months and three years. 

© Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Lina Ben Mhenni, Tunisian blogger who has experienced threats and intimidation
Can we talk about democracy at all in a country where someone is sent to jail with a heavy sentence just for expressing their beliefs?
Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square,  Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, 12 February 2011. © PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square,  Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, 12 February 2011. © PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square, Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, 12 February 2011. © PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
A boy sings in Tahrir Square, Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak steps down, February 2011. © Chris Hondros/Getty Images A boy sings in Tahrir Square, Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak steps down, February 2011. © Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A boy sings in Tahrir Square, Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak steps down, February 2011. © Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Egyptians mourn over a body following a crackdown on protests on 14 August 2013. 	© MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images Egyptians mourn over a body following a crackdown on protests on 14 August 2013. 	© MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptians mourn over a body following a crackdown on protests on 14 August 2013. © MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

Egypt after the "Arab Spring": 7 key facts

1. When the “25 January Revolution” erupted in 2011, Egyptian security forces, including riot police, police snipers and plain-clothed state security officers, as well as “thugs” working for supporters of ruler Hosni Mubarak, responded violently. At least 840 protestors were killed and more than 6,000 injured in 18 days.

2. In July 2013, the army backed the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s elected president, just a year after he took office. They launched a brutal crackdown on critics including Morsi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood – a political and social group whose supporters were elected to Egypt’s presidency and parliament in 2011 and 2012. The crackdown has continued under army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was elected president in May 2014. 

3. Around 1,000 people were killed on 14 August 2013 in protests at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square and across Egypt, according to the government. Many believe the death toll is far higher. The authorities have still not done enough to investigate hundreds of deaths caused by the security forces since 2013.

[President al-Sisi] has praised the youth of this country, yet so many of them are languishing in jail.
Brother of Mahmoud Hussein, who has spent over 700 days detained without charge or trial.

4. Tens of thousands of Morsi supporters, Muslim Brotherhood members and other government critics have been locked up, many in cramped and harsh conditions. Hundreds have been sentenced to death, including former president Morsi, or face long prison terms after massively unfair trials.

5. The authorities continue to crack down on free speech and the right to meet and assemble peacefully. They arrest and imprison journalists and online critics, and harass human rights groups.

6. New repressive laws have been introduced, including one which effectively bans protests. There’s also a new counter-terrorism law which gives the president emergency-style powers to “take necessary measures to ensure public order and security”, as well as imposing heavy fines on journalists whose reporting on “terrorism” differs from official statements.

7. Violence has spread across the country. In October 2015, more than 200 people were killed after a Russian airliner exploded over Sinai; many said it was brought down by a bomb. Egypt’s Public Prosecutor in Cairo and judges in northern Sinai were also killed in attacks claimed by armed groups, threatening the independence of the judiciary. 

Egypt after the "25 January Revolution": In numbers

22,000+

People arrested in the crackdown on dissent between July 2013 and July 2014 according to "security officials".

183

People sentenced to death in a single case linked to political violence in Cairo, February 2015.

11,800+

People arrested on suspicion of "terrorism" between January and October 2015

Outside the trial of government officials and security officers accused of killing 132 protestors, Tunisia, June 2012. © FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images Outside the trial of government officials and security officers accused of killing 132 protestors, Tunisia, June 2012. © FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Outside the trial of government officials and security officers accused of killing 132 protestors, Tunisia, June 2012. © FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Voting in the first presidential elections, Tunisia, October 2014. © FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images Voting in the first presidential elections, Tunisia, October 2014. © FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Voting in the first presidential elections, Tunisia, October 2014. © FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Blood on the ground after a deadly attack on tourists in Bardo Museum, Tunisia, March 2015. © FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images Blood on the ground after a deadly attack on tourists in Bardo Museum, Tunisia, March 2015. © FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Blood on the ground after a deadly attack on tourists in Bardo Museum, Tunisia, March 2015. © FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

Spotlight on Tunisia: The good...

Since the 2011 uprising, known as the “Jasmine revolution”, Tunisia has been widely viewed as the only success story of the “Arab Spring” protests, and has taken a number of major steps to support human rights.

Tunisians have adopted a new constitution which protects many important human rights, such as the freedom to speak out and to meet up freely, and bans torture. They have also elected a new parliament and president. Activist organizations and NGOs have flourished.

Some former officials have been tried and jailed for their roles in the violent response to the protests. A “truth and dignity” commission has also been set up to address crimes committed during the previous regime. 

...and the bad

Despite modest progress, the situation remains fragile. Hundreds of people were arrested after deadly attacks claimed by the armed group calling itself Islamic State. Many feared the authorities were abusing emergency measures.  

In July 2015, the government passed a draconian counter-terrorism law which means people can be detained without charge or access to a lawyer or the outside world for 15 days – putting them more at risk of being tortured

We witnessed a few months of revolutionary euphoria... But this didn’t last long.
Lina Ben Mhenni, Tunisian blogger

What’s more, little has been done to reform the security forces who are still torturing people and using excessive force during protests. Very few have been held responsible for their actions.

Free speech is also under threat. The authorities have prosecuted critics, especially those vocal about the security forces. Human rights activists, lawyers and journalists are increasingly criticized for speaking out.

Across the country, the early optimism of the “Jasmine revolution” is disappearing fast. Tunisia must not use fighting terrorism as an excuse to attack basic human rights. 

Tunisia after the “Arab Spring”: in numbers

53

Former government officials, police and others brought to trial for their involvement in the violent response to protests during the uprising.

3.5m

Voters in 2014 parliamentary elections.

At least 138

House arrests after attacks by armed groups in November 2015 (up to 10 December 2015)