The spirit behind the 2011 Arab protests that saw the ousting of old rulers was alive and kicking again this month.
When the ailing president of Algeria announced he was going to run for a fifth term in office, nationwide strikes and protests erupted. Since a stroke in 2013, President Bouteflika, a veteran of Algeria’s war of independence, has made limited public appearances and frequent trips abroad for medical treatment. This week, following increasing protests, he made the surprise announcement that he would not run for another term and would cancel April’s elections. Yet, the next steps for Algeria are unclear.
President Bouteflika himself promised to help establish a new system, a new national charter to be drawn up by an independent commission, and a new constitution to be voted on by the public. So while he is not running again, he will remain in position for another year. Protests have continued as many remain sceptical, suspecting that the proposed process is designed to gain time for the regime to keep control without making sweeping changes. Algeria will be the country to watch this year.
Sudan has also seen nationwide protests since December against its long-time ruler, President Omar al-Bashir. Demonstrations were initially triggered by increased bread and fuel prices but escalated into calls for al-Bashir to step down. In February, he declared a year-long state of emergency to put a stop to the protests. Sudan’s parliament this week approved the decree but reduced its length to six months. Under the state of emergency all protests will be banned while security forces will be given increased powers. Protesters who have been held have reported brutal abuse while in detention.
Anger over rail tragedy
In Egypt, President el-Sisi warned citizens against protests on grounds that these damage foreign investments in the country, stability and the fight against terrorism. Without naming countries, he appeared to refer to public demonstrations elsewhere in the region and seemed concerned that there should be no overspill. His call also came after a shocking train crash in the capital’s Ramses railway station, which killed 22 people and injured 45 others. The incident triggered an outburst of anger over under-funding of Egypt’s crumbling rail infrastructure with online calls for protests. In an area where protests were expected to take place, security forces randomly stopped people and checked their social media accounts. Around 70 people nationwide were arrested. Currently, the Egyptian parliament is looking to extend el-Sisi’s rule beyond 2022.
On the church front, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church joined hands with the Islamic Ministry of Endowments and Diaconia, the development organisation of two Swedish Churches, to launch a two-year programme: “Make peace with everyone”. The initiative aims to tackle the religious extremism and intolerance behind prejudice and attacks against Christian individuals and premises. The two-year pilot will focus on changing attitudes among women and children in three governorates with a view to rolling it out further.
Turkey has entered its local election season, with voting at the end of this month for members of parliament and city mayors. The latter posts are highly significant: President Erdogan himself rose to prominence as the mayor of Istanbul. In the last local elections, Erdogan’s AKP won comfortably in the Anatolian heartlands but faced serious losses in major cities. The fact that former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has been asked to stand down as Speaker of Parliament to run for the position of Governor of Istanbul shows the depth of AKP concern over these elections.
Things are not going well for the President. Economic performance has always been a major factor behind his electoral successes but the end of last year saw the Turkish economy officially enter a recession for the first time in 15 years. Just ahead of the elections, the European Parliament is set to vote on Turkey’s accession bid to the EU. A European Parliament committee has already recommended to suspend accession talks. Although not a binding decision, the expected rejection will increase pressure on Ankara on human rights as well as the economy.
In Iran, there was a fascinating moment when Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif – architect of the Iran nuclear deal – resigned from his job. This was apparently prompted by his non-involvement in meetings during President Assad of Syria’s visit to Tehran. Amusingly, he announced his resignation in an Instagram post, and a couple of days later used social media to say he would return to his job. The irony is that most social media platforms are banned in Iran.
Worsening human rights
More seriously, a variety of different cases highlighted worsening human rights in the country. Iran’s continuing imprisonment and refusal to give proper medical care to British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe prompted the UK Foreign Minister to give her diplomatic status. This rare move escalates her case to a dispute between states and will enable the UK to raise it in forums like the United Nations. Three days after other nations marked International Women’s Day, the husband of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh announced the draconian sentence imposed on her by a Tehran court: 38 years in jail and 148 lashes. Sotoudeh, who has defended opposition activists including women who removed their headscarves in public protests, was sentenced on national security charges that she denies. Six Christians, including Pastor Matthias Haghnejad, have also been arrested in a heightened crackdown on Iranian believers. Shamiram Issavi, the wife of a well-known Assyrian pastor currently serving a 10-year-sentence, had her appeal hearing against a five-year sentence delayed. News that Tehran has appointed a hardline new head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, points to a bleak line of travel for human rights in the country.
In Syria, multiple news outlets are covering the last battle to recapture the remaining small town held by so-called Islamic State (IS). Intensified air and ground strikes by the US-led coalition and Kurdish ground forces seem set to clear Baghouz. Tens of thousands of IS members and families have surrendered or been captured and now pose important questions and challenges: Where will they end up? Who will hold them and try them? The British media has given wide coverage to IS brides and triggered a national debate on whether those who left the UK for the caliphate should be allowed to return. While the group is defeated as a territorial entity, the question of Islamic militancy and those thousands across the region who embraced or, as children, were indoctrinated into its ideology remains.