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What You Need to Know About the Arab Spring

March 20, 2019

The Trials of Spring tells the story of nine women on the front lines during the Arab Spring uprisings and their aftermaths in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

Since 2011, much has changed. Sadly, much has changed for the worse.

What is the Arab Spring?

In 2011, a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and — in some cases — armed rebellion, spread across the Middle East. Autocrats across the region were brought down by demonstrators calling for democracy, human rights, and religious tolerance.

How did it begin?

Dissatisfaction with the autocratic rulers and economic instability had been growing in the region for decades. “The Arab Spring” was kicked off in Tunisia by a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi who, frustrated with his unemployment, high food prices and the harassment he endured by public officials, set himself on fire in December 2010. Protests soon began and brought an end to the 20-year rule of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011.

Soon after, country after country seemed to fall into a state of revolution.

Protests against Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who ruled the country for almost thirty years, lasted for 18 days until Mubarak resigned.

At that point, the uprisings had spread all over the region, with Yemen, Bahrain and Syria all engaged in fully-fledged revolutions against their governments.

What has happened since?

In Egypt, former military leader turned President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s continues to preside over the worst human rights crisis in the country in decades.

Police systematically use torture, arbitrary arrests, and enforced disappearances to silence political dissent. Thousands of civilians have been tried by military courts. Human Rights Watch says the government is working to eradicate independent civil society in the country. The government has introduced restrictive NGO legislation, detained journalists, and has prosecuted numerous human rights defenders.

Libya’s political and security crisis continues as two authorities, the Tripoli based UN-backed Government of National Accord and the Interim Government based in eastern Libya, compete for legitimacy and territorial control. Protracted armed clashes have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and interrupted access to basic services such as healthcare and electricity.

Militias and armed groups, often with links to the competing governments, carry out arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances, seizure of property and forced displacement. Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, including children, who flock to Libya mostly en route to Europe, experience torture, sexual assault and forced labor by prison guards, coast guard forces, and smugglers.

The conflict in Syria has created the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II with over 300,000 people dead. According to the U.N., more than 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes. Syrians are now the largest refugee population in the world.

The Syrian government, and its allies, have raced to secure territories and consolidate gains, using prohibited chemical weapons, indiscriminately attacking civilians and withholding humanitarian aid. Practices of arbitrary detention and torture remain widespread. Anti-government armed groups have attacked, kidnapped, and tortured civilians. Civilian casualties from U.S. and US-led coalition airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State surged, while ISIS planted landmines and used human shields.

Bahrain’s human rights climate has continued to deteriorate. Courts convict and imprison peaceful dissenters, including prominent human rights defenders and opposition leaders, and file trumped-up charges against their relatives. Security forces use excessive force to disperse peaceful assemblies. Authorities have failed to hold officials accountable for torture. Courts have stripped the citizenship of hundreds of citizens and deported dozens of them, including dissidents, journalists, and lawyers, as punishments for offenses that, in reality, include peaceful opposition to, or criticism of, the government.

In 2017, the government shut down the only remaining independent newspaper in the country.

Yemen has been devastated by a conflict that escalated in 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened after the rebel Houthi movement seized control of much of the west of the country and forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee abroad.

At least 6,660 civilians have been killed and 10,560 injured in the war, according to the UN. The fighting and a partial blockade by the coalition have also left 22 million people in need of humanitarian aid, created the world’s largest food security emergency, and led to a cholera outbreak that has affected 1.1 million people. The UN has warned that half the country — 14 million people —  is facing “pre-famine” conditions.

While Tunisia experienced several deadly attacks by Islamist extremists in 2015, which led its parliament to adopt a new counterterrorism law that critics say imperils human rights, the country is known as the relative success story of the Arab Spring. The 2014 constitution guarantees key civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. In 2017, parliament passed a measure outlawing violence against women.