Middle East and North Africa

There are no open countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, and 72% of the population live in countries in crisis – far more than in any other region and twice the proportion it was in 2011.

Many countries in the region show little movement in their scores, but only because they have no further to fall: dictatorships with no respect for freedom of expression and brutal responses to dissent or discussion are entrenched across the region, often using national security narratives as a pretext to silence voices and bypass justice.

A decade after the Arab Spring, many of the catalysts for that movement remain unchanged: economic issues (deepened by the pandemic), unaccountable and undemocratic governments, and routine violations of the right to freedom of expression, especially protest.

Freedoms are struggling more than ever a decade after the Arab Spring

Even Tunisia, the success story of the Arab Spring, took worrying steps backwards in 2021.

The bright spots of hope in the region have faded considerably in recent years – Lebanon’s ongoing economic and political crisis has had serious human rights ramifications, and Tunisia suffered serious setbacks to its democratic consolidation in 2022 (see In focus: Tunisia).
In some Arab Spring countries, armed conflicts continue, creating a near impossible environment for expression and information, with citizens as well as journalists targeted in the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The Arab Spring’s demands for bread, dignity, and justice remain unfulfilled, amid deepening economic issues and entrenched repression across the

In fact, 2021 kicked off with protests across the region, mostly over standards of living: Tunisia, Lebanon, and Iraq saw their streets fill with people demanding a solution to the economic problems, which had been deepened by the pandemic in many cases. Many of these protests faced hostility and violence from authorities and security forces.

Difficulties for freedom of expression are not restricted to Arab Spring countries – far from it. The Iranian security forces’ notoriously violent response to protest does not show signs of change – they opened fire on unarmed civilians and shut off the Internet as a first response to
demonstrations over water security. The shutdowns are a human rights violation in themselves, but one which also serves to conceal and facilitate the brutal abuses Iran’s regime regularly commits against demonstrators.

The future also looks bleak for Iran’s online life. In 2021, a new law proposed placing the Internet under military and security bodies’ control, in addition to criminalising the use of circumvention (e.g. VPNs), increasing censorship, and consolidating the National Information Network. The future offline does not look much more hopeful: new President Ebrahim Raisi, formerly Head of the Judiciary, has overseen the arbitrary arrest and detention of thousands of individuals, including political dissidents, journalists, peaceful protesters, human rights defenders, and members of ethnic and religious minorities.

Iran is not alone in its brutality against protesters, nor in its imprisonment of critics. Algeria’s Hirak movement has been subjected to violence and huge numbers of arrests: at least 2,500 people have been arrested since 2019 when the movement began.

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