'Political systems are broken': A year of Covid-19 and repression in the Middle East

'Political systems are broken': A year of Covid-19 and repression in the Middle East
In-depth: Amnesty International's annual report for 2020/21 reveals the scope of the abuses Middle Eastern governments perpetrated while the pandemic was raging.
7 min read
07 April, 2021
Human rights defenders were among those targeted by MENA governments this year. [Getty]
The devastating scale of coronavirus' toll on the Middle East and North Africa has been revealed by Amnesty International in its 2020/21 annual report, released on Wednesday.

The document, subtitled "The State of the World's Human Rights," makes for difficult reading and gives special consideration to the inequities and abuses Covid-19 has facilitated and exacerbated.

These include the targeting of hospitals by governments and militias in Syria and Libya and the widespread use of pandemic-related states of emergency to crack down on dissent.

Abuse of health workers

Unsurprisingly, much of the repression Amnesty's report discusses this year is health related. In Egypt and Iran, medics were detained and harassed for speaking out about the state's response to the virus.

A minimum of nine Egyptian healthcare workers were held under investigation, accused of terror offences or "spreading false news," including for raising doubts about their own safety.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty's MENA regional director, said: "The courage shown by health workers who have put their lives on the line despite tremendous risks must be recognized." In many places, this meant fighting the virus despite insufficient supplies of PPE and inadequate testing regimes. As such, revelations about their mistreatment in the region are particularly hard hitting.

Ordinary Algerians, Jordanians and Moroccans were unjustly prosecuted for 'obstructing' authorities or 'spreading false news' about Covid this past year

Their repression has also had wider implications for efforts to combat the virus. Morayef told The New Arab that freedom of expression – and particularly health workers' right to critique their government's handling of the pandemic – is pivotal to success.

"Transparency underlies everything," she said, adding that the Iranian and Egyptian cases were "so destructive" because they set those countries on a path of preventing all critical analysis of health officials' actions.

Read more: Death or jail: Egypt's medics battle Covid-19
and state persecution

Consequently, citizens were left uninformed about the state of the pandemic, particularly as both Tehran and Cairo lashed out at journalists who published materials casting doubt on official coronavirus numbers.

Morayef said the lack of transparency ultimately left people unable to make educated choices about their safety, including when Egyptian authorities decided to prioritise the economy over infection rates. Last June, the government allowed restaurants and cafés to reopen while 59 percent of ICU beds were still occupied.

Societal repression: nothing new

In many cases, the violations of human dignity Amnesty mentions are not new but mark an intensification of pre-existing crises. Indeed, the repression of medical workers is part of a broader, long-term practice of punishing dissent across entire populations.

Ordinary Algerians, Jordanians and Moroccans were unjustly prosecuted for "obstructing" authorities or "spreading false news" about Covid-19 this past year. States of emergency implemented to deal with the medial emergency were used to justify this. 

It's just even more disappointing that in the midst of a pandemic there wasn't even that one pause to stand back and respect the right to health

Simultaneously, human rights defenders languished in prison in Saudi Arabia, had property confiscated in Iran and were placed under increased digital surveillance across the region. Amnesty's own Laith Abu Zeyad, a Palestinian living in the occupied West Bank, had appeals of a travel ban imposed on him since October 2019 denied, most recently on Tuesday. During a court battle last May, evidence provided by the Israeli Security Agency was kept secret – even from Abu Zeyad himself.

Read more: Saudi court denies Loujain Al-Hathloul's appeal, upholds her travel ban

Asked why the year of Covid saw so many abuses, Morayef told The New Arab that while pandemic circumstances have provoked heavy-handedness, authoritarian Middle Eastern governments don't require an invitation. "That's their kneejerk response… to silence and repress," she said, noting that charges like "spreading false news" are in place across most of the region.

Oppressive treatment of Palestinians

Unjust treatment of the Palestinian people by Israel is similarly an old story. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been living under military occupation since 1967, when the Jewish state captured these areas in the Six-Day War. Since then, human rights activists around the world have decried the oppression they face, often calling this Israeli apartheid. Commonly referenced examples include the imposition of military law on Palestinian civilians and placing restrictions on their movements that do not apply to Israelis.

Although coronavirus is a novel problem, Morayef agrees Tel Aviv's response has been in keeping with its long-term behaviour. In December, it decided to vaccinate its own citizens and residents – but not those Palestinians whose lives it controls, save the 100,000 who work in Israel or within West Bank settlements. According to Amnesty, this means Israel "is in violation of its obligation as [an] occupying power" to fight epidemics.

Read more: Why is Israel denying Covid vaccine to Palestinians? Two words: Medical apartheid

Not only does this violate Palestinians' right to health but since health determines your ability to work during a pandemic, it is in contravention of their economic rights too, Morayef said.

This discrimination also risks worsening existing restrictions on Palestinians' movements, who require permission to enter Israel from Gaza for medical treatment, for instance. Depending on the speed of the Occupied Territories' vaccine rollout, a real or perceived risk of transmission to vulnerable Israelis who cannot receive the jab could make this already fraught avenue even more problematic.

Hospitals hit by war

The oppressive use of medicine extends beyond Palestine-Israel and includes attacks on hospitals in warzones. Amnesty says that Syrian and Russian troops "carried out direct attacks" on medical facilities and other civilian infrastructure through bombing campaigns in the Idlib, Hama and Aleppo governorates.

Read more: Doctors and nurses died as Iran ignored virus concerns: report

Meanwhile, Libya's Al-Khadra General Hospital, specifically selected as a Covid treatment facility, was shelled last April and May. Armed groups there have also kidnapped medical professionals and even prevented Tuareg and Tabu ethnic minorities from accessing care.

Although Médecins Sans Frontières' (MSF) Michiel Hofman said that assaults on hospitals were becoming the "new normal" as early as 2016, they now take on a greater significance still.

"It's just even more disappointing that in the midst of a pandemic there wasn't even that one pause to stand back and respect the right to health," Morayef said.

This is particularly true in a region currently facing a resurgence of the virus in the run up to Ramadan, typically a highly social month. The impact of any attacks in this period could be compounded.

The courage shown by health workers who have put their lives on the line despite tremendous risks must be recognized

International leaders cause chaos

Though domestic mismanagement and repression cannot be overlooked, Amnesty is clear that the international community has also "wreaked havoc." The London-based NGO criticised former US President Donald Trump and the leaders of other wealthy countries for mass purchasing vaccines. This meant little was left for poorer nations.

In the Middle East, the impact has been profound. According to figures from Our World in Data, although Israel and the UAE are global leaders with their vaccine rollouts, countries like Jordan, Oman, Tunisia and Lebanon all lag significantly behind the world average.

Read more: Jordan's authoritarian shift: The erosion
of civic space since the Arab Spring

"The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the world's inability to cooperate effectively in times of dire global need," said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International's freshly appointed secretary general.

What can be done?

A long list of abuses has been perpetrated across the Middle East and North Africa this year and Morayef acknowledges that progress on reforms has slowed down. Despite this, there is scope for action.

"International pressure does make a difference… We've seen releases [of activists] or charges being dropped," she said.

Referring to the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring this year, she argued it is crucial to regain the image of the region as one where people fight for a better tomorrow. While the horrors of the Islamic State (IS) diluted this, she noted the depiction "captured the imagination of the international community" and made people "care."

Whether it's a medic risking death to battle Covid-19 or LGBTQ+ activists demanding their rights, "these small battles shouldn't go unnoticed" in the face of a bleak bigger picture, she added.

Nick McAlpin is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin