- Social networks become a battlefield for pro-democrats and Bashar
- Asad’s followers
- The Syrian Electronic Army, firm advocates for the regime, has dozens of thousands of active members
The situation was the usual one in times of revolution and fear: a military checkpoint, several uniformed men stopping the cars to search for weapons or activists and a car with two young Syrians frightened by the prospect of an arrest.
-What do you have in the car?
- Nothing, nothing.
-Are you sure? You don’t have any Facebooks in the trunk?
The boys’ faces went from fear and distrust to utter stupefaction, tells Rami Nakhle as he twists with laughter. “They don’t even know what that Facebook thing is, but they’ve heard that it’s very bad and that they need to ask”, he explains as he bursts out laughing in his home in Beirut, a modest apartment with ashtrays full of cigarette butts and coffee mugs everywhere.
- The regimes start the online persecution of cyber activists in Bahrain, Syria or Saudi Arabia
- “There is a war going on in cyberspace”, explains the manager of the NGO Insan
- The Damascus regime tortures social network users into giving up their passwords to get to other dissidents
The war that pits the Arab dictatorships against its population has been going on in the internet for some time. Each search for the words Syria, Bahrain, Libya or Yemen in social networks runs into an avalanche of abuse reports done by activists but also by their antitheses, messages from followers of the regime willing to discredit, humiliate and refute their opponents. From denying the very existence of the demonstrations to insulting the organizers and protesters.
“Of course the protesters are fired. I would fire anyone who skipped work”, writes Bahraini user @mohamedhasan89 on Twitter, justifying the dismissal of 1,600 Shiite workers from their jobs, accused of having supported the demonstrations, as part of the regime’s strategy to silence the protests. “The protesters complain that they are insulted when they get arrested. The next thing they’ll say is that they gave them tea in plastic cups”, satirizes @sheeshaBH. At least four people have died in the tortures that take place during the interrogations, and almost a thousand have been arrested since the protests started.
But the interrogators have a new question in their survey: the passwords for the arrestee’s social network accounts. Because there is something new happening on the net: as the revolutions come to a standstill drowned by the bullets of the men in uniform, repression spreads through the internet. The dictatorships have recruited volunteers to thwart the cyber activists, especially dangerous because of their ability to summon people and especially because of their coverage of the events, to the unrest of regimes who thought that shutting off the press from their countries was enough so that nothing would come out. The videos, photos and comments uploaded on social networks are enough to show the regimes up and expose their crimes.
Mohamed al Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, found one morning pictures of his private residence going around the internet, as well as his address, phone number, picture and calls to “murder and do away with him”. “It is the second time it happens”, he explains to Periodismo Humano from a chat room in Manama. “The Government’s supporters upload my information on Facebook, Twitter and forums, accuse me of treason and insult me”. Mohamed plays down its importance because he is not the only one to undergo such harassment, but he denounces that the campaign of repression has reached the networks and crystallizes on Facebook walls bombarded with insults and threats, defamatory Twitter messages and offensive posts in the Blogs of the main activists.
In Bahrain, seven well-known cyber activists have already been arrested, three are missing and three more have been threatened, among them Maskati himself. Also in that list is Nabil Rajaab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and active tweeter. Last Saturday, his home was attacked with smoke bombs: one broke through his brother’s bedroom window. “We went through frightening moments rescuing my brother, his wife and daughter since they came close to asphyxiating. It is an attempt to murder members of my family to pressure me into quitting my humanitarian activity”, he said to CNN. “Thank god the smoke bombs fell on the tiles and not on the rugs, they could have killed my whole family while we slept”.
On Facebook, Maskati and other activists like Frontline Defenders regional director Abdulhadj al Khawaja, accused of “terrorism” by the regime, are showered with insults, although there is also a group created to support them. These are not isolated incidents. Suddenly multiple groups that support the repressing regimes have come up. Some reports are starting to come up on arrests in which passwords to private profiles are obtained amid beatings to trail other dissidents, as well as on interrogations about comments written on Twitter. And Bahrain is not the exception but the rule in the Arab revolts.
“We are witnessing this phenomenon in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, but I am sure that it also happens in all the other places”, explains by e-mail Jillian York, Electronic Freedom Foundation’s director for International Freedom of Expression, especially interested in watching over the infiltration of governments on the network of networks. “We had already seen similar scenarios in Iran, of course, and I am positive that as long as the revolts continue, we will keep seeing them in more places”.
“There is a war in itself going on in cyberspace”, asserts Wissam Tarif, director of the Human Rights NGO Insan. And like in every war, there are victims already. “Many cyber activists have ceased their activities because of the repression. And many Human Rights advocates have gone away out of fear of being arrested. Bahrain is not an appropriate place for them”, explains Maskati.
It is a broad phenomenon. In Saudi Arabia, where there are some timid protests to protest for the discrimination of the Shiite minority, recently a Facebook group called Teach me to drive so I can protect myself has been shut down. It tried to make the traditional Saudi society aware of the need of women being able to get behind the wheel and called a massive female driving day for June 17th. In the Wahabi kingdom, where the most rigid interpretation of Islam is its body of law, cars are reserved for men, which forces the families to hire drivers who can take the females to work, to school with their kids or to the hospital. Manal al Sherief, promoter of the Facebook group, was arrested last Saturday by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police. Her crime: uploading a video on YouTube in which she could be seen driving.
In Syria the situation of those citizens who film and upload examples of the bloody repression on the network to broadcast the crimes of Bashar Asad’s dictatorship is dramatic. The activists report that the regime’s followers have created Twitter and Facebook accounts and YouTube channels to spread their version of what is happening, according to which, terrorists paid by outside countries hide behind the protests and murder members of the Security forces forcing the repression, to maintain security.
In an article published by the New York Times, several Syrian dissidents explained how they had been, during their arrests, forced to give up their passwords to enter their accounts on social networks. Once they were set free, they found their walls full of messages supporting Bashar Asad. Moreover, the country’s 3G network is starting to have blackouts to prevent videos from being uploaded on the internet from cell phones. Syria’s telephone network is run by the governing family.
“The same way that, years ago, it became common to talk about the Web 2.0, now we are seeing Repression 2.0”, explained Saniel B. Baer, assistant to the Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the US, in declarations to the Washington Post. The means are sophisticated judging from Hillary Clinton’s declarations last April. “In some countries, democratic and Human Rights activists and independent bloggers find their email addresses hacked or their computers infected with spyware. Digital activists are being tortured to get their passwords”.
It is a fact that Arab bloggers are being persecuted by the authorities. And that the generous, open Internet policy undertaken by countries like Syiria –opposed to the information blackout used by the dictatorship in Egypt to abort its revolt- has had positive consequences, but now starts to have negative effects. “Using [the Internet] for activism is a risky bet. It may work if the regime you work against is not rough or powerful enough. If you win fast, Facebook is the tool to use. If not, it becomes very dangerous”, explains Peter Eckersley, another member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But, will this cyber repression campaign end the Arab spring? “It depends on how effective or important the Internet is in this uprising”, continues Jillian York. “In Tunisia or Egypt we have seen the incredible role technology has played, but in Syria, for example, we have not seen the same online activism, so cyber attacks have less impact. On the other hand, the way the Syrian regime uses the Internet to go after activists –literally getting their passwords and then arresting them- implies that some of the better-connected and better-informed activists disappeared, either because they are arrested or because they are hiding. Anyway, we are worried that the [cyber dissidence] movement will be, from now, less effective”.
The world looks at Syria for the first time in decades, while hundreds of thousands of citizens demonstrate against the regime that has ruled the country for almost 50 years. While hundreds of protesters were killed according to many reports, the official version shows quite a different picture. The gap between the state-controlled narrative and what the population is witnessing is growing bigger as citizens share and build upon their own narrative with the tools provided by the Internet.
SANA, the state news agency, highlighted the following news on April 22, the day when the protests gained momentum and over a 100 protesters were killed:
● The reforms announced by the President Basshar El-Assad.
● The attack against a police car where a policeman was killed and 11 others wounded.
● Images of shattered windows and destroyed cars caused by what the State-Media calls “terrorists”, “armed groups”, “gangs” and “thieves”.
● Pictures of confiscated weapons, including: sticks, axes, bottles, cans. Also, shockingly enough, mobile phones with “foreign Sim-cards”.
● Interviews with demonstrators showing their regret for having participated in the protests.
● Citizens sharing their opinions, with accusations that range from accusing Salafi groups to blaming the unrest on a Western plot against the country.
● Interviews and analysis of the reforms announced by the President
● Analysis of articles and blog posts like the one published on Counterpunch, Syria and the Delusions of the Western Press, that accuses Western media of hiding and manipulating information to damage Syria´s image.
After April 22, official communications have continued to highlight the death of the policemen, the implication of foreign interests in the country and pro-government reactions.
This is the communication system Syrians have grown used to. The Syrian telecommunications market, one of the least developed in the Middle East, is the most regulated in the region. Syrian Telecom owns the telecommunications infrastructure, and only a few journalists manage to get accreditation. But now, through digital platforms, an alternative narrative emerges: citizens voices reach out to the world after decades of media silence over Syria.
Internet media and platforms have been flooded for weeks, but especially since April 22, with images and videos taken by the protestors mainly through mobile phones, and shared by citizens and media worldwide. Some of these videos, which include very graphic content, can be watched here. One of the videos shows several hands raised holding mobile phones to record the funeral of a protestor killed the day before, illustrating the relationship between citizen communication and mobile technology.
This map includes the spots where mobilizations have taken place and helps visualize the scope of the protests:
The Internet Battle
We should be aware that the real communication battle takes place on the Internet. The Syrian regime has blocked sites and platforms like Youtube, Facebook, Blogger, and Wikipedia for decades, and Syrians have grown used to accessing them through proxies. A few months ago Facebook and Youtube were unblocked, which was welcomed by many Internet users.
Pages like “Syrian Revolution 2011″, with around 150,000 followers from inside and outside the country (but mainly administered from abroad) have been sharing information for months and encouraging followers to take to the streets. This page was apparently hacked during April 23. A new page was opened and gained 2,000 followers in only a few hours, but the original page was back at the end of the day.
Other spaces, like the Syrian Women Observatory facebook group, called upon protesters not to take to the streets in order to stop the bloodshed. In a manifesto issued on April 22, the Observatory called upon the Government to undertake the reforms announced and called on protesters to give the government a 15 day chance to prove the reform process is real.
At the same time, there are other pages that are supportive of the government and the president. One example is the “Youth only for Asad’s Syria” facebook page where new users are welcomed with a cheerful picture of the President´s family.
This Internet Battle between can be found on Twitter too. This network, which allows for quick spreading of short messages, has proved to be very effective for citizens to organize and communicate from the beginning of mobilizations. Users like AnonymousSyria have been sharing many anti-government images, videos and slogans. For example, one of the posters designed and published on twitter has become a motto for Syrian protesters, in response to the official one: “God, Syria, Basshar and nothing else”.
God, Syria, Freedom and nothing else
To counter these messsages, two new kind of pro-government twitter users have emerged, as Syrian blogger Anas Qtiesh explains:
- What twitter users call “twitter eggs”: Newly created accounts, mostly imageless, that verbally threatened anyone tweeting favoraly about the ongoing protests or criticizing the regime. Those accounts were believed to be manned by Syrian intelligence agents with poor command of both written Arabic and English. The user @AnonymousSyria has included some of these accounts on this list.
- Spam accounts that are configured to publish tweets at predetermined intervals. The tweets are associated to the tag #Syria and include links to photos, soccer games, pro-government news and other random information about Syria.. This is an example of a picture shared by user Thelovelysyria
Pro-government users have also created twitter lists where users that support the uprisings or stand with the right to free speech in the country are added. The list Against Terror, Fake Massmedia includes media like BBC or Al-Jazeera, human rights organizations like Press Freedom and Amnesty International, journalists like Brian Whitaker and Dima Khatib and social platforms like Youtube, along with activists and members from the opposition. In reaction to demonstrations, authorities have also started to follow Egypt and Libya´s steps, preventing citizens from communicating with each other and the rest of the world through communication blackouts. Internet blackouts have been reported in Daraa, where the uprising started. On April 25, not only the Internet but also land phones and mobile phones were cut in Daraa, Duma and other towns and neighborhoods leaving them completely isolated amid escalation of repression against demonstrators.
The blackouts will fall short from preventing the world to hear the stories Syrians are sharing first-hand. In a context of glowingly decentralized information, centralized narratives — characteristic of authoritarian regimes — become exposed as echoes of an official voice that hardly anyone trusts. But we should keep in mind that although citizens may be winning the communication battle, the weapons are still in the hands of those who have the power over people´s lives.
In the words of twitter user Syrianews:
“Another journalist expelled. Syria will suffer while propaganda and Youtube become the only sources in the country”
By Mónica G. Prieto (Beirut) / Translation: Blanca García
- After Bashar Asad’s reactionary speech in which he avoided talking about reforms, the protest campaigns become consolidated through Internet.
- The regime’s promises of not shooting at demonstrators haven’t stopped the repression.
There are countries in which free access to the Internet is not a right. It is rather a tool feared by regimes, which they try to block, restrict or limit, in a vain attempt to keep Internet surfers to see beyond the limitations. It happened in Sadam Husein’s Iraq, in Ben Ali ´s Tunisia and in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, it happens in Iran, in Libya, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in the United Arab Emirates, in almost all of the Arabic world- with the exceptions of Lebanon and Palestine-. And, of course, in Bashar Asad’s Syria.
Last weekend, Syrian web access suffered a blackout for six hours. It wasn’t the first time since the Arab spring began, but it is very meaningful. In the context of revolutions, the mix of hopelessness, education, a fit of dignity and communication skills, every blackout seems to show the desperation of a regime which sees itself against the ropes. So it isn’t a good sign for Damascus that Syrian internet users, who are used to dealing with all kind of difficulties, were disconnected last Sunday.
Useless, on the other hand: in social networks like Twitter or Facebook there are all kinds of open manuals and software made to get around the regime’s obstacles, to prevent IP addresses from being detected and even to stay online when the Internet has been disconnected. Everything is useless. In Syria, where many web sites- media considered hostile, sites seen as revolutionary- are blocked by the regime but there are a lot of Internet Cafes whose owners, well versed in computers, can solve the access difficulties in a couple of clicks. That´s why it was surprising that the first calls to demonstration, which were announced through Facebook, didn’t work.
Dozens of muhabarat agents showed up at the protests, willing to break up marches that nobody attended. It was explained that these first calls came from outside of Syria in an external attempt to mobilize the dissidence. The regime became over-confident and even unblocked access to Facebook for the first time in History- until then, Internet surfers overcame with wit and tunnels the block on the social network, imposed as soon as it became popular- and that’s where it all started, Ahed al Hendi, Syirian dissident responsible for the Arabian section in Cyberdissidents.org, platform dedicated to giving an online voice to dissidents around the world, explains to Human Journalism.
“Without the Internet, we wouldn’t have been able to see videos or pictures of the crimes of Asad’s regime. The Internet activated the first movement when members of anti-Asad groups marched along Damasco on March 15th. When the media showed the videos of the protests that were posted on line, many more Syrians watched it, and it helped to break the wall of fear” Hendi remembers through an email exchange.
Adel left Syria four years ago, after being released from prison: he tells that for 40 days he was incarcerated because of his involvement in pro-democratic activities, being an student. Nowadays, he is an active regime opponent who uses any forum to call for insurrection, as he recently did in a Wall Street Journal article, where he analyzed the role of the Internet in the protests. “The first calls to protest started on Facebook”, he wrote. Organizers have preferred to stay anonymous, but one thing is clear: they aren’t Islamic. In the group Syrian Revolution against Bashar Asad, with 60000 member so far, Fadi Edlbi has written “national unity, everyone for freedom, Christian and Muslim”. Another member, Shadi Deeb, “ we are not Sunnis, we are not Alaouites , all of us sing for freedom”. And while he is saying this, he puts a picture with the cross and half moon as a sign of unity. The page in question has today 104.000 fans.
It seems ironic that it was Bashar Asad who introduced the Internet into Syrian houses when he came to power, 11 years ago. He promised to generalize its use, but the figures speak for themselves: of a 23 million people population, there were just 3.935.000 users in June of 2010, 17’7 % of the population. And until last February, it was officially forbidden to access Facebook. However, this hasn’t prevented that, from outside and inside the country, Syrian have used social networks as an instrument of mobilization. Or rather, that the facts spread on social networks, overcoming state censorship,are mobilizing consciences.
What would have happened if the Internet had existed in 1982, when Hafez Asad, father of the current president of Syria -actually, Bashar inhereted the office- ordered the massacre of between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians in Hama to suffocate an islamist revolt? “The truth is that without social networks, we would have never known about what happened two weeks ago in Daraa: it would have been exaclty the same as with the Hama massacre”, explains #daraanow, an active twitter. The person hiding behind this user calls himself Fash (something like annoyance in slang), was born and raised in the city of Daraa, the same one that originated the protests after the arrests of 15 students by Syrian agents: they were accused of painting a revolutionary slogan on a wall. “Now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the uploaded videos it took me less than five minutes to know the story of those kids. I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if we had had them 30 years ago. A lot of people still have no idea about what happened in Hama”.
Fash has been living outside of Syria for ten years: his last visit was five years ago, when he went to Daraa to visit his family, that still lives in his home city. He keeps in contact with his relatives, friends and neighbors on the phone but also throught the Internet. “The ¿? has been down for weeks in Daraa, but thanks to its geographical location, close to the Jordan border, we can communicate using other countries’ networks”, he explained on a chat conversation.?¿
So understandable has been the eagerness to tell what was happening as the eagerness to know. “I had more than 200 followers (on Twitter) in the first hour, I imagine because people had a lot of curiosity for what was happening in Syria, a country in which no one has been able to stick their nose in in the last 30 years”. And the more followers he has (more than 1,200 right now), the more he wants to carry on with what he has called e-jihad, a cybernetic and secular war with the only goal of taking down the dictatorship and obtaining freedom. “There are many more people promoting initiatives like mine inside the country at a larger scale”.
Because the difficulties imposed by the regime are relative. “There are many ways to avoid censorship, such as proxy servers that work from the outside of Syria”, continues Ahed. “The people of Syria are beginning to understand the crucial role the internet and social networks play. In spite of the fact that the government does everything in its hand to stop being connected to the world, the examples of Tunisia and Egypt prove that this instrument has been underestimated. The Syrian regime still has the idea of the Hama massacres: Kill and no one will know. That is over, the Syrians know it”. For those who don’t have computer knowledge or a computer with which to tell the outside world about what is happening, there are cell phones. Almost half the population owns a cellular phone and recordings and pictures taken with them fly, as prove several Facebook groups such as the Syrian Uprising Information Centre, brother to its arabian site, which live off the civilian contributions to illustrate what is happening in Syria.
Basically Twitter is used more to spread information to the world than to mobilize people”, stresses Hendi. “It’s Facebook what is mobilizing the people. And I fear that if this hadn’t started in Tunisia, it would have in any other place. Tyrannies cannot last forever”, concludes the ciberactivist.
by Mónica G. Prieto / translation: Blanca García
- The economic agreements with the Arab dictatorships of the Middle East and the North of Africa explain the silence of the international community.
- The revolts don’t only defy the regimes’ repression: also the implicit Western support of the tyrants through the economy
“It’s the economy, stupid!”. The famous phrase by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist during the 1992 election that led him to power, can be used to answer the questions that many people are asking themselves. Why the unbearable international silence towards the legitimate uprisings of people demanding freedom, economic and personal dignity, and democracy? Why have the Human Rights abuses of the dictatorships that are Western allies and that have generated the current revolution that runs through the Arab world, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, been tolerated for decades? What explains the official visits to dictatorial regimes and cleptocracies, the hugs and kisses with the Arab autocrats, the blessings to government systems diametrically opposed to legality? The answer is thousands of millions of dollars and a regional stability which has benefited Europe and the US and their main regional ally, Israel, in exchange for the insecurity of the Arab population.
The credit that goes to the Arab protesters that are causing serious trouble to, when not overthrowing, their regimes, is huge. They face not only an oppressing security system- which sentences them, if they fail, to be persecuted and probably massacred- but also the whole world from the moment in which the dictators they rise against are tied to the other countries with bonds that are hard to erase: commercial contracts that know nothing of ideology or morality.
That’s the reason why the documents from NGO’s denouncing tortures, repression, lack of liberties and rigged elections never cast the least shadow of doubt upon friendly regimes: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, the actual Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco… In fact, looking at the reports written by the Spanish commercial offices in said countries no one would doubt the legitimacy of these regimes, and especially no one would question the juicy profits they bring to the US and Europe. At the expense, that is, of the abuses committed against their populations. This is a summary of what our governments wanted to see in the Middle East and North Africa and of what their citizens where seeing, what they are rising massively against their dictators for.
Saudi Arabia: With an economy dependent on oil exports, Saudi Arabia depends on foreign exports given their scarce productivity in any other sector. A circumstance well taken advantage of by their international partners. Among its main providers are the US (with businesses valued in over $13600 million in 2009) or China ($10800 million that same year) and more modestly, France ($3800 million), Italy ($3500 million), and the UK ($3400 million). Spain is among the top 10 costumer countries with businesses valued in over $3400 million in 2009.
Also, last November it was negotiating the sale of 200 tanks which would have brought in €3000 million, the largest contract of the Spanish arms industry. What would these tanks have been for? The last known interventions of the Saudi Arabian army, a Wahhabi regime [the most radical faction of Sunni Islam, which implicates absolute sexual segregation, pushes women back to the condition of second-class citizens] whose source of jurisprudence is the Sharia, have taken place in Bahrain and Yemen. In the first one, kingdom activists denounced the entrance of Saudi soldiers to support the monarchy in the repression of the protests; in the second one it took place a few months ago, when the Saudi army attacked the Huthis’ positions, the Zaidi rebels [branch of Shia Islam] located on the border of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in a sectarian attack.
In the country of the Saud dynasty, not only is the death penalty in force (it is done by decapitation and it is rising, according to local authorities because crime tolls are also rising) but corporal punishment is also applied: amputation of hands and feet for theft and whipping for minor felonies such as “sexual deviation” – in reference to homosexuality and sodomy- and drunkenness. Discrimination against women, who lack any kind of rights – their situation is much worse than in Afghanistan – reaches them even at their own homes. They don’t have the right to vote or to drive, they can’t even walk alone without a male accompanying them. There’s no religious freedom, nor sexual liberties or freedom of reunion, press or speech. Unions are prohibited, the same as political parties. Like their European partners, Spain doesn’t seem to care much about such minor details. Between 1993 and 2008, according to Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce data, Saudi Arabia invested in Spain more than €70 million. The people of Saudi Arabia are called to protest on march 11th and 20th.
Algeria: Like in Morocco and Mauritania, in Algeria- great producer of gas- Spain has big cooperation agreements that influence positively its businesses. The Madrid government is the fourth provider behind France ($6114 million), China ($4700 million), and Italy ($3700 million) with imports for the value of almost $3000 million a year. In exchange, Spain imports Algerian gas for almost €3900 million a year, being the third costumer country of the Algerian regime. Among the exports are airplanes for the value of half a million euros.
While rulers shake hands, the state of emergency that has been in place in the country for 19 years has justified irregular arrests, doubtful trials, forced disappearances, tortures, police abuse and restrictions of freedom of speech, press and civil rights. Since 1993 the number of disappearances is estimated between 30.000 and 40.000 people. The Algerians have been protesting against their government since December, and they demand measures against unemployment, lack of housing, inflation, corruption, lack of liberties… Their first victory: the repeal of the state of emergency that justified the illegal arrests of thousands of people for decades.
Bahrain: This tiny oil kingdom whose population is almost 70% Shia and who is ruled by a Sunni since two centuries ago is a privileged commercial partner of Saudi Arabia – hence its huge support of the Bahraini monarchy, based on economic and strategical interests because Riad is not interested in a popular uprising that gives any ideas inside the Wahabi kingdom- but also of Japan, the US and Germany in that order. In exchange, Bahrain exports oil. Its Shia population, meanwhile, withstands a discrimination that reaches every circle: they cannot access public offices or join the army, they denounce that they can only access the worst housing and that every time they have publicly protested they have been repressed. Torture is common in prisons, the same as in other Persian Gulf countries, as well as the arbitrary arrest of political dissidents. According to activists, there are about 400 political prisoners in prisons across the country. The country’s population doesn’t reach 1 million. The protests, repressed with blood and fire, have achieved for now the liberation of political prisoners and promises of democratic reforms.
Egypt: During the 18 days that the popular revolution which resulted in the fall of Hosni Mubarak lasted, barely any European critics were heard, and the few that came from the United Stated sounded mild. Let’s examine why: Egypt’s first commercial partner is the European Union, who exported goods for the value of €18 million in 2009. Among the European countries Italy, Germany, France and the UK held the first places. Spain was the sixth exporter of the country of pharaohs. The US, however, is the third exporting power with businesses for over €5300 million that year. The reports from NGO’s couldn’t compete with such volume of money, no matter how much they spoke of reoccurring tortures, arbitrary arrests, prison violations to obtain confessions and complete police immunity. However, millions of Egyptians overcame their fear and took the streets taking down the dictatorship and making History. One of the activists that launched the protests, Wael Ghonim, threw and unequivocal message to the West after their success: “You haven’t gotten involved in 30 years. Please, don’t get involved now.”
United Arab Emirates: President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has come back from his tour around the Gulf ecstatic about the economic agreements promised by the Emirates sheiks but without mentioning the Human Rights violations. In the UAE -rich in gas and oil- Spain has closed deals for over $1900 million, joining countries such as China, the US, Germany or India, its main commercial partners. The fact that in the seven emirates most of the population (an estimated 80%) are Asian workers with no rights, many of whom are exploited and live in subhuman conditions, doesn’t bother any of them. Human Rights organizations report on the lack of protection and the discrimination they suffer. Also in the Emirates institutions are not chosen democratically, and freedom of speech and of the press encounters many difficulties.
Kuwait: While Zapatero walked around the Emirates and Qatar, king Juan Carlos of Spain shook hands with sheik Sabah al Ahmad al Jaber, emir of Kuwait, a supposedly constitutional monarchy where the prime minister is Al Jaber’s nephew and where he chooses the members of the Government. His relatives hold the main power positions. Political parties don’t exist, although ideological organizations are allowed in the elected Parliament, which can be dissolved -as has already happened five times- at the emir’s will. The US, Japan, Germany and China are its main commercial partners; and hydrocarbons its greatest asset. It maintains its principal relationship with Washington, which explains the existence of American military bases on Kuwaiti territory. Enough for nobody to raise their voice against Human Rights violations such as those cited by Amnesty International in its 2009 report. “Migrant workers are still suffering from exploitation and abuse and they still demand protection of their rights. In some cases they were expelled from the country for having taken part in massive demonstrations. The government promised to improve their conditions. Journalists were prosecuted. One case of torture was reported. At least 12 people were sentenced to death, but no executions were heard of”. The protests in Kuwait, very minoritary, have settled with dozens wounded. The next one has been called for March 8th.
Libya: Oil and gas. Since Muammar al Gaddafi was declassified as a terrorist leader in 2002 and added to the category of Western partner, business with the Libyan dictatorship -40 years of tyranny- has rocketed ignoring the internal repression and the complete lack of democracy. Gaddafi was too generous to be questioned when he invested $2000 million in Canada or $30000 million in the US. Now, the use of military aviation against protesters who demand the end of the tyranny has forced international leaders to react. Italy and Germany are its biggest commercial partners, Spain is the third client country: it imports mainly oil and gas. Between 1993 and march 2008, it invested €189.36 million in Libya. Spanish exports of defense material grew 7700% in 2008.
Morocco: Human Rights violations, mainly related to Western Sahara, never come to the surface -not even the most violent episodes- with the Moroccan partner, good friend of Spain and ally of the European Union and the US. Among its main commercial partners are France, the US, Sweden, Germany and Spain. As with Algeria and Mauritania, Madrid holds large cooperation agreements with Rabat which include the sale of weapons and defensive material. Spain is estimated to be the main provider of the Alaouite kingdom after France, and its market represents the main source of Spanish exports in all of Africa. In 2009, Morocco received €30 million in Spanish military vehicles. The Rabat regime was initially understanding towards the protesters, who last February 20th took the streets to demand democratic and economic reforms, to later on act violently upon any glimpse of protest.
Oman: In this absolute monarchy with no political parties and whose sultan, Qabus al Said, overthrew his father in a coup in 1970, hydrocarbons are the key to its excellent international relations. The
Emirates, India, the US and China are its main commercial partners, among which is to a much lesser extent Spain, who between 1993 and 2008 has invested about €38 million in the sultanate’s economy. According to the NGO Frontline, Human Rights activists in Oman “endure harassment, random arrests and torture at interrogations. Hundreds of academics, journalists and commentators were held in massive arrests, and isolated with no kind of legal assistance. Oman is signatory of three of the seven fundamental United Nations treaties about human rights. Independent human rights organizations cannot operate inside the country”. The protests in Oman have cost two lives, and they demand respect for Human Rights, economic and political reforms that fight against inflation and raise salaries,and freedom of information.
Qatar: Another one of president Zapatero’s destinations that bore important economic results, with verbal agreements for €3000 million -more than 2700 go to inversions in an energy company and a telecommunications corporation, and 300 to a savings bank- and one of the few countries safe, for now, from the protests. Anticipating any kind of internal opposition, the Qatar regime -a traditional monarchy where every decision falls upon the reigning dynasty- has just moved forward the municipal elections, one more step in the slow reform process started by sheik Hamad ben Jalifa al Thani. He maintains excellent relations with every side, with the West, with the Arab world and with Iran, which has turned him into a mediator par excellence in the region. Japan, the US, Germany and Italy are its main providers, and Spain is its seventh client country. With regards to Human Rights, restrictions of freedom of speech -despite having created Al Jazeera- are common, activists are frequently harassed, the Internet is closely watched and Al Thani’s regime is accused of not guaranteeing foreign workers’ rights. There are no political parties. Qataris are called to protest in mid march.
Yemen: Protests have already been going on for two months and they are daily: dozens of thousands of Yemenis defy every day the security deployment and those faithful to dictator Abdula Ali Saleh, 32 years in power, to demand the end of the dictatorship. The first concessions didn’t take long after facing popular pressure: Saleh gave up the constitutional reform he was preparing to stay in his spot for life, then he gave up on his son succeeding him, after that he announced that he wouldn’t renew his term after 2013, when it officially expires, and now he offers a national unity Government which the opposition and the activists reject. The dictator stands lonelier every day: even his tribe as well as other decisive clans of the Middle East’s poorer country have withdrawn their support. The most important Yemeni cleric, Abdul Majid al Zidani, has joined the protesters, who demand his immediate exit and the establishment of a democracy. Its wealth also resides on oil, and its main commercial partners are China, India, the Emirates and the US, with whom it maintained close military relationships that allowed secret US bombings against alleged Al Qaida objectives that Saleh claimed for himself, as Wikileaks revealed. In the matter of Human Rights torture, repression, lack of liberties, random arrests of dissidents and cooperation with the North American extraordinary surrenders program -the kidnapping of citizens who are questioned in third countries to allow the use of torture in the obtainment of confessions- are usual. About 30 people are estimated to have died already in the protests.
Tunisia: Ben Ali’s 20 years in power gave him control over the Tunisian economy and forged links with France, Italy, Germany and the US among other Western countries in the shape of contracts. The cleptocracy was overthrown by the popular revolutionary movement that broke out after a young man from a province set himself on fire, expanding all over the North of Africa and the Middle East. The economic reasons -high unemployment, rise in prices, housing shortage- combined with a population that is educated and sick of the governmental corruption, but like in the rest of the protests the violations of Human Rights, from police repression to discrimination or lack of liberties, have also played a role.