MENA: Stop restricting pro-Palestinian solidarity

MENA: Stop restricting pro-Palestinian solidarity - Civic Space

Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 10 October 2023. Photo: Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock

The start of Israel’s war on Gaza, and the humanitarian catastrophe that followed, prompted mass solidarity protests globally and across the MENA region. Five months on, in many countries, thousands of people continue to take to the streets to call for an immediate ceasefire. Yet in the MENA region, protests have been swiftly silenced by governments fearful that the growing pro-Palestininan solidarity movements could fuel demands for domestic social and political change. In light of the continued repression of pro-Palestinian protests in Algeria, Egypt and Jordan, ARTICLE 19 calls on the governments in the region to stop restricting voices demanding that they step up their efforts to alleviate the suffering in Gaza.  

Update (5 April 2024) – ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about the escalating crackdown on pro-Palestinian solidarity in both Egypt and Jordan, in response to the recent protests that began in late March 2024. We stand with Egyptian and Jordanian human rights groups in condemning the recent attacks on the right to protest. 

On April 3, Egyptian authorities arrested activists and students participating in solidarity demonstrations with Palestine in front of the Journalists Syndicate. The protesters chanted  slogans criticising the authorities’ policies towards the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

In Jordan, several activists, journalists, and political figures who participated in the recent surge of protests were arrested on 31 March. These protests included criticism of the country’s relations with Israel, including its peace treaty with the country. 

The recent crackdown highlights how swiftly authorities in the region limit the right to protest when demonstrations challenge the political response to the Gaza conflict.

The right to protest is one of the means for people globally and in the MENA region to show support for Gaza and hold governments accountable for their stances and actions in relation to the conflict. As the level of suffering reaches new highs and Gaza is on the brink of a famine, protests are also important to sustain pressure towards an immediate end to hostilities and allowing the safe and unrestricted passage of lifesaving aid to Gaza. 

Since the beginning of the war, many MENA governments have used domestic and international fora to voice their full support for the Palestinian people and vehemently criticised Israel’s actions. Yet, the suppression of pro-Palestinian voices internally by some countries within the region suggest a different narrative, driven much more by self-interest and fears that the conflict in Gaza could disrupt internal stability. 

In Egypt, despite President Abdel Fatah Sissi’s continued declarations in support of Gaza, in October authorities detained dozens of peaceful protesters expressing solidarity with Palestine; some still remain in detention. On 3 March, a police officer was arrested  after waving a Palestinian flag, demanding the opening of the Gaza border and calling President Sisi a ‘traitor’. On 8 March, Egyptian police disrupted a march led by a group of Egyptian women who demonstrated in solidarity with the women in Gaza. 

In Jordan, while the authorities coordinate humanitarian airdrops and reiterate support for the people of Gaza, reports suggest that expressing such solidarity online, particularly when accompanied by criticisms of the government’s policies regarding Gaza, could lead to arrests and trials. According to Amnesty International, between October and November 2023, authorities  arrested at least 1,000 demonstrators and bystanders during pro-Gaza protests in the capital Amman. Seven hundred of them were charged with crimes such as ‘committing acts of violence’, ‘inciting sedition’, and ‘damaging public property’. Some of those detained were held without charge or trial and only released on bail after they signed a document pledging to stop participating in protests.

In Algeria, a country geographically far removed from the conflict, demonstrations in support of Gaza were permitted just once, on 19 October 2023, and were strictly supervised. All other requests for pro-Palestine demonstrations were rejected by the authorities, and political and civil society actors were forced to resort to organising solidarity gatherings in closed or indoor spaces. 

Protests like the ones initially witnessed in Egypt, Jordan and Algeria have posed a serious challenge to the near total control over civic space exercised by the governments ever since COVID-19 restrictions on demonstrations have been put in place in 2020.  

The Egyptian authorities’ initial acceptance of pro-Palestinian demonstrations stood in sharp contrast to Egypt’s otherwise tightly controlled civic space. Yet, the demonstrations were swiftly restricted, when it became apparent they started to become a platform to criticise the government’s response to humanitarian crises and began to escalate into broader social and political protest. The protesters have referred to the government as a ‘partner in the siege’ on Gaza and in some instances, chanted slogans of the 2011 revolution. 

Similarly in Algeria, analysts believe that the ban on protests, which constitutes a further restriction on Algerian civic space, has been fuelled by the authorities’ fear that such assemblies will lead to the resurgence of the ‘Hirak’ movement, successfully suppressed since 2021.

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned that suppression of solidarity will not only further restrict the already tight space for civic participation in the region but will also hamper humanitarian and political responses to the conflict. 

The right to protest is essential in times of conflict and crisis, and the war on Gaza should not be used to impose further crackdowns. Silencing people while they witness the utter desperation of the people in Gaza, including the horror of starvation, not only infringes upon their right to free expression but also undermines the basic principles of humanity and solidarity that should inform any collective response to humanitarian crises.