Aug 5, 2020

Street protests were the defining feature of civil and political resistance in 2019. In every region of the world, people living under authoritarian regimes took to the streets to demand respect for their fundamental rights.

Just as 2019 came to a close, the novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China. The virus has since spread all across the globe, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Instead of focusing on the enormous public health risk and its implications, authoritarian regimes have used the pandemic primarily as an excuse to tighten their grip on power and crackdown on dissent.

So what impact has the coronavirus had on protest movements? As individuals weigh their own risks from within lockdown, how can we keep these protest movements alive in the era of COVID-19?

Follow along as we revisit our assessment of global protest movements, country by country, to see where these popular movements stand today in Russia, Egypt, Bolivia, Iraq, Guinea, and Iran.

 

Russia

 

The coronavirus crisis in Russia has resulted in the fourth-highest number of confirmed cases globally — despite false government reporting of mortality rates nearly three times below the actual figures. It has also compounded the Kremlin’s practices of stifling free speech and universal rights, among other restrictive measures.

In January, President Vladimir Putin announced proposed constitutional amendments to reduce presidential powers yet strengthen the parliament. The same day, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced his resignation.

Putin’s constitutional amendments would in essence allow him to extend his presidential term beyond its expiration in 2024, by increasing powers for whichever position he takes after leaving the presidency. Critics accused Putin of organizing a  “self-coup” that would allow Putin to remain in power for the rest of his life — far beyond the constitutional limit of two terms.

Protests against the constitutional changes resulted in mass detentions across the country. The annual march for the late opposition leader and democracy activist Boris Nemtsov became a demonstration against the proposed constitutional reforms and governmental power grabs.

These latest demonstrations follow the 2019 protests — the largest since 2012 — that erupted in response to the Moscow City Election Commission’s refusal to register independent opposition candidates. Russia’s referendum on these proposed constitutional amendments was set for April of this year, but was postponed to July 1 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The results of the July 1 referendum came as no surprise: Putin was overwhelmingly granted the possibility to remain in power until 2036 by running for two additional 6-year terms beyond the end of his current term in 2024. While the head of the Central Election Commission claimed the vote had been transparent, opposition leaders and spokespersons in other countries cited examples of voter coercion and manipulation of voting results.

In March, lawmakers also approved a bill that would impose a penalty of up to seven years of imprisonment for breaking quarantine, and a new, vague law that uses the guise of countering disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic to silence regime opponents who have spoken out against Russia’s inadequate measures to protect its citizens; the law carries a prison term of up to three years. Restrictions on press freedom during the pandemic have resulted in numerous journalists and outlets being censored for reporting on the coronavirus outbreak.

In May, Putin also approved a new electoral law to allow for mail-in or electronic voting in future polls, citing concerns about the spread of coronavirus. Regime opponents have noted that such a system is ripe for manipulation and that it was introduced at a time when public protests against the changes were restricted due to lockdown measures, allowing little opportunity for overt opposition.

The Kremlin has also resorted to new kinds of repression, including a “social monitoring” app to track individuals showing signs of COVID-19, or confirmed cases. It has access to users’ personal data and intermittently demands selfies to prove compliance with quarantine orders. Failure to respond (even when asleep) results in a fine, and the app is riddled with glitches.

Russia has also failed to heed calls to release prisoners of conscience during the pandemic. Russia has the world’s third-largest prison population, along with penal colonies, in which prisoners have ironically been forced to sew masks for the pandemic, in extremely precarious conditions.

In response to the Kremlin, Russians have turned to creative methods of online protest in the past several months. Activists have made speeches about the constitutional amendments and the Kremlin’s mismanagement of the crisis on Youtube and other platforms, and called for emergency financial aid packages.

Doctors and nurses across the country have also resigned in protest after they were  forced to treat patients even after testing positive for COVID-19 themselves. Several medical workers who spoke  out against these conditions faced retaliation from the authorities, and several mysteriously fell out of windows in recent weeks, leading many to question whether Russia’s authoritarian crackdown on its citizens has reached extreme levels.

HRF Chairman Garry Kasparov warned, in response to the forms of repression imposed by the regime,  that “nothing is more permanent than temporary measures.”

 

Egypt

 

Back in September 2019, protests erupted in Egypt following whistleblower Mohamed Ali’s posts on Facebook denouncing the el-Sisi regime and calling for dissent. Since then, Mohamed Ali has stepped back from politics, stating in January that his call for anti-government rallies on the ninth anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 uprising had “failed.”

As in many countries around the world, the coronavirus pandemic in Egypt has been used as an excuse to adopt tactics which have quelled protests and silenced dissent. As of August 5, Egypt has recorded 94,752 coronavirus cases, but some, including an Egyptian official and infectious disease specialists from the University of Toronto, have claimed that actual figures are likely much higher than the official figures and criticized Egypt’s attempts to contain the spread of the virus.

In April, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, sought to tighten his grip on power under the guise of a health emergency. Parliament passed new amendments to Egypt’s state of emergency laws giving the president greater executive powers.

The amendments permit the president, among other things, to shut down institutions (schools, universities, businesses, courts) and to quarantine individuals who arrive from other countries.

However, the amendments also empower the president to impose bans on public and private gatherings, even absent a public health crisis. Other amendments have even less relevance to public health: the president can control the prices of goods and services, as well as restrict individuals from owning, selling, buying or exporting them.

The Egyptian government targets activists by bringing specious “terrorism” charges against them, and abuses the pre-trial detention system by unlawfully holding detainees indefinitely without trial.

In Egypt’s prisons, basic necessities such as food and clothes are in short supply, or, in the case of mattresses or bedding, often lacking. Products such as soap, essential during a pandemic, may be unavailable. Medication is often confiscated from detainees or never delivered, and prisoners rarely have access to a doctor, even those with serious illnesses or pre-existing conditions; while these conditions are inhumane even under normal circumstances, the context of a pandemic makes them even deadlier.

Unhygienic conditions and overcrowding in prisons only further exacerbate the risk of COVID-19 for detainees. Despite this, the regime has not taken the necessary steps to mitigate the threat of infection within its prisons, and has resisted calls to release or furlough political prisoners, those convicted of nonviolent charges, or those held in pre-trial detention.

On March 18, a small group of activists held a demonstration in Cairo demanding the release of prisoners from detention amid fears that coronavirus would spread rapidly in Egypt’s prisons. These demonstrators were arrested and taken into custody. They were released on bail the following day, facing possible charges including “unlawful protest” and “illegal assembly.”

After additional calls by rights groups for the government to free political prisoners due to the coronavirus pandemic, just 15 opposition activists were released on March 21; tens of thousands continue to remain at risk of the virus in prison.

Even more individuals have been detained because of the virus: the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shared reports in March that 15 individuals were arrested for spreading alleged “false news” about coronavirus, and that “Egyptian authorities arrested a doctor and pharmaceutical worker ‘for a Facebook video and posts complaining about the lack of masks.’”

While in-person protests have not been widespread during the pandemic, in April the Arabic hashtag “irhal ya Sisi,” meaning ‘You must go, Sisi,’ was trending on Twitter, with users expressing anger over el-Sisi’s role in taking Egypt into further debt and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Most recently, there have been reports that authorities have increasingly targeted and arrested several activists and individuals who have criticized the government, including charging individuals with “circulating rumors” and “fake news” offenses for disseminating information about Egypt’s deteriorating health situation.

 

Bolivia

 

Bolivia sits at a crossroads as the fate of democracy in the country remains in limbo during the pandemic. Following the resignation of Evo Morales after 21 days of peaceful protests sparked by a fraudulent election in October 2019, the country experienced tense and occasionally violent moments. Protests against the interim government were  followed by violent clashes between supporters of the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party of Morales and security forces, shaking the country for several weeks and leading to at least two dozen deaths.

Some peace and normality returned after the transitional government reached an agreement with Morales’ party at the beginning of this year and a renewed electoral body set the date for a rerun election for May 3.

As COVID-19 started spreading across South America and more countries began to implement lockdowns and forbid public gatherings, it became increasingly clear that the election could not be safely and realistically held in May.

Elections were initially postponed to September, but surging case numbers in June and July forced the electoral body to once again move the election date to October 18, drawing widespread rejection from parts of the population.

Both the government and Morales’ party, which still controls over two-thirds of both chambers of congress, have come under strict scrutiny as they try to keep the spread of the virus under control and reach an agreement to finally bring back free and fair elections to Bolivia. The interim government has been criticized for corruption, incompetence, and the politicization of the health crisis.

While the interim government acted early by taking measures to contain the virus, it was  heavily criticized for attempting to pass a law that could have been used to criminalize speech critical of the government. Although the problematic decree was eventually overturned following national and international outcry, tensions between the government and its critics continue.

The country’s precarious and already collapsing health system, distrust in authorities among poorer communities, violence against journalists, disinformation from political actors, and the promotion of bogus or dangerous treatments for the disease, all pose serious threats to the health of millions of Bolivians as the virus continues to spread.

The current government has also engaged in shameful acts of corruption in the procurement of medical equipment, and civil society organizations have raised concerns over the repeated use of authoritarian language by both the Defense and Interior Ministers.

Nevertheless, Bolivians have proven resilient and eager to return to democracy. Although public protests have been severely limited due to the pandemic, people remain engaged on social media, and the important work of activists across the country has helped deliver aid to those worst hit by the crisis and kept the government in check.

With mounting uncertainty surrounding the new date of the election as members of congress and president Añez herself have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, the next few months will be crucial to watch.

 

Iraq

 

Anti-government protests over a number of social grievances began in Iraq on October 1, 2019, peaked in the ensuing weeks, and continue to this day. The most pressing challenges for the country are currently threefold: a health care system suffering from years of corruption and neglect facing an unprecedented upsurge in the number of coronavirus cases, plunging oil revenues that make up 94% of the Iraqi government’s main source of income, and a crackdown on the freedom of expression through systemic harassment and silencing of journalists, activists, and critics.

As of August 5, the country has reported over 137,556 cases, and at least 5,094 deaths. On June 1, the number of confirmed cases was only 6,868 — spiking more than 700% in over a month. Reuters’ license was suspended for three months over an April 2 report, when the news agency estimated that the number of confirmed cases in the country at the time, 772 with 54 deaths, could in reality be up to 9,000 cases with a higher number of deaths. The abrupt increase and the discrepancy in the amount of cases relayed by official figures and healthcare workers is most likely due to limited testing capabilities, the lack of transparency, as well as stigma around the illness.

The leaderless protests that gripped Iraq since last October — demanding an end to unemployment, rampant corruption, poor governance, Iranian meddling in Iraqi domestic affairs, and the post-2003 political apportionment system that perpetuates sectarian and ethnic divides — successfully forced a critical change in the country’s leadership in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Amid intensified protests pressuring him to step down, former prime minister Adel Abdul Mehdi submitted his resignation at the end of November 2019. Mustafa el-Kadhimi, a former journalist and intelligence chief was named prime minister in early May after six months of political deadlock and two failed candidates.

On May 7, the Iraqi parliament voted to confirm Kadhimi’s post, who began his term without a full government — seven ministries in his proposed cabinet, including the key oil and foreign affairs positions, were left vacant until June 6 as previous candidates were rejected by lawmakers.

On March 22, the nationwide lockdown over coronavirus fears had brought an abrupt end to the first wave of protests. In the early hours of May 10, with the nationwide curfew no longer in effect, the protests began anew after about two months of relative quiet, though Baghdad’s Tahrir Square had remained occupied and the epicenter of the uprising throughout the lockdown — with diligent disinfecting of protesters’ tents in the square.

Just a few days after Kadhimi’s assuming of office, dissatisfied protesters gathered in the capital, Baghdad, as well as in other provinces in the south, who echoed the demands of the first wave of protests, but further demanded accountability for the perpetrators of violence against protesters.

Since October 2019, the brutal suppression of protests by state security forces and paramilitary actors have killed more than 544 protesters and injured 24,000 more. There is alarming evidence of the use of unjustified and excessive force, deliberate targeting of protesters, abductions, detentions, and enforced disappearances.

In an attempt to appease the protesters, Kadhimi ordered the release of all detainees who participated in the protests, the establishment of a fact-finding committee to investigate protest-related violence, and compensation for the families of the victims who were killed by the  security forces.

Kadhimi also reinstated Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of Iraq’s counterterrorism service who had been dismissed by Abdul Mehdi back in September. In May, the Supreme Judicial Council released the detained protesters based on the protection of the right to protest under the Iraqi constitution.

Despite these welcome moves, Iraqis are not satisfied— they continue to demand a complete overhaul of the political system of which Kadhimi is ultimately a product.

 

Guinea

 

The coronavirus pandemic followed months of increasing political tensions and civil unrest in Guinea, after fears that President Alpha Condé, 82, would try to remain in power for an unconstitutional third term.

Before becoming Guinea’s first democratically-elected president in 2010, Condé was an outspoken opposition leader who had been sentenced to death in absentia in 1970 for speaking out against the dictator Sekou Touré. After his return to Guinea from exile, he was imprisoned in 2000 for opposing military strongman Lansana Conté, who seized power in a 1984 coup following Touré’s death.

Despite his reputation of opposing the country’s past authoritarian rulers, Condé’s time in power has been marked by allegations of corruption, electoral fraud and violence against his political opponents. By 2019, the fear was growing that Condé would use a constitutional referendum to pave the way to serving a third term in office, despite the Guinean constitution’s two-term limit.

In April 2019, opposition parties, civil society groups, and trade unions came together to form the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC by its French acronym) to organize against the proposed constitutional referendum, which was ultimately scheduled to take place in March 2020.

The FNDC galvanized public opposition to constitutional changes — in October 2019, the coalition staged a series of mass protests against Condé’s potential third term. Regime security forces responded to the protests with violence and a blanket ban on protests, resulting in at least 20 civilian deaths as well as one gendarme killed, as well as the arrest and imprisonment of FNDC leaders.

In February 2020, Condé hinted at the possibility of a third term, and insisted that the new constitution was a necessity to modernize the country, despite the continuing violence and protests against the referendum.

The March election and referendum itself were marred by deadly violence, with at least 10 deaths, mass arrests, and a government-imposed shutdown of the internet and social media services. Despite the violence and accusations of an opaque voter registration process, Condé’s ruling RPG party won more than two thirds of the legislative seats in the election, which the opposition boycotted. The new constitution was overwhelmingly approved.

The new constitution was enacted in April, and contains a number of reforms, including outlawing practices such as FGM and underage marriage, and giving women equal rights in divorce proceedings. The constitution also changes presidential terms from five years to six. Although it maintains the two-term limit, many fear that Condé will assert that terms served under the old constitution no longer count, rendering him eligible to run again.

Within this context, Guinean authorities confirmed the first coronavirus case in the country on March 13. Since then, Guinea — which was affected by the severe 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak — has mandated wearing masks in public and imposed a curfew and a stay-at-home order in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

Despite a relatively high case load, Guinea has not seen a high number of confirmed deaths. However, much of Guinea is particularly vulnerable to infection due to a variety of socioeconomic factors and poor healthcare access, particularly in the regions outside the capital, Conakry.

Since the quarantine orders went into effect, civil unrest and incidents of police brutality have increased. There have been arbitrary and unwarranted attacks on civilians, break-ins into civilians’ homes, and incidents of looting of shops. Security forces have also responded violently to protesters who were demonstrating against the lockdown and continual harassment from the police; at least six protesters were killed when security personnel opened fire.

 

Iran

 

The COVID-19 pandemic emerged in Iran following months of civil unrest, and served to compound the pre-existing human rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime. The regime’s lack of transparency and overt oppression resulted in a brutal crackdown on demonstrations, and a public health cover-up that helped make Iran an epicenter of the virus.

At the end of November 2019, the Iranian regime admitted that an estimated 200,000 people took part in protests that swept across the country earlier that month. The demonstrations were initially against an increase in the price of fuel but quickly grew to encompass broader anti-regime sentiments, and lasted through December. The regime responded with violence, brutally repressing the protests.

In January 2020, after the killing of General Qasem Soleimani by U.S. forces, Iran retaliated with an attack on American troops stationed at the Irai Taji base. In the aftermath, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, allegedly mistaking it for a hostile missile.

The downing of the plane — which resulted in the deaths of all 176 passengers and crew aboard — and the Iranian regime’s initial coverup of the accident provided a new impetus for the protests. Demonstrators protested the IRGC and called for the ouster of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Authorities insisted that the police had been given orders to show restraint during these protests, but photos and videos show wounded demonstrators, and eyewitnesses recount being tear-gassed and shot.

In June, the Iranian regime provided its official death toll from the 2019-2020 protests for the first time, stating that 230 people, including six security personnel, had been killed in the demonstrations. Other estimates have ranged from over 300 dead by international human rights groups, to over 630 by Iranian opposition groups, to 1,500 dead by the United States’ government’s own report.

Security forces shot to kill during the demonstrations, and the regime arrested protesters — including children — in mass raids, with the United Nations estimating that as many as 7,000 people were detained. Many detainees were held incommunicado in prisons that are notorious for torture and overcrowding. As of April, at least 13 detainees had been convicted on charges such as “assembly and collusion to disrupt national security,” or promoting “propaganda against the state,” for their participation in protests.

The coronavirus pandemic revealed another facet of the Iranian regime in the aftermath of the anti-regime protests and the subsequent bloody crackdown on protestors. Iran was one of the initial global coronavirus hotspots after China, and continues to have a high caseload.

The regime initially refused to acknowledge that the virus had reached the country; in an effort to ensure a high turnout for the parliamentary elections and 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, authorities vehemently downplayed the threat of contracting the illness.

Iran confirmed its first cases on February 19, when two people died from COVID-19 in Qom. Prior to the announcement of their deaths, the regime had not yet acknowledged that there were any coronavirus cases in the country.

At that point, the virus had likely been in Iran for up to eight weeks; doctors stated they had seen cases in December, but had not been allowed to acknowledge them for fear of retribution from the regime. Data about the extent of the pandemic in Iran is not reliable; experts in the international community agree that the Iranian regime’s official numbers are drastically underreporting the actual caseload.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Iran had the highest reported COVID-19 mortality rate,  a number which remains high; the real numbers may be as much as double the official reports.

Recent spikes in both new cases and deaths raise fears of a second wave, or that the first wave is not yet under control.

Iran began to reopen in April, but by June had shattered previous records for daily new infections, with a high of 3,574 new cases on June 4. Cases topped 200,000 by mid-month, and the upward trend continued throughout July, with over 2,000 new cases added every single day and a record-breaking daily death toll of 229 reported on July 21.

On July 18, President Hassan Rouhani said as many as 25 million Iranians were infected since the onset of the pandemic. As the regime gives conflicting information about the risk posed by the virus, many guidelines for mask-wearing and social-distancing have gone unheeded by the public, furthering the spread of the disease.

The trifecta of the violent repression of protests, the downing of Flight 752, and mishandled coronavirus response has undermined the public trust in the regime, and criticism of the clergy’s response to the crisis has further undermined the power of the country’s theological rule.

 


 

Authoritarian regimes around the world have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten restrictions on free speech, arrest peaceful protesters, and cement their power. Activists and ordinary citizens alike rose to the task of keeping civil society active and engaged throughout the combined political and health crises of the past six months. 

Where lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings were necessary for public health, activists refocused their movements online, connecting people stuck at home and engaging them remotely. In cases where authoritarian regimes deliberately covered up or were too incompetent to manage the pandemic, civil society organizations stepped in to educate people and provide support to struggling healthcare systems. 

Doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers joined activists in protesting the dangerous behaviours of governments that jeopardized citizen’s health. These actions have succeeded in building greater trust between people in polarized societies and exposing the corrupt nature of authoritarian regimes.  

As we are now in the second half of 2020, we must keep the spirit of last year’s protest movements alive. Activists must continue to work together to keep the pressure up on authoritarian regimes, while doing their best to protect and inform people about the virus where this information is lacking. In this way civil society can remain strong and active even during a pandemic, providing the kind of support to citizens where authoritarian governments have failed. Keeping the flame of liberal democracy alive is now more important than ever.