Why you should care
Repressive Arab regimes are increasingly borrowing America’s war on terror slogan to crush local opponents while retaining the West’s support.
In the early morning of June 25, Egyptian police stormed the home of former lawmaker Zyad Elelaimy and dragged him away in front of his family. A founding member of the secular Socialist Democratic Party, he was one of eight people arrested across the country that day. They were all charged with plotting against the state and having ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi describes as a terrorist organization.
The arrests are part of a new pattern unfolding across the Middle East. During the Cold War, autocratic dictators and monarchs in the region used the fight against Communism to gain Western support even as they pursued repressive policies at home. Saudi Arabia, for instance, poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan to aid the U.S in defeating the Soviet Union and its puppet regime in Kabul, while also funding extremist madrassas across South Asia and Southeast Asia. When the U.S. launched its “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks, the region’s governments were passive partners — they helped America but didn’t want to draw too much attention to their security partnership.
Now, a new clique of Arab dictators are launching their own war on terror, using America’s terminology to target their domestic and regional rivals while portraying themselves as indispensable to Western efforts at countering terrorism. This approach marks a sharp break from the past and is finding traction at a time when many Western nations — and in particular the U.S. — increasingly lack the appetite for overseas wars and instead seek local allies to fight their battles. Remember the images of President Donald Trump and Saudi’s King Salman clutching a glowing orb in 2017, after a summit where Riyadh and its regional partners promised to lead the battle against extremist Islam, never mind their track record? Yet behind the cover of the war on terror, these regimes — from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates to Egypt — are focusing on domestic and regional rivals, not global threats, argue many experts.
El-Sissi always calls all his opponents traitors and terrorists, but everyone knows it’s just a political card.
Ahmed Said, an Egyptian activist in Germany
Just two months after ascending to power in June 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) promised to crack down on extremist clerics and return the kingdom to “moderate Islam.” But instead, he ordered the arrest and torture of dozens of moderate sheikhs such as Salman al-Awdah, while elevating the status of religious hard-liners. Civilians and activists from Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shia minority have also been hunted, arrested and executed after being convicted as Iranian spies in trials that independent experts have described as unfair.
Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the de facto leader of the UAE, has pitched his nation as a frontline state in the fight against the Islamic State. But he too sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and since the Arab Spring has arrested dozens of Islamists and several secular activists — while maintaining a reputation for liberalism and tolerance. When MBZ and MBS spearheaded a blockade on Qatar, it was to punish the tiny emirate for inching closer to Iran and for its favorable coverage of the Brotherhood on its popular news network Al-Jazeera.
Egypt also supported the blockade, whose own leader, el-Sissi, has decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. Just last month, on June 17, the country’s first freely elected president and key Brotherhood figure Mohammed Morsi collapsed in court and died. The rest of the group’s leaders are locked up or in exile. Yet while most experts believe the Brotherhood shouldn’t qualify as a terrorist group, MBS, MBZ and el-Sissi all equate the franchise with ISIS and al-Qaida.
“El-Sissi always calls all his opponents traitors and terrorists, but everyone knows it’s just a political card,” says Ahmed Said, an Egyptian activist in Germany who is monitoring Elelaimy’s case.
This new strategy of keeping the West on board while targeting local opponents as “terrorists” doesn’t always shield these Arab nations from criticism. MBS’ image took a hit when he jailed Saudi women rights activists just weeks before lifting the ban on women driving. He then faced a backlash following the gruesome murder of Saudi critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside an Istanbul consulate last fall.
But those setbacks have proven to be temporary. In June, Trump described MBS as a “friend.” What’s more entrenched is how the equations between the U.S. and the region have changed. In earlier decades, the war on terror provided the West an opportunity to extract concessions from unfriendly regimes — Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to hand over suspects and intelligence to the CIA in exchange for money and immunity. Now, America’s “allies,” such as MBS, MBZ and el-Sissi, are the ones increasingly guiding the West’s approach in the Middle East.
That’s in part because of a carefully cultivated image that MBZ, in particular, has built for himself. He was a friend of former U.S. President Barack Obama and has portrayed himself as a reformer in the West even while cautioning against increased freedoms in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. He argued the Arab world wasn’t ready for democracy. “The image of MBS is still under construction, but MBZ is a well-oiled machine,” says Stephane Lacroix, an expert on the Gulf and an associate professor at Sciences Po University.
That image in the West, say analysts and observers, has protected MBZ from international criticism during the post–Arab Spring crackdown that by 2013 left Iyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian human rights activist who grew up in the UAE, worried that he could be arrested anytime. His fears came true when he tweeted his condolences after his Egyptian friend Bassem Sabry — a well-known blogger — died unexpectedly on April 30, 2014. Authorities told el-Baghdadi — who, like many Palestinians, was stateless — to choose between prison and deportation. He chose the latter and eventually ended up in Norway, where he has continued to criticize Arab dictators from afar. But he remains in danger. Just last month, he was taken into protective custody after he was informed of a Saudi plot to kill him. “Not many people in the Arab world are buying into this new ‘war on terror,’” el-Baghdadi says. “People are even asking how the Brotherhood poses a threat when everybody knows that the group is decimated.”
Even with genuine counterterrorism operations, the heavy-handed approach of these countries often exacerbate the grievances that foster extremism, say rights groups. An investigation by Human Rights Watch found that Egyptian troops have arbitrarily arrested thousands while summarily executing hundreds of others in their military campaign against Islamic State–affiliated insurgents in north Sinai.
Still, with the West less willing to fully bear the burden of military operations in the region anymore, these countries offer cooperation that’s hard to resist. In southern Yemen, Emirati troops are collaborating with the CIA in fighting alleged al-Qaida fighters. And in Libya, the UAE and France are working together to support the septuagenarian field marshal Khalifa Haftar — a figure who brands all his opponents as terrorists — in his bloody bid to conquer Tripoli.
Said, the Egyptian activist, says that an official from Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) told him that they know el-Sissi isn’t jailing terrorists, but that defending human rights wasn’t a priority right now. That message is giving a new fraternity of Arab autocrats the green light to consolidate power.