Nancy Okail is the executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
"Would you please try to tone down your talk?” one of the senior organizers at a regional summit in Europe asked politely in October, minutes before I went on stage for a panel discussion, explaining that they had been harshly criticized for inviting such a critical voice such as me. Since 2013, I have been running the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, an organization that supports independent voices who have been increasingly marginalized in the region. I’ve dealt with censorship before, but it was frustrating to feel censored in Europe, though I was not too surprised given the presence of high-level Arab dignitaries. This was happening with the news of the grisly murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in the background. It struck me, though, that I was an outlier there, a lone critical voice who thought I’d be able to speak truth to power at such a high-level gathering.
Seven years ago, during the height of the Arab Spring, such events were strikingly different. They often included large and diverse groups of civil society and democracy advocates, and were full of critical debates. They used to be a breath of fresh air, an opportunity for us in the Arab world to meet in a safe space and have candid discussions. But this time around, my sense of defeat and loneliness was overwhelming. The censorship and the lack of a forceful response to Khashoggi’s killing highlighted the sense of vulnerability and fear that Arab advocates for human rights and democracy feel — not only as part of our work in the region but also when traveling around the world.
Living in exile, whether de facto or de jure, is sad, frustrating and challenging. I lost both my parents in recent years and could not attend their funerals in Egypt, where I am facing a five-year prison sentence. This year, I was lucky to see my 9-year-old twins only once for just a few weeks, a privilege many living in exile can’t enjoy. On a more basic logistical level, many of us have no means to renew our passports. For some, the thought of walking into a consulate to obtain such documentation is now frightening. More importantly, we also face intimidation and risks abroad: bugged hotel rooms, email hacks and being tailed by (often not-so-discreet) security personnel.
In late November, I attended the Halifax International Security Forum. It was reassuring that nearly every session, including those not pertaining to the Middle East, cited Khashoggi’s murder and its dire implications for press freedom and human rights. Yet there was a clear disconnect between that particular concern and the notion of international security. The defense agenda reflected a general consensus that Washington should deprioritize terrorism and instead focus on defense spending to maintain its eroding military edge against Russia and China.
But that became almost synonymous with deprioritizing the Middle East entirely. Unfortunately, this reductionist view is actually quite reflective of the current policies of both the United States and Europe. Policies that could view the population of the Arab world — and in particular activists, journalists and human rights defenders — as a liability, a problem that needs to be controlled, monitored and contained within the region’s borders while the autocrats there ostensibly maintain control.
Washington and European capitals speak of democratic values but, in practice, support these autocrats both actively and tacitly. Many argue that the normative commitments to democracy must take a back seat to national security considerations. But that line of reasoning remains unconvincing, because the autocratic practices of Arab governments and their repercussions present one of the gravest threats to global security.
The United States and European powers are by no means innocent bystanders; they are active participants in generating the very problems in the region they allegedly seek to contain. Arms imports to the region doubled between 2013 and 2017, and nearly half of U.S. arms exports go to the Middle East. This unprecedented level of arms transfer contributes to fueling violent conflicts. It is especially alarming that some governments and companies authorizing arms sales turn a blind eye toward violations of end-user certification, where these arms easily end up in the hands of terror groups and militias in the region.
These policies stem from the false narrative promoted by repressive Arab regimes which claim that maintaining a strong grip over people will protect the world from Islamic extremism and from a potentially bigger refugee crisis. But supporting this increasingly repressive governance approach will lead only to instability.
Counterterrorism specialists have raised the concern that, in adapting to recent setbacks, the Islamic State would take their fight underground and rally recruits around the world. They seek recruits by playing on the grievances of those who suffer economic and social marginalization under repressive regimes. Regardless of terror threats, supporting this governance approach that hardly delivers to the people will, again, lead only to instability.
As Raed Fares, the Syrian activist, wrote in The Post just months before he was fatally shot: “If it weren’t for us and other independent voices, terrorists would be the only source of information about Syria locally and internationally."
This crackdown on journalists and civil society will only further isolate the people in the Arab world. By remaining silent and turning their heads away from us, the United States and Europe are supporting the agenda of authoritarian regimes. A strategy toward the region exclusively focused on a narrow definition of security is damaging to the world.