Tamara Cofman Wittes is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and was an official in the Near East Affairs Bureau of the State Department from 2009 to 2012.
Since Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder a year ago, one memory of him rises again and again in my mind. Just a few weeks after he came to the United States in 2017, we met up in a hotel lobby on the sidelines of a conference. We’d had such meetings before, but this time was different: Jamal, a big man, seemed shrunken in stature, uncertain. As he related his agonizing choice to leave Saudi Arabia after trying for years to work within the kingdom’s strictures, and described the family, career and hopes he’d left behind, tears flowed silently down his cheeks. And I understood: Jamal had joined the sad ranks of Arab political exiles.
Jamal’s tears that September day mirrored those I’d seen in the eyes of too many others during the two decades I’ve worked on Arab reform. They expressed relief at his safety, anxiety for the people and places he had left behind and regret that he couldn’t remain in the fray. To live and speak in freedom while your countrymen suffer and struggle is to feel both blessed and cursed. As André Aciman, an Egyptian Jewish refugee from Gamal Abdel Nasser, wrote, “What makes exile the pernicious thing it is is not really the state of being away, as much as the impossibility of ever not being away — not just being absent, but never being able to redeem this absence.”
The past 20 years saw a flowering of Arab thought, writing and activism on behalf of democratic reforms. In a 2002 report, Arab scholars starkly laid out the “freedom deficit” in Arab states, showing its cost to their societies’ growth and development. The report lent oxygen to Arab intellectuals and activists — both within and outside government institutions — already pressing their stagnant, repressive governments to become more transparent, accountable, participatory and responsive to citizens’ needs. Most of these activists were decidedly not revolutionaries and rejected foreign intervention.
Almost inevitably, as the ranks of Arab reformers grew, so, too, did the ranks of political exiles. Individuals once tolerated by regimes as symbols of their openness to change were sidelined or pushed out when proposed reforms cut too deeply into autocratic prerogatives. Another wave of exiles emerged after the 2011 Arab uprisings threatened rulers with change that was too swift and too thorough, and the autocrats pushed back forcefully. Reformers who escaped outright arrest often found themselves fired from jobs and banned from publishing (as Jamal was), banned from travel or forced to watched their nongovernmental organizations declared illegal. Those who were able to flee did. Jamal gave up on his government’s will to change later than many; but his insider knowledge of the Saudi regime made clear that speaking up required getting out.
The situation today looks bleak for these Arab political exiles and the ideals they fight for. President Trump’s visa ban on citizens from countries such as Yemen, Iran and Syria, dramatic cuts to refugee admissions, and recalcitrance in providing temporary protected status for Syrians prevents many fleeing persecution from finding shelter in the United States, once considered a leading refuge.
And then there’s the continued impunity of those who killed Jamal, and what it portends. A Saudi exile who fled to safety and legal residence in the United States was targeted and murdered by his own government. He was lured by Saudi diplomatic personnel to a consular facility and killed there; yet the United States has not even expelled a single Saudi diplomat in response. Instead of calling for justice, the Trump administration has worked assiduously to help the Saudi leadership avoid accountability for what was, as U.N. special rapporteur Agnes Callamard confirmed this summer, an act of state. Without accountability for Jamal’s murder, dictators will have free rein to silence their dissidents, and activists will have nowhere safe to go.
Arab dictators like to call reformers fools and knaves, and insist that the Arab Spring brought only violence and extremism. Yet Tunisia just held its second free and fair presidential election, evidence of a still-fragile democratic transition. In Algeria and Sudan, a new generation of grass-roots activists has risen up against corruption and military rule. The renewed street demonstrations in Egyptian cities this month reveal that even intense repression cannot squelch dissent forever.
Events such as these since Jamal’s death are reminders that the myth of authoritarian stability and inevitability in the Middle East is gone forever. Although Jamal never got the chance, Arab political exiles can still hope and work for a day when they might be able to “redeem this absence” and return home.
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