Arab Dictators Are Learning to Love Collective Punishment

Middle Eastern regimes increasingly aren’t just targeting dissidents—they’re going after their entire families.

An Al-Jazeera channel's journalist stands inside the defendants cage with his colleagues during their trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at Cairo's Tora prison on March 22, 2014.
An Al-Jazeera channel's journalist stands inside the defendants cage with his colleagues during their trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at Cairo's Tora prison on March 22, 2014. MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP via Getty Images

When Mohamed Ali began propping his cellphone on his desk in Spain, he did not expect the resulting videos to trigger an uprising in his home country of Egypt. (The videos by the contractor-turned-whistleblower, which revealed lavish spending by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his family, eventually led to rare nationwide anti-government protests last September.) What he did expect, however, was that his family would be targeted by the regime as a way to discredit him.

On Egyptian TV, his father publicly disowned him. His brother and mother accused him of robbing his late brother. “My family lied,” Ali told me in a phone call from Spain. “They are pro-Sisi. I was not surprised by what they said, we are in a dictatorship. From what I know, they were told exactly what to say.” On several occasions, Ali’s father called him and demanded he publicly apologize for the videos. “He asked me why I would do such a thing; we were happy. He told me they will kill me,” Ali said. “I cried, but there’s no going back.” Last month, news emerged that Egypt is seeking his extradition from Spain for alleged tax evasion as Sisi continues a relentless campaign to silence critics abroad.

Ali’s story is not unique, however. He is part of a growing pool of dissidents who have chosen to exile themselves abroad in exchange for speaking freely against authoritarian regimes in the Arab region. Many of them have seen their families facing tremendous pressure by security forces seeking to blackmail their relatives abroad into silence.

In my interviews with numerous outspoken critics, I found that a recurring tactic seems to have been employed by more than one regime around the same time: Families are asked to pressure the dissenting relative into silence, disown them, discredit them and denounce their actions. Families that fail to comply face travel bans, social isolation, job loss, and even incarceration. But longtime government critics say these tactics were not common or this systematic in the past.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, much of this strategy has been tied to the time after Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2017, and specifically after he began a string of crackdowns on critics, influential figures, royals, activists, scholars, and clerics. A clear example of this is the arrest of the cleric Salman al-Odah in September 2017. Although he was previously arrested before Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power and imprisoned from 1994 to 1999, his son Abdullah al-Odah says his family had never been harassed at the time. Now, at least 18 members of his family, including children as young as 9, are banned from travel; his uncle remains in prison for tweeting about Odah; and their home has been repeatedly searched. In a bizarre twist of events, and after his family was denied access to visit Odah in prison, a Saudi journalist was given access to interview him, describing the prison as a place for relaxation. The journalist also quoted Odah as asking his son Abdullah to stop campaigning for him and focus on his studies. (Abdullah says this request was strange, because he had already completed his studies and his father knew that.)

Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi women’s rights activist, also experienced the same shift in tactics. Unlike during her initial arrest in 2014, when she was arrested a second time in 2018 her parents were placed on a travel ban. Her husband was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia from Jordan. The couple later divorced, but it remains unclear whether it was due to government pressure. Her siblings were pressured to remain quiet about her case, but they eventually spoke out after learning about the torture and sexual harassment Loujain was subjected to in prison.

“Many [critics and family] have tried to stay silent, but the new thing about MBS is that even if you are silent, he will not change course,” said Hala al-Dosari, a prominent Saudi activist and scholar, referring to the Saudi crown prince by his initials. “This is new in Saudi Arabia. They are basically saying: We are going after you, and your family, and there is no room to negotiate. That’s why staying silent doesn’t help.”

While travel bans are not new in Saudi Arabia, under former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef—sidelined by Mohammed bin Salman in 2017—they were reviewed yearly and could be contested, according to Dosari. This is no longer the case. It is unknown how many are on a travel ban in Saudi Arabia, but the number is estimated to be in the thousands. “Under MBS it is indefinite,” she said.

Such efforts have included direct pressure in Western countries where activists are exiled. In 2018, for example, the political asylee Omar Abdulaziz, an outspoken critic of Mohammed bin Salman, was visited by one of his brothers in Canada, accompanied by two men who said they carried a message from the crown prince. Abdulaziz was told to either go to the Saudi Embassy in Canada or go home with them. Abdulaziz did neither. His brother was imprisoned upon return to Saudi Arabia, along with a number of Abdulaziz’s friends, in an attempt to further pressure him. Two years later, and with no sign of Abdulaziz slowing down his activism, the Canadian authorities warned him that he had become a potential target of the Saudi government.

Just as in Abdelaziz’s case, where his family members have been held hostage, the same tactic is being used on Saad al-Jabri, a former intelligence officer in Saudi Arabia, who helped foil an al Qaeda plot against the West. The Saudi government arrested two of his children and one of his brothers to pressure him to return home. (After the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Saudi officials acknowledged the existence of a standing order to bring dissidents home that did not specify the method.)

Activists suspect family harassment became a go-to response because of the close relationship between the United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, especially because the UAE had employed such tactics years before. The Emirati human rights activist Alaa al-Siddiq, who lives in London, where she is currently seeking asylum, says the trend has been spreading in Saudi Arabia more viciously in recent years, but she experienced the same tactics firsthand in the UAE. Siddiq is the daughter of one of 94 UAE nationals convicted in 2013 for “compromising” the country’s security, a case I reported on while working for a local publication inside the country at the time. Siddiq said 20 relatives of those 94 had their citizenship revoked, including herself. Others were banned from travel, faced social exclusion, and were unable to get certain jobs.

“If someone came to propose to my sister, the government would stop them,” she told me from London. “We don’t know exactly how many are on travel bans, there is no paper or order given to people to notify them. But once they try to cross a border, they then are told verbally. This growing alliance between Saudi and the UAE is leading to the same human rights violations and tactics being used.” Travel bans are also not communicated to people in Saudi Arabia but are discovered at border crossings.

One dissident, who wished not to be named in fear of retaliation, said they privately encouraged their family to disown them, adding that before speaking out, dissidents are fully aware that the government would go to great lengths to silence them, including turning to their loved ones.

As regimes adopt increasingly more ruthless tactics against their critics, dissidents abroad are resorting to legal action to shed light on their abusers. Through this approach, Western governments are pressured domestically to denounce human rights abusers, even while they try to maintain diplomatic relations in the region.

Earlier this year, a number of jailed Saudis and allies began retaining lawyers and lobbyists, bringing their cases to the United States. More recently, the American Egyptian activist Mohamed Soltan, who was tortured while imprisoned in Egypt, filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., against former Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi for ordering his arrest in 2013. In response, the Egyptian government arrested five of his cousins and interrogated his father before taking him to an undisclosed location. The family was told by the Egyptian government they were being held hostage so that Soltan will drop the lawsuit. U.S. policymakers called the arrests a clear interference in the U.S. judiciary.

The ongoing pursuit of dissidents and their families will likely cause an ongoing diplomatic headache for the West, and the United States in particular—whether under current President Donald Trump or under his election rival, Joe Biden—unless a collective effort is made to pressure regimes to improve their human rights record. Biden has already voiced concern over the harassment of Soltan’s family and warned there would be no more blank checks for Trump’s “favorite dictator,” in reference to Sisi, offering a glimpse of what his presidency could mean for Egypt and others in the region. Sadly, in Soltan’s case, Egypt placed diplomatic pressure on the U.S. State Department to grant Beblawi diplomatic immunity from the torture lawsuit, which the department has now declared. This will only lead to greater pressure on Soltan’s family, as well as others waiting in line to gain justice from their abusers and to free their families.

While the United States and other European nations cannot export their human rights values to the Arab world, they can, at the very least, help those who escape in getting justice, particularly when their citizens are involved. Any less would likely embolden these regimes to go further in their repression.

Ola Salem is a British-Egyptian journalist with a decade of experience covering the Middle East. She is the managing editor of Newlines Magazine, and a master's graduate from New York University.
 Twitter: @Ola_Salem

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