Challenges to Biden’s Human Rights Agenda in the Middle East

In his speech at the US State Department on February 4, 2021, US President Joe Biden pledged to support democracy and confront authoritarianism globally, saying he considered these priorities to be at the core of preserving American values. At the same time, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to protecting and promoting human rights in his speech before the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 24. Noticeably, the issues of human rights and democracy seem to be of greater interest and priority for Biden’s Administration than for Trump’s, which tolerated authoritarian regimes around the world. But two important questions arise: will the Biden Administration fulfill its commitment to defend human rights, especially in the Middle East? What are the challenges and constraints facing the administration that may render these pledges mere words without action?

State of Human Rights in the Middle East

Since the failure of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, the Arab world has witnessed a serious deterioration in its human rights record as authoritarian regimes have stepped up their campaigns against political activists and human rights defenders in an unprecedented fashion. But the issue is not only related to the oppressive practices of authoritarian regimes. Rather, it has much to do with the international community’s failure and unwillingness to genuinely pressure and challenge key actors responsible for the horrific human rights violations in the Middle East.

Egypt has turned into a large prison in which no one is allowed freedom of expression or objection to government policies.

In Egypt, for example, thousands of detainees are rotting in President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s prisons. Some have died due to poor conditions and medical negligence, not to mention enforced disappearances, extra-legal killings, and collective death sentences. These practices did not exist during former President Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Egypt has turned into a large prison in which no one is allowed freedom of expression or objection to government policies. The aspirations and hopes for freedom and democracy of the Egyptians who filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 have faded and turned into a mirage.

In Saudi Arabia, especially since the political ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Mbs), dozens of political activists, businesspersons, journalists, and reformist clerics have been arbitrarily arrested on the basis of false accusations fabricated against them. The same is true in the United Arab Emirates, which violates human rights not only domestically but also beyond its borders; this is the case in Yemen, Libya, and Egypt, where it provides financial and military support for authoritarian leaders or warlords.

In Turkey, thousands of detainees remain in prison for alleged connections to the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016. With around 120 detained journalists, the country ranks among the worst  in terms of the highest such number in the world, according to some reports. This scenario is also replicated in Iran, where dozens of activists and political opponents are imprisoned and about 227 people, including lawyers, political activists, and journalists, have received death sentences in 2019. In Israel, almost 4,200 Palestinians were held as security detainees by September 2020. The number is likely to be higher today since the Israel Prison Service has stopped providing the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem with numbers lower that five. The Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization says that 750,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israel’s military orders in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967.

A Tragedy of Political Prisoners

The last 10 years in the Middle East can be described as the decade of “political prisoners.” From Saudi Arabia to Morocco, thousands of political activists, journalists, and dissidents have languished in prisons, charged with no crime other than expressing their political views. Many of these detainees suffer from poor conditions such as the denial of proper health care, the right to exercise, and access to clean water. This inhumane treatment of prisoners has been particularly alarming with the spread of COVID-19 across prisons, raising serious concerns about the safety of inmates.

In Egypt, where there were nearly 60,000 detainees in 2019, the Egyptian authorities impose strict measures on political prisoners, including denying them lighting and hot water. Such coercive measures have been imposed as a kind of collective punishment since November 2020, as described by Human Rights Watch. What is even worse is that in Egypt, relatives and family members of Egyptian political opponents who are living abroad have been arrested. Most notably, the relatives of American political activist and human rights defender Muhammad Sultan were arrested for defending the rights of political detainees in Egypt through his organization, the Freedom Initiative. Furthermore, Amnesty International warned in a report that the lives of political prisoners are in danger, noting that prison officials in Egypt subject prisoners of conscience and other political detainees to torture and other inhumane practices, such as the deliberate denial of health care as a punishment for their opposition. These factors caused or contributed to the death of numerous prisoners while in custody, in addition to irreparable damage to the health of those who remain alive. Egyptian authorities have also rejected repeated calls to decrease the number of prisoners in overcrowded facilities after the spread of COVID-19 started in the middle of 2020.

Last November, the Grant Liberty human rights charity claimed that 309 political prisoners have been subjected to grave violations in Saudi prisons.

In Saudi Arabia, there are hundreds of political prisoners who suffer from difficult humanitarian and health conditions. Last November, the Grant Liberty human rights charity claimed that 309 political prisoners have been subjected to grave violations in Saudi prisons. According to the report, they have been tortured and sexually assaulted, and some have died since MbS became crown prince in mid-2017. There are also fears about the spread of COVID-19 in the jails, which caused the death of well-known journalist Saleh al-Shehi only two months after his release from prison.

As for Syria, the gravity of the humanitarian catastrophe and the severity of the tragedy crippling the country should not be underestimated. There are tens of thousands of political detainees who are languishing in Syrian prisons, whether they are under the control of the Bashar al-Assad regime or the opposition. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), between March 2011 and March 2021, 14,506 people were killed by torture in Syrian regime-controlled prisons. SNHR has also documented more than 72 methods of torture practiced by the regime against political detainees—a finding that is indicative of likely war crimes.

In the UAE, dozens of political detainees have been held in prison for years, especially since 2013 when nearly 94 people, among them academics and lawyers, were arrested for demanding democratic reform. A number of human rights activists have also been arrested, the most prominent of whom is Ahmed Mansoor. He was arrested in March 2017 and held captive in an unknown location for a full year before receiving a 10-year prison sentence in May 2018 over demanding human rights reform in the UAE.

Political Detainees as a Bargaining Chip

It is clear that some authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are using political detainees as pawns in negotiating with western countries, such as the United States, because they believe that the rights of these detainees can be used as a bargaining chip. For example, in February, Saudi authorities released activist and human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul after she was imprisoned for more than a thousand days, tortured, and sexually assaulted. Likewise, also in February, Egypt released Mahmoud Hussein, an Egyptian journalist reporting for Al Jazeera who was arrested during a family trip to Egypt; he remained in detention without charges for more than four years.

It is clear that some authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are using political detainees as pawns in negotiating with western countries.

It should not come as a surprise that these releases, which represent attempts by authoritarian regimes to mend relations with the new US administration, coincided with the arrival of a president who is at least nominally more supportive of human rights advocacy. It must be noted that not all political detainees have been freed, but only a select few who have come to represent the plight of political prisoners in these authoritarian countries. Such actions confirm that these regimes are only trying to buy time with the Biden Administration and to avoid the anticipated criticism for their poor human rights record.

Moreover, human rights violations in the Middle East have been taking place for decades under the eyes of the United States, which has done little to stop them, as the past four years have shown. In no way can the role of the Trump Administration in encouraging the authoritarian practices of US-allied Arab regimes be ignored. His administration refused to condemn MbS for the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018, despite the US intelligence community’s conclusions that he most likely ordered it. Trump even proudly told American journalist Bob Woodward that he had protected bin Salman from the US Congress. At the same time, the former president declared Sisi to be his “favorite dictator” and greenlighted his efforts to stifle political opposition through a continuous crackdown on journalists and activists.

Challenges Await the Biden Administration

For decades, the United States has traded human rights for its strategic interests in the Middle East. Successive US administrations have turned a blind eye to the horrific violations that their authoritarian allies in the region have committed against their own citizens for the sake of an elusive and almost mythologized concept of “stability.” The Biden Administration thus already has a strong precedent regarding human rights and democracy in the Middle East—not only due to the unconditional support that the Trump Administration has provided to these regimes, but also because of the strong strategic alliance between the United States and Arab leaders dating back many decades. Therefore, there are significant challenges facing Biden and his team as they seek to defend democracy and protect human rights in the Middle East.

First, it is difficult to address the permanent impasse related to reconciling American values and strategic interests. This dilemma resurfaces with every new US administration, and in most cases, values are sacrificed for the sake of strategic interests. The Biden Administration is not likely to sacrifice its strong relationship with authoritarian Middle Eastern allies for the sake of promoting democracy or human rights. We have seen evidence of this in the past weeks, as the administration failed to sanction MbS despite the declassification of the US intelligence report incriminating him in the killing of Khashoggi. Relations with Riyadh have not undergone any radical shifts and will likely see a return to business as usual. The Biden White House may voice criticism and concern about human rights violations, but not to an extent that would lead to policy change.

It is difficult to address the permanent impasse related to reconciling American values and strategic interests. This dilemma resurfaces with every new US administration, and in most cases, values are sacrificed for the sake of strategic interests.

Second, Washington fears that exerting pressure on Middle Eastern allies to improve democracy and human rights will lead to a degree of instability in the region. The experience of the Arab Spring may have furnished an important lesson for the Biden Administration: that it should not interfere in the internal affairs of Arab countries if it wishes to avoid raising anti-American sentiments, because this could drive the situation out of control—as happened in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

Third, the Biden Administration is attempting to distance itself from the so-called Arab Cold War between the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary axes that have formed over the past decade. Any nod of approval toward freedom and human rights may be interpreted as prejudice against its Arab allies––Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE––which would complicate relations. Fourth, and finally, the lobbying groups that work on behalf of authoritarian Arab regimes will continue to pressure the US administration and American legislators to ignore human rights records and the stifling of democracy in favor of strengthening bilateral relations.

Despite such challenges, the Biden Administration has a historic opportunity to improve the image and standing of the United States vis-à-vis the peoples of the region. Of course, this would require Washington to exert pressure—direct or indirect—on authoritarian Arab regimes to end their brutal human rights violations and demand the immediate release of political detainees. The Biden Administration could also condition arms sales to these countries on the latter’s respect for human rights and the promise to ease up on political opponents. Conditioning aid should also be applied in the case of Israel’s control over and treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Finally, the United States could place conditions on its shipments of military and economic aid to its allies, such as Egypt, which receives nearly $1.3 billion annually in the form of military and economic aid. Such conditionality is likely to work in releasing American citizens, including dual nationals, who are under arrest in these countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The Biden Administration has the potential to stand on the right side of history. It can do so by offering genuine support for human rights and making the release of political prisoners a top priority in its Middle East policy.