Why a friendlier Middle East is more dangerous for activists

Authoritarian governments often harass and hinder their critics, even if those people are outside the country. As former enemies become friends in the Middle East, will they cooperate to shut down opposition voices?
Authoritarian governments often harass and hinder their critics, even if those people are outside the country. As former enemies become friends in the Middle East, will they cooperate to shut down opposition voices?

Authoritarian governments often harass and hinder their critics, even if those people are outside the country. As former enemies become friends in the Middle East, will they cooperate to shut down opposition voices? By Cathrin Schaer

By Cathrin Schaer

After he received the threats, Aziz Agrawli had security cameras installed in his home and garden. "My name and address were published on social media," explains Agrawli, a member of the Moroccan anti-government movement known as Hirak.

"People said they would come to my house and settle the matter," Agrawli adds. "But we've had so many threats. The Moroccan secret police tried to pressure me through my family, including by approaching my children on social media."

Agrawli, who is not using his full name for security reasons, believes all of these actions are somehow connected to Morocco's government and its security services. That may not be surprising, considering that the leaders of the Hirak movement, which emerged in 2016 in the deprived northern region of Rif, were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison in allegedly politically motivated verdicts that Human Rights Watch described as "shocking".

But what is perhaps surprising is that all this is happening in Germany.

Surveilled, stalked in Europe

Agrawli is originally from the Rif region, but he and his family have been living in North Rhine-Westphalia for over 30 years now. After protests began back home, he and friends began organising protests around Europe. Since then, they say they have been harassed, threatened and surveilled by their own government.

Deutsche Welle reached out to the Moroccan government about the veracity of these accusations but has yet to receive an answer.

A recent arrest in Germany appears to prove Agrawli's point, though. Last month saw the start of a court case in Dusseldorf in which federal prosecutors charged a 36-year-old Moroccan man with spying on members of the Hirak movement in Germany. Agrawli will appear as a witness.​​​​

The Dusseldorf court case will likely run until the end of August (image: Martin Hoeke/dpa/picture alliance)
Last month, court proceedings began in Dusseldorf against a 36-year-old Moroccan charged with spying on members of the Moroccan anti-government Hirak movement in Germany. Witness in the case and Hirak activist Agrawli says he would like more political accountability for countries that regularly practice transnational repression: "We'd like the German government to react more strongly to these kinds of transgressions, instead of just praising its great bilateral relationship with Morocco"

This is just one example of what is known as "transnational repression". The phrase refers to governments acting across borders to try and silence dissidents living outside the country.

Transnational repression is not a new phenomenon, but it is likely more dangerous for activists in the Middle East. This is because the vast majority of such incidents – over 70% – are the product of two non-democratic governments working together, according to U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, which maintains a database of incidents.  A Freedom House report on transnational repression in 2022 indicated that Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the worst offenders.

"Governments in those countries we describe as 'not free' tend to share illiberal values and have a weak rule of law, so people there tend to be more vulnerable," explains Yana Gorokhovskaia, research director at Freedom House, who has been leading the organisation's work on transnational repression.

Most recently, there has been a wave of diplomatic detente in the Middle East as relationships between the likes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have improved. So could more cooperation between these formerly unfriendly neighbours mean even more transnational repression in the region? 

More danger to activists?

It is hard to say for sure, Gorokhovskaia admitted. This is partly because a lot of incidents are not recorded anywhere, she says, "because countries don't publicise what they're doing, or because civil society on the ground is not able to observe it". A lot of transnational repression happens through informal cooperation between like-minded governments, she notes.

Recent experience indicates that new "friendships" between authoritarians can be a problem. For example, the Turkish government had previously spoken out against China's persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority and had long provided a refuge for Uighurs. However, as the Turkish government, in serious economic trouble, has moved closer to China, an important trading partner, it has become quieter on the Uighur issue.

"As Beijing and Ankara have grown closer, we have seen more intimidation and harassment of Uighurs in the region," Gorokhovskaia notes. "Overall, it seems Turkey is willing to facilitate transnational repression depending on the geopolitical environment."

Interpol vets Red Notices and recently reported it rejects about 1,000 annually, about half of those on human rights grounds (image: Andrew Matthews/empics/picture alliance)
Interpol member countries may request help from the international police organisation when seeking to apprehend a wanted person. Although Interpol claims to reject rejects about 1,000 of these requests annually, some 50 percent on human rights grounds, these applications, known as Red Notices, have recently come in for criticism: China, Russia, Egypt and the UAE, among others, were found to have been using them to arrest political opponents elsewhere

Both Turkey and Qatar have also provided refuge to members of the religious-political organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood. But Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt consider the Muslim Brotherhood dangerous. Earlier this month, Turkey restored diplomatic relations with Egypt and is also increasingly financially beholden to the Saudis and the UAE. After several years of diplomatic isolation, Qatar is now closer to its Gulf neighbours again. 

It is difficult to tell whether recent geopolitical developments are increasing the potential for repression across borders, says Alexis Thiry, a legal adviser at Geneva-based legal advocacy organisation MENA Rights Group.

But, he adds, his organisation is increasingly working on such cases and most recently has seen a troubling pattern emerge with the use of a body called the Arab Interior Ministers Council, or AIMC. It has been around since 1982 and is part of the Arab League's security apparatus.

"Since the beginning of the year, we've worked on three different files in which AIMC has been mentioned. We had never heard of it being used like this before January 2023," Thiry said. "We fear that Arab states might increasingly turn to AIMC to circulate arrest warrants and seek the extradition of political opponents living or travelling in another Arab League member state."

Both Thiry and Gorokhovskaia worry states in the region might increasingly turn to the AIMC instead of using so-called Red Notices issued by Interpol. These are requests Interpol member countries can make, asking for help in apprehending a wanted person. Recently, Red Notices have come in for criticism because they've been used by countries like China, Russia, Egypt and the UAE to arrest political opponents elsewhere.

In June this year, several United Nations experts wrote a letter to the Arab League about the AIMC. They argued that states do not appear to exercise due diligence in assessing the political nature of the charges brought against individuals.

How to fight transnational repression

There are also other developments that make transnational repression a bigger problem everywhere, experts say. This includes the use of digital tools to harass and surveil, as well as the increased use of biometric technologies to identify individuals even if, say, they're travelling on a different passport. 

The case of Sherif Osman, facing extradition from the United Arab Emirates to Egypt, illustrates the growing transnational repression of dissenting voices & the detrimental role played by the Council of Arab Interior Ministers. https://t.co/bi5kgIitdE

— Alexis Thiry (@ThiryAlexis) December 19, 2022


Although it is difficult to fight transnational repression, there are various things that could be done to combat it, rights groups say.

In the U.S., a new law was introduced in March 2023 and the Federal Bureau of Investigation also established a special unit. Europe does not appear to have anything like this yet, but local police will often inform and assist political activists they believe to be in danger, Gorokhovskaia said.

There have also been calls for special rapporteurs on the topic at the UN, better information for European embassies that dissidents might seek help from, improved cooperation between law enforcement and assisting civil society organisations to set up emergency responses to this kind of harassment.

But there is an issue also associated with migration and asylum, Gorokhovskaia argues. "The problem with dissidents in the Middle East is that often it's very hard for them to reach the relative safety of Europe. The question is how can we help the people trapped in these authoritarian neighbourhoods?" she asks.

Along with experts at Freedom House, Hirak activist Agrawli, who has been the victim of harassment in Germany, says he would also like to see more political accountability for countries that regularly practice transnational repression.

"My friends are in prison and the regime is very unhappy with us," he says. "We'd like the German government to react more strongly to these kinds of transgressions instead of just praising its great bilateral relationship with Morocco," he concludes.

Cathrin Schaer

© Deutsche Welle 2023