While Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi received star treatment during President Joe Biden’s US-Africa Leaders Summit, an American citizen and vocal critic of the Egyptian regime, Sherif Osman, languished in an Emirati prison for 46 days on spurious charges.
He was released two weeks ago, but how did he end up imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates in the first place? While in the United States, Osman had used his YouTube channel to condemn Sisi and to support calls for peaceful protests against him while Biden attended the United Nations COP27 climate summit in November in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh. Sisi and his government, in an extension of the regime’s crackdown on free speech at home, reached beyond their border to request Osman’s arrest and extradition from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he was visiting family.
Osman was promptly arrested by police officers and locked up by a supposed U.S. ally that hosts thousands of U.S. troops at an air base and whose ports “host more [U.S.] Navy ships than any other port outside the United States.” One would think, given the recent praise the UAE received from Biden for its aid in securing the release of basketball player Brittney Griner from Russia, the Gulf nation would think twice about keeping a U.S. citizen detained for more than a month on behalf of Egypt.
But Osman’s case also is noteworthy for other reasons. First, it reflects the Egyptian regime’s monitoring of dissidents abroad, even those on U.S. soil, where Osman recorded his YouTube videos, and even when the material doesn’t appear to get wide distribution (in this instance, Osman’s channel has a relatively low 35,900 subscribers and his videos garner 50,000 to 110,000 views, compared with Egypt’s population of around 110 million). Second, the Egyptian government’s strategic move to wait until Osman was in the UAE and have him extradited through an Arab League entity further indicates the political nature of his arrest. Otherwise, Egypt would have officially requested his extradition through the U.S. government. This was further reinforced by the UAE’s rejection of Egypt’s request to deport Osman.
Other US Victims of Sisi’s Transnational Repression
Osman’s plight is better understood in the context of the ever-expanding global reach of Egypt’s authoritarian regime. Since coming to power in 2014, Sisi’s repression has reached unprecedented levels, with experts estimating tens of thousands held as political prisoners and Egyptian civil society activists are under constant threat of imprisonment, travel bans, and asset freezes, forcing many to flee the country. Sisi’s long arm of repression has even extended to silencing critics beyond Egypt’s borders in what academics call “transnational repression.” Indeed, Egypt is third, after China and Turkey — and even surpassing Russia — in a ranking of countries that commit transnational repression.
Osman isn’t the first example of Egypt’s attempts to repress Americans abroad. In June 2020, the regime arrested the family of U.S. human rights activist Mohamed Soltan after he filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi for condoning torture practices during Soltan’s unjust imprisonment in Egypt. A year ago, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the arrest of an Egyptian spy in New York who collected information about Sisi’s political opponents in the United States. The suspect even sought to leverage his connections with local U.S. law enforcement officers to assist him in his endeavor. Sisi is clearly willing to threaten the lives of U.S. citizens and their families to silence any and all criticism.
UAE as a Facilitator of Transnational Repression
Although the UAE freed Osman, traveling there has turned into a nightmare for democracy advocates and critics, as well as their family members, from all over the world. A few months before Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, the UAE authorities arrested his wife, Hanan Elatr, while she visited her family there, interrogated her about Khashoggi and his exile activism, and planted the powerful spyware Pegasus on her phone. Similarly, In August 2022, Asim Ghafoor, a U.S. citizen and former lawyer of Khashoggi, was released after spending a month in UAE prisons on vague charges related to financial corruption.
Furthermore, in 2018, the UAE helped hack, arrest, and forcibly fly prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul back to Saudi Arabia, where she was tortured. The UAE also aided China’s repression of Uyghurs by extraditing them to China and allowing high-ranking Chinese officials to run “black sites” on UAE soil, where they were coerced into spying for the Chinese Communist Party.
Absence of Accountability
Osman’s case reflects an important feature of the U.S.-Egypt relationship and the U.S. relationship with its allies in the Middle East and North Africa in general: the United States has consistently avoided holding Egyptian or other officials of the region’s regimes accountable for their violations, even against U.S. citizens. For instance, Egypt ignored calls by former Vice President Mike Pence to release Mostafa Kassem, another U.S. citizen, from prison after he was wrongfully arrested in 2013. He died in January 2020 after a long hunger strike and six years behind bars. Although members of Congress called on then-President Donald Trump to impose sanctions on the Egyptian regime, Sisi, once dubbed by Trump as his “favorite dictator,” suffered no consequences.
As a presidential candidate, Biden had promised to take a different path during his presidency, saying Sisi will get “no more blank checks,” vowing to place human rights at the center of his foreign policy, and pledging to counter transnational repression. After nearly two years, the Biden administration has failed to turn these pledges into actual policies regarding Egypt or the broader region. The United States has been unable or unwilling to hold these authorities accountable for their violations of human rights and democratic norms. This paved the way for such regimes to further export their repression and even target U.S. citizens without fearing any form of accountability.
Soltan’s lawsuit against el-Beblawi, the former prime minister and representative to the International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C., for example, offered an opportunity to hold a regime official accountable for his crimes against Soltan. Instead, the Biden administration in April 2021 granted immunity to El-Beblawi, who was residing in Virginia at the time. This undoubtedly emboldened the head of Egyptian intelligence who, during a July 2021 visit to Washington, D.C., reportedly said during meetings on Capitol Hill that the United States had agreed in writing upon Soltan’s release in 2015 that he would serve the remainder of his Egyptian sentence in U.S. prisons, and he wondered “why was Soltan free and living in Virginia?” Similarly, the Biden administration recently determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is entitled to immunity as a sitting head of government in a civil lawsuit over his role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. One month prior, another U.S. citizen, Saad Ibrahim Almadi, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for criticizing the Saudi regime on Twitter while in the United States.
Actions Speak Louder Than Back-Door Diplomacy
The White House briefly mentioned Biden raising human rights issues during his meeting with Sisi at COP27 and the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, and the Biden administration has cut $130 million of U.S. military aid to Egypt. But that amount is a fraction of the total U.S. military assistance to Egypt, and these moves clearly have proved insufficient to change the Egyptian regime’s behavior on human rights. On the contrary, these meetings essentially gave Sisi another “blank check” to commit more human rights abuses, no doubt targeting not only Egyptians but Americans too, just as they have in the past.
Biden needs to increase the withheld portion of military assistance and condition it, along with U.S. arms sales to Egypt, on the regime refraining from engaging in any form of transnational repression targeting Americans. Egyptian officials must be sanctioned for their crimes of transnational repression, including being subjected to the “Khashoggi Ban.” Finally, the president should work with Congress to pass a law criminalizing transnational repression.
Doing otherwise will put every American abroad at the mercy of the authoritarians who would like to see them silenced, and it will force Americans in the United States to censor themselves, granting such regimes the power to determine the limits of freedom of expression even on U.S. soil.