Why Egypt’s Exiles Are Especially Terrified

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For the last six years, Nancy Okail has led a relatively safe life in exile. As the executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, she had a high enough profile that she didn’t worry too much about the anonymous threats and harassment directed by the Egyptian regime she fled.

Then Jamal Khashoggi was killed. “I knew Jamal,” she told me in an interview this week. They were both part of a tight circle of Arab dissidents living in and around Washington. If his murder is blamed on anyone other than Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, she said, “then this is a license to kill all of us.”

As Khashoggi was, Okail is a permanent U.S. resident. In 2013 she was tried in absentia in the first major public trial of employees of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations after Egypt’s 2011 revolution. As she was held in a cage before her trial, she recalled, she read “Homage to Catalonia,” George Orwell’s devastating account of the depravities of fascists and communists in the Spanish civil war.

So it’s easy to see why Okail frets. She knows that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, like the rest of the world, is watching the U.S. response to Saudi Arabia. If the U.S. punishes Saudi Arabia lightly for the Khashoggi murder, Okail says, El-Sisi and other Arab leaders will see it as permission to go after dissidents living abroad.

This is not so hypothetical for the hundreds of Egyptians exiled by El-Sisi. Even before Khashoggi’s murder, the regime pushed boundaries with its harassment of exiled dissidents.

Consider some of the recent threats against Bahey El-Din Hassan, a journalist and human-rights activist now living in Paris. While traveling in Italy in May 2017, Hassan and a group of Egyptian dissidents were followed and photographed by Egyptian security officers. Later, an Egyptian member of parliament and ally of El-Sisi said on his television show that the government should “kidnap” these Egyptian exiles and bring them home “in coffins.”

There are more subtle forms of intimidation. The same day that Okail testified before Congress in 2015, she told me, Egyptian police seeking her arrest showed up at her father’s house and the home of her ex-husband, where her children were living. State television called her out as a traitor.

Hassan said he began receiving anonymous death threats a month after El-Sisi won his first election in 2014. After consulting with allies and Western diplomats, he decided to leave Egypt. Now he says he worries that he may not be safe in exile.

Both Hassan and Okail said they and other Egyptian exiles now must carefully consider how much, or even whether, to go abroad. “We travel, we go to conferences,” Okail said. “I am not afraid of something happening to me in the United States. But I go to Turkey and other places. Things can be made to look like an accident.”

Of course, in the case of Khashoggi, the Saudis didn’t even bother to do that. According to congressional sources, it’s likely the Trump administration will approve sanctions against the Saudis who participated in Khashoggi’s murder. There is also an effort to demand the release of women’s rights activists and others from Saudi jails.

That’s a start, but it’s not nearly enough — especially if the U.S. government ends up going along with a Saudi cover story that absolves the crown prince of responsibility. Like Okail, Hassan said it is imperative that Mohammed bin Salman himself be held accountable for this crime. That’s the only detail that matters to El-Sisi, he said.

Holding the crown prince responsible is not without risk. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia remains a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East. At the same time there is a risk that other important U.S. allies — like Egypt — will follow the Saudi model if the crown prince is allowed to get away with murdering an exile abroad.

For President Donald Trump and his cabinet, the response to Khashoggi’s death is about balancing U.S. values and interests. For Okail and Hassan, how America responds is a matter of life and death.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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