What the Khashoggi case means for all dissidents

By MOHAMED EL DAHSHAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 2, 2018

Soon before before Jamal Khashoggi went into his country’s consulate, never again to be seen alive, Egyptian opposition figure Mostafa al Naggar left his office and never reached his destination. His whereabouts remain unknown, and despite a strong suspicion that the Egyptian government might be behind his disappearance, the police — which have a long-documented history of disappearing political opponents — have simply denied any wrongdoing.

But al Naggar’s case did not attract a modicum of the attention that Khashoggi’s tragic case has.

Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed a year ago by car bomb, also still awaits justice. As a longtime reporter on corruption issues in her home country, she had multiple run-ins with the state, which had her arrested twice for doing her work. Three men have been accused of the murder, but her family is adamant that the mastermind of her murder is still at large.

Raif Badawi has been in prison in Saudi Arabia since 2012, serving a sentence of 10 years and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam through electronic channels,” for creating a website. Human rights organizations occasionally remind us of his plight, and Canada, whose citizenship Badawi’s wife and children hold, occasionally chimes in sheepishly.

And while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan positions himself as the seeker of truth for Khashoggi, Turkey remains one of the worst offenders against journalists globally. Just last month, it sentenced three journalists to jail for “insulting the president.”

In the weeks following Khashoggi’s horrendous murder at the hands of Saudi government operatives, the resulting fallout sends an unambiguous messages to dissidents, opponents and human rights activists: Unless you’re exceptionally well connected, you will be promptly forgotten if you are killed.

“We have to ask ourselves why we didn’t see such an outcry when the Saudis executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and other dissidents. We have to ask ourselves why there wasn’t this outcry when thousands and thousands are getting crammed up in al-Saud’s prisons facing torture and cruel treatment,” Egyptian journalist and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy notes. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi “is doing the same; other Arab dictators are doing the same. But we didn’t see such an outcry.

“The message here,” he adds, “is you have to be part of the establishment, you have to be well connected to the American media; you have to be connected to the decision-making circles in Western powers, so that someone would actually ask where did you disappear on the hands of any of those brutal regimes. Other than that, you’re nothing — you’re just another number on the list.”

The Khashoggi affair has attracted attention, coverage and political repercussions. The first and obvious reason is that many journalists were close to Khashoggi, and they are seeking the truth, and subsequently justice, out of personal affinity for their friend. Other journalists and commentators, following the news and opinion trends, turned their attention to this story as it grew, notably with the skillful daily reveals orchestrated by Turkey, which held the global media’s breath throughout the case. For others, Khashoggi’s murder provided an opportunity to attack Saudi Arabia — for national, political, or xenophobic and Islamophobic reasons.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be as much genuine concern for the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia and countries unfortunate enough to fall within its area of influence. As such, unless dissidents find themselves at the confluence of at least several of the above factors, should they be jailed or killed, their fates will be probably be met with generalized silence, or perhaps some occasional, mild coverage.

Most activists devoid of strong personal ties to leading journalists, or who do not happen to sit at the crossroads of diverging global political interests, would hope to rely on a sufficiently tenacious group of friends that will make enough noise to bring the matter to the attention of a human rights group or a sympathetic media outlet, and that the ensuing coverage would succeed in eliciting some official response. Better yet, they should be from a country with the means to pressure the perpetrators.

But this would be a long shot. The United States’ primary vehicle for holding foreign dictatorships accountable in similar cases, the 2012 Magnitsky Act (and its subsequent internationalization in 2016), has generated several cases, notably in the Middle East. Yet, despite evidence, nobody from the region has been charged. In most cases, a public statement is where it ends.

They will also look at the track record of the countries positioning themselves as human rights defenders and remember that even their dual citizens come second to political concerns. Egyptian-American Aya Hijazi spent about three years in prison on trumped-up charges before the U.S. government secured her release.

And, not unbeknown to all, it is not only notorious activists who have suffered at the hands of autocratic regimes — nameless victims have attracted even less attention.

Since the Magnitsky Act passed, Egypt killed nearly a thousand of its citizens in one day. Bahrain has killed and imprisoned hundreds of its citizens who protested for equal rights. Saudi Arabia has killed and maimed an estimated tens of thousands of Yemenis, engineering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the 21st century. All with absolutely no repercussions.

The perfect storm of events that engineered the global interest in Khashoggi’s murder is unique. Many dissidents observing the events unfolding know that they probably don’t have the same level of personal affinity to people commanding an important audience. They feel that their case will never attract equal attention — even if they, too, came under the bone saw of a tyrant.

Mohamed El Dahshan is an Egyptian economist and analyst. He manages OXCON Frontier Markets and Fragile States Consulting and is a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

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