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Saudi Arabia and Egypt 'emboldened' to target dissidents on US soil, report finds

Transnational repression by America's allies a growing threat to US national security and human rights norms, says Freedom Initiative
The report cites US President Joe Biden's fist-bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year, saying 'US equivocation on rights' is a palpable threat to US citizens (Reuters)

Egypt and Saudi Arabia's methods of repressing dissidents living in the US have become "innovative and emboldened" and require much more than diplomatic pressure to stop them, a study from a US-based advocacy group reports.

More than two-thirds of 72 people with personal or professional ties to Egypt and Saudi Arabia interviewed for the Freedom Initiative report released on Monday say they have been subjected to acts of repression on US soil. 

Examples of repression highlighted include major delays or denials of legal documents, surveillance, physical intimidation, and costly litigation brought by entities perceived to be or in actuality government-linked.

Such attempts by foreign governments to curtail rights across borders are typically associated with America's enemies such as China, Iran or Russia.

But the report sheds light on the growing threat of the two long-time American allies and security partners, undeterred by their close ties to the US, in their efforts to quash freedoms abroad.

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“Transnational repression is a threat to US national security and human rights norms and combatting it requires innovative action,” Andrea Prasow, Freedom Initiative's executive director, said.  

“The Biden administration should make clear that any attempt by foreign governments to flagrantly target their foes on US soil will not be tolerated, and should couple that message with a more aggressive demand that alleged allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia respect human rights not only on American soil, but also at home.” 

There are also multiple cases in the paper of "state-hostage taking" in which relatives of individuals living in the US were arrested or slapped with travel bans in attempts to silence their dissent, as well as several instances of people being tried and sentenced in absentia. 

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One Egyptian dissident told Freedom Initiative that he had been at a dinner with a co-organiser of several pro-democracy working groups and initiatives. 

"As we were saying our goodbyes, he leaned over and said, 'Abdel Fattah [el-Sisi] says go with [the] flow or you'll drown'," he recalled.

In addition to significant financial and psychological costs, the report finds that the repressive acts have had a chilling effect, causing people to change their work or life plans and behaviour out of fear of being targeted. 

Joel Beinin, Stanford University professor and reknowned scholar of Egyptian labour movements, started working in Egypt in 1969 but said that he hasn't travelled to the country in a decade out of concerns for his safety.

“I have not been to Egypt since 2013, mostly due to uncertainty about how I might be treated by the authorities," he is quoted as saying in the report. 

"The Egyptian state’s abduction, torture, and murder of Giulio Regeni looms large for me since I have also studied and written about contemporary labour movements.”

Transnational repression is not currently defined as a crime in US law, but last month a bipartisan group of senators introduced a new act which would hold foreign governments accountable for such acts if passed. 

Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in recognition of the rise in transnational repression, established a dedicated unit to working specifically on violations of this nature.  

Middle East Eye has sought comments from Egyptian and Saudi authorities.

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