New report documents growing threat of transnational repression at the hands of Egypt and Saudi Arabia
April 17, 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C. – America’s authoritarian allies are targeting dissidents and others on U.S. soil, a new report from the Freedom Initiative said today, in a growing threat to U.S. national security and human rights norms.
The report, In the Shadows of Authoritarianism: Egyptian and Saudi Transnational Repression in the U.S., reveals how Egypt and Saudi Arabia have increasingly turned to transnational repression — the attempt by foreign governments to curtail fundamental rights across borders — to silence dissent in the U.S.
“While transnational repression is most often portrayed as a feature of America’s enemies like Russia and China, our own allies are routinely flouting American laws and sovereignty by targeting dissidents and others here in the U.S.,” said Allison McManus, managing director at the Freedom Initiative. “Our research shows that, from Washington D.C. to Washington state, countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are attacking constitutionally protected rights.”
Building on survey data from 72 individuals with personal or professional ties to Egypt or Saudi Arabia and in-depth interviews with victims, the report details how both countries have become more emboldened in their use of transnational repression.
The acts of transnational repression documented in the report take many forms, including threats of physical harm, surveilling activists and communities, hacking into phones of dissidents, and online harassment The report also details more novel strategies, such as the use of litigation in the U.S. to target dissidents who could not be lured back to Saudi Arabia. As the U.S. government has focused on the return of Americans detained abroad, both countries have also resorted to detaining dissidents’ family members as hostages to silence and punish them.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also targeting Americans within their own borders, often with the aim of curtailing fundamental freedoms in the U.S. Egypt continues to detain two U.S. legal permanent residents whose detention has been declared arbitrary by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and at least two U.S. citizens remain banned from exiting the country; Saudi Arabia is currently holding one elderly U.S. citizen in detention without just cause, and at least seven U.S. citizens and one legal permanent resident remain in the country and are subject to unlawful travel bans.
“Violent acts like the murder of Jamal Khashoggi often receive a great deal of public attention, but most transnational repression involves the lesser forms of harassment and intimidation to both dissidents and their loved ones in their home countries,” said Amr ElAfifi, research manager at the Freedom Initiative. “The long arm of Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s repression would be impossible to maintain if not for the credibility of their threats to arbitrarily detain, torture, disappear or even murder within their own borders.”
While victims include activists, dissidents, journalists and political opponents, individuals without a public profile and who did not fall under any of these categories have also been targeted. A common denominator among those targeted was that they may have witnessed or experienced violations in Saudi Arabia or Egypt or had special knowledge of violations that could be damning if brought to public attention.
“It’s no longer only Egyptian and Saudi exiles that are the targets of transnational repression and the economic and psychosocial consequences can be life-shattering,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, Saudi director at the Freedom Initiative. “No one is safe from Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s botched operations and violent practices.”
As U.S. policymakers have increasingly recognized the threat of transnational repression, authoritarian regimes have adapted, employing novel strategies that help them skirt accountability. The report offers recommendations for policy makers, law enforcement officials and civil society.
“Transnational repression is a threat to U.S. national security and human rights norms and combatting it requires innovative action,” said Andrea Prasow, executive director of the Freedom Initiative. “The Biden administration should make clear that any attempt by foreign governments to flagrantly target their foes on U.S. 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.”
Saudi Arabia’s transnational repression in the U.S.
- Physical surveillance: Respondents reported being physically surveilled in the U.S. by Saudi agents, including during their private or social meetings and at public events.
- Digital surveillance, threats, and harassment: Threats and harassment in the digital space from Saudi authorities or those who appear to be working on their behalf are commonplace and have a broad chilling effect that limited respondents’ ability to speak freely. Saudi Arabia’s well documented use of spyware also caused respondents to change their behavior, limiting contact with family or friends. In the case of activist and blogger Danah Almayouf, an individual suspected of working on behalf of the Saudi government reached out to her online and attempted to orchestrate a meeting in person; he later pled guilty to lying to authorities investigating the surveillance.
- Pursuits in U.S. courts: Several high-profile lawsuits have been filed by Saudi-related companies or individuals against U.S.-based dissidents, activists, and others. This litigation has drained defendants of financial resources and risks facilitating access to sensitive information during discovery.
- State hostage-taking: Eight survey respondents reported that Saudi Arabia had detained or disappeared their family members as a method of punishing them for dissent or coercing them into silence.
- Wrongful detention: Saudi Arabia is also targeting Americans within its own borders in an attempt to silence free speech in the U.S. Saudi Arabia is currently detaining at least one elderly U.S. citizen without just cause and at least seven U.S. citizens and one legal permanent resident have been unable to leave the country and subjected to unlawful travel bans. The risk of arrest or has a chilling effect on free speech in the U.S., leading some to self-censor in the U.S. or avoid travel.
- Chilling effect: Even those who do not experience TNR directly change their behavior for fear they could fall victim to it. Most respondents adjusted their work or studies for fear of TNR, and nearly half were fearful to use their own name in public engagements.
- Economic cost: Respondents reported loss of income, abandonment of assets in Saudi Arabia, and costs associated with legal fees and therapy. Three respondents estimated that TNR had cost them over $1 million.
- Psychosocial impact: Twenty respondents were separated from a family member who remained in Saudi Arabia. Nearly all respondents reported feeling isolated due to their experiences with or fear of TNR, and nearly half reported recurring nightmares and difficulty imagining a long life in which they would achieve their goals.
Egypt’s Transnational Repression in the U.S.
- Physical surveillance: Physical surveillance takes place at a variety of public events (speaking engagements, demonstrations, and vigils), in addition to targeting individuals engaging in private conversations or social outings.
- Threats and harassment: Egyptian authorities and their agents threaten and harass dissidents, human rights defenders and family members of detainees, using both private phone or text message and social media.
- Prosecutions in Egyptian courts: U.S. citizens and asylum seekers alike have been added to open cases or tried and sentenced in absentia, presenting legal issues in some cases for defendants. Egypt also uses both legal and extralegal measures to freeze or seize assets of those living in the U.S., including the abuse of the country’s “terrorism entities list,” which stipulates asset seizure as a punishment.
- Abuse of international intelligence sharing: U.S.-Egyptian citizen Sherif Osman was detained in the UAE in November 2022, at which time he was informed that the Egyptian authorities had sought his arrest through an INTERPOL notice. He later learned that his arrest was based on a warrant from the Arab Interior Minister’s Council, a regional law enforcement body. He was released before extradition to Egypt due in large part to U.S. government intervention.
- State hostage-taking: Five respondents reported family members being detained in Egypt as a reprisal for their criticisms of the government or their human rights work, though we fear the number is far larger.
- Wrongful detention: Egypt is also targeting Americans within its own borders in an attempt to silence free speech in the U.S. Americans who travel to Egypt report self-censorship due to fears they could be arrested when traveling to Egypt. The country continues to jail two U.S. legal permanent residents (Hossam Khalaf and Salah Soltan) whose detention has been declared arbitrary by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. At least two U.S. citizens remain banned from exiting the country; their names are withheld to protect their privacy.
- Chilling effect: Over half of survey respondents said that they had changed their work or study plans for fear of repercussions on their family or interlocutors, or because they may not be able to return to Egypt.
- Economic cost: Five respondents reported losses of over $100,000 due to TNR, and 75% of respondents reported some economic loss due to associated costs.
- Psychosocial impact: Nearly three out of five respondents reported symptoms concomitant with PTSD, citing negative impacts on their interpersonal relationships.
For more information or to set up an interview with a researcher, contact [email protected].