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Why a friendlier Middle East is more dangerous for activists

As former enemies become friends in the Middle East, will they cooperate to shut down opposition voices?

Moroccan anti-state activists say that they have been stalked throughout Europe (Photo: DW)
Moroccan anti-state activists say that they have been stalked throughout Europe (Photo: DW)


After he received the threats, Aziz Agrawli had security cameras installed in his home and garden.

"My name and address were published on social media," explains Agrawli, a member of the Moroccan anti-government movement known as Hirak. "People said they would come to my house and settle the account," Agrawli told DW.

"But we've had so many threats," he continues. "The Moroccan secret police tried to pressure me through my family, including by approaching my children on social media."

Agrawli, who is not using his full name for security reasons, believes all of these actions are somehow connected to the Moroccan government and its security services. That may not be surprising, considering that the leaders of the Hirak movement, which started in 2016 in the deprived northern region of Rif, were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison in allegedly politically motivated verdicts Human Rights Watch described as "shocking."

But what is perhaps surprising is that all this is happening in Germany.

Surveilled, stalked in Europe

Agrawli is originally from the Rif region, but he and his family have been living in North Rhine-Westphalia for over 30 years now. After protests began back home, he and friends began organizing protests around Europe. Since then, they say they have been harassed, threatened and surveilled by their own government.

DW reached out to the Moroccan government about the veracity of these accusations but did not receive an answer.

A recent arrest in Germany appears to prove Agrawli's point, though. Last month saw the start of a court case in Dusseldorf in which federal prosecutors charged a 36-year-old Moroccan man with spying on members of the Hirak movement in Germany. Agrawli will appear as a witness.​​​​​

This is just one example of what is known as "transnational repression." The phrase refers to governments acting across borders to try and silence dissidents living outside the country.

Transnational repression is not a new phenomenon, but it is likely more dangerous for activists in the Middle East. This is because the vast majority of such incidents — over 70% — are the product of two non-democratic governments working together, according to US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, which maintains a database of incidents.

Dusseldorf court case is likely to run until the end of August (Photo: DW)
Dusseldorf court case is likely to run until the end of August (Photo: DW)

A Freedom House report on transnational repression in 2022indicated that Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the worst offenders.

"Governments in those countries we describe as 'not free' tend to share illiberal values and have a weak rule of law, so people there tend to be more vulnerable," explains Yana Gorokhovskaia, research director at Freedom House, who's been leading the organization's work on transnational repression.

Most recently, there has been a wave of diplomatic detente in the Middle East as relationships between the likes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have improved. So could more cooperation between these formerly unfreindly neighbors mean even more transnational repression in the region?

More danger to activists?

It is hard to say for sure, Gorokhovskaia told DW. This is partially because a lot of incidents are not recorded anywhere, she says, "because countries don't publicize what they're doing, or because civil society on the ground is not able to observe it."

A lot of transnational repression happens through informal cooperation between like-minded governments, she notes.

Recent experience indicates that new "friendships" between authoritarians can be a problem. For example, the Turkish government had previously spoken out against China's persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority and had long provided a refuge for Uighurs. However, as the Turkish government, in serious economic trouble, has come closer to China, an important trading partner, it has been quieter on the Uighur issue.

"As Beijing and Ankara have grown closer, we have seen more intimidation and harassment of Uighurs in the region," Gorokhovskaia notes. "Overall, it seems Turkey is willing to facilitate transnational repression depending on the geopolitical environment."

Both Turkey and Qatar have also both provided refuge to members of the religious-political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. But Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt consider the Muslim Brotherhood dangerous. Earlier this month, Turkey restored diplomatic relations with Egypt and is also increasingly financially beholden to the Saudis and the UAE. After several years of diplomatic isolation, Qatar is also closer to its Gulf neighbors again.

It is difficult to tell whether recent geopolitical developments are increasing the potential for repression across borders, says Alexis Thiry, a legal adviser at Geneva-based legal advocacy organization MENA Rights Group.

But, he adds, his organization is increasingly working on such cases and most recently has seen a troubling pattern emerge with the use of a body called the Arab Interior Minister's Council, or AIMC. It has been around since 1982 and is part of the Arab League's security apparatus.

"Since the beginning of the year, we've worked on three different files in which AIMC has been mentioned. We had never heard of it being used like this before January 2023," Thiry told DW. "We fear that Arab states might increasingly turn to AIMC to circulate arrest warrants and seek the extradition of political opponents living or traveling in another Arab League member state."

Both Thiry and Gorokhovskaia worry states in the region might increasingly turn to the AIMC instead of using so-called Red Notices issued by Interpol. These are requests Interpol member countries can make, asking for help in apprehending a wanted person. Recently, Red Notices have come in for criticism because they've been used by countries like China, Russia, Egypt and the UAE to arrest political opponents elsewhere.

In June this year, several United Nations experts wrote a letter to the Arab League about the AIMC. "States do not appear to exercise due diligence in assessing the political nature of the charges brought against individuals," they argued.

How to fight transnational repression

There are also other developments that make transnational repression a bigger problem everywhere, experts say. This includes the use of digital tools to harass and surveil, as well as the increased use of biometric technologies to identify individuals even if, say, they're traveling on a different passport.

Although it is difficult to fight transnational repression, there are various things that could be done to combat it, rights groups say.

In the US, a new law was introduced in March 2023 and the Federal Bureau of Investigation also established a special unit. Europe does not appear to have anything like this yet, but local police will often inform and assist political activists they believe to be in danger, Gorokhovskaia said.

There have also been calls for special rapporteurs on the topic at the UN, better information for European embassies that dissidents might seek help from, improved cooperation between law enforcement and assisting civil society organizations to set up emergency responses to this kind of harassment.

But there is an issue also associated with migration and asylum, Gorokhovskaia argues. "The problem with dissidents in the Middle East is that often it's very hard for them to reach the relative safety of Europe. The question is how can we help the people trapped in these authoritarian neighborhoods?" she asks.

Along with experts at Freedom House, Hirak activist Agrawli, who's been the victim of harassment in Germany, says he would also like to see more political accountability for countries that regularly practice transnational repression.

"My friends are in prison and the regime is very unhappy with us," he says. "We'd like the German government to react more strongly to these kinds of transgressions instead of just praising its great bilateral relationship with Morocco," he concludes.

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