For the Biden Administration, 10 Lessons from 10 Years of U.S. Mideast Policy

The Arab Spring uprisings began ten years ago, taking the U.S. government and most of the rest of the world by surprise. The Obama administration’s response was inconsistent at best, as it sought to lend a measure of support to the protests while placating its repressive allies.

From the moment the protests erupted, Human Rights First was doing in-country research. We also worked closely with local activists during the upheavals and after, teaming up to call on the U.S. government to press their allies to reform.

But the Obama administration rarely used its leverage to protect human rights in the region, and the Trump Administration has dispensed even with the pretense of doing so. The Biden administration shouldn’t repeat these mistakes if it wants a stable Middle East.

Here are ten key lessons from the past ten years:

  1. Stop selling arms to violent dictators. Since 2009, successive U.S. administrations have negotiated over $120 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and between 2010-2017 over $10.6 billion to the United Arab Emirates. Apart from torturing and jailing peaceful human rights defenders in their own countries, these dictatorships have led a disastrous war in Yemen, which has included the widespread bombing of civilians. The Saudi regime also murdered dissident journalist Kamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018. Candidate Joe Biden promised to “reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure American does not check its values at the door in order to sell arms or buy oil.” Vague, but a start.
  2. Stop giving away arms to violent dictators. Since 2011 (and for the 30 years that preceded it), the U.S. government has given about $1.3 billion in military aid every year to Egypt. The money has continued to flow to the dictatorship of President Sisi, which is even more repressive than Mubarak’s. This despite mass human rights violations, including the massacre of over 1,000 protestors in Cairo on August 14, 2013. This is a classic example of Washington propping up a repressive, corrupt dictatorship – a doomed long-term policy. See: Vietnam, Iran, and Chile.
  3. Get everyone on the same page. During the Egyptian revolution of January and February 2011, as President Obama was calling it “an inspiration to people around the world” and urging Mubarak to go, the envoy he sent to Cairo, Frank Wisner, was publicly saying Mubarak should stay in power, and that his “continued leadership” was “critical.”
  4. Don’t get cozy with dictators. In 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said she considered “President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” Ten years later, President Trump called Egypt’s President Sisi his “favorite dictator.” This public chumminess goes beyond transactional, geopolitical relationships and hurts U.S. credibility with the public across the Middle East.
  5. Be consistent. The Obama administration’s flip-flopping messages on Egypt were echoed in the following months on Bahrain. There, the ruling family violently crushed a large, peaceful uprising with the help of U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Thousands of people were arrested, and hundreds tortured, including medics who had treated injured protestors. Dissidents were thrown in prison. In May 2011, Obama was publicly calling on the Bahrain regime “to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” But that was the only time he expressed such a sentiment publicly. Business with the U.S. soon returned to normal, and much of the peaceful opposition leadership remains in prison, ten years later.
  6. Don’t enable terrorism. This ought to go without saying, but much of what the U.S. has done in the last ten years in shoring up violent dictatorships has encouraged extremism. As U.S. allies and arms recipients choke off peaceful avenues of dissent, they effectively abet those groups willing and able to use violence. For example, the Trump administration has continued to ply the Egyptian regime with arms and political support despite evidence that torture in its prisons is turning the country’s jails into recruiting centers for ISIS, as documented by Human Rights First.
  7. Push for what’s needed. The U.S. shouldn’t try to shape the Middle East’s politics, but it should promote stability through inclusion. For instance, it can use its strong relationship with Bahrain’s military to press for reform, so that the police and military aren’t drawn almost exclusively from the country’s minority Sunni population. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said in his 2014 book that when he met the king of Bahrain in March 2011 he told him that “Time is not on your side,” and that the king should take some urgent steps to reform, including “integrating the Shia into the security services and the Bahrain defense force….” It never happened, and the United States never put public pressure on its tiny ally to diversify its security sector.
  8. Don’t get played. Following Bahrain’s violent government crackdown in 2011, the U.S. embargoed some arms sales to the kingdom partly because peaceful opposition leaders were still in prison. In 2015 one of them, Ebrahim Sharif, was released. Although dozens of other leading dissidents were still in jail, this small gesture was enough for Washington to lift the embargo on sales to Bahrain’s military ten days later, with the State Department citing “meaningful progress on human rights reforms.” Within two weeks, Sharif was rearrested and sent back to jail.
  9. Don’t hold double standards. Robert Ford, U.S. Ambassador to Washington’s adversary Syria, visited demonstrators on the streets of Damascus during the early days of the pro-democracy protests in 2011. His counterparts were nowhere to be seen in Cairo or Manama, capitals of U.S. allies. And while the U.S. embassy in Egypt enthusiastically tweets about the rights of people in Iran, it remains silent about the rights of those outside its windows.
  10. Don’t hide behind closed-door diplomacy, make a public fuss. For ten years, U.S. government officials have assured us they’re raising human rights concerns privately with their dictator allies. They might just be fobbing us off, but even if they are actually engaging in quiet diplomacy, it doesn’t work. We know from experience that, for example, naming prisoners who should be released—from the medics in Bahrain to human rights defenders from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights—can get results.

A general rule for supporting human rights in the region – any region – is to listen to local activists. The Biden administration should see them as partners, not just as sources of information. This would mean having the tough and essential conversations with dictators that previous administrations avoided.

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