The prominent Egyptian blogger and activist Wael Abbas was arrested on Wednesday. He was blindfolded and taken from his apartment at dawn to an undisclosed location without a warrant or a given reason, according to his lawyers. It was the latest event in a crackdown on government critics as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi prepares to begin a new term as Egypt’s president next month. Other prominent arrests have included labor lawyer Haytham Mohamadeen, satirist Shadi Abu Zeid, and activist Shady Ghazaly Harb, one of the leaders of the protests that topped President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Abbas has won several international awards for his work documenting abuses by Egypt’s security services, both under Mubarak and under the new government. He briefly worked in Slate’s Washington, D.C., office on a Freedom House fellowship in 2007. After returning to Egypt following the fellowship, he wrote in the Washington Post about his fears of being arrested upon his return and the Mubarak government’s crackdown on the emerging Egyptian blogosphere. “Is this the kind of regime you want your tax money to support?” he asked his American readers.
More than a decade later, it’s still a valid question. To his credit, Vice President Mike Pence raised the recent arrests in a phone call with Sisi on Thursday, according to the U.S.
embassy in Cairo, but there’s little to indicate that the U.S. will put any serious pressure on a major ally and recipient of U.S. military aid.
Egypt wasn’t the only U.S. ally in the Middle East that was in the news for cracking down on dissent this week. Ten prominent Saudi women’s rights activists were arrested, just weeks before the kingdom was set to lift its infamous ban on women driving. They included Loujain al-Hathloul, who attracted international attention when she was arrested after livestreaming herself driving over the border from the United Arab Emirates in 2015. Some of those arrested had recently filed paperwork to establish an NGO to help victims of domestic abuse. They are reportedly being investigated for communicating with “foreign entities” to destabilize the government. Three of them have now been released.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has made the lift of the driving ban a centerpiece of his efforts to promote himself as a modernizing reformer, an image that several Western journalists have enthusiastically promoted as well. But even as he’s loosened some restrictions—allowing movie theaters back into the kingdom for instance—his government has continued to arrest activists and critics. The arrest, just before the lifting of the driving ban, of the very women who made it happen, is as clear a sign as any that “reform” will only happen on the House of Saud’s terms.
Asked about the arrests earlier this week, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert praised the kingdom’s recent reforms but said, “We support space for civil society and also free speech, but overall, we’re concerned about it and we are keeping a close eye on it.”
In his speech on Iran policy last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a point of stating that America opposes Tehran not only because of its weapons programs or regional ambitions but because “the hard grip of repression is all that millions of Iranians have ever known.” He referred to the recent Hijab protests in Iran as evidence that “the brutal men of the regime seem to be particularly terrified by Iranian women who are demanding their rights.”
Citizens of America’s anti-Iran allies are apparently not extended the same level of righteous outrage.