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Using political prisoners as bargaining chips

February 16, 2021 at 9:10 am

Mahmoud Hussein (C), an Egyptian national and senior journalist for Qatar-based Al Jazeera Arabic, is embraced by a man upon his arrival at his family home in the Giza village of Zawyet Abu Musallam, about 30 kilometres south of Egypt’s capital Cairo on 6 February 2021 upon his release from detention. [AFP via Getty Images]

A few days ago, the Saudi Arabian authorities released Loujain Al-Hathloul, an activist who had spent about 1,000 days in prison merely for defending the right of women to drive a car. She was kept in prison even though the authorities gave women the right to drive while she was behind bars. Thus, two years and seven months of a young woman’s life — she has not yet turned 33 — were lost. Al-Hathloul had previously been arrested in December 2014 and held for 73 days after trying to drive a car from the UAE to Saudi Arabia.

Last week, coincidentally — or perhaps not — the Egyptian authorities released Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who was arrested on 20 December, 2016, while returning to Cairo from Doha on annual leave to visit his family. He was held in pre-trial detention, but was neither charged nor brought to trial. Thus, he lost four years of his life for no reason whatsoever other than the whim of the Egyptian regime.

Nothing explains the almost simultaneous release of Al-Hathloul and Hussein, just as there was no real logic behind their arrests in the first place. Likewise, there is no convincing reason to keep thousands of innocent citizens in prisons across Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries for political purposes, especially since the regimes have the agencies that allow them to control everything in society in any case, especially the opposition politicians, where they exist. The regimes can prevent the opposition parties and individuals from speaking or engaging in any political activity, prompting them to remain silent or leave the country.

Why would someone like Loujain Al-Hathloul or Mahmoud Hussein be arrested when they do not pose any threat to the regime in Saudi Arabia or Egypt? What do these authoritarian regimes gain from their detention? It is true that such regimes dislike criticism and do not allow freedom of expression — they are authoritarian, after all — but this isn’t enough for them to fill their prisons with largely innocent people. There are, remember, tens of thousands of political prisoners in the Arab world.

READ: How many Loujain Al-Hathlouls are there in the Arab world? 

It is reasonable to suggest that these regimes use political detainees as bargaining chips with the West, especially the US. It is no coincidence that Al-Hathloul and Hussein were released after Donald Trump, the most authoritarian US president in history who provided unconditional support to the authoritarian Arab regimes, finally left the White House. The release of both may be read as a goodwill gesture from Cairo and Riyadh towards President Joe Biden’s administration in order to clear the air for the next four years. We should not be surprised if more detainees are released in both countries in the near future.

What this demonstrates is that political prisoners are being used as pawns in negotiations with the West. It is as if we Arab citizens are simply commodities in a political slave market whose only real value to our rulers depends on how much they can benefit from our repression. Hence, we can be arrested, tortured and released at will in order to keep the regimes in power. It is similar to war criminals using civilians as human shields to buy themselves more time. Such dictators have no qualms about sacrificing their own people in order to preserve their thrones. We have even seen Arabs with dual US citizenship released, not because they are Egyptians or Saudis, but because they are Americans.

It is ironic that the discourse of such regimes is full of nationalistic slogans and rhetoric to the point of extreme chauvinism and xenophobia, even though they are the first to violate their own patriotic sentiments by abusing their citizens to please Western governments. This is perhaps the lowest level of tyranny that our countries have witnessed, with the regimes trading the rights and freedoms of their citizens for a fistful of dollars; those at the top sell their own honour and dignity in the process. Arrest and release depends on support and payment. Justice and morality have no role in any of this political horse-trading. It is both shameful and humiliating that it is the norm in Arab regimes desperate to keep good relations with the West.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 14 February 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.