On July 9, 2022, President Biden argued in his recent op-ed, “[t]he Middle East I’ll be visiting is more stable and secure than the one my administration inherited 18 months ago.” Unfortunately, in several crucial and important countries in the Middle East, things are not “more stable or secure.” Egypt, the region’s most populous state, is plagued with one of the worst fiscal management disasters in its modern history. Furthermore, human rights defenders, academics, lawyers, and journalists are languishing in prisons and face constant repression and medical neglect. Lebanon is practically in shambles as food, medicine, and energy shortages plague a country marred with corruption by elites. The Sudanese people are desperately struggling to fend off a military coup, the perpetrator of which grows stronger every day. In Syria, a murderous Assad—a president who has killed and displaced millions of his own people—remains in power and a strong ally of Vladimir Putin. Finally, Tunisia, once the only success story of the Arab uprisings of 2011, is now in the grip of a whimsical dictator and also facing a looming financial crisis.
Biden is president in a very different world from the one that he inherited. In today’s climate, nations are facing a global food crisis and energy shortages, largely caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also because of poor fiscal planning and corruption in brittle regimes, several of which are in the Middle East.
One could pragmatically argue that in this harsh new reality, principles such as democracy and human rights do not exist in a vacuum, but rather must be balanced with all sorts of different challenges. Indeed, the toughest job for any U.S. president is performing that balancing act.
The U.S. needs to lead the global effort to bring oil prices down at the pump, avert a looming recession, and solidify the front against Putin’s deranged and reckless aggression; the world will certainly be better for it. However, that doesn’t mean that we ought to scale back on human rights goals, such as securing the release of the unjustly imprisoned, or give way to corruption or allow coups to go unchecked. To do so is to simply kick the ball down the road, as has been done many times in the past.
Victims of repression, their families and human rights defenders have strongly criticized Biden’s current visit to the region, and for good reason. While, along with its regional allies and the UN, the U.S. contribution to achieving a long sought-after truce in Yemen is commendable, the region continues to be rampant with economic, security, and rule of law crises. Our concerns as advocates for democracy and human rights defenders from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is that when overarching grand statements like “this is a more stable Middle East” are made, they are based on superficial indicators and short-term analysis.
Yet the global impending priorities, U.S. strategic interests, and hard-hitting realities remain. As Biden alluded, this trip should be a starting point for reorientation, which must include the regional strategic interests of all parties. While he will not be meeting with all of the leaders of the region, he is be meeting with the most influential ones, and accordingly this trip can provide the unique opportunity to help achieve more regional stability and prosperity, which can only be achieved by centering accountability, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Furthermore, the crises looming in other countries in the region cannot be disregarded and treated as peripheral. With this renewed engagement with powerful MENA leaders, must come their commitment and support for broad U.S. interests in their neighboring countries, not just in theirs.
In the spirit of pragmatism, the Biden administration should focus on achieving the following six bare-minimum goals, which address the most pressing human rights and fiscal corruption issues in these countries. From the U.S. side, Biden’s administration mustn’t compromise on these goals, and if his trip is successful, powerful regional allies ought to help him accomplish them.
- Prisoners of conscience must be released: The U.S. must work with its Global North and regional allies to release as many wrongfully imprisoned pro-democracy dissidents as possible, many of which are arbitrarily detained as retribution for expressing the right to freedom of speech.
- Fiscal mismanagement and kleptocratic practices must be curtailed: This is especially the case in Egypt and Lebanon. The U.S. should leverage its voice, vote, and influence at international financial institutions to support conditionality on loans and financial assistance until sustainable and inclusive governance reforms are enacted. If not addressed immediately several countries in the region could face Sri Lanka-like economic meltdowns.
- Dissenting opinions, independent journalism, and domestic watchdogs cannot be stifled anymore: Among the many tools used to repress the brightest and bravest in those five aforementioned countries is the travel bans. The U.S. must push back against those unlawful travel bans, which are applied at a devastating cost to the individuals’ personal and professional lives.
- Governments must halt internet censorship as a tool to quell dissent and limit freedom of information: Leaders of the Sudan coup casually and regularly shut down the internet, and in Egypt, hundreds of websites including the U.S.-funded Alhurra news websites are blocked.
- Pathways to accountability must be supported to curb a culture of impunity that has spread region-wide: The U.S. should stand against normalization of abusive regimes like the Syrian one, support survivors and victims’ organizations, and sanction human rights abusers and corrupt individuals.
- Transnational Repression (TNR) must be combated: The U.S. must be a bulwark in the fight against TNR, which continues to plague dissidents and human rights defenders at large. The administration has been alert and vigilant regarding the matter, yet TNR in all its forms, including cyber-attacks, family intimidation, and reprisals must be addressed directly and continuously with regional leaders. The U.S. should be a champion for centralized reporting, international coordination, and substantial investment in the technical abilities of human rights defenders and rights organizations to combat TNR.
Time and time again, history has shown us that accountability, rule of law, and good governance have been the most reliable pillars of stability. Many pro-democracy, human rights, and civil liberties champions in the U.S., the Middle East, and around the world were elated with Presidential Candidate Biden’s strong stance on these issues. Hopefully, President Biden won’t let us down.
Ramy Yaacoub is a founder and the Executive Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.