How the 'War on Terror' became a convenient tool for repression

How the 'War on Terror' became a convenient tool for repression
Comment: In Egypt, UAE and Bahrain, the US rubberstamps any kind of crackdown that can be justified as 'counter-terrorism', writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
5 min read
10 Sep, 2019
In Egypt, thousands of political prisoners languish in jail, accused of 'terrorism' [Getty]
Since its inception post-9/11, the US-led so-called "War on Terror" has precipated a riot of human rights abuses, including torture and other heinous methods, often used arbitrarily against innocent people.

It has also given western allies in the Middle East the green light to carry out repression and authoritarianism, using the "counter-terrorism" narrative as a convenient umbrella justification for their actions.

Bahrain's execution on 27 July of three activists - two of them Shia - under terrorism charges, highlights how vague definitions of terrorism are being used for disturbing ends. The pair were arrested along with many others who stand accused of forming a "terrorist group," and human rights groups raised concerns that they "confessed" under torture, and were not given a fair trial.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, which was subdued by the Kingdom's authoritarian regime, Bahrain passed new laws, carried out mass arrests, and has jailed 139 on terrorism charges. Hundreds more citizens have been stripped of their nationality.

Human Rights Watch highlights that the Kingdom has cracked down on peaceful dissidents, free expression and press freedom, despite its claims to be combatting terrorism, which it often ties to Iran. 

Bahraini authorities are clearly
seeking to eliminate any form of opposition, an increasing trend since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings took hold in Bahrain, with protestors calling for reforms.

Prior to 2011, Bahrain had ratified other counter-terrorism laws, giving the state greater power to prosecute and arrest people, and enforce stricter punishments, leading to concerns from multiple groups about human rights abuses.

As the UAE employs anti-terrorism rhetoric, it gains international impunity for its actions, and acquires support from Washington

In April of this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called out Bahrain's mass detentions under the charge of terrorism, citing concerns that the trials had not met international legal standards.

In Egypt, too, the "War on Terror" rhetoric helps the regime's repression of civil society and freedoms, following the military coup in 2013 that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government, which had been democratically elected after Egypt's revolution.

After outlawing the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, the new military regime launched a crackdown on them, while also imposing stricter counter-terrorism laws across the country, apparently in response to militants in the Sinai Peninsula.

However, such stances limit freedom of expression, and human rights defenders and peaceful activists have also been deliberately targeted by these "counter-terrorism" measures.

In Egypt, over 60,000
political prisoners have been jailed, over 500 news outlets are banned. Along with the crackdown on NGOs, Egypt is the third highest imprisoner of journalists in the world.

The USA and Europe also play a significant role in enabling these abuses.

Read more: For Muslims in this post-9/11 world, your digital identity matters more than you do

Washington's consent for Egypt's widereaching crackdown was further highlighted in August of this year, when US coordinator for counter-terrorism ambassador, Nathan A. Sales
met with Egyptian House of Representatives lawmaker Karim Darwish, to discuss US consent for Egypt's "counter-terrorism" campaign.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that he considers Egypt a bulwark against terrorism, even stating that "Egypt's security is France's security," giving Sisi full support for Egypt's "counter-terrorism crackdown" mirage.

Despite countless reports of Egyptian human rights violations, western governments are apparently willing to tolerate anything that uses anti-terror justifications for its actions.

Closely aligned with Egypt and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates opposes the Muslim Brotherhood both at home and abroad, and is arguably the most vehemently anti-Brotherhood.

Not only has Abu Dhabi's "counter-terrorism" mission against Al-Qaeda in Yemen gained Washington's rubberstamp, (despite even cooperating with Al Qaeda at times), the UAE has systematically targeted the group Al Islah which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

An investigative Buzzfeed report highlights how the UAE hired American mercenaries, contracted by Hungarian Israeli businessman Abraham Golan who is based near Pittsburgh, to assassinate leading Islah figures and clerics.

Western governments are apparently willing to tolerate anything that uses anti-terror justifications for its actions

Emirati proxies have also been linked to several cleric assassinations, even those who are independent. Yet such figures pose a threat to the UAE and its proxies' ambitions to control the country.

As the UAE employs anti-terrorism rhetoric, it not only gains international impunity for its actions, it even acquires support from Washington and other states, particularly as the US has trained and equipped UAE forces in Yemen.

Donald Trump's plans to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation could give further justification to Egypt, the UAE and other states to increase their wide-ranging authoritarian approach.

While Washington has yet to decide on the Brotherhood's status in the eyes of the US, the mere suggestion of such a classification shows that Trump - along with other western states - has little issue with how these abusive counter-terrorism narratives are weilded over human rights. 

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is largely opposed because it would challenge the traditional political status quo in countries such as the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Presenting the Brotherhood as the new "bogeyman" creates a convenient pretext for such states to boost their own power and crush any form of civilian dissent, Islamist or not.

Likewise, Trump's increasing antagonism towards Iran gifts Bahrain ever-greater justification for increasing its own domestic authoritarianism under the guise of combatting Tehran-linked "terrorists".

The US President's flirtation with Khalifa Haftar in Libya,  whose forces seek to impose military rule over the entire country by claiming to be fighting "terrorists", creates further justification for the rogue general's aggression and subsequent abuses.

Clearly, the west's tolerance for such authoritarianism remains steadfast.

Ultimately, the US and other global powers must revise their "War on Terror" narratives, remove such impunity towards other states using terrorism as a smokescreen for repression, and instead put human rights at the forefront of their own foreign policy.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.