Posted by on November 06, 2014 in Blog

By Eddie Bejarano
Fall Intern, 2014

Recent news coverage of the Middle East and North Africa has almost entirely focused on the Islamic State and U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria. While coverage of these events is important, we cannot forget about the issues facing other states and people in the region. Just because the United States is not militarily involved in Tunisia, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia does not mean that we should stop paying attention to what is happening there.

Tunisia’s Foreign Fighter Conundrum

“The Islamic State is a true caliphate, a system that is fair and just, where you don’t have to follow somebody’s orders because he is rich or powerful,” stated Ahmed, a young Tunisian supporter of the Islamic State. According to the Soufan Group, a private security analysis firm based in New York, NY, as many as 3,000 Tunisians have travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight on behalf of the Islamic State. In fact, David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times importantly points out that, “Tunisia has sent more foreign fighters than any other country to Iraq and Syria to join the extremism group that calls itself the Islamic State.”

The most interesting aspect of this issue is that since the Arab Spring revolts, Tunisia is widely considered a paradigm of success in an otherwise turmoil ridden region. Following the removal of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia introduced a multiparty democracy and held internationally recognized elections. Since elections, Tunisians have grown increasingly despondent because of unemployment and the high cost of living. Kirkpatrick poignantly asserts that “although Tunisia’s step toward democracy have enabled young people to express their dissident views, impatience and skepticism have evidently led a disgruntled minority to embrace the Islamic State’s radically theocratic alternative.”

According to Tunisian officials, as many as 400 Tunisians have returned from Syria and Iraq, and the majority of them have been arrested. Moving forward, the main challenge for Tunisia is not necessarily how it responds when its citizen’s return from the battlefield, but rather, how does the state convince its citizens that their government can deliver the public goods that they seek.

 Saudi Arabian Capital Punishment

The Islamic State’s beheading videos of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning drew the attention of the world. But when compared to the number of beheadings carried out in Saudi Arabia, the number of beheadings conducted by the Islamic State pales. Yet, Saudi Arabia’s western allies seem willing to look the other way about Saudi domestic practices, as long as the Kingdom continues to aid in the fight against the Islamic State.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia beheaded 26 people in August, more than in the first seven months of the year combined. The total for the year now stands at 59, compared to 69 for all of last year.” Although Saudi Arabia has joined U.S. - led air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, Angus McDowall of Reuters points out that Saudi Arabia’s “public beheading of convicts … is anathema to Western allies.” However, the most disturbing element of this story is the clear double standard in U.S. foreign policy in regards to human rights.

Sevag Kechichian of Amnesty International best surmised the contradiction in U.S. policy when he stated, “If the USA and other Western governments want their concerns about human rights in the region, including the atrocities committed by ISIS, to be taken seriously, they must apply the same standard to their closest allies.” Unfortunately, the United States’ realpolitik approach to its foreign policy priorities ensures that human rights will never dictate the way that it interacts with its allies

Lest We Forget About Egypt

“Our aim is to build a ‘New Egypt’ … A state that respects the rights and freedoms, honors its duties, and ensures the co-existence of its citizens without exclusion or discrimination,” declared Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi at the 69th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 24, 2014. Sadly, what we see in Egypt today is markedly different from the picture that President Sisi painted at the United Nations. In fact, one can argue that life in Egypt is eerily reminiscent to the days before the popular revolution in 2011.

Since the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, “at least 16,000 people have been jailed for their views – most for being members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Secular activists, journalists, and peaceful protestors have also been jailed or harassed by law enforcement officials. The brutality of the current Egyptian government is epitomized in the Rabaa massacre that transpired on August 14, 2013. According to Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian government killed between 817 and 1,000 individuals conducting anti-government sit-ins at Rabaa and Nahda Squares in Cairo. The Egyptian government has remained largely silent on the issue and deported members of Human Rights Watch who were set to reveal a report of the incident.  

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