“I have left my home, my family, and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.”
– Jamal Khashoggi
Since the Arab Spring, the internet in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has morphed into a heavily policed and repressed space. Alerted by its instrumental role in political organizing and exercising fundamental rights during the protests of 2011, Arab governments have taken a heavy-handed approach to internet regulation and governance. As they attempt to exert their territorial sovereignty and domestic control over a global digital sphere, new technologies have enabled them to extend their repression beyond their national borders in more convenient and cheaper ways.
State crackdown on exiled and diaspora activists is generally defined as transnational repression. It is not a new phenomenon, but it has become more entrenched and widespread globally over the last decade.Authoritarian regimes utilize their embassies and consulates as “satellite stations” from which they can intimidate and attack exiled activists, conduct surveillance of diaspora communities, limit and control their mobility by withholding consular services including renewing or issuing passports and official documents. Other repressive tactics include assassinations, rendition, forced disappearance, unlawful deportation, as well as the harassment, harm, and detention of relatives back in home country as a proxy punishment of exiled activists.
In the digital age, transnational repression has grown in scale and form. New technologies, such as surveillance technology and spyware, have ushered in unprecedented capabilities for repressive regimes to deter dissent abroad in more convenient and insidious ways. Governments are no longer restricted by diplomatic relations, intelligence sharing agreements, and networks of regime loyalists and informants to spy on the private communications, activities, and movement of their exiled targets. Nor, as Ahmed Shaheed and Benjamin Greenacre show in this collection, are they constrained by any binding global norms or international law governing the use of digital technologies.
The rise of diaspora activism after the Arab uprisings led the transnational repression of Arab regimes, both online and offline, to become more egregious and violent. Most notably in the cases of Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, human rights activists and political dissidents have fled their home countries in fear of imminent or potential reprisal. Many seek to survive the annihilation of civil society, and to be able to politically organize in situations where political activity is strictly prohibited in the home country. In September 2020, for instance, exiled Saudi activists launched the country’s first opposition party, the National Assembly Party (NAAS), to push for democratic change in the Kingdom and to fight against the regime’s relentless violence and repression. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 815 Saudi nationals applied for asylum in 2017, compared with 195 in 2012. The number is expected to reach 50,000 by 2030, according to the Saudi government’s own estimates.
This paper examines the recent escalation in transnational digital repression in the MENA region, and outlines three common tactics to crack down on dissent abroad: 1) the use of ambiguous and over-broad legislation for cross-border censorship; 2) the use of digital surveillance tools and private cyber mercenaries; and 3) the weaponization of social media platforms to censor, delegitimize, and intimidate activists, journalists, and regime critics.
1. Cross-border censorship and prosecution
Jordan and the UAE
More than half of Arab countries have enacted repressive cybercrime laws that undermine freedom of expression and authorize mass surveillance of internet users, while the others rely on existing legislation including counterterrorism laws to combat cybercrime, safeguard national security, and preserve public order and societal values. Under such elastic and ambiguous terms, internet users in the region are routinely arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for innocuous Facebook posts and tweets. In the context of transnational repression, some of these laws have been applied to quell criticisms of foreign countries and censor information that are at odds with geopolitical alliances and state narratives in the region.
In Jordan, internet users can be prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 55 of 2006, amended in 2014, for “disturbing relations with a foreign state.” This provision has been used to penalize Jordanian citizens who are critical of Gulf states and their monarchies on social media. In 2015, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, Zaki Bani Rsheid, was tried before the State Security Court over a Facebook post in which he criticized the UAE and accused it of sponsoring terrorism, and consequently was sentenced to 18 months in prison.Similarly, freelance journalist Jamal Ayoub was imprisoned in 2015 for writing an article criticizing Saudi Arabia’s military operation in Yemen. Most recently, on August 26, 2020, the Jordanian authorities arrested a well-known Jordanian cartoonist, Emad Hajjaj, for publishing a satirical cartoon mocking the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE.
As a result, Jordanian citizens are wary of airing their opinion about Gulf states. According to an anonymous editor at state-run media outlet, the government actively discourages negative reporting or criticism of Gulf rulers. This demonstrates the ability of the Gulf monarchies to co-opt neighboring countries and shape their domestic online media spaces through financial assistance and humanitarian aid. The UAE is one of Jordan’s biggest financial supporters. Together with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the three countries pledged an aid package of $2.5 billion to Jordan with over $1 billion deposited directly in Jordan’s central bank.
By the same token, the UAE has leveraged its cybercrime law, Decree Law No. 5 of 2012, to prosecute and imprison Jordanian nationals for criticizing their home government. In October 2020, a Jordanian resident of the UAE, Ahmed Etoum, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for criticizing the Jordanian government and the royal family in a Facebook post. Etoum was convicted of “deliberately [carrying out] an act against a foreign country that could damage political relations between the UAE and Jordan, by publishing on Facebook news and information that contain insults and ridicule toward Jordan, its king, and its government.” According to Human Rights Watch, one of the pieces of evidence used to incriminate and convict Etoum by the State Security Circuit at the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals was “joining Facebook groups consisting of opponents of the Jordanian government abroad and posting comments ridiculing certain government decisions, reposting on his page government-issued news alongside comments claiming government corruption, and re-sharing online appeals by Jordanian citizens requesting social aid from the government.”
Etoum is not the only Jordanian national who has been imprisoned in the UAE. In 2015, journalist Tayseer Najjar was arrested and held in secret detention for two years, and in 2017, sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of a fine of 500,000 Dirhams ($136,000 USD) under the cybercrime law for posting content critical of the UAE’s regional policies before he moved to the country. Two Jordanian brothers were also detained in 2015, severely tortured, and sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of one million Emirati Dirhams for charges related to terrorism.
2. Surveillance tech and cyber mercenaries
Saudi Arabia and the UAE
The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the surveillance operation conducted prior to it, demonstrates the extent to which repressive regimes are willing to go to silence their dissidents abroad. An investigation by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto revealed that Saudi Arabia had used Pegasus, a malicious mobile phone spyware produced by the Israeli company the NSO Group, to spy on Khashoggi’s colleagues and associates including the phone of Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz. Abdulaziz, an ardent critic of the Saudi regime who is based in Montreal, was planning with Khashoggi a social media project called the ‘Bee Army’ to help combat pro-regime troll armies on social media. Other surveillance targets included a staffer at Amnesty International, Saudi political satirist Ghanem Almasarir, and a New York Times journalist, Ben Hubbard, who is known for his reporting on Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Abdulaziz remains under threat. The Saudi authorities arrested two of his brothers and a number of his friends to pressure him into silence. In June 2020, the Canadian police warned him of being a “potential target” of the Saudi regime with “credible information about a possible plan to harm him.”
The Saudi surveillance operation also included the recruitment of two Twitter employees in the company’s headquarters in order to access private information of Saudi dissidents including their email addresses, phone numbers, and IP addresses. This operation led to the arrest of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a 37 year old aid worker, who was forcefully disappeared in 2018. In 2021, Al-Sadhan appeared before the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh and was sentenced to twenty years in prison, followed by a twenty-year travel ban, for his anonymous criticism of the Saudi authorities on Twitter.
Despite the international outcry following Khashoggi’s murder, and the call for an immediate moratorium on the sales, transfer, and use of surveillance technologies by UN human rights experts, none of the perpetrators were held to account, and the global surveillance industry continues to flourish at an estimated value of $12 billion. The Gulf monarchies also continue to expand their surveillance capabilities. In June 2021, Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that MBS had acquired in 2019 a new zero-click hacking spyware, from another secretive Israeli company called Quadream. These types of spyware are extremely malicious as they can automatically infect a target’s device without any interaction from the target, such as opening an email or clicking on a link.
What is notably alarming is the aspiration of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to become powerful regional tech hubs, which would allow them to harness further influence and domination in the region. The UAE has branched into developing its own home-grown surveillance technology by recruiting private digital mercenaries. In 2017, the Emirati cyber company, DarkMatter, was reported to have offered lucrative contracts to Israeli ex-intelligence officers working for the NSO Group with annual salaries as high as $1 million.Prior to that, DarkMatter hired over a dozen former ex-NSA hackers for its clandestine surveillance operation ‘Project Raven’ to spy on foreign governments, militant groups, and human rights activists critical of the monarchy.
The new UAE-Israel normalization deal, signed on September 15, 2020, is expected to further advance the UAE’s capabilities on cybersecurity and surveillance fronts, evident by the meeting of the countries’ cyber security chiefs in Tel Aviv directly after signing the agreement. In 2020, the UAE hosted the Israeli cyber conference, 
3. Weaponization of social media platforms
Israel and Palestine
One well-documented tactic of transnational digital repression is the use of state-sanctioned troll armies to manipulate and steer conversations, turning social media into a battleground of narratives. Whereas citizens and activists are using social media to criticize their governments, disseminate information, and document human rights abuses, governments are weaponizing those spaces to legitimize their own policies and to intimidate activists into silence through smear campaigns and online harassment.
The role of social media companies in these struggles is a major new aspect of digital politics, as Joshua Tucker argues in his essay for this collection. While online platforms may not censor online speech as much as authoritarian governments would like them to, systematic cases of over-moderation, arbitrary takedowns and discrimination raise questions over the platforms’ content moderation policies and their algorithms: who designs them and how?
One of Facebook’s problematic policies is their policy on the term “Zionism,” according to which it would remove attacks against Zionists when the term is used as a proxy for Jews or Israelis. The policy undermines freedom of expression in a number of ways. For one, it applies a narrow and singular worldview in which Jews and Israelis are made synonymous with Zionists, which would ultimately stifle legitimate political speech on Israel and Zionism. Secondly, it provides special protection to a political ideology, which Facebook typically does not classify as a protected group as compared to ethnic, religious, and gender groups. Thirdly, as there is no universal definition of hate speech, Facebook would need to provide considerable understanding of nuance and context to moderate this politically and historically complex word. But in order to moderate content at scale, Facebook entrusts its algorithms with this extremely sensitive task resulting in frequent and erroneous censorship.
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