The Texas University graduate has been detained in Dubai on request of Egypt for social media posts made from the United States
Sherif Osman case highlights America’s dwindling influence in the Middle East
12 December 2022
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the United States was the last superpower standing, and then-President George H.W. Bush declared “What we say goes”. One of the first regions where America established its authority in the newly unipolar world, was the Middle East. The US entered the Arab world with guns blazing, both figuratively and literally; and yes, what the said did indeed go. “I recall an Emirati police official confiding in me in the early 2000s that if an American was arrested in Dubai, a single call from the embassy would get him released and sent home within the hour, no matter what the crime was,” remembers Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and Due Process International.
20 years, at least 2 wars and occupations, numerous other military interventions, 1 Arab Spring, and multiple economic crises later; American prestige in the Middle East is all but non-existent. Not only does what the US president ‘say’ not ‘go’ in the Arab world, they are not even accepting his phone calls.
Perhaps nothing highlights this deterioration in influence better than the plight of American citizen Sherif Osman. The Egyptian-born resident of Massachusetts was arrested in Dubai last month upon the request of Egypt because he had posted commentary on social media critical of the government of strongman Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi. It didn’t matter that Osman’s comments were made from his home in the United States, published on American-owned platforms, through exclusively American-based servers, and in accordance with his constitutional right to free speech; Egypt did not approve, and the UAE therefore snatched him off the street while on vacation in Dubai.
“The UAE is simply awaiting paperwork to be processed before extraditing Sherif to Egypt,” says Stirling, who has taken up Osman’s case, “Bilateral ties between the two countries are stronger than they have ever been, and both have a shared interest in making an example of political critics. We believe that his deportation is imminent, and that his life will undoubtedly be in danger once he is handed over to Egypt. Without American diplomatic intervention, Sherif may well become the second Egyptian-American to die in custody in the last 2 years.”
Mustafa Kassem, an Egyptian-born New Yorker, was wrongfully detained in Cairo in 2013 during mass arrests carried out by security forces. After years pleading for help from American officials, even undertaking a hunger strike, the 54-year-old died in prison in 2020. “At that time, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Schenker, told reporters Kassem’s death was ‘needless, tragic and avoidable’,” Stirling explains, “He was right, Kassem’s tragic death was certainly avoidable, had the US made appropriate efforts on his behalf – but they didn’t. The fate we fear for Sherif Osman is similarly needless and avoidable, but we have not seen the Americans undertaking any serious attempts to ensure that it will not also be tragic.”
Stirling points out that the UAE has accrued considerable power in Washington, and that the Emirates has been an enthusiastic sponsor of the El-Sisi government since the coup that brought the former army officer to power in 2013. “The Emirates is flooding Capitol Hill with cash, spending over $64 million on lobbyists, contributing nearly $2 million to politicians on both sides of the aisle. They have pumped billions of dollars into Egypt since the coup, and just recently agreed to another round of aid and investment with the explicit purpose of protecting the regime from potential unrest over food shortages. The UAE is basically a co-owner of the Egyptian government, and the US government has been unabashedly bribed into silence; America has allowed itself to become an impotent spectator in the Middle East, even when the life and freedom of a US citizen is at stake.”
While she has reached out to Osman’s representatives in congress and the senate, none have issued any public statements about the case or raised the issue with the State Department, Stirling says. “We have only heard vague words of concern privately, and the standard template response from the embassy that they are ‘monitoring’ the case; but this is grossly inadequate. Both Egypt and the UAE are considered staunch US allies; both enjoy massive investment and trade deals with the US, yet instead of seeing American diplomats and officials meeting with Egyptian and Emirati counterparts to secure Sherif Osman’s release, we see the UAE ambassador meeting with Egypt’s International Cooperation minister to strengthen bilateral relations. It is as if the US is being locked out of the room, if not passively leaving it voluntarily.”
“If Sherif Osman is indeed deported to Egypt for exercising his constitutionally guaranteed rights as an American citizen, on American soil; the message will be crystal clear: the US has completely surrendered its influence in the Middle East and forfeited its status to the UAE.”