By Wilson Dizard
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the death of Mohamed Morsi are symbols of an age where ruling through force invites no accountability and in turn, is rewarded.
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” is a line from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 that has stuck itself into the parlance of our times. There is little wonder why, in 2019, the words have become startlingly relevant.
It has snuck into speech amid the rise of regimes where “the cruelty is the point,” as a more concise observer described US President Donald Trump’s policy of torturing thousands of migrant children in American concentration camps.
Orwell’s analogy, however, doesn’t consider what happens when the boot’s sole runs thin under brain, blood and bone, and the stamping ankle twists itself into the ground. Cruelty, which never thinks that far ahead, eventually becomes pointless. there’
This week, it seems the cruelty is becoming pointless for two world leaders, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. By violently suppressing civil society, both leaders carry on the job of British colonial rule, a project that ended eventually.
Cracks in the facade of their autocracies emerged with a report on Wednesday from the UN on Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the unexpected death in a court of deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, a passing preceded by years of harsh imprisonment.
Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, was a prime of example of cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, identified by the UN as being behind the killing, never thought he needed a reason for the flagrant display of grotesque violence. Cruelty was the point.
Killing Khashoggi, a figure whose disappearance in the American media (unlike some other Saudi dissidents who have vanished), would serve as a very public warning to anyone who might like to follow in his footsteps. Assassination by spectacle is the intention.
Crucially, the report assembled evidence that the killing was not an accidental death in the process of renditioning him to Saudi Arabia, or the result of a fight between the 59-year-old journalist and a rogue team of Saudi security guards. The UN report says the murder was premeditated and carried out with forethought of how to dispose of the body.
Although Saudi Arabia admitted to causing his death, Khashoggi’s body is still missing.
Meanwhile, Morsi’s body has been put to rest in Egypt. Due to the punitive conditions of his confinement, the country’s first democratically elected president did not stand much of a chance of surviving long inside the prison’s walls and the repeated solitary confinement.
Help for Morsi, who collapsed in court, also did not arrive for 20 minutes, according to reports. Although weakened by high blood pressure and diabetes, Morsi’s death allowed Sisi’s critics to point to Egypt’s notoriously crowded and abusive prison system, where human rights groups say hundreds of political prisoners languish, some marked for execution.
Indeed, for Sisi, who can’t sit through an American TV news interview without going into a flop sweat, keeping Morsi under such cruel conditions seemed like a chance to warn others of the enduring power of Nasserism.
However, sooner rather than later Sisi’s cruelty towards Morsi backfired so spectacularly that even bleeding heart liberals in Western capitals managed to notice. Flying under the radar of public criticism is crucial for Sisi, whose job relies on the general indifference of the world to Egyptian suffering.
Indeed, political figures across the world noted Morsi’s passing with sorrow. Even Queen Noor of Jordan, whose late husband King Hussein was no friend of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, tweeted “RIP first and only democratically elected President of #Egypt #Morsi.”
Money, of course, can’t smell. And that means the pocketbooks of MBS’s cadre or Sisi’s elite clique won’t feel a pinch any time soon, as the death of one writer won’t stop people from buying Saudi petrochemical products, as the world needs them to fertilise soil to grow food.
Sisi’s military regime won’t see a reduction in military aid from the US, as that multibillion-dollar kickback to Cairo has been an article of faith for US foreign policy for forty years.
Indeed, US President Donald Trump has (although less than literate in the history of anything) decided that Sisi and MBS are wiseguys like him. Perhaps he imagines them as “get tough on crime” leaders if the crime was Muslims voting.
As inheritors of the thoroughly anti-democratic British colonial mandate, MBS and Sisi clearly agree.
In other words, Trump likes the proverbial cruelty boot’s chances. His money is on the boot. That vote of confidence from the US president, and his inability to engage in abstract thought aside from lying has made life very easy for MBS and Sisi, but this is not a sustainable relationship for either figure.
Both the leaders are not thinking very far ahead to what the next US president might do. Even now, the US Senate has queued up legislation that would cease military aid to Saudi Arabia over its persistent violation of the rules of war (Trump is set to veto it). Of course, it was President Barack Obama who gave the green light to Riyadh to pursue the war in Yemen with US-made weapons, perhaps not imagining the next president would be a racist game show host.
Trump, like his predecessor, has long been the inheritor of the British Empire’s loose ends and racist social experiments – and has added plenty of its own. A recently leaked bit of internal polling by the Trump campaign, shows him trailing Democratic challengers in key swing states (this is not a credit to Democrats as much as an indication of Trump’s deep unpopularity despite approval from his unbudging base). That poll should set Sisi and MBS thinking about how long they can get away with what they are doing now, under the tutelage of a proudly nihilistic American president.
In other words, Sisi and MBS should think about how long the boot can keep stamping.
Yes, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have much bigger problems than dissident journalists or the Muslim Brotherhood. Both countries stand to lose big league to climate change, a problem they cannot buy or kill their way out of.
But how did the world get to this point? It is easy to blame Trump, but the entire American foreign policy establishment also deserves rebuke for setting the stage for such reckless cruelty – and rewarding it.