That White House red carpet is about to take a battering as repressive leaders from all over the world are invited to parade along it.
The first person we know to ever get the red carpet treatment was Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War. In the 458 BC drama by Aeschylus we’re told Agamemnon was greeted by “a crimson path” to walk on, and (despite his being murdered shortly afterwards) it’s become the ultimate accolade to celebrate and recognize the importance of a guest.
You can tell a lot about government from who it invites to walk on its red carpet. Egyptian dictator President Sisi got the honor at the White House a few weeks ago. “We are very much behind President al-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job,” enthused President Trump about a man who has dragged Egypt back to a totalitarianism not seen for generations. Authoritarian Turkish President Erdogan is due to arrive at the White House on Tuesday this week, and Trump has even invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to visit. Duterte’s government has waged a “war on drugs” that has resulted in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of Filipinos, has frequently spoken favorably of murder and rape, and compared himself positively to Hitler.
Tomorrow it’s the turn of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, head of the notorious State Security Apparatus in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to grace the scarlet fabric. Bin Zayed is a frequent visitor to Washington, and was regularly invited to meet senior United States officials under the Obama administration too. But the White House should be place where the world’s top civil society leaders are celebrated, not a place where repressive leaders are legitimized.
Bin Zayed’s State Security outfit is the UAE’s Stasi, regularly suppresses freedom of speech and ruthlessly suffocates civil society voices of those critical of the regime. On March 20 this year the famous human rights defender and University of Colorado grad Ahmed Mansour, winner of the 2015 Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender Award, was taken from his home in Dubai.
UN human rights experts have called for his immediate release, and he’s known as an astute but peaceful critic of the UAE’s dictatorship. He’s also the guy who last year saved your iPhone from hackers. I understand his wife Nadia has not been able to visit him for over a month, and given the UAE’s awful record of torturing its detainees there is real fear for his safety.
It’s Mansour who should be invited to Washington to represent the best of the UAE, not Bin Zayed. So should academic, economist, human rights defender and alum of Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith, who was sentenced to 10 years in a UAE prison after an unfair trial. According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights he has not had any contact with the outside world since his transfer to Al-Razeen Prison on 30 March 2017.
But Bin Zayed represents a different UAE, one that suppresses democracy and dissent, and the U.S. government has long enabled that repression. The State Department last week approved a new $2bn deal to sell 160 missiles and other military equipment to the Emirates, the latest in a long line of arms deals with the Gulf state dating back many years. Washington operates in an apparent state of denial about the UAE, and has long kidded itself that the absolute monarchy is “a force for political stability,” while knowing deep down that repression and stability are mutually exclusive.
While Trump invites dictators to the White House, Members of Congress who care about rights should draw up a list of human rights defenders, find dissents targeted by repressive regimes, and roll out the red carpet for them at the Capitol.