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Jan-Peter Westad

Iyad el-Baghdadi: The exiled activist fighting for democracy under the shadow of Saudi assassination

'The region's dictators soon realised old style censorship doesn't work with the internet'.[Jan Westad]

Date of publication: 7 August, 2020

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The New Arab Meets: Iyad el-Baghdadi, who rose to prominence during the Arab Spring as a vocal critic of anti-democratic regimes.

For Iyad el-Baghdadi Covid-19 hasn't brought quite the same disruption experienced by many. "Everyone lives like me now," he says with a smile as he lets me into his Oslo flat.  

Ever since learning of a Saudi threat on his life in May last year, Iyad has experienced a form of self-isolation for his safety. "I live apart from my wife and two-year-old son. I've installed careful routines to stay safe and learned long ago to take each day at a time," he says. 

Like many activists of his generation, Iyad el-Baghdadi's current situation can be traced back to the Arab Spring. Living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and unable to protest physically, he began publishing English translations of speeches from the demonstrations on Twitter. Very quickly, his Twitter feed became a vital source of breaking news for Western audiences. 

A computer programmer by training, el-Baghdadi has since found himself a key thinker for Arab democratic movements and an expert in countering disinformation, though many may also recognise him for his provocative criticisms of various dictators on Twitter.

"Twitter became an alternative parliament for the Arabs, a hangout for native Arabic speakers and thinkers. We started to wear away at the rusty narratives of the region's dictators," he says. 

Eventually, Iyad's social media presence caught the attention of the UAE authorities. On 29 April, 2014, Iyad tweeted about his close friend, the Egyptian activist Bassem Sabry, who had died after falling from a balcony in Cairo. The next day, he was arrested by UAE immigration authorities and offered a choice: leave the UAE or go to prison.

Twitter became an alternative parliament for the Arabs, a hangout for native Arabic speakers and thinkers. We started to wear away at the rusty narratives of the region's dictators

"The timing seemed too much of a coincidence", remarks Iyad, though he was not surprised at his arrest. "Even before the coup in Egypt in 2013, it was clear that my country's government was leading the counter revolution."

After being detained for two weeks in the UAE, Iyad managed to convince the authorities to send him to Malaysia. He then spent three weeks living in the airport while the Palestinian embassy worked to get him a passport.

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calculating, paranoid MbS waits in the wings

"If I left the terminal I could have been sent back to the UAE or put in immigration detention, so I hid in the terminal without any luggage. There were rooms you could rent by the hour. If I rented it for eight hours that gave me enough time to wash my clothes, put them out to dry, and then go to sleep, wake up and change." 

All this time his wife was heavily pregnant. "It was a terrifying experience for me and my family. I spent most of 2017 dealing with severe PTSD caused by this period," says Iyad. 

When Iyad was offered the opportunity to speak at Oslo Freedom Forum later that year, he was able to gain asylum in Norway. At first, he thought he had missed his chance to speak, but the event, which had been due to take place in May when he was incarcerated, had been postponed due to a hotel workers strike. 

In his speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum Iyad offered a blueprint for how to build on the successes and failures of the Arab Spring. He spoke of "a new generation of intellectuals - young, independent, and skilled in formulating their ideas, in networking together, and in communicating with the world." This virtual network of activists, he argued, could undermine the tired jingoism of current regimes and offer sustainable political alternatives.

The Saudi Twitter sphere is full of bots spreading propaganda, creating mass hysteria and attacking critics

This optimistic view of social media in particular has been challenged in recent years with increased awareness of the ways it can be abused by malicious actors. It was his work combating Saudi disinformation which Iyad believes drew the attention of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and led to the threat on his life.  

"The region's dictators soon realised old style censorship doesn't work with the internet because to ban it carries too heavy an economic price. My small team noticed that Saudi Arabia in particular was moving towards a Russian model of disinformation." 

Timeline: How the world reacted to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi

The evolution of Saudi's strategy closely followed that of Mohammed Bin Salman's public image. "MBS lives inside Twitter," says Iyad. "When he wanted to look like a reformer he hijacked the social issues trending amongst Saudi Arabia's Twitter users. Today, the Saudi Twitter sphere is full of bots spreading propaganda, creating mass hysteria and attacking critics."

Iyad's analysis of Saudi disinformation attacks against Jeff Bezos helped uncover the alleged hacking of the American billionaire's phone in 2018, which it's believed stemmed from a file sent from a personal WhatsApp account of the Saudi crown prince.

Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves. We think things become better immediately, but paradigms break before they shift

"MBS hacked Bezos because of his ownership of the Washington Post," says Iyad. "Following the killing of Khashoggi, MBS was very anxious to control his international reputation. And I'm this little nuisance who screwed that up for him", says Iyad.  

I ask Iyad whether disinformation has changed Twitter from being a platform of radical and free political expression. His response is surprising. 

Read more: After Khashoggi killing, Saudi Arabia extends
its claws to Norway

"There is a lot of fear and concern about disinformation, but I actually think Saudi Arabia's attempts to use it are more helpful to its opponents. It usually represents the direct whim of MBS, so we learn of his motives when he gets caught. Unlike the Russians, the Saudi's are absolutely incompetent and end up shooting themselves in the foot." 

Iyad's wider aim is to ensure MBS is the last dictator of his kind. "We need to prove to the world that there is no such thing as an autocrat who is a liberal reformer," he says. "After the murder of my friend Jamal Khashoggi, I started to believe MBS could be the actor who finally kills this myth so often put forward by the West."

There still seems to be some way to go. I put to Iyad the recent actions of the British government to sanction Saudi officials before allegedly phoning up to apologise and then resuming arms sales to the country the following day. 

"This is still progress." he says. "Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves. We think things become better immediately, but paradigms break before they shift. The UK has been pushed into an impossible position that is so hypocritical it's a joke being played out in real life. This is a situation that cannot last. The paradigm is breaking."

Jan-Peter Westad is a freelance journalist and researcher based in London

Follow him on Twitter: @JanPeterWestad

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