After 16 days of denial, Saudi authorities released an official statement that said the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had died in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in a botched interrogation 2 October.
On that fateful day, he went into his country’s consulate to get a certificate to the effect that he was divorced. He needed it to marry his Turkish fiancé, according to news reports. His family back in Saudi Arabia denied that he had a fiancé.
He never came out of the consulate, despite assurances from Saudi sources that he had left, while the Turkish news media, hours after his mysterious disappearance, kept quoting unnamed Turkish sources that he was killed inside the consulate at the hands of a special squad sent from Saudi Arabia specifically to silence him forever.
For 16 days, from 2 October till the official Saudi announcement early Saturday, 19 October, Turkish papers were awash with morbid details concerning his death, always quoting anonymous sources.
International reactions, as should be expected, were almost unanimous in condemning such an unexplained disappearance, demanding the Saudi government be transparent and tell the world the plain truth.
Of course, reactions in Washington and other Western capitals were tough, and public and media pressure on the US administration and on other governments in the West grew by the day to push Saudi Arabia to tell the truth and hold accountable whoever was behind the killing of Khashoggi, who was considered an influential dissenting voice against some of the policies adopted by rising Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
In the Arab world, reactions varied depending on the type of relations each Arab country entertains with Saudi Arabia.
With the exception of Qatar, Arab reactions tended to side with the Saudi government, while some governments counselled restraint and to wait for the results of investigations carried out by Turkey in collaboration with the Saudi government.
With each day that passed after 2 October without any indication that the missing Saudi reporter and dissident was alive, pressure kept mounting on the US administration to take action.
From the start, US President Donald Trump did not want to accuse the Saudis of any mischief inside their consulate in Istanbul, and went as far as telling reporters, after a phone call with the Saudi monarch, King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, on Monday, 15 October, that maybe “rogue killers” were to be responsible for the assassination of the missing journalist.
President Trump added that the Saudi King had “firmly denied the kingdom’s involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance”. Interestingly, Trump talked to the Saudi crown prince on 16 October while the latter was conferring with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh.
He informed the US president that he would “expand a full and complete investigation” into the disappearance of the Saudi journalist and promised answers “shortly”.
Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, said on the purpose of Pompeo’s trip that, “while the United States has a number of regional and bilateral issues to discuss with the Saudi leadership, learning what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is the primary purpose of this trip and is of great interest to the president. The secretary has made that clear in each of his meetings today.”
En route back to Washington, Pompeo stopped over in Ankara, Turkey, where he had a meeting with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Wednesday, 17 October, with both the Turkish foreign minister and the director of Turkish intelligence assisting in the meeting.
Less than 48 hours later, the official Saudi announcement that Khashoggi was killed on the premises of the Saudi consulate came out.
President Trump commented that he found the statement “credible”, while Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) said that to say he was sceptical of the announcement by the Saudi government would be an “understatement”.
Many American and foreign commentators are waiting to gauge American reactions. President Trump said Sunday, 14 October, in a televised interview, that he would impose severe “punishment” — a very strong word, particularly in the context of American-Saudi relations — if responsibility of the Saudi government in the killing of the Saudi journalist would be proven.
In the meantime, he made it clear that he has no intention of going back on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, specifically a deal reportedly worth $110 billion.
Not only is the United States is facing a dilemma in conducting future relations with Saudi Arabia, more particularly so if the present crown prince become the Saudi king in the future, but also many governments around the globe face the same.
However, the true dilemma is the one facing the whole Arab world, and Egypt no exception.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from this sad, morbid and stupid murder of a powerless reporter at the hands of his own countrymen it is that times have changed and no ruler, no government has a right to arrest, maim, muzzle or kill its opponents.
Rulers and governments around the Arab world should wake up and realise that the Inquisition belongs to the Middle Ages and not to the 21st century.
The whole sad episode of the assassination of the Saudi journalist and dissident will haunt the Saudis and all Arabs for many years to come.
We have got to change, and radically, for the better. We deserve a lot better. The Arab world badly needs political modernisation and a deep respect for the inviolability of the rights of Arab citizens, political supporters and opponents alike, in the context of the rule of law.
Otherwise, Arab societies are doomed to crumble, sooner rather than later.
Egypt must lead the way.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Whose dilemma is it?