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    For the West, Act of Contrition Time

    With Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali gone and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak apparently on his way out, it is time for the West to consider what its role has been in maintaining these and other Arab dictators in power.

    So intoxicating have the various rationales been to support these figures – “It’s either him or the Islamists” or “regional stability allows for no other choice” – that it is shocking even for seasoned observers to discover just how much hatred these despots inspired in their own people. Now, after these truly jaw-dropping events, it’s time for Europe and the United States to regain some composure and draw up some face-saving plans which have a different, democratic Arab world as their guiding light.

    Aside from promoting genuinely “stable” democratic regimes in the region, what about helping to bring renegade ex-tyrants to justice? Wouldn’t that be a step on the road toward redemption, and a way to establish a working relationship with a new generation of Arab revolutionaries? This revolution, it is to be hoped, is one in which the rule of law is to replace the strongman’s charisma and the logic of the elite clan. At Tunisia’s request, the Ben Ali family’s assets are starting to be seized in Europe. Canada has said it is seeking to arrest the ex-dictator’s son-in-law, after he sought exile there.

    When the euphoria and fury die down, time will tell what ideological slant will dominate, if indeed there are practicable democratic institutions within which Arabs can paint a true political portrait of themselves. But all the indications in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have so far been that Islamism is by no means the dominant force in what seems to be genuinely popular and necessarily pluralistic movements. In Tunisia a labor union provided the organizational know-how to channel the popular desire to claim the streets; the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is adding its not-inconsiderable weight to the protests in Cairo and other cities, but it does not appear to be guiding the change.

    What has taken place in Tunisia and Egypt is, partly, a cyber-uprising, a bloggers’ revolt. Tools that the West trusts in, namely information, the right to association, and the ease of communication, have proved to be deadly weapons against the dictators. And yet these were the kinds of leaders who in the past had been backed as useful clients. Ben Ali was closing in on the goal of making Tunisia a preferred neighborhood partner of the European Union, a candidacy backed by France, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Spain. In the name of Middle East stability, Mubarak’s price for being able to rule the most populous Arab nation in an absolute manner during three decades was to preserve the peace with Israel.

    Ben Ali often stressed his importance as a bulwark against Islamism, even as he permitted a web of corruption to be spun around his entourage, with his network of police muscle and hired thugs to ensure that complaints were rarely audible. On the last night of his rule before flying out of Tunis, Ben Ali’s goons reportedly opened fire on inmates in the country’s jails, part of a savage score-settling session across the country that claimed as-yet-unknown numbers of lives.

    Similarly, the man whom U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said he “would not refer to as a dictator” just a few days before he fled Tunisia, allowed his country’s dungeons to fill with opponents of all kinds. Torture was commonplace and abuses went unpunished. As for Mubarak’s Egypt, one way to end up behind bars was to stand in a presidential election against the incumbent. That was the fate of Ayman Nour after he had the impertinence to run for the presidency in 2005.

    Such siding of the forces of liberty with the unscrupulous and the savage has a precedent in the choices that the United States made during the Cold War, particularly when it allied itself with regimes in Latin America. Then the threat was communism; now it is Islamism or anti-Israeli sentiment. But former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori is now in a prison serving multiple sentences for human rights violations, murder and corruption. He is a potent symbol of all that was wrong in a generation of undemocratic caudillos across Latin America, from the U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile to the likes of Ephraim Rios Montt in Gautemala and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragaua.

    Who is to say that Arab despots may not one day fall foul of independent legal systems under democratic law – where previously all such organs of the state were mere extensions of their own personalized rule? Now these men no longer conjure up the heady mix of economic and security interests with which they managed to seduce so many foreign governments. A contrite West bears a duty to aid the cause of justice.

    James BADCOCK
    The Daily Star

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