Middle East in Turmoil

When Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare delivered his sealed indictments in the murder case on Monday to the pretrial judge of the international tribunal, Lebanon was once again embroiled in a political crisis. The names of those indicted for their roles in the assassination plot were not announced, but they are believed to include Syrian, Hezbollah and possibly Iranian leaders. Bellemare said that the submission of the indictments was an important moment “for those who believe in international justice.” The indictments were also welcome by President Obama in a statement as a step toward ending an era of impunity for murder in Lebanon, and achieving justice for its people. Obama also called for calm in Lebanon so that the tribunal can continue its work without interference or coercion.

 

The fall of the Lebanese government was quickly followed by an unusual call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, warning the despots who rule throughout the region that they risked “sinking into the sand” if they did not clean up corruption and quicken the pace of political and economic reform in their countries.

 

The very next day, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the autocrat who has ruled Tunisia with an iron hand for 23 years, was forced to flee, as angry mobs who had been protesting against high unemployment and government corruption for weeks, took control of that country’s streets. A national unity government under Tunisia’s current prime minister was announced Monday, but some members of the opposition are upset that the new cabinet contains many carry overs from the old regime.

 

The depth of the growing region-wide discontent can be appreciated from this gruesome fact. The Tunisian street demonstrations started when a despairing unemployed man burned himself alive in protest on December 17. In the last week, eight men in three other countries across North Africa have followed his example by trying to set themselves ablaze.

 

Meanwhile, there was some good news in the region. In Sudan, which has been racked by civil war for decades, and more recently, genocide against the civilian population of the Darfur region, a national referendum set the stage for a peaceful secession of the southern half of the country. This could finally end the lingering dispute between the Arab-dominated north and the Christian-dominated south of the country.

 

DESPOTS GROWING UNEASY

 

However, chronic unemployment, a sharp rise in prices for basic foods and rampant government corruption have led to growing protests in Egypt and Algeria, whose despotic regimes feel threatened by the same surge in anti-corruption, pro-democracy sentiment which brought down Tunisia’s ruler.

 

Suddenly, Arab tyrants across the region are no longer feeling secure. Long suppressed Arab human rights, democracy and modernization advocates are urging other Arab states in the region to follow Tunisia’s example and overthrow their despotic regimes.

 

These activists are encouraged by the implied promise of US support from Clinton’s startling remarks, which seemed to break with President Obama apologetic speech to the Muslim world which he delivered in Cairo in June, 2009. It was not immediately clear whether Clinton was signaling a major shift in Obama’s approach to US foreign policy.

 

There is no direct connection between the collapse of the Lebanese government, the toppling of the Tunisian president, and the vote which is expected to lead to the division of Sudan into two countries. But by coming at the same time, they have created an expectation of further change throughout the Arab world, fostered by the new tools of communication and the recent revelations of WikiLeaks, which confirmed to an awakening Arab public their suspicions as to the extent of corruption and hypocrisy in their current leaders.

 

INSTABILITY COULD IGNITE A WAR WITH ISRAEL

 

None of the these developments have anything to do with Israel. However, the instability in Lebanon could easily trigger a renewal of fighting along Israel’s northern border, if Hezbollah and Syria feel too embarrassed by the indictments in the Hariri assassination.

 

After months of threats, eleven Shiite ministers resigned from Lebanon’s 14-month-old unity government, led by Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad Hariri over his refusal to denounce the internationally-sponsored probe into his father’s assassination.

 

Syrian and Hezbollah leaders have denied any role in the truck bomb killing, even though the evidence gathered by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon points to a joint Syrian-Hezbollah conspiracy. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who previously called the tribunal unconstitutional, and warned that it would “cut off the hand” of anyone who attempted to make arrests based upon its indictments, announced its opposition to allowing Hariri to remain prime minister, and called for “a Lebanese solution” to the government crisis.

 

Hezbollah’s claim that the tribunal’s investigation is an “Israeli-American plot,” is amusing, since the panel was formed by two UN Security Council resolutions, and organized with the cooperation and partial funding of the Lebanese government.

 

NO CHANGE, IN THE SHORT TERM

 

Hezbollah and its allies walked out of the government a day after Saudi Arabia and Syria failed to reach an agreement to defuse the tensions over the tribunal. The fall of the government is considered unlikely to trigger a revival of the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war which ended in 1990. However, that could change when the tribunal’s indictments are announced by the end of March, or if they are leaked to the media sooner.

 

An indictment of Syrian leaders would endanger the gains that Syria has made in Lebanon, after it was forced by the street protests triggered by the Hariri assassination to withdraw its army from the country in 2005, after a 29-year occupation.

 

Indictments of Hezbollah leaders in the assassination would undermine its electoral popularity, and quash its hope of gaining control over the Lebanese government by constitutional and democratic means. That is why it has been pressing the ridiculous charge that the tribunal is an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty by foreign powers, namely the US and Israel, and that the US was manipulating the timing of the indictments in order to destabilize the Lebanese government. Failing that, Hezbollah seeks a constitutional way to bring down the elected government, rather than resorting to the violent street protests it organized in 2008.

 

In the meantime, as the faction-ridden parties of the Lebanese parliament wrangle over the formation of a new government, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has asked Hariri to remain in charge in a caretaker role.

 

A senior US official told the Washington Post that, “Syria wants to have it both ways – to build relationships in the West and yet meddle in Lebanon. I think they are going to hear a very clear message from the French, from us, and from others in the Arab world that that cannot be the case.”

 

US AND ALLIES STAND BEHIND HARIRI

 

In a statement following Obama’s meeting with Hariri last week, the White House said, “the efforts by the Hezbollah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people.”

 

The statement said that Obama and Hariri “specifically discussed united efforts with France, Saudi Arabia, and other key international and regional actors to maintain calm in Lebanon and ensure that the work of the Tribunal continues unimpeded by third parties.”

 

The two “expressed their determination to achieve both stability and justice in Lebanon during this challenging period of government volatility, and agreed that all parties should avoid threats or actions that could cause instability,” the statement said.

 

Hariri pledged “to keep the doors open for the Lebanese to reach solutions that ensure stability and calm, and preserve national unity.”

 

Obama also discussed the situation in Lebanon in a phone call with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and promised to continue to work together with other partners to support Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, and stability.”

 

Saudi Arabia has traditionally supported Lebanon’s Sunni factions, and pushed hard for the probe into Hariri’s assassination.

 

Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy also discussed Lebanon during their meeting last week at the White House. France has been a key player in Lebanon since it gained controlled of the country under a post-World War I mandate. Lebanon won its independence from France in 1943.

 

CLINTON BLASTS HEZBOLLAH

 

Secretary of State Clinton, in Qatar for talks with Persian Gulf leaders when the Lebanese government fell, called Hezbollah’s move an “abdication of responsibility.”

 

“We view what happened today as a transparent effort by those forces inside Lebanon, as well as interests outside Lebanon, to subvert justice and undermine Lebanon’s stability and progress. We believe the work of the Special Tribunal must go forward so that justice can be served,” Clinton said at a news conference.

 

Clinton noted that Hezbollah acceded to the UN-led investigation of the Hariri assassination and warned that attempts to derail the tribunal’s effort “will not work.”

 

“This tribunal is a creation of the UN Security Council, and it is supported by many governments, including my own,” Clinton said.”Its work will continue.”

 

US support for Hariri and his resistance to pressure from Hezbollah and Syria to reject the tribunal’s investigation is not surprising. The Bush administration cheered the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” which was triggered by the Hariri assassination which overthrew the previous pro-Syrian Lebanese government and forced the withdrawal of the Syrian army.

 

US TURNS AGAINST AN OLD FRIEND IN TUNISIA

 

However, US support for the removal of Tunisian strongman Ben Ali last week came as a surprise, because his regime closely cooperated with the US in fighting al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups.

 

Prior to that, the US had been reluctant to publicly criticize Ben Ali’s authoritarian methods during his 23-year rule. However, US leaders were well informed of the situation within the country. The US ambassador, in a 2009 cable recently released by WikiLeaks, described Tunisia as a “police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems.” Another WikiLeaks cable dated June, 2008 reported, “persistent rumors of corruption, coupled with rising inflation and continued unemployment, have helped to fuel frustration with the GOT [government of Tunisia] and have contributed to recent protests in southwestern Tunisia. With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the system.”

 

Ben Ali’s family was notorious for using its position to build a private fortune, and it became a particular target of the protests which drove him from the country.

 

Ben Ali’s forces did not hesitate to use violence in an effort to suppress the protests, killing more than 50 demonstrators. Just days before he was forced to flee the country, Ben Ali called the protests “the work of masked gangs that attacked at night government buildings and even civilians inside their homes.” But he was unable to suppress the photos and videos posted online by the protestors showing Tunisian police shooting tear gas and bullets at mobs armed with rocks and sticks. Other photos taken in hospitals showed demonstrators with multiple gunshot wounds.

 

It was not until the Tunisian regime reached the point of collapse that the US and France uttered any public criticism of the BenAli’s violent tactics. A senior administration official told the Washington Post last week that the State Department had been quietly pressuring Ben Ali’s government to undertake reforms for some time.

 

REJECTING THE FOREIGN POLICY PRAGMATISTS

 

Ben Ali’s apologists in the “pragmatic” wing of the US foreign policy establishment have long argued that it is better for the US to support friendly despots like him than to expose countries like Tunisia to a possible takeover by Islamic terrorists. President George W. Bush raised the ire of the foreign policy establishment when he rejected this approach. He claimed that US interests would eventually be hurt when the populations in these repressed countries rise up to throw off their tyrants and then turn against the US for having supported them for so long. That is what happened in Iran after the US-supported Shah’s government was toppled in 1979. Obama was among those who were critical of President Bush’s strategy when he ran for president, and he has been using the pragmatist’s argument since taking office to justify continued US support for deeply flawed allies such as Hamed Karzai in Afghanistan and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

 

That is why Clinton’s public warning to such regimes last week while visiting the Middle East came as such a surprise, and sparked speculation that Obama may be having serious second thoughts about the wisdom of his fundamental foreign policy strategy.

 

When Ben Ali fled Tunisia, the US was quick to support the transfer of power to its prime minister, Mohammed Ghannoushi. In a statement, President Obama hailed the “courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” and said the United States joined the rest of the world in “bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle.” He called on the Tunisian government to “hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.” Clinton added that, “we look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia’s future with economic, social and political reforms.”

 

PROTESTER IGNITES TUNISIAN UPHEAVAL

 

The demonstrations in Tunisia began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed university graduate doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire as a form of protest in front of a local government building. He had been unable to find work, and had been supporting himself by selling fruits and vegetables without a licence. After police confiscated the merchandise on his cart, he went to a government office and was publicly humiliated when the female employee to whom he had submitted a complaint slapped him.

 

Bouazizi died of his burns on January 4, but his protest had ignited the passions of his fellow Tunisians. Starting in his city of Sidi Bouzid, demonstrations against unemployment, rising food prices, and rampant government corruption rapidly spread across the country.

 

Police used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to put down the protests but the rising casualty count only increased the anger of the unemployed youthful demonstrators. By the time they reached Tunis, the capital, last week, protesters were demanding that Ben Ali step down.

 

A COUNTRY WITH NO DEMOCRATIC TRADITIONS

 

Tunisia has had only two real leaders since it was granted independence from France in 1957. Ben Ali served as the main security enforcer under Tunisia’s independence leader and first president, Habib Bourguiba. In 1987, Bourguiba started to show signs of senility after 30 years as president. Ben Ali pushed him aside in a bloodless coup.

 

Tunisia never developed the political tradition of give-and-take between ruling and opposition parties that is normally associated with democracy. In recent years under Ben Ali’s rule, critics were silenced by imprisonment. Newspapers and broadcast stations were subjected to strict censorship.

 

After Ben Ali fled the country, Prime Minister Ghannoushi, speaking from the presidential palace in Carthage, called for national unity and promised to abide by the constitution and start preparations for an election to choose a new government with broad public support. He gave no explanation for Ben Ali’s removal, saying simply that, “since the president is temporarily incapable of carrying out his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister would exercise his functions.”

 

NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE LEFT TO RUN THE GOVERNMENT

 

On Monday, more than a thousand protesters took to the streets of Tunis again, after Ghannoushi announced an interim “unity” government composed entirely of members of Ben Ali’s political party. One of the protesters claimed that “nothing has changed,” since the same people were still in charge. “It is still the same regime as before, and so we are going to keep fighting.”

 

However, the leader of one of the few remaining legal opposition parties in Tunisia tried to explain to the protestors that there was no alternative but to tolerate leaders from the old regime until free elections could be held. That was, because there were simply not enough qualified opposition members currently available to run the various government agencies and departments.

 

Meanwhile, in an effort to establish the credibility of the interim regime, Prime Minister Ghannoushi announced that all political prisoners would be released, the censorship of the media would stop, banned political parties would be allowed to resume operations, and internationally monitored national elections would be held in six months. He also insisted that those ministers in the new government who are carried over from the old regime “have clean hands and great competence.”

 

MORE TROUBLE IN ALGERIA

 

Meanwhile, in neighboring Algeria, where protests are more common, riots began on January 5, sparked by steep recent increases in basic food prices. Global food costs jumped 25 percent last year to reach an all-time high in December, according to the United Nations. The price of corn advanced 70 percent in 12 months, with wheat jumping 47 percent and soybeans 45 percent. These price rises are not very noticeable for US consumers, because only 19 cents of every dollar spent on food in the US reflects raw commodity costs. But in third world countries, these price increases can mean the difference between survival and starvation.

 

Five people were killed and more than 1,000 were arrested in violence that began in the capital of Algiers and then spread.

 

As in Tunisia, the protesters are mainly young. They complain that the people are disenfranchised, and denied the benefits of their country’s rich oil and gas revenues, due to rampant mismanagement and corruption.

 

A WARNING TO EGYPT

 

Many of the factors fueling the unrest in Tunisia and Algeria are shared by other Arab states, particularly Egypt. There a frustrated under-30 segment, which makes up 60 percent of the population, suffers from high unemployment and tight political control with little tolerance for dissent.

 

“Tunisia is a warning for the Egyptian regime,” says Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “But I don’t think Egypt has any strategy for addressing it.”

 

Egypt’s trade minister issued a statement last week insisting that the “Tunisian scenario” could not play out in Egypt, because the two countries are so different. Egypt’s government says it remains committed to using subsidies to keep food prices low. Egyptian officials also point to recent changes which have helped to grow the economy, but critics say that they have primarily benefitted the wealthy.

 

Meanwhile large numbers of unemployed youth grow increasingly restless under the rule of a sick and aging President Hosni Mubarak, who has increasingly clamped down on dissent. Mubarak has ruled Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. He is now 82, and, according to unconfirmed media reports, battling cancer. In recent years, he had been grooming his younger son, Gamal, to take his place, but according to a WikiLeaks cable, the elder Mubarak is planning to run for re-election for a sixth term in September.

 

CLINTON’S NEW MESSAGE

 

It was against this background that Clinton issued her surprising call to ordinary Arabs and their leaders to push for economic and political reforms. Her words touched off eager speculation that the Obama administration may be adopting George W. Bush’s stated goal of bringing long overdue democratic reforms to the region.

 

Clinton’s four-day visit to five Persian Gulf capitals featured a series of town hall style meetings, conferences and media interviews in which she urged the Arab allies of the US – sometimes forcefully – to speed up reforms and give their citizens more choices. In a meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha, she bluntly criticized the region’s leaders for tolerating “corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.”

 

THE RISKS OF REFORM

 

While her message was enthusiastically received by pro-democracy advocates, it is not without its risks to US interests in the region. For example, when the Bush administration backed democratic elections in Lebanon, it led to gains by Hezbollah that resulted in the fall of Lebanon’s government last week. Similarly, the US insistence that Hamas be allowed to field candidates in the 2006 PA parliamentary election led to a Hamas victory.

 

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has cooperated with US attempts to suppress the active al Qaeda branch based there, is frequently accused of being autocratic and corrupt. Yemen, too, has been urged by Clinton to run a fair parliamentary election due to take place later this year, even though its results are likely to weaken Saleh’s hold on power.

 

Clinton, as Secretary of State, has developed her own message, distinct from Obama’s rhetoric, and built around the promotion of “civil society,” as one of her central themes. It encompasses a broad array of socially progressive movements and institutions that seek to expand economic and political opportunity for ordinary citizens, including women, the disabled and minority groups.

 

“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever,” Clinton said in a speech last week at a civil-society conference in Doha. “If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum,” including “extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who prey on desperation and poverty.”

 

IS HONESTY REALLY THE BEST POLICY?

 

Most of the reforms advocated by Clinton involve economic empowerment, rather than political change. She has called on Arab governments to expand education and business opportunities for ordinary citizens, and has reserved her harshest criticism for official corruption, calling it “a cancer that eats away at the heart of a country.”

 

“It is important to demonstrate that there is rule of law, good governance and respect for contracts to create an investment climate that attracts businesses and keeps them there,” she said.

 

Yet corruption and political stagnation have helped to preserve the Arab governments that have long been the closest allies of the United States in the region.

 

PALESTINIAN ISSUE LOSING RELEVANCE

 

Of course, those who feel threatened by the renewed US push for democracy in the region love to change the topic, by insisting that the US first address the demands of the Palestinians, but that argument no longer seems to be working.

 

According to recent reports, even though they may not agree with Israeli policies on the West Bank and Yerushalayim, the Obama administration now clearly understands that most of the obstacles standing in the way of the Palestinians getting their own state, are of their own making, and are independent of the problems facing the rest of the region.

 

Now, when Clinton is asked by other Arab leaders in the region, who are resisting internal change, about the US failure to pressure Israel into more concessions to the Palestinians, she no longer rises to the bait by allowing the issue to be used as a diversion. Instead she answers, “I wish there were a way that we could tell a lot of countries what they should do.”

 

The Washington Post contributed to this story