Ziad Asali
The Daily Star
March 4, 2011 - 1:00am

The current uprisings in the Arab world demand a reassessment of current policy by all countries, especially the United States. One expects heightened demands for democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and regular elections, as well as a commitment to the people of the Middle East that their rights and aspirations will be properly reflected. It would not be surprising if all these demands were packaged as part of an initiative to address the Palestinian-Israel conflict and the establishment of a state of Palestine.

The momentous events have exposed the disturbing limits to the influence of the United States in the region. This was highlighted by President Barack Obama’s inability recently to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw a recent Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building in exchange for terms that might, at other times, have looked reasonable. Clearly, there is greater political advantage for Arab leaders in “standing up” to Washington rather than aligning themselves with it.

While the Palestinian issue is one reason for this reality, there are others. The common theme among the protests that have taken place or are continuing in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya is not ideology, religion, foreign policy, or even simple economic deprivation. Instead, their unifying thread is a rejection of poor governance and the attendant oppression and corruption flagrantly practiced by the countries’ leaders and their families and cohorts.

For decades average citizens have been deprived of dignity and access to the rule of law while kleptocratic dictators and their inner circle remained above the law both in action and in deeds. The scope of their corruption ranged, and in many countries still ranges, from huge commissions on contracts to the general dispossession, humiliation and abuse of regular citizens – this to such a degree that self-immolation becomes a viable option as a means of objection.

These leaders, their wives, sons and daughters established a claim on the present and future ownership of their countries and resources. What we have witnessed in the Arab world lately is not a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolt. These have been uprisings against unjust governments that have systematically oppressed their people with impunity. Television and social media have indeed facilitated the organization and the spread of information, but they did not ignite the human will to revolt. Injustice and indignity did that.

In pursuit of stability, the United States and the West in general have tolerated, if not actively supported, tyrants and crooks in the Middle East. Young people of the region have spoken, with dignity and in most places in peace, as they have shed their own blood to earn freedom for themselves and for their countries. They have been seeking a future of stability and democracy and have been prepared to pay for it. They want accountability and expect transparency. We in the U.S. should listen and we must help.

But the promise for help and expressions of support from the Obama administration have been insufficient. The time has come for words to be backed by deeds. Because the people of these incipient Arab democracies have rushed into their streets to demand freedom, now is the time to secure this freedom by providing real accountability and transparency. The system of American, Western and international laws mobilized to fight terrorism globally must also be directed against officials who kill their own populations. These laws must be invoked against corrupt individuals who steal their people’s resources instead of being manipulated to create safe havens for these leaders’ loot to be placed in Western financial institutions and investments. The complicity must stop. Western global resources are now threatened by the corruption that Western governments have ignored. This corruption has driven entire societies in the Middle East, not just individuals, toward radicalization. The mullahs and radical ideologues have a convenient argument at their disposal to incite people whose rights and dignity have been trampled.

American and international

legal, economic and financial institutions must mobilize to combat corruption if the U.S. is to gain the trust and support of the people who suffer at the hands of their thieving tyrants. The resulting economic benefit and enhanced security for the U.S. and also the whole world will be immeasurable. Yes, it is absolutely our business to demand accountability. Radicalized and disenfranchised people and societies pose a threat to American national security interests. The legal systems, both in the U.S. and abroad, have to support the rights of individuals by submitting corrupt regimes to serious probing and sustained media attention in order to widen the circle of rights for their citizens.

The recklessness and impunity which allow tyrants not just to murder and scare their own people, but also to threaten the countries of Europe with economic punishment or a flood of refugees if any Western nation demands accountability must be confronted. Standing by the Arabs in their quest for freedom will help dispel the prevailing narrative that Washington partners with the regimes of oppression.

The departure of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia (and perhaps, soon, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya) have been steps in the right direction. A genuine commitment to upholding accountability would open the doors to democracy and stability in the Middle East. The U.S. should be neither the world’s policeman nor the dictators’ patron.


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