Accountability comes to the Arab world

Posted in Broader Middle East | 19-Oct-05 | Author: Mona Eltahawy| Source: International Herald Tribune

Saddam Hussein looks out of the defendants' barred seating area as his trial begins in a heavily fortified courthouse in Baghdad's Green Zone, in this photo taken October 19, 2005.
CAIRO It is not April, as T.S. Eliot would have it, but October that is turning into the cruelest month for the old men who have long ruled the Arab world. And it is accountability - in the Middle East, the most elusive of concepts - that troubles them the most.

With the start of Saddam Hussein's trial on Wednesday and a UN investigator due to report to the Security Council by Oct. 25 on the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, October could be the start of an Arab Autumn, in which we shed the old and prepare for the new.

We are so unused to seeing our leaders held accountable that the sight of Saddam answering charges of premeditated murder, torture and forced expulsion and disappearances when he goes on trial for a 1982 massacre of Shiites may prove cathartic for people across the entire Arab world, not just in Iraq.

While ordinary Arabs might be wishing the same fate on their leaders, our dictators will no doubt be squirming. They will either remain as quiet as they have been over the bloodbath in Iraq - which they have been all too willing to ignore as long as it means humiliation and potential defeat for the United States - or there will be calls for a fair trial from the very leaders in whose countries such a thing is a luxury.

For those who insist on complaining about the "humiliation" enacted upon Saddam, meanwhile, that is exactly the point.

"This is the least that can be done to settle all the pain he and his regime have caused an entire nation," lamented an Iraqi friend whose family fled Saddam's Iraq when he was a child. "Imagine - all the resources, human and natural - all were used for him and his family's own pleasure.

"I'm against the death penalty but I'm willing to make an exception in this case," he said. "I hope his trial, conviction and hanging will be in public. Just to remind other dictators and bloodthirsty tyrants of the awful end they might face."

We have not forgotten that like many of the region's dictators, Saddam was at one time an ally of the same United States that invaded Iraq to remove him from power. So some squirming is called for from the United States, too, for a foreign policy that has all too often bolstered our dictators.

At this moment of reckoning, however, I agree with my Iraqi friend: "Even if Satan himself offered help to the Iraqi people I think they would have accepted."

Accountability has come knocking on the doors of Lebanon and Syria, too. The UN investigator Detlev Mehlis is to deliver a report expected to point fingers not only at those who ordered an assassination that turned Lebanese politics upside down and forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon but also at the murky world of Syrian-Lebanese client politics and the two-way cross-border corruption it engendered.

One victim has been claimed already: the Syrian interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, once the de facto leader and kingmaker of Lebanon.

The Syrian regime says Kanaan killed himself after character assassination in the Lebanese news media mortally wounded his pride. But the Arab mills of conspiracy have been busily grinding alternative theories linking his death directly or indirectly to the investigation by Mehlis, who interviewed Kanaan and six other Syrians in Damascus recently.

Either way, the Mehlis report could be seen as a catalyst. Kanaan was not used to having his conduct questioned by the news media of a country that he had been accustomed to running. Alternatively, President Bashar Assad could be using worry over the report's findings to purge recalcitrant remnants of the old guard he inherited from his late father, Hafez.

Bashar Assad would be wise to take this opportunity to implement long-promised but delayed reforms. His regime should not forget the accountability that may come from the Mehlis report.

While much suspicion over the deaths of Hariri and Kanaan seems to be directed at Syria, the Mehlis report will bring reckoning to Lebanon, too. If the report pulls at the string of corruption that underpinned the Syrian years in Lebanon, much will unravel in both Damascus and Beirut.

Arab leaders and officials are fond of saying that corruption happens everywhere, and happily point fingers abroad. Some Arab newspapers, for example, have highlighted the charges of money laundering and conspiracy against the former U.S. House majority leader, Tom DeLay, in a Texas campaign finance case. But it is rare for a corruption case involving a sitting leader or official to be brought to trial in the Arab world.

The Mehlis report is changing that.

The sight of Iraqis and Palestinians voting earlier this year, and of the Lebanese who turned out in their thousands to protest Hariri's assassination, spurred talk of an Arab Spring. But autumn is the season when gardeners plant the seeds for spring - and accountability is the seed we're planting this autumn in the Arab world. Let's hope it bears fresh and vibrant blossoms.

(Mona Eltahawy is a columnist with the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.)