CAIRO – Are we seeing the start of an Arab Autumn?
On Oct. 18 former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein takes the stand on charges of premeditated murder, torture and forced expulsion and disappearances when he goes on trial for a 1982 massacre of Shiites. A week later, the U.N. investigator’s report into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is due before the Security Council.
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 was called an Arab Spring for spurring talk of change in the Arab world.
With Saddam Hussein standing before prosecutors and the names of the rich and the powerful of Syria and Lebanon on the pages of the Mehlis report, October could be the start of an Arab Autumn, in which we shed the old and prepare for the new.
Accountability is a rare commodity in the Arab world. We are so unused to seeing officials held accountable that the sight of Saddam answering charges may prove cathartic for people across the entire Arab world, not just in Iraq.
I can almost guarantee there will be calls for a fair trial from countries where such a thing is a luxury. And for those who insist on complaining about the “humiliation” enacted upon Saddam, that is exactly the point.
“This is the least which 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 both 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 blood thirsty tyrants of the awful end they might face. “
We have not forgotten that like other dictators, Saddam was at one time an ally of the same United States that invaded Iraq to remove him from power. So just as there will be many in the Arab world who will be squirming with discomfort as they see Saddam in the role of the accused, some squirming is called for from the United States too for a foreign policy that has all too often bolstered dictators.
But for this moment of reckoning I agree with my Iraqi friend – “Even if Satan himself offered help to the Iraqi people I think they would have accepted”.
While I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was never against the removal of Saddam Hussein. Justice must be served for the thousands upon thousands of lives he ruined.
There are no tears to shed for a reckless dictator who ruined Iraq while too many of his neighbours either looked away or stayed shamefully quiet.
Although this initial trial is specific to charges from 1982, it is a symbolic start to the process of accountability the he must face for the countless other massacres and atrocities that he committed against Iraqis.
Accountability has come knocking on the door of Lebanon and Syria too. U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis is to deliver a report expected to point fingers not only at 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.
A victim has been claimed already. Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan – once the de facto leader and king maker of Lebanon – is dead.
The Syrian regime says Kanaan killed himself after character assassination in the Lebanese 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. There is no doubt that a man of Kanaan’s stature was not used to being called to question whether by the media of a country he was, until 2002, accustomed to running nor by anyone else. Alternatively, President Bashar al-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.
Assad would be wise to use such a purge to implement long promised but delayed reforms. His regime itself should not forget the accountability that may come from the Mehlis report.
While much suspicion over who killed 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, the unraveling will engulf both Damascus and Beirut.
Arab governments and officials are fond of saying corruption happens everywhere and happily point fingers abroad. Some Arab papers for example highlighted the plight of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay who is facing charges of money laundering and conspiracy in a Texas campaign finance case. But rare is the case of corruption brought to trial in the Arab world.
The Mehlis report is changing that.
Autumn is the season when gardeners plant the seeds for spring. Accountability is the seed we’re planting this autumn in the Arab world. Let’s hope it bears fresh and vibrant blossoms.