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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tunisia: Opportunity for United States to Begin a New Chapter

"Today the entire Arab World is full of leaders who have built the foundation of their totalitarian regimes on arms and weapons supplied to them by the United States and her allies in Europe."
*By Lord Aikins Adusei

The events in Tunisia offer a real opportunity for United States and her European allies to take a critical look at the way they have used the so called national interests to protect autocratic regimes in the Middle East and Africa and put them on collision with the people. For decades United States of America and her European allies have openly supported the corrupt and despotic governments in the Middle East and Africa whose only interest is to maintain their grip on power without offering the people any hope of economic, political and social development. These regimes have suppressed and continue to suppress freedom and democratic ideals cherished and enjoyed by Americans and Europeans with the full support of Western governments.

Today the entire Arab World is full of leaders who have built the foundation of their totalitarian regimes on arms and weapons supplied to them by the United States and her allies in Europe. The security forces usually deployed by the regimes to terrorise, maim and kill the people have been financed, trained and armed by France, the US, Britain and their cohorts. Egypt for instance receives about $1.3bn annually from the US despite the fact that the country's autocratic leaders continue to suppress freedom of speech, assembly and the right of Egyptians to freely elect their leaders. The regime in Saudi Arabia has maintained its grip on power through arms sold to it by the United States. Last year for instance (September 2010), the State Department said that United States was selling arms worth about $60 billion to Saudi Arabia.

According to the website between 1987 and 2009 the United States government signed $349 million worth of arms deal with Tunisia's ousted dictator Ben Ali that enabled him to maintain his grip on power. In Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Morocco weapons built by European and American firms are constantly used to harass people with legitimate grievances over unemployment, poverty, high inflation, high prices of food and other concerns.

The behaviour of Western governments abroad, the support they give to regimes that abuse the rights of their citizens, directly contradict what they do at home. There are many monarchies in Europe (Britain, Holland, Spain and Sweden) yet we do not see the citizens in these countries being arrested, detained, tortured and summarily executed. On the contrary the countries in Europe with established monarchies are some of the open and freest societies on earth. However, the monarchies and autocratic regimes in the Middle East with Western support frown on anything called democracy, freedom and human rights and their citizens are some of the most repressed on earth.

From Bahrain in the Persia Gulf to Morocco in the Mediterranean no dissent is tolerated. People are arrested, detained, tortured and summarily executed for voicing for the right to speak their mind freely. William H. Lewis of the Atlantic Council notes that in Libya: “Qaddafi remains in tight control of domestic developments. Public criticism of government policies is not countenanced; the press is carefully monitored and labor organizations are restricted. Any political opposition is intimidated, imprisoned, or forced into exile. In short, there are no viable pathways for political reform in Libya.” Annual Reports publish by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other right organisations contain tales of torture, and inhuman treatment carried out by the governments with weapons sold to them by US authorities. The US which pride itself as the leader of the Free World has not given its support to the progressive forces in these regions fighting for change, instead it has aligned more and more with the brutal regimes.

The unflinching support the leaders receive from the West has helped to alienate them from their citizenry. Instead of building a society which is more tolerant and inclusive, the opposite is the situation. Large sections of the population in these countries have been marginalised socially, economically and politically. Everyday the people in the Middle East and Africa see the huge wealth being created from oil, gas, gold, diamond and other precious metals yet they are not allow to benefit. In Tunisia, the recently leaked US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks talk about massive corruption and nepotism at the presidency. Ben Ali is reported to have asked for a fifty per cent share of a business deal. His wife Leila Ben Trabelsi is spoken off as a corrupt queen grabbing by force anything that she sets her eyes on. Leila's brother Belhassen Trabelsi is known in Tunisia as the most notorious of the Trabelsi clan. His corrupt activities extend from banking, to real estate, tourism, information technology and airline. Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, President Ben Ali's nephews, are reported to have stolen a yacht belonging to Bruno Roger, a well-known French businessman and Chairman of Lazard Paris, a prominent firm with interest in banking and asset management.

Ben Ali, Leila Trabelsi and their associates in Tunisia are no different from the rulers in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Over the years these corrupt leaders have signed huge arms, oil and other business contracts with American and European firms and siphoned what should have gone to the people into their private bank accounts in America, France, Britain and Switzerland with the full knowledge of American and European political establishments. The series of corrupt deals involving members of the Saudi Royal family and British defence, security and aerospace company (BAE Systems) are a case in point. Billions of dollars worth of arms sold to Saudi Arabia by BAE Systems had their prices inflated and the proceeds diverted to Switzerland by members of the Saudi Royal family and Prince Bandar in particular. Then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair ordered Lord Goldsmith and the Serious Fraud Office to stop investigating the BAE deals saying the investigations were harming British interests. In the same vane the media reported in August 2009 that Britain freed Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the jailed 1988 Lockerbie bomber, because of a $500 million oil deal between Gaddafi and British Petroleum.

In French speaking Africa, France is more interested in protecting her business and other interests in Gabon, Cameroon and Congo Brazzaville than ensuring that citizens in those countries enjoy political and economic freedom. A November 2009 article in the New York Times written by Adam Nossiter titled “Ill will grows in former colonial region” tells a sad story of French leaders pulling the strings in Africa, supporting dictators, siding with leaders who rig elections and actively promoting FrenchAfrique in contrast with assertions by Nicolas Sarkozy that France was ending its opaque and corruption ridden policies in its former African colonies. The US and Europe it seems are more interested in protecting their interests than making sure the freedom, democracy and respect for human rights they preach is practised by their friends and allies in the regions.

While the shady deals have continued unabated and have helped to shape US and European policies in the Middle East and Africa, the shady deals have also created a situation where the leaders have remained largely unaccountable; worked to ensure the survival of their regimes; and preserve US and European interests rather than that of their people and countries.

As unemployment, inflation and prices of basic commodities soar, the leaders who live in securitised palaces continue to act in business as usual fashion. They continue to remain detached from their people, most of whom have become frustrated, depressed and live in fear of their leaders. In Egypt many people have sought to solve their problems by committing suicide. The same is true in other countries as the case in Tunisia shows, where Bouazizi Mohamed, a young graduate unemployed youth set himself ablaze and in the process triggering the violence that toppled Ben Ali.

But the frustration, depression and suicides are not the only consequences. The detachment of the leaders from the people has created a wide and deep crater (vacuum) that has been exploited by Al Qaeda and other Jihadists' groups. The support Al Qaeda and its affiliate organisations enjoy in the Middle East and the Sahel region of Africa shows that there is a strong link between the growth of terrorism on one hand and political repression, economic and social marginalisation on the other. The growth of terrorism and terrorists' attacks against American and European targets also show that poor and marginalised people without jobs will find solace in extremism as a way to express their frustration and to challenge the existing order.

The 9/11 and 7/7 attacks should have led the US and Europe to assess and examine their foreign policies especially their relationship with the corrupt regimes in these countries. The attacks should have encouraged the United States to push for economic and political reform in these countries and to distant itself from the corrupt and repressive regimes that would not reform. The US and Europe after the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks should have made their policies towards the regions more transparent and build allies based on the tenets of democracy, respect for rule of law and economic and social freedoms.

But this was never to happen. Instead the assessment that was made after 9/11 rather led to a closer collaboration between the hated regimes and the United States and her allies. The 'War on Terror' declared by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks has been seen as a gold mine by Ben Ali and his cohorts in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen among others. These leaders have used the 'War on Terror' as an excuse to further curtail the few rights and freedoms that previously existed. The 'War on Terror' has been used to silence critics of the regimes to the point that anything associated with rights and freedoms is quickly linked to extremism and terrorism and brutally crashed. It was therefore no surprise that the Tunisian Interior Minister, in the wake of the demonstrations, sought to link the genuine protests over poverty, unemployment, high inflation and high food prices to extremists groups. Linking the protests to terrorism was a ploy not only to win the sympathy and support of American and European governments but also to use it as an excuse to brutally smash the demonstration.

The leaked cables indicate that United States has been aware of the harassments, the human right abuses and the massive corruption, that largely defined Ben Ali's government. A statement from one of the cables reads: “Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association and serious human rights problems”. Another cable also notes that President Ben Ali's extended family is the nexus of Tunisian corruption. The Cable concludes: “Corruption is the elephant in the room; it is the problem everyone knows about, but no one can publicly acknowledge. The lack of transparency and accountability that characterize Tunisia's political system similarly plague the economy, damaging the investment climate and fueling the culture of corruption”.

In spite of having full knowledge of the massive corruption perpetrated by Ben Ali, his family and members of his government the US did little publicly to call for a paradigm shift in a way the country's economy was being raped and mismanaged until the violent demonstrations took place. And even while the demonstrations were underway the US and her European allies were reluctant in condemning Ben Ali and his security forces. For instance in the wake of the uprising in Tunisia, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of States was asked during her visit to Middle East about the situation in Tunisia. Her response was: “We can't take sides”.

Secretary Clinton should have stood with the people of Tunisia and demanded change, a position that was later taken by President Obama when he spoke condemning the police crackdown on the protesters. A statement released by the White House quoted President Obama as saying:

“I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard”.

By the time the above statement was released more than fifty-five Tunisians had perished, shot dead by Ben Ali's US and French backed security forces. Additional twenty three were to die later, bringing the total to seventy-eight. The seventy-eight people who died as a result of police brutalities could have been saved if the US and France had spoken out and had been more vocal against corruption, and the impunity of Ben Ali and his henchmen.

History has shown that the American people love justice and fairness; they love rule of law, respect for human rights, economic opportunities for all and they have been supporting many humanitarian programmes around the world. At the same time they hate the misuse of their taxes for activities that undermine development and human progress elsewhere. Therefore why should their taxes be used to support autocratic regimes who are hell bent on denying their people the very opportunities that are the symbol of American power and progress? Why should their taxes be used to train security forces that perpetrate violence and atrocities against their own people with the support of the American government?

This is why I believe US should seize the opportunity brought by Tunisia revolution and push for radical reform in the Middle East and also in Africa, that is reforms that will open up the countries that have been turned into prisons by the corrupt leaders.

US and her allies in Europe should begin to realise that their policies in the Middle East and Africa are not working and need serious evaluation. The policies are breeding more extremists than Bin Laden could have achieved on his own. It is alienating the governments from the people, and moving them closely to radical ideologies spewed by those who hate America and her ideals.

I cannot see the US and her allies winning the 'War on Terror' either now or in the near future while large section of the populations in the Middle East and Africa are excluded from the economy, and while they remain poor and marginalised. The war against extremism and terrorism will not be won and the influence of Bin Laden and his organisation will not wane unless United States and Europe push for a more inclusive, democratic, transparent and corruption free governments that respect not only human rights and freedom of speech but also allow a vibrant civil society to develop.

Therefore the United States and her allies must stop being quiet while great injustices are being committed against innocent people in the name of 'War on Terror'. The men, women, children, the poor and the unemployed youth in these countries would want to know openly whether the United States government and the American people are with them or are with their autocratic governments. The US must say openly what it says to the leaders in private to reassure the people that the world's great democracy is behind them.

In Egypt for example US could use the $1.3bn annual aid it gives to the country as a leverage to push for democratic and economic reform that will enable the people to actively participate in the political and economic development of their country. That huge aid could be used as a leverage to empower the people so they can openly criticise their government without being arrested. Therefore it may be wise for United States to cut off funding to regimes that will not reform and use the funds to support progressive forces and engage those marginalised by US policies in these countries

Additionally, the regimes must be encouraged to lift the censorship on media, allow private media to operate freely and grant more licenses to others. If Americans can express their opinion freely on CNN, ABC, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, why should Saudis, Egyptians, Moroccans and Algerians have to go to jail for doing the same?

It is important to promote and protect US economic and other interests in these countries but what is the gain when fifty year old economic interests are destroyed within a twinkle of an eye as the situation in Tunisia has shown? What is the use when diplomats and their dependants are put at great risk in these countries? What is the gain when US and European citizens are kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by extremists as recent cold blood murder of two Frenchmen in Niger shows? Must the US national interests supersede our common humanity? That is not to say US and her allies should stop promoting their interests in these countries but the interests must be pursued in open and transparent manner devoid of the corruption, hypocrisy and double standards. In short the interests must not be pursued against the sufferings of the people.

The recommendation offered by the US Ambassador in Tunis contained in the leaked cables published by Wikileaks could not be more clear. The ambassador recommended that US should:

“keep a strong focus on democratic reform and respect for human rights, but shift the way we promote these goals; -- seek to engage the Government of Tunisia in a dialogue on issues of mutual interest, including trade and investment, Middle East peace, and greater Maghreb integration; -- offer Tunisians (with an emphasis on youth) more English-language training, educational exchanges, and cultural programs; -- move our military assistance away from FMF, but look for new ways to build security and intelligence cooperation”.

The above is what United States and her European allies should have done before and after 9/11. However it is not too late. US and her allies should quickly embrace the opportunity the Tunisian revolution offers, engage the governments and the people in the region and usher in a new chapter that places emphasis on inclusion of all citizens in decision making, democracy, respect for human dignity, and freedom to live a life of their choice.

*The author is a political activist and anti-corruption campaigner. He is the author of "Switzerland: A parasite feeding on poor African and Third World Countries?"

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