From Baghdad to Beirut, Arab Leaders Being Held to Account (Michael Rubin, October 27, 2005, The Forward)

Long home to farfetched conspiracy theories and a political culture of victimization, the Arab world is now being swept by a new emphasis on accountability. While commentators and pundits debate the merits, drawbacks and sincerity of the Bush administration’s drive for democracy, events across the Middle East suggest that the relationship between rulers and the governed has been significantly transformed.

The shift was evident on October 19, when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and seven high-ranking lieutenants shuffled into a Baghdad court room to face charges that they ordered a massacre of 143 Iraqi civilians following a 1982 assassination attempt against the Iraqi leader. The proceedings were broadcast in Iraq on television channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and Arabic newspapers throughout the region splashed photos of the Iraqi dictator sitting submissively in the dock across their front pages. […]

A willingness to hold leaders to account, such as we are now witnessing in Iraq, is becoming increasingly more common in the Arab world. Against the backdrop of Saddam’s trial, U.N. special investigator Detlev Mehlis submitted the findings of his inquiry into the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. […]

[A]cross the region Arabs appear to welcome it. Indeed, it was the groundswell of Lebanese–and Saudi–revulsion at Hariri’s assassination that spurred the U.N. Security Council to create a special investigatory commission.

The Lebanese Cabinet endorsed Mehlis’s findings even though he also implicated the top four security chiefs of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud. Lebanon’s parliament, just a year ago little more than a Syrian rubber stamp, moved to hold Lahoud to account. “The president must resign,” prominent parliamentarian Butros Harb declared. “There is a big gulf between MPs and Lahoud.” It remains unclear how far Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution will go, but there is no doubt that Lebanese and Syrian officials now realize their actions are not without consequence.

And the wave of accountability is spreading. Yasser Arafat’s death last year sparked renewed Palestinian attention to Palestinian Authority corruption. The new administration allowed Issam Abu Issa, the former chairman of the Palestine International Bank who exposed how Arafat siphoned off millions in aid money, to return from exile in Qatar.

This past April, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered the P.A.’s prosecutor-general to investigate a former top Arafat aide and three senior Finance Ministry officials on embezzlement charges. While such corruption was commonplace within the P.A. throughout the Arafat era, the public mood had changed. The Palestinian public is no longer willing to stomach the worst excesses of its leadership.

Across the Middle East, Arab regimes are coming to realize that they no longer can act with impunity against their own citizens. The Syrian and Libyan governments may, for example, control state media, but plights of dissidents such as Aktham Naisse and Fathi el-Jahmi spread on the Internet and on satellite television.

It wasn’t supposed to be this easy.

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