LONDON (Reuters) - The wisdom of Western counter-terrorism links to Arab leaders with poor human rights records is under fresh scrutiny after the ousting in Tunisia of a president who portrayed himself as a bulwark against al Qaeda.
Democracy campaigners in the Middle East have long criticized the West for heightening cooperation with Arab security services after the Sept 11. 2001 attacks, saying the implicit price exacted by Arab rulers was muted Western criticism of often venal and brutal rule.
The West’s perceived willingness to compromise democratic values for the sake of intelligence on Islamist militants has fueled a resentment in the Arab world that is exploited by opposition groups as well as al Qaeda, analysts say.
Civil society groups say that governments friendly toward the United States and Western European nations are some of the most dogged opponents of democracy, repressing peaceful Islamist groups which seek power through democratic elections.
Arab leaders have learned that the price for ignoring Western lectures on human rights has been slight.
Francis Ghiles, Senior Research Fellow at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs, told Reuters that while no one expected an early or dramatic change in Western security policy, new thinking was urgently needed.
“We have to get this idiotic analysis out of our minds, that its ‘either repression or al Qaeda’,” he said.
“The mantra of the battle against Islamist terrorism has meant that, even more than we used to, we have closed our eyes in the last 10 years to what these rulers are up to.”
A stable transition to representative rule in Tunisia following the removal of Zine al Abidine Ben Ali could act as a “laboratory” for Arab political renewal, Ghiles said, offering a powerful example of change that might eventually prompt the West to be more assertive about promoting human rights.
In the end, it was not the armed militants of al Qaeda or peaceful political Islamists who ended Ben Ali’s rule, but ordinary people protesting against poverty and despotism.
To expect these facts about Tunisia’s revolt to inspire any early change in Western security policy toward the region “is wishful thinking,” said Larbi Sadiki, Senior Lecturer in Middle East politics at Exeter University, but it was important to recognize there were risks in the status quo.
“Western security discourse is like a broken record and we have to transcend it. Brutality and cruelty by Arab leaders are a huge moral liability for the West,” he said.
Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at University of Michigan, said Tunisia was a reminder that “acquiescence in, and even support of, tyranny, torture, etc., can badly backfire, as happened in (revolutionary) Iran in 1978-79.”
The disarray in Western policy was on stark display this week when France refused Ben Ali refuge, a remarkable reversal by a French administration that, like many of its predecessors, had been an admirer of Tunisia’s veteran strongman ruler.
The mood was very different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Tunisia in April 2008 and gave a speech dismissing concerns over Tunisia’s human rights record. He portrayed Ben Ali’s counter-terrorism efforts as a shield against the emergence of a “Taliban-type” regime in north Africa.
“Who could believe that if tomorrow, or after tomorrow, a Taliban type regime was established in one of your countries in north Africa, that Europe and France could feel secure? I call on everyone to reflect on that,” he said.
Michael Willis, lecturer in North African politics at Oxford University, said France was “undoubtedly the Worst” in indulging Ben Ali’s rule, but many other Western nations were complicit.
A speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Qatar on January 13 pressing for better government in the region has been seen by some analysts as evidence that a rebalancing of U.S. priorities in the region was on the cards.
Clinton said states across the Middle East needed to shake up corrupt institutions and reinvigorate stagnant political systems or risk losing the future to Islamic militants.
But Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush., said he did not expect a wholesale reassessment of security links to Arab states “because the terrorism threat is still so current and urgent.”
Western governments had to balance short term tactical imperatives like cooperation against al Qaeda versus the long term policy goals of pushing socio-political reforms.
“The U.S. wants both, but the ‘here and now’ terrorism concerns often trump other policy priorities,” he said.
Geoff Porter, an independent U.S. specialist on north Africa, said he actually expected a toughening, not a weakening, of existing U.S. and European security ties to Arab states.
“The U.S. and European Union will likely say the potential fragility of these governments demonstrates the need to be extra vigilant against the threat of violent extremism,” he said.
He said he expected them to seize on a statement by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in support of the Tunisian protests as evidence of a risk posted by Osama bin Laden’s group.
But political analysts say al Qaeda’s paramilitary gangs have negligible support, and in any case seek to establish Islamic rule not by politics but by violence. In contrast, peaceful Islamist groups that are banned or proscribed in the region are believed to have considerable popular backing.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul