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.
Not everyone accepted the fairness of the trial. Dozens rallied against it in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. Saddam's daughter Raghd called his trial a "farce." Other Iraqis questioned the necessity of due process for a man whom they believe murdered hundreds of thousands.
Nor were the objections in words only. In March, gunmen ambushed and killed one of the tribunal's judges. And the day after the trial opened, masked men abducted and murdered a co-defendant's lawyer.
Regardless of the coffee house debate, Saddam's insistence that he remain president of Iraq and immune from prosecution rang hollow. Iraqis can purchase for less than a dollar DVDs showing the deliberations of Iraq's Constitutional Drafting Commission. While some Iraqis and many Arabs question the legitimacy of the transitional government, few believe that any return to the past is possible.
Arab Sunni rejectionists campaigned as hard as supporters of the newly drafted constitution prior to the October 15 referendum. Candidates are already positioning themselves for the upcoming elections in December, with some planning grass-roots campaigns and others hiring high-priced campaign consultants.
Accountability has taken root in Iraqi in other ways, too. The fear upon which Saddam's rule and immunity long depended has largely lifted. The Baghdad-based Free Prisoners Association has copied and, in some cases, sold files of executed loved ones to grieving relatives. While Western pundits argue the arbitrariness of purging former Baath Party members from the state bureaucracy, the de-Baathification committee continues its business, painstakingly parsing through Baath Party payroll and secret police documents to separate those complicit in atrocities from those who were mere functionaries.
Iraqi newspapers — not hotel-based American correspondents — broke stories on everything from the United Nation's oil-for-food scandal to the astounding $500 million embezzlement by Hazen al-Shaalan, the American-appointed interim Iraqi defense minister. Just as with the Plamegate scandal that currently engulfs Washington, those exposing the abuses of Saddam's government and the corruption of the interim Iraqi administration are independent journalists driven not only by politics but also by a desire for transparency and rule-of-law.
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. He concluded, "There is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act." Pre-release drafts suggest that Mehlis privately fingered President Bashar Assad's younger brother Maher and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat as being complicit in the murder.
As with the Iraqi Special Tribunal, some in the Arab world may disparage the Mehlis report. Thousands of Syrians rallied in Damascus against the U.N. findings. The Lebanese Hezbollah and Amal militias both condemned the U.N. investigation as based on politics, not on fact. A shadowy pro-Syrian Lebanese group, Jund al-Sham, threatened to kill Mehlis.
But fringe groups and state-sponsored rallies aside, across 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.
Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, director of the regional bureau of Arab states in the U.N. Development Program, told the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat earlier this year that some Arab governments objected to the latest Arab Human Development Report because it highlighted the plight of prominent dissidents who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. To the Arab public, though, such cases remain relevant. In Lebanon, many Shiites still demand that Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi reveal what happened to Musa al-Sadr, an important imam who disappeared while visiting the Libyan leader in 1978.
Accountability may be uncomfortable, but the public is no longer willing to give Arab autocrats a carte blanche.
Last week, a group of Tunisian dissidents including former presidential candidate Nejib Chebbi began a hunger strike to demand freedom of association, freedom of the press and the immediate release of all political prisoners. According to Parti Libéral Méditerranéen spokeswoman Neila Charchour Hachicha, while the Tunisian government shut down her Web site and banned mention of the protest, Al Jazeera reported it for three consecutive days.
Throughout the Arab world, rulers have acted with impunity toward their own populations and their neighbors. But the political atmosphere is shifting.
In 1982, Saddam Hussein thought little of signing execution orders for the citizens of Dujail. Now he waits in prison.
Senior Syrian officials and their Lebanese proxies would not have murdered Hariri had they realized that they would be held to account not only by the international community, but also by the Arab world. Rulers have taken note. Assad freed Aktham Naisse only after the Hariri uproar. Fathi El-Jahmi is still alive only because Gadhafi understands that his death will not pass unnoticed.
Now the ruling elite must worry that an increasingly free and frisky press might question their corruption. True democracy is still a distant dream in much of the region, but the ground rules are shifting.
Michael Rubin, a former political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.