The West Must Work With Dictators

The uprisings in the Arab world have prompted much hand-wringing among Europeans, who worry that the West has been too lenient with the region’s autocrats. Sometimes, however, tolerating dictators is very much in the West’s best interest.

The popular movements in the Arab world have generated surprisingly little political resonance in the streets of European capitals. There have been no significant expressions of sympathy for the demonstrators, and no angry protests in front of the embassies of those Arab countries where police and security services have shot regime opponents or beaten them to death.

Given the dramatic changes that have taken place in Tunisia and Egypt within only a few weeks, the normally opinionated European left is paralyzed from shock, while the reaction of European civil society consists primarily in moral self-doubt over whether our own governments have perhaps been too closely aligned with dictators on the southern shores of the Mediterranean who acted as the guarantors of stability in their countries. North Africa has been gripped by a wave of self-liberation, but instead of enthusiasm we show, at best, sympathy. Mainly, however, it is melancholy self-doubt that is on display.

It was a different story more than three decades ago, when a popular uprising in Iran toppled, after bloody fighting, the shah’s regime and destroyed the power of the secret police. There were demonstrations in major Western European cities, and when the shah and his closest entourage fled from Tehran, it was celebrated as a sign of a victory by the common people. While the Americans, with the hostage crisis at their embassy, may see the Iranian trauma as a rescue attempt gone horribly wrong, the disappointed hope that the Iranian revolution would trigger a surge of democracy in the Near East and Middle East played a greater role in Europe. After initially downplaying the influence of the mullahs, Europeans turned away in frustration once it was no longer possible to overlook the repressive character of the mullah-controlled regime.

In Europe, the course of the Iranian revolution left behind a deep-seated mistrust of popular movements in the Muslim world. Europeans chose to take a wait-and-see approach, fearing that the Islamists could gain the upper hand in an uprising. Under the influence of such views, Europeans came to value the peace and stability guaranteed by pro-Western autocrats.

The melancholy self-doubts that are now taking shape are amplified by the images of European leaders cozying up to the region’s dictators, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Were the Europeans too lenient toward these regimes, merely because the rulers wore civilian clothing and donned a pseudo-democratic cloak by holding occasional elections? Had they been bullied by the threat that Islamism was the only alternative to the dictators’ regimes? Did they make moral concessions that have now proved to be embarrassing? Should they have been more insistent in calling for adherence to the principles of human rights, and should they have established closer contact with opposition groups?

Complete story via Spiegel

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