Friday, September 7, 2012

Punishing the men of winter

The decision of the Mauritanian authorities to extradite to Libya Abdullah Senussi, the intelligence chief under Moammar Qaddafi, represents another essential moment in the Arab uprisings.

Senussi, Qaddafi’s brother in law, was a markedly brutal face of the former Libyan regime. Last year he was one of those indicted by the International Criminal Court while the Libyan conflict was raging, although the Libyan authorities have insisted that he and Qaddafi’s imprisoned son, Seif al-Islam, must be tried in Libya. 

The so-called “Arab Spring” is about many things, but above all it is about ending the predatory dominance of intelligence and security agencies. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria, the shared aim of the protesters was and is to be rid of the unaccountable organs of repression deployed by carnivorous regimes. The success of these revolts will be defined by whether the current orders in each country impose the rule of law on security and intelligence agencies.

Senussi’s return to Tripoli, as significant as it is, may become meaningless if the Libyan authorities botch his trial. It is reasonable for the Libyans to want him and Seif al-Islam to stand before a Libyan court rather than an international one. Yet the potential pitfalls are many, not least the urge to use the judiciary solely to exact revenge on the accused; but also, and more perniciously, to precipitate a possible execution to silence the two men, avoiding embarrassment to those in the new Libya who might have skeletons in the closet of the old Libya.

The trial of Saddam Hussein personified the first worry. No one had ever doubted the criminal, even genocidal, nature of the Baathists in Baghdad. And yet the muddled way Saddam was tried, sentenced and hanged played against those who were in the right. The court, in wanting simply to establish a pretext to kill Saddam relatively quickly, focused on some of his crimes but not on the vast majority of them, or even the more serious ones. This effectively meant that most of his victims were afforded little of the recognition they merited.

The trials of onetime regime insiders provide an opportunity to deconstruct, therefore to dismantle, what existed before. They allow a new leadership to expose previous networks of intimidation and patronage, to uncover what made a repressive regime tick and retain power. Such initiatives are a necessary glimpse into the abyss, to better guard against the revival of foul systems in the future.

The difficulty, however, is that authoritarian regimes often tend to reflect the societies they subjugated in ways that are rather too uncomfortable to recall. The matter of guilt is rarely black and white. This was a principal lesson that several of the countries of Eastern Europe learned when they overthrew Communist systems and embarked on post-Communist reckonings and purges. Autocrats last because too many of their countrymen are willing to adapt to them.

That is the message, anyway, from the countries in which leaders were overthrown last year—and from Syria, which is still doing so today. Quite what the last straw was remains unclear, after Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and Syrians had previously accepted insufferable bullying and humiliation for decades on end. That is why to shine a light on past repression quite frequently means shining a light on the readiness of a society to look the other way on such repression.

This makes us fearful for the trial of Abdullah Senussi and Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, and partly explains why the trial of former senior political figures and security officials in Egypt was a disappointment. In Libya, there may be those who served Qaddafi who have no desire to see their crimes or misdemeanors pushed out into the open. There are perhaps also many Libyans who fear that if the dark side of the dictatorship is revealed, it may hinder reconciliation today.

This philosophy underlined Lebanon’s approach to postwar reconstruction: Don’t punish the guilty, don’t rock the boat, and don’t create unnecessary new divisions among the Lebanese. It wasn’t quite about whitewashing a dictatorship; it was about whitewashing the deeds of myriad small dictators. And, given the complex makeup of Lebanese society, the choice was, paradoxically, both inadequate and necessary, for there was no way to punish all the communal leaders without risking new sectarian conflagrations.

What happens in Libya will be a fresh test for the ability of Arab societies to transform themselves into democratic entities. But there is more to this than a trial. Egypt may have failed to properly sanction its former security chiefs, but the early days of President Muhammad Mursi suggest that the struggle between civilian and military rule will be a long one, with the advantage shifting back and forth, even as a struggle over the nature of civilian rule takes place in parallel.

Abdullah Senussi’s return means something, amid growing worries that the Arab Spring has become an Arab winter. And yet when the men of winter are detained and forced into the dock, that’s a good thing, assuming governments know how to make the most of it.

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