15 NOVEMBER 2011


Whether found in a sewage pipe, a well, or on a stretcher, at their end all the autocrats asked the same question in a different accent: from "Shinu Fi" by Saddam Hussein to "Shinu Sayer" by Muammar Qaddafi.

Those who ruled for decades by intervening in the private lives of their citizens end up pretending they had no clue. Tunisian dictator Bin Ali, a former police chief who made it his business to trace everyone's activities, appeared on official television to tell his people in colloquial slang: "Now I understand you." Only now!

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is still hanging on after 36 years, continues pretending he doesn't know what's it all about. First he blames Al-Qaeda, then he blames Americans, then he apologizes to the White House and blames Islamists -- always promising publicly to leave once he understands clearly what the public demands are.

Big powers seem to have the same problem. Taken by surprise after decades of accommodating -- and using -- dictators in the region, they don't know where to go. One step at a time, backward, forward, sideways -- any way their latest "expert" advises. One time it is stability, then democracy and human rights, then it is selective in some countries but not others -- depending upon where the oil money and strategic interests happen to appear or disappear.

For years after 9/11 we were told to beware of militant Islamists, not only in the U.S. but around the globe. Now we are told it would be fine if the Moslem Brotherhood won in Egypt (but not Hamas in Gaza although they are actually part of the Egyptian group). Al-Qaeda allies were investigated, interrogated, and farmed out to oppressive security agencies in third world countries. Now they are leading military rebellions, supported by Western countries. Now we are told by those governments that their former suspects were not in fact Al-Qaeda allies, but fellow travelers at a certain time.

While a new disorder is replacing an old order, the absence of enlightened statesmen is leading to a hurried handling of unexpected events, including a rush to make deals which seem practical, but end up creating worse situations. Atrocities are atrocities. They are not acceptable and not qualified, whether in Libya after Qaddafi, Yemen with or without Saleh, Bahrain by Sunni or Shia, Syria by mobs or police, Egypt by Security services or mobs.

There are reports that deals and counter-deals are being rushed through back-channels by professional opportunists or even honest brokers. These will inevitably lead to further confusion. If the purpose is to encourage democratic, accountable, free systems, the most effective manner is an open one. Reasons of state may dictate certain accommodation. However, the clearer the explanation, the better for all concerned. Unless, of course, the strategic policy is to keep a disorderly situation with everyone guessing what is really going on. In such cases, politicians review their calculations and innocent people pay the price.