The US alliance with repressive Middle East regimes is becoming more and more problematic. The dissonance between striking a blow for freedom, as the war on terror purports to do, and aligning with countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, where democracy remains a fleeting idea, is too great to ignore.
During the Cold War, the United States made Machiavellian bargains by lining up with repressive regimes to further its cause: Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet of Chile. Critics of these policies were marginalized as idealistic lefties or dreamy liberals. It’s not so easy to dismiss such concerns today. Not when conservatives are among those demanding an end to the easy hypocrisy of "coalition building": the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal have been a consistent voice for democracy in the Middle East and the National Review’s Rich Lowry recently summed up the "contemporary Middle Eastern model of governance" this way: "[o]ne ethnic or religious faction brutalizes all others."
The Bush administration is listening. It stopped aid payments to Egypt to protest a quickie "trial" of democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim during which he was sentenced to seven years’ hard labor. And it has rightly received credit for championing Ibrahim’s case.
But what are we to make of the administration’s silence on the case of the "Cairo 52"? In May, 2001, about 55 men were arrested in Cairo when Egyptian police raided a gay disco. Fifty-two of them were charged with obscene behavior. Some of the men were tortured after their arrests; none were released from jail until their trial. The case received lots of attention. Thirty members of the German Bundestag sent a letter to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek protesting the trial, as did 35 members of the US Congress. (Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank was a co-author of the letter; James McGovern, William Delahunt, and John Tierney of the Massachusetts delegation also signed.) Two of the defendants were sentenced to five years of hard labor; 21 were convicted of "habitual practice of debauchery" but received no sentence when the Egyptian government, under international scrutiny, made a show of leniency. The rest of the defendants were acquitted. Now that the international community is no longer paying attention, the Egyptian government is hauling all of the men — save the two currently doing hard labor — back into court for a new trial. But the Bush administration hasn’t made a peep about this case.
The plight of the "Cairo 52" is just one example of the myriad human-rights abuses that occur under these regimes, our supposed allies in a war against terrorism. But the Bush administration seems to be steering as far away as it can from having to criticize any of its Middle Eastern allies on the basis of "religious" beliefs. (The Taliban was easy prey.) The Ibrahim case was clearly chosen for its democracy story line. But the longer the White House remains silent as, in Lowry’s words, the reigning religious faction "brutalizes all others," the Ibrahim decision will seem less like a principled stand and more like good PR. Human rights apply to all humans, not just to some.
Two months ago, this newspaper was at the center of a national controversy when it chose to link to and publish images from the video of Daniel Pearl’s brutal murder at the hands of a radical Muslim group dedicated to the demise of "infidels" — namely Jews and US citizens. (See "Witness To An Execution," News and Features, June 13). Our motive for doing so was clear: the gruesome images of Pearl’s death are newsworthy. Critics, of which there were many in the media, charged otherwise: Pearl’s murder was old news. Descriptions of what was on the video were enough to convey the gruesome method by which Pearl was killed. We didn’t learn anything new from the video. The Phoenix was making the information available for profit. (A specious charge given that we give our paper away for free and publish all of our content at www.bostonphoenix.com.)
This past weekend, CNN began airing clips from 61 videotapes the network obtained from an Afghani source for $30,000. The tapes show Al Queda operatives practicing kidnap techniques, making explosives, operating surface-to-air missiles, and suffocating three dogs to death with what seems to be nerve gas. Where are the media ethicists now that the network is aggressively promoting these videos and airing them under the title "Terror on Tape"? After all, the tapes are at least four years old. Written or verbal descriptions of the tapes could tell us what’s on them. And they don’t tell us anything new about Al Queda, as Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman confirms to USA Today: "We don’t need pictures to know what al-Qaeda’s desires are." Oh, and CNN will let you see the tapes, but first you have to pay for a subscription.
The truth of the matter is that the CNN tapes are newsworthy. They are shocking images of war. As is the Pearl-execution video. The media may not want to hear this, but the Pearl video wasn’t aired and its images were not reprinted because it depicted the horrific death of one of its own, a staffer for the Wall Street Journal.
This past weekend, the Superbowl champion New England Patriots made their debut in Gillette Stadium. By all accounts, the field is a gem. Kudos to Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who, after flirting with the possibility of building in Boston on the waterfront (but was spurned by the mayor and the powerful pols of South Boston) or in Hartford Connecticut (where the people and pols were ready to pay the whole freight), Kraft stayed where he was and built a state-of-the-art facility with virtually all of his own money. (The state did pay for some infrastructure improvements.) There are others in town who could learn from his example.
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