Prosecuting tyranny in the Arab world

In the wake of the Arab Spring, not one Arab dictator has faced charges for creating a police state and inducing terror among citizens. Similarly, none has been prosecuted for destroying state institutions, the essentials of citizenship, or the means of social advancement. Analysis by Shafiq Nazim Ghabra

Essay by Shafeeq Ghabra

A series of trials have taken place of Arab leaders who were overthrown by social movements and their demands for freedom and political reform in the Arab Spring. If we take a closer look at these trials and at their historical significance and impact on Arab countries, we can conclude that they did not deal fully with the injustices of despotic rule and with the crimes which accompanied that era.

The court cases began before the Arab Spring with the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and then after it with the trial of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and more recently with the trials of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and the leading figures in Bouteflika’s regime in Algeria, including his brother. However, these trials did not address the major grievances which accumulated in the modern Arab autocratic era.

In the past, for example, Saddam Hussein was tried for the killing of a number of people in one particular area of Iraq, whilst Omar al-Bashir is now on trial for the huge funds which he either acquired or which were transferred to him from the public treasury or from other Arab countries.

The Arab dictators have not been prosecuted for "breach of trust" or "betrayal of the confidence placed in them by the people"; nor have they been tried for "abuse of power", for the wars they provoked, the executions they ordered, or for the hasty and reckless decisions they made.

No Arab dictator has been tried for creating a police state and instilling terror and fear in its citizens; nor have any of them been called to account for demolishing the structure of society, for turning brother against brother, son against father, or brother against sister.


Indeed, they haven’t faced any charges for turning their societies into places devoid of soul, ambition and any sense of human dignity. The Arab tyrants made every young man and woman dream of emigrating and fleeing these failed states and ossified regimes.


Saddam’s execution was more about revenge than due process


The trial of Saddam Hussein after 2003 should have encompassed the misuse of power after he waged war after war from Iran to Kuwait. Indeed, he should have been tried for mass murder in the uprising in 1991 and for not saving Iraq from one disaster after another, culminating in its capitulation under U.S. occupation.


Saddam should have been tried for his crimes against his comrades and his friends, as well as against the cream of Iraq, both in and outside the Ba’ath Party. He should also have been prosecuted for the crimes he carried out against the Kurds, the Shia and against his many Sunni opponents. His execution after a show trial was not a wise decision; it was more about revenge than a proper trial to lay bare the true face of tyranny.In contrast, there is the lawsuit against former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, which should have encompassed the whole period of his rule, starting with the military coup he carried out against a democratically elected government in 1989, through the human rights violations, his responsibility for the loss of South Sudan, for the collapse of the state, for the civil wars and for the massacres carried out by militias he created.


We should not forget that, since 2009, al-Bashir has been facing charges brought by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity because of his army’s war in Darfur.


Where did all the poverty come from?


At the same time, the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak should not have focussed solely on a single issue; what was actually needed was a hearing about his whole rule, with all its transgressions and corruption.


Don’t the questions about the acquisition of personal wealth and succession in a republic merit a fair and full hearing? What about the turning of Egypt into a police state?

What about the systematic human rights violations committed by its security services? What about the brutal murder of the blogger Khaled Said who subsequently became the icon of the revolution?


We wonder where the poverty in Egypt comes from. If the regime is not responsible for its spread, is the international aid system or unemployment?



For instance, who was responsible during Mubarak’s rule, for the imprisonment of Karim Amer and for the psychological torture which he suffered in Egypt’s prisons for 3 years beginning in 2006? And why were Amer and dozens of others charged with "insulting the president", as well as facing trumped up charges relating to Islam?


The abuse and ill-treatment in prison knew no boundaries, and Amer later wrote about the prison officer who assaulted him and kept him locked up. Where is Amer today and what became of the victims of these brutal regimes?


A few days ago I watched a documentary made by Amer after he quit Egypt and the Arab world for Europe. What Arab rulers don’t realize is how the grievances, and what is behind them, stretch across the globe. Moreover, they linger and fester because they have never been addressed.


How can we get rid of a tyrant, if we don’t call him to account based on what we know are his duties, role and responsibilities towards his people? Without a trial of his actions, tyranny will return in a new form and shape, and it will take with it the rest of the Arab world.


One of the most dangerous and complex issues in the region is the relationship between the people and the state. The state was and continues to be a means of enrichment, repression, subjugation and corruption. This does not mean that the state and the political system have made no advances, but these developments result from the intersection of interests, not because of society’s goals or the advancement of its people.


Indeed, the real charge against the Arab despots is that they destroyed their peoples and their states. This does not mean that we should lock up all our presidents as some want; nor does it mean taking them out, as happened to Muammar Gaddafi, or executing them in Saddam’s case.


That kind of revenge won’t bring an end to tyranny. Rather, it is more important that we should hold to account the whole era, including all its symbols, its culture and its ugliness, in order to build a state which will end tyranny and the malaise it brings with it.


Arabs today are on a quest for serious reform and comprehensive transformation so that they emerge from this pit into which the tyrants have sealed them.


Shafiq Ghabra


© 2019


Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton


Shafiq Nazim al-Ghabra is a well-known political analyst and Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University.