Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

False Accounting

Hillary Clinton told Arab leaders to clean house last week, encouraging an age of accountability. But until the Arab world has democratic institutions and an engaged populace, her words may be meaningless.

Print Email
Hillary Clinton at a breakfast in Doha, Qatar, last week. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Middle East, reality always overtakes rhetoric in the end—whether that rhetoric comes from an Arab president on the official government TV station, a preacher in the pulpit, or an American diplomat with a microphone. Take, for instance, last week, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood up in Doha, Qatar, and told the Arab leaders gathered for a conference on democracy that they need to get their house in order. “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order,” Clinton said. “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever.”

If it weren’t for the historic events in Tunisia—where for the first time in Arab history a people rose up to send their ruler packing—people in Rabat, Morocco, where I’m traveling for the next week, and throughout the region would still be talking about Clinton’s speech. What made it surprisingly welcome is that, up until last Thursday, the Obama Administration had been putting as much distance as possible between itself and President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.” It wasn’t clear whether President Barack Obama believes that democracy promotion is likely to destabilize the repressive and volatile political systems of the Arab world—and that the survival of those regimes would be in America’s best interest—or if he was just following an anything-but-Bush handbook.

But Clinton picked up the gauntlet and laid it at the feet of Arab regimes, timed perfectly to herald an age of Arab accountability: Right after the Tunisians deposed their president-for-life, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, sealed indictments were handed down in the United Nations investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and while the names are yet to be revealed, the indictments are expected to identify Hezbollah members as well as government officials of its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution is the culmination of demonstrations that started with the self-immolation of a produce vendor in Sidi Bouzid after his goods were confiscated. Other suicides followed, accompanied by widespread protests against the lack of jobs, housing, freedom of speech, and food price inflation and corruption. Police and security forces shot and killed demonstrators, but when the army refused to turn on their countrymen, Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia last Friday, leaving Tunisia without a government and Tunisians elated with the rarest of achievements: vanquishing an Arab strongman.

In the days following Ben Ali’s exit, the Tunisian army skirmished with security forces still loyal to the ousted president. One hopes the military can now serve as the guarantor of a more or less peaceful transition as Tunisia takes its first steps toward a more democratic political culture. The more pessimistic interpretation is that the stark image of city streets vacant of any human beings except those who are armed to the teeth is a living tableau of Middle Eastern political culture. Here the masses are merely props to be chewed up and tossed away, and the real action is nothing but security chiefs and generals in a fight to the death.

That is to say, as thrilling as it is to see a people take its own destiny in its hands, there is reason to be concerned—for Tunisians and for the rest of the region, where protests seem to be gathering momentum. Algeria, Egypt, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania have already reported cases of self-immolation—an ostensibly selfless and heroic gesture that is unfortunately reminiscent of one of the Middle East’s more popular forms of political expression: the suicide bombing. Something is happening in the region—in fact, has been happening for some time—that is simply not going to be solved with the downfall of one dictator.


Which is why it’s not surprising that the Moroccans I’ve met here, on a trip sponsored by the Moroccan American Center for Policy, do not share the excitement with which the Jasmine Revolution has been received in many corners of the U.S. policy establishment. Some of the Moroccan diplomats, human rights activists, and parliamentarians I’ve spoken to even believe that Obama’s carefully modulated statement on Tunisia was too enthusiastic, given that no one has any idea yet whether democrats or Islamists or the army will wind up in power, and what the consequences will be.

Because many of these Moroccan officials are close in one way or another to the ruling regime, it is reasonable to interpret their vivid worries about “security”—all couched in terms articulating brotherly concerns and hopes for the citizens of another Maghreb state—as the fears of a ruling order imagining a bad end for itself. However, while it is important to understand the worries of any elite class in terms of its own self-interest, it is also foolish to discount the misgivings of those who actually have experience in Arab politics and governing Arab people.

From here in the region, it is perhaps easier to see the fundamental problems with Clinton’s welcome brand of Western-style honesty. For instance, what she calls “corruption” is just one family or tribe advancing the interests of its own clique while shutting out the others. Corruption as such is standard operating procedure in the Middle East. Only a lunatic, or an American public official, would give money to an armed gang with uncertain loyalties.

In Doha, Clinton argued that “[i]t is important to demonstrate that there is rule of law, good governance, and respect for contracts to create an investment climate that attracts businesses and keeps them there.” The problem here is that this isn’t necessarily true—a fact borne out by Ben Ali’s Tunisia. The regime was corrupt to the core—Ben Ali’s wife’s family had a hand in virtually every business venture in the country—but the country’s pro-business climate and liberalized economy won praises from all corners, including the IMF. Good governance then had nothing to do with building Tunisia’s economy or creating the country’s middle class, for it was all crafted by the heavy hand of a dictator.

“If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum”—namely, “extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey off desperation and poverty,” Clinton warned her audience in Doha. Alas, this isn’t true either. Visitors to the police state that Ben Ali ruled admired the country’s relatively open atmosphere—open, except for political dissent—but its secularism, educational system, and the relative freedom of women, had very little to do with a positive vision. Rather, it was all engendered by the single-minded obsession of a tyrant who perceived, perhaps rightly, that the country’s Islamist movement constituted his most serious and best-organized opposition. It is the fact that Ben Ali thoroughly repressed the Islamists and eradicated any evidence of their potent symbols and discourse that gave Tunisia’s its left-bank flair.

What is more depressing is that while we believe poverty, hopelessness, and despair may pave the way for extremist elements and terrorist groups, we know that democracy has empowered them where repression sidelines them. Even avid Bush partisans cannot ignore the fact that the gospel of democratization propagated by Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, during the president’s second term helped bring Hamas to power in Gaza and strengthened Hezbollah’s hand in Lebanon.

There is a reason why a famous Arab dictum has it that 100 years of tyranny is preferable to one day of chaos. It is meant to remind us of the nature of man, the political animal, who cannot foresee the consequences of his actions. The Arabs’ ancients would have been right to fear how an uprising that began in a suicide might end. If this saying is frequently held up as an example of Arab timidity, the same might be said of any society, and the fact is that the Arabs have stood up before and will invariably do so again. Still, it is unlikely that the uprising in Tunisia will serve as a model for the rest of the region. The Tunisian middle class succeeded where, for example, the Iranians failed in June 2009 only because the divisions in Ben Ali’s security apparatus were decisive. Presumably, rulers around their region right now are worried less about crowds in the street than about whether their intelligence officials are happy with their latest paycheck.

Moreover, it is unseemly for Americans to gloat about the fate of Arab regimes when the real issue is Arab people, like those getting shot in the streets of Tunisian cities or setting themselves on fire in Cairo. Their problems are not going to be solved with the exit of one Arab dictator—or even the whole pack of them, from Riyadh to Algiers. What’s wrong with Arab reform is that in most cases the institutions that need to be fixed do not yet exist—a fact that makes the content, though perhaps not the rhetoric, of Clinton’s speech no less irrelevant to Arab reality than the high-flown language of democracy favored by Condoleezza Rice. If there is a formula to fix what’s wrong with the region, no one has it.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

I can tell you in one word what is wrong with the Arab regimes, something they all have in common: Islam. A strong belief in Islam is incompatible with governing a modern country.

Let me see if I can tell the difference between a dictator/monarch who tolerates domestic extremists plotting against Israel OR an elected government who promotes intolerance of Israel as a distraction from domestic issues… No, I can’t.

Essentially Lee Smith is right here – there does not yet exist the institutions or apparatus to reform in order to create modern tolerant and prosperous neighbours for Israel.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words were important and very clear. This was not a message of subtlety but a message intended for those countries who cling to the outworn ideas of their ancient past.

Unlike the Bush approach, Hillary’s was on the issue of accountability. I think the point is that these governments, repressive or not, must begin to build the institutions that will help them to develop their economies, build a middle class and to avoid extremism.

If we use the example of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, it is a monarchy that embodies much of what Hillary had to say. It has a solid body of civil law, as well as Sha’ria. It has built the institutions necessary to construct a solid (not oil-based) economy, a large middle class, good educational systems and excellent social services. Moreover, it has an excellent body of secular law, though Sha’ria is also available with consent of the monarch in special cases.

Dubai also does something else that Israel would do well to consider. The only people in Dubai who are citizens and can have Dubai passports are those who are born into the indigenous “tribe” of original citizens. In other words, immigrants do not become citizens, though they may become residents. In Israel, this would equate to only Jews being citizens, although anyone else could be a legal resident. Coincidentally, there is a fair amount of religious freedom in Dubai, as well, which is guaranteed by law.

In any case, Dubai is the shining example of what an Arab state CAN be, while still maintaining its status as a semi-autocratic monarchy. Democracy is not necessary to good order, good government, a strong economy or the development of a middle class.

I beg to differ. Dubai, like the other Gulf states is a pseudo country. The only ones who perform actual work there are the foreign guest workers who in fact outnumber the citizens. If this is the best that the Arab world can come up with, then they really are in bad shape.

Michael says:

I really can’t imagine why there was a revolt in Tunisia, given the never-ending mantras of Clinton, Obama, the EU, the UN, the Arab League, and almost all ‘progressive’ governments: The root of all problems in the Mid East is the Arab Israel conflict. Fix that, at Israel’s expense of course, and all will be well.

I do hope someone sets the rest of the world straight, but I’m not very hopeful.

Martin K says:

“one of the Middle East’s more popular forms of political expression: the suicide bombing”

WTF? This is so bigoted that its unbelievable. Does Smith think that the terrorists in Pakistan are popular? That AQI are popular? Does he think that political life in arab states are dominated by suicide bombs? This is so bigoted, its like saying that one of the most popular jewish expressions of politics is the killing of civilians.

Imposing democracy is an oxymoron so the only way to help other countries to choose the right path is to promote democracy in a number of possible ways. I think the majority of people are better off if they live under a democratic system.

How can non moral Islamic people be attracted to morality? G-d only knows.
And if the USA is now a picture of democracy I don’t think that anyone should be attracted to it. I do agree at the level of a moral people having ability to govern we are better off.
When the world pushes Israel not to defend it’s self against continual war, the world is out of balance.
Those outworn ideas of the past should be focused on to improve them. To apply them to the present.There are No changes as evil combats good. Now what the people are doing is to exchange definitions so as to accept the unacceptable.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

Did I miss any column concerning no comment from our Pres. Obama condemning a Palestinian Flag hung on it’s mission when there is no such state?

Silence is acquiescence.

I’ve said that least 3869058 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Cheers for this kind of material I had been looking all Google in order to locate it!

Hiya, have you by chance pondered to create concerning Nintendo or PS handheld?

Rafael says:

I reccomend everyone see the Buceta da Valesca. nice!

Great – I should definitely pronounce, impressed with your site. I had no trouble navigating through all tabs as well as related information ended up being truly simple to do to access. I recently found what I hoped for before you know it at all. Quite unusual. Is likely to appreciate it for those who add forums or anything, website theme . a tones way for your client to communicate. Excellent task..


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

False Accounting

Hillary Clinton told Arab leaders to clean house last week, encouraging an age of accountability. But until the Arab world has democratic institutions and an engaged populace, her words may be meaningless.

More on Tablet:

Rediscovering the First Woman Rabbi

By Laura Geller — Ordained in 1935, Regina Jonas died at Auschwitz. Now, she’s being honored.