The Magazine

Autumn of the Arab Patriarchs?

Not all Middle Eastern unrest is alike.

Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By LEE SMITH
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Nonetheless, Bourguiba fell in a coup to Ben Ali, whose family ties were nothing next to those of his wife Leila, who effectively allowed her Trabelsi clan to rob the country blind. “For the last 15 years Tunisia has been run by a kleptocracy,” says Pham. “The Trabelsis drove out anyone wanting to invest in the country, and this prevented sustained economic growth.” The inability of educated Tunisians to find jobs was a big factor in touching off the demonstrations. But more important, what toppled Ben Ali was the fact that the Trabelsis had stolen the military’s nest egg. “For the army, there was no longer any financial reward after their service,” says Pham. Their opportunities for modest participation in commerce and contracting had been gradually taken over by the dictator’s in-laws. “When Ben Ali called in the army’s chief of staff Rachid Ammar to fire him, Ammar told him, ‘No, you’re the one who’s going.’ ”

While it’s true that pan-Arab satellite TV is apt to inspire revolutionary dreams around the region, the Arabic-speaking Middle East doesn’t lend itself to the domino effect. The regimes are not linked but rather ranged against each other, each doing its utmost to destabilize its adversaries. This is why the emir of Qatar uses his Al Jazeera TV network against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It’s why in the past Amman supported the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Damascus backed the Jordanian branch. And it’s why the Algerians continue to support the Polisario—to destabilize and frustrate neighboring Morocco.

Ever since Spain relinquished the Western Sahara in 1975, the Polisario Front, a Marxist revolutionary separatist group backed by Algeria and Cuba and once supported by former Soviet bloc states, has contested the territory that Morocco says is rightly its own. A 1991 cease-fire brokered by the U.N. brought an end to the fighting, and in 2007 Rabat drafted a compromise political solution that would grant the region a broad autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. The Moroccans would like the international community, led by the United States, to help resolve the issue, the top priority in Rabat’s foreign policy, but there is little will to do so, even as Washington has publicly endorsed the proposal. The Western Sahara issue shows once again that the benefits of being a solid U.S. ally like Morocco are not always clear, and that it can be easier to get Washington’s attention by acting up than by acting responsibly.

In the meantime, the Moroccans are building housing in Saharan cities like Dakhla to encourage refugees to leave the Polisario’s camps and come home. Families have been separated for three decades. The conditions in the camps are inhuman, explained one former Moroccan captive, 42-year-old Mohamed Cherif. “I was chained for five years in a hole dug in the earth,” says Cherif. “Often the Algerians and the Polisario would take the blood of Moroccan POWs to sell it.” And for all that he’s seen, says Cherif, “I still can’t understand why anyone would light themselves on fire. These lives are precious.”

Lee Smith is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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