Pro-Western Arab Autocrats Alienate Potential Wartime Allies

The Wall Street Journal

TUNIS Tunisia—Mokhtar Yahyaoui played an important role in quashing Tuni-sia’s Islamist opposition groups when he served as a prosecutor 10 years ago. But now, like many other secular Tunisians who had supported the crackdown on radi-cal Islam, he thinks that the government it-self is turning into a bigger threat.
“In the past, the other political cur-rents didn’t want to help the Islamists, viewing them as more dangerous than the regime. So the regime followed up by de-stroying everyone else and confiscating all power,’ says Mr. Yahyaoui, who was dismissed from his magistrate’s job after he criticized Tunisia’s lack of judicial inde-pendence last year. Today, as part of a fledgling opposition to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Mr Yahyaoui is openly co-operating with the Islamists he once dis-patched to jail.
This political transformation under-scores the dilemma that Western govern-ments face when dealing with friendly autocratic regimes in the Arab world, be it in Tunisia, Egypt or, to a lesser extent, countries like Morocco and Jordan. As these pro-Western rulers clamp down on human rights and democratic freedoms, members of the secular and well-edu-cated elites who should have been natu-ral allies of the West increasingly find themselves pushed into unholy alliances with fundamentalist Islam.
The dangers are obvious. While no Arab regime is in imminent peril of being overthrown, it is this kind of alliance with secularist left-wingers and pro—democracy activists that allowed Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters to overthrow the Shah in Iran’s Islamic revolution 23 years ago. Now, a similar marriage of conve-nience also deprives the West of potentially valuable Muslim allies in the global war on terrorist groups linked with al Qaeda.
Lately, the region’s Islamists and sec-ularist dissidents were pushed even closer together by feelings of outrage over Israel’s military offensive in the West Bank—an offensive that al Qaeda used to justify its first major attack in recent months, the April suicide bombing that killed 19 people at a southern Tuni-sian synagogue. This blast happened just as in Israel secular militias like the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades joined the suicide bombing campaign originally unleashed by fundamentalist groups llamas and Is-lamic Jihad.
Things are changing in Egypt, the biggest Arab nation. Government repression had broken up previous attempts to co-ordinate opposition activities by the Mus-lim Brotherhood, the officially nonviolent but nevertheless outlawed fundamentalist network, and the leftist foes of President Hosni Mubarak. Now, this kind of coordina-tion has re-emerged- "on the issue of the struggle of the Arab nation against the Is-raeli enemy,” says Essam El Aryen, one of the Brotherhood’s leaders. ‘There is a lot of smoke and a threat of explosion all over the region,” he says. “So all the options are open now.”
Still, this alliance between Istamist and secularist dissidents is probably most visible in Tunisia, a relatively prosperous North African country far away from the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed. In part, it’s the government’s own doing. Mr. Ben Ali who promised democratic reforms af-ter taking power in a 1987 bloodless coup, has created one of the Arab world’s most authoritarian regimes. Last month, the government engineered a referendum which, by a margin officially announced to be at 99.5%, changed the constitution to keep Mr. Ben All in power for life—without a hint of protest by the U.S. or other Western governments.
At the same time, the failure of radical Islamists to seize power in neighboring Al-geria, or for that matter anywhere else in the Arab world, means that the secular dis-sidents view fundamentalists with far less trepidation than a decade ago, when it seemed that political Islam was about to triumph in the region. Islamist help is also needed these days: the fundamentalists are the only opponents of the regime with enough muscle to set up a strong alternative to the tightly censored official media. Just consider the predicament of Sihem Bensedrine, a dissident secular journalist and human rights activist who was arrested in the Tunis airport and jailed for six weeks last year, after she criticized Mr. Ben AU on a London satellite-TV channel, al Mustaqilla. Since then, al Mustaqilla yielded to Tu-nisian government complaints and stopped its regular shows dedicated to Tunisian affairs. Ms. Bensedrine is left with only one alternative: the Islamists’ London-based broadcaster, Zeitouna TV.
The secular-fundamentalist alliance, of course, is not without risks for the Islamists’ partners: Once the Shah was a Tunis hotel lobby for ever-present in-formers, Lassaad Jaouhari, an Islamist activist who coordinates the nation’s com-mittee for supporting political prisoners, says he favors a united effort to bring more democracy to Tunisia.

But then, his thoughts quickly return to the anti-Islamist crackdown of the early 1990s that cost him seven years’ imprisonment. "We cannot forget that the secular opposition displayed tolerance for what happened at that time,” says Mr. Jaouhari as he cradles a walking stick—a necessity, he says, after months of tor-ture by his jailers “This wasn’t just an error, this was t show of their disease.”