Abu Ghraib holds mirror to Arabs

Arabs say that torture goes on around the region, and that the US scandal might encourage leaders to avoid reform.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

More than a month after the US torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, the anger of the Arab World runs unabated.

But the view from Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, is complicated to say the least. Beneath the official condemnation and occasional anti-American protests is an awareness that torture takes place across the Arab world almost every day, and that it's difficult to condemn the actions of the United States without taking a hard look at what happens closer to home.

And while the US is taking hits over the conduct of its forces inside Iraq, the scandal still pales in the public mind against the backdrop of US support for Israel, the constant source of Arab anger.

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Commentators like Egyptian publisher Hisham Kassem, a critic of his own and other Arab regimes, say that the impact of the torture scandal has been overblown when set against the historical backdrop of Arab-US relations. The relative level of anger has always ebbed and flowed in response to events, be they strong US support for Israel after the 1967 war or the influence the US was able to exert in the process that led to the 1993 Arab-Israeli peace accords.

"Here in the Middle East, we have these anti-American spasms, but we don't see much buildup,'' says Mr. Kassem. He says that while anger over Abu Ghraib has been a setback, there's nothing that will prevent the US, as the world's only superpower, from regaining what it lost, if and when policies change. No event, he says, has ever been conclusive.

"At least there's a corrective mechanism - very quickly we had top US generals sitting before Congress for all the world to see, knowing full well that they could go to jail if they didn't answer the questions in an honest way," says Kassem.

To be sure, the damage to whatever moral authority the US held in the eyes of Arab citizens shouldn't be ignored, something that Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged in a May commencement address at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, when he referred to the "terrible impact" the use of torture has had on America's image.

He framed the ongoing trials of the enlisted men and women directly involved in the torture as the key to winning back support. He urged foreign leaders to: "Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing."

But it's far from certain how useful the trials will be for improving America's image here. Many in the region say they'll not be satisfied if only enlisted men and women are convicted. The reaction to the first conviction, that of Spc. Jeremy Sivits on May 19, was muted, with most Arab papers focused on Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.

"We Arabs probably know more about what's going with torture than any other people in the world,'' says Abdallah Mansour, a Cairo psychiatrist who coordinates the Middle East and North Africa Network of Centers Working Against Torture. "What the history of torture tells us is that torture is almost always systematic, high officials are always implicated. In Egypt when there's a torture case we hear the same things we're hearing from America now - that it's just some individual soldiers, not part of policy. No one will believe that."

Dr. Mansour, who treats patients who survived torture in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in Egypt, and in Sudan, says that the US should be held to a higher standard because its failings provide cover to Arab states that use torture. "This could even lead to more torture in the region," he says.

"It is more important when America does these sorts of things," says Mansour. "They're supposed to be a model democracy. They've held themselves up as an example, and they've been caught. So leaders like [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak can say, 'If the Americans do this, how can I not do the same?' "

Mansour has started a petition drive, which he acknowledges will fail, to demand that US leaders, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, be tried by the international criminal court. "It's important to make a stand,'' he says.

If anything, the torture scandal has somewhat accelerated the slow and gradual diminution of respect for the US that extends back across the decades.

But some Arab commentators say that while torture in Iraq has caused a flare-up in resentment, there are no guarantees of a lasting impact.

"For the moment, this has made the position of Arab reformers more tenuous,'' says Gehad Auda, an Egyptian political scientist with close ties to President Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. "It's much easier to paint democracy activists as US stooges,'' he says. "But at least some people are being put on trial - there's some acknowledgement, and that does say something good about America."

To many Egyptians on Cairo's streets, their leaders have been noticeably silent about the Abu Ghraib scandal.

"Look at the Arab League meeting - they didn't have much to say about this," says Mohammed, a Cairo taxi driver, who asked that his last name not be used. "Every Arab leader sees his own face superimposed upon Saddam Hussein's."

Ahmed, a 30-something house painter on his break in a downtown Cairo cafe, who also asked that his full name not be used, calls the Abu Ghraib scandal "heartbreaking and frustrating" because of the double standard it implies.

"We know that America and Europe really observe human rights inside their own countries, but they have different ideas for the Arabs," he says.

He says a cousin who lived in the states for 20 years convinced him of the superiority of American justice inside America. "So I grew up with this idea that America is very fair," he says. "But every time I see something like Abu Ghraib it kicks me closer to hatred. I feel my hope is being suffocated."

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