For the United States and other Western countries, the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (which threaten to spread to other countries, including Yemen and Algeria) are something of a nightmare. Just as the authorities in these countries are struggling — and failing — to cope with popular uprisings, so too the United States and other Western countries are rudderless when faced with an undefined enemy — and make no mistake about it, the people of foreign countries are the enemy when their revolts against dictatorship threaten Western interests.
Only the most perceptive people in the West realize that, for decades, the perceived threat of communism, and, in recent years, the perceived threat of Islamists, has led their governments to support the dictatorial regimes that are now being challenged or overwhelmed by ordinary people whose eruptions of revolutionary anger are largely spontaneous and leaderless, and, as such, cannot easily be suppressed.
What will happen next is unknown. Socialists, communists, and Islamists may yet find a way to make these movements coalesce under their leadership, or they may throw up new leaders with novel political agendas. It is no wonder that the West is getting jittery, but it is difficult to see how Western governments will be able to maintain their influence when the revolutionary movements know that, although they have been oppressed by their own rulers — kept in poverty, deprived of work, and often subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, disappearances, and extrajudicial execution — their rulers have largely been able to abuse them so thoroughly because of the backing of the West.
The horrors of the Cold War are behind us, but on the Islamist front, it is all too easy to see how the United States, in particular, enlisted the support of the dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Morocco in its “war on terror,” drawing on their expertise in torture to host secret torture prisons on behalf of the CIA, where dozens of men and boys — seized in other countries and subjected to “extraordinary rendition” — were delivered, some of whom have never been seen or heard from again.
It is also easy to see how numerous countries, including the U.K. and France, responded to the Islamic Salvation Front’s first-round electoral victory in Algeria in 1991 by backing a military takeover that led to an almost unspeakably horrendous civil war, while protecting Western interests in Algeria’s supplies of oil and gas, and how Libya — previously a pariah — was also drawn into the “war on terror,” when Colonel Gaddafi, with his plenteous supplies of oil, also joined the Western alliance.
With Libya, the hypocrisy was laid bare — although few realize it — when political refugees to the U.K., whose claims for asylum had been accepted, were suddenly labeled as terrorist suspects and imprisoned, or held under control orders (a pernicious form of house arrest) without charge or trial, and on the basis of secret evidence, after Gaddafi became a British ally in 2005.
Although judges intervened independently to prevent the involuntary repatriation of these men, ruling that “diplomatic assurances,” which were supposed to guarantee humane treatment on their return, were fundamentally untrustworthy, the control orders against the men were only finally dropped in the last few years when the Gaddafi regime began a program of reconciliation with its former opponents.
The West’s hypocrisy in the “war on terror” also included Tunisia and the brutal regime of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali (whose fall is leading to hopes that the terrorist stigma attached to his former political opponents might now be exposed for what it was), and, of course, Syria, whose fearsome Mukhabarat (secret police) tortured at least nine CIA “ghost prisoners” in 2001 and 2002, even as Bush’s speechwriters were including the regime in an “axis of evil.” A few of these prisoners — who included teenagers rendered from Pakistan — have resurfaced (most notably, the Canadian citizen Maher Arar), but others remain unaccounted for.
Of all the allies in torture, however, Egypt was the most prominent, the final bloody destination for those seized in America’s first forays into “extraordinary rendition” under President Clinton, and the place where, in the “war on terror,” an untold number of men were disappeared.
Just a few of these stories are known, but they expose the true horrors of America’s relationship with Egypt. One prominent victim is Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, seized on a bus in Pakistan, who was rendered to Egypt before being sent to Guantánamo (and released in January 2005). Providing a dark insight into why Hosni Mubarak’s decision to appoint intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president on Saturday is the worst possible move for Egyptians seeking total regime change, the author and journalist Richard Neville, drawing on Habib’s memoir, reported:
Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman.… Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al-Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks…. To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib — and he did, with a vicious karate kick.
Another prominent torture victim is Abu Omar (Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr), an Egyptian cleric who was brazenly seized from a street in Milan in February 2003, by CIA operatives and their Italian counterparts. In November 2009, an Italian judge handed down, in absentia, prison sentences of between five and eight years to 22 CIA agents and a U.S. Air Force colonel for their part in Abu Omar’s kidnap and rendition (and two Italian agents received three-year sentences), but not before Abu Omar had been imprisoned in Egypt for four years, and, during much of that time, subjected to torture.
The most significant story of all, however, is that of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, which was closed down by the Taliban in 2000, when he refused to cooperate with Osama bin Laden. After his capture in December 2001 — in Afghanistan, or crossing the border into Pakistan — al-Libi was rendered to Egypt by the CIA, where, under torture, he falsely confessed that al-Qaeda representatives had been meeting Saddam Hussein to discuss the use of chemical and biological weapons. Despite the fact that al-Libi later recanted his false testimony, it was used by the United States to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, figuring prominently in Colin Powell’s presentation to the U.N. the month before.
After visits to other torture prisons run by or on behalf of the CIA, al-Libi was eventually returned to Libya, where he died in prison in May 2009, allegedly by committing suicide — although no one who knows anything about “suicides” in Libyan jails believed that particular story. His death was convenient for at least three countries — Libya itself, and the two countries responsible for the deadly lie about Iraq; namely, Egypt and the United States.
More than anything else, the story of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi defines the blood-soaked relationship between the Bush administration and the brutal regime of Hosni Mubarak, and if there is to be genuine change in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, then the Obama administration and other Western governments need to step back from supporting torturers or enlisting their torture assistance or making convenient arrangements with them to establish secret dungeons in their countries to pursue their own repulsive agendas.