This commentary was published in The New York Times on 30/01/2011
WASHINGTON — “Write something beautiful about Mr. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and we’ll take care of you,” said Azzidine, who identified himself as an adviser to the Tunisian president as he discreetly showed me an envelope full of $100 bills.
It was 2002 and I was reporting on the Arab League Summit in Beirut. We were not given access to Phoenicia Hotel, where the meetings were held, and were instead held at the nearby children’s science fair, which was turned into a media center.
Since the meetings were broadcast live on TV, the thousands of journalists at the center had plenty of time to schmooze. But in Arab countries, wherever there are journalists, there are also government operatives trying to buy this journalist or threaten that reporter.
I spent most of my time hiding from that Azzidine guy who was trying to hire me for the Tunisian dictator’s propaganda. I was also running away from members of the Iraqi delegation who knew that I held an Iraqi passport and threatened to take it away unless I praised the wisdom of our own tyrant, Saddam Hussein. (Saddam could not make it to Beirut but sent his second-in-charge, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the only Baathist leader still at large today.)
As a resident of Lebanon, I was also trying to avoid Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agents. In 2002, Syria was in full control of Lebanon. The Syrians wanted to make sure that the Beirut summit was conducted on their terms. The Syrian autocrat, President Bashar al-Assad, was able to shutout a closed-circuit speech by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, under siege in Ramallah during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, which was aimed at ending the Second Intifada that had started two years earlier.
In Beirut in 2002, I was more preoccupied with hiding from the agents of the different Arab dictators than actually reporting on the summit.
That explains why when America launched Operation Iraqi Freedom a year later I was among the very few to publicly support the war.
My family and I had been forced out of Iraq in 1982, and I knew best what it meant to live under Saddam’s brutal regime. Therefore, I endorsed toppling him.
It was unfortunate that in the years that followed, the American occupation of Iraq turned out to be a mess, and costly for many of us. I was in Baghdad when my uncle Jaafar was shot dead by looters.
In 2005, the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri unleashed popular fury in the streets of Beirut that forced an end to 30 years of Syrian occupation. But the dictator of Damascus and his allies in Hezbollah hit back. Two of my dear friends, the journalist Samir Kassir and Khaled Eido, were killed in separate politically-motivated bombings.
Hezbollah later sowed more terror across Beirut. In May 2008, the militia’s fighters burned down the Al Mustaqbal newspaper and Future TV, where dozens of my friends work. Shortly after, my good journalist friend Omar was beaten, almost to death, at the hands of Hezbollah’s bandits.
But in 2009 the Lebanese showed even more defiance as they voted pro-democracy politicians into a parliamentary majority. In another place in the region, similar electoral surprises were making history when Iranians defied their regime both in the ballot boxes and in the streets, only to be brutally smashed.
Despite language and ethnic differences, I wrote in favor of the Green movement and Iran’s democracy. I lamented Neda Soltan, who was shot dead on camera. I marked the one-year anniversary of her death, which coincided with the fifth anniversary of the death of a my friend Samir Kassir, in June.
In 2011, less than a decade from the Beirut summit of 2002, two of the most repressive Arab regimes, in Iraq and Tunisia, are down. Two other regimes in Egypt and Yemen are scared of the scent of blossoming flowers of freedom.
It took Iraq a few bloody years and nine months to form a cabinet, but Iraqis, like Tunisians, will improve in the ways of democracy. Only practice makes perfect. It is now time for the Syrians and Libyans to make a move. They’ve been the ones repressed the most, the longest.
Of course we understand that the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, met with Assad in Damascus, and that the West’s interests lie with the Libyan autocrat Muammar el-Qaddafi and his country’s oil reserves. But we are sure times will change. There is no tyrant in human history who survived forever.
I called Omar the other day to congratulate him on the birth of his baby girl, Yasma. We discussed Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. He told me his neck still hurts from when the Hezbollah thugs beat him.
“But it was totally worth it,” Omar said. “Yasma will live in a free Middle East,” he added.
To my uncle Jaafar in Baghdad, to Samir and Khaled in Beirut, to Neda in Tehran, to Tunisians, Yemenis and Egyptians, your blood has not been lost in vain. Within a decade, two tyrants were removed; it will take less to topple the rest.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington correspondent of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai.