In the aftermath of Tunisia and Egypt, many are asking, "Who’s next?" My confident answer is this: each and every leader in this region who rules by force and fraud, who has neither credibility nor legitimacy, and who fears nothing more than the wrath of his own people, is next. We cannot know the sequence, or plot it on a calendar. But the political upheavals in North Africa in just the first two months of this year put the lie to received wisdom in Arab and all-too-many Western capitals that the people in the region are not "ready" for democracy and will not rise to demand an end to tyranny.
To quell the noisy street displays of democratic fervor, many governments have relied on their rusty toolbox of repression. Yemeni security forces unleashed busloads of recruited counter-demonstrators armed with clubs and rocks to confront around 1,000 people marching to celebrate Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, and then sent in riot police with their water cannons and tear gas. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority could not stomach demonstrations whose focus was not the Israeli occupation, but a demand for unity and fair elections in their own quasi-administration. There too we saw the stale repertoire of violent attacks, arrests, beatings, and torture of peaceful protesters demanding serious political change.
Syria and Libya acted preemptively, arresting activists likely to organize any street protests, saturating public places with security forces. In these countries, even a rally of a dozen people is treated like a threat to the status quo. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran combined rank hypocrisy with his trademark brutality, congratulating "the justice-seeking movement in Egypt" while silencing Iranian protest leaders and dismissing their planned solidarity march as "divisive."
Whether shrewder or more fearful, other Arab leaders offered some wilted carrots. Jordan’s King Abdullah dismissed his cabinet and appointed a new prime minister, pretending yet again that reform doesn’t require constitutional limits on absolute monarchy but merely a shuffle of his minions. Bahrain’s King Hamad, following the Kuwaiti example, took the hush money approach, offering more than $2,600 per Bahraini family (Kuwaitis got $3,580 each). The most serious gesture was the promise by the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika to end decades of emergency rule which, as in Egypt and Syria, allows the government to ban public assemblies at will and detain people without charge indefinitely with virtually no judicial oversight.
None of these measures address the fundamental popular demands in these countries for the chance to live in freedom. They want laws abolished that land people in jail for "insulting" a leader, that restrict public and private assembly (gatherings of more than five people need Interior Ministry approval in many countries), that curtail nongovernmental organizations and independent political parties, and that prevent fair elections — if elections are held at all. The need for genuine rule of law requires an end to laws that embody tyranny.
Arab and Iranian leaders have imposed harsher restrictions on their citizenry with each passing year, most recently in their efforts to include internet and satellite communications within the ambit of their oppressive speech and press laws. They have resisted real reforms for a very basic reason: it would mean an end to their monopoly of power. The more secular of the bunch have relied on the specter of Islamists to scare the international community into accepting the "secure" status quo of their dictatorial rule. It’s a bad bargain long indulged by the United States and the European Union, whose billions in aid to Jordan and Egypt, and vast "counterterrorism cooperation" projects with virtually every Arab government, effectively bolster authoritarian rule and sanction the suppression of their citizenry. Egypt and Tunisia provide an important and immediate lesson: the stability imposed by repressive governments will not last forever, even if one never knows exactly when the people will say "enough." It’s not at all clear whether the leaders of popular revolts, or the winners of democratic elections, will be intolerant, undemocratic Islamists. It may well be that a progressive, secular party in the reconstituted Egypt will win the support of the majority of Egyptian voters; and it may well be that some current Arab leaders, even a King Abdullah, would win in a real election.
Ultimately, Western capitals have no choice but to live with the uncertainty of democratic outcomes in the region — after all, Arabs have had to live with adverse foreign policies of democratically elected leaders in the United States and Israel. Western governments are best served, in the end, by supporting what they claim to stand for, and what protesters are demanding: human rights and democracy.
As for each Middle Eastern leader ruling without the consent of his people, the lesson is just as clear: reform or perish. Who’s next? You’re next.
Sarah Leah Whitson is Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.