The Sick Man of the Middle East

Is Tunisia's strongman president about to fall?

At around 11 p.m. Tuesday, U.S. East Coast time, unconfirmed reports of a coup in Tunisia spread across Twitter like wildfire, fueled by a rumor mill that has gone into overdrive since riots broke out this month outside the Tunisian capital.

"Phone confirmation that the army has surrounded the ministry of interior," tweeted Wessim Amara, a user based in Tunisia. Another, Fouad Marei, followed: "Tweeps unanimously confirm: #coup against #BenAli regime. Mainstream media continues to talk of clashes, no confirmation of #SidiBouZid coup."

Neither was true -- there's no sign that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has lost control of the country's all-powerful security services, though he did sack his interior minister and sent military troops into the streets of Tunis to restore order. But the fact that the rumor was making the rounds at all speaks volumes about how rapidly Tunisia has gone from Arab success story to Middle East sick man.

The riots, which erupted in mid-December after an underemployed university graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest his rough treatment at the hands of police, are the worst to hit the autocratic North African state in 26 years. So far, at least 35 people have been killed in the violence -- sparked by anger over high unemployment, political repression, and a general climate of despair -- and that's likely an understatement.

"It started with economic issues, but people are fed up with the authoritarian system," says Nabila Hamza, the Tunisian-born president of the Foundation for the Future, which funds civil society groups across the broader Middle East and North Africa.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Tunisia has long been seen as a "moderate" Arab state, with sensible economic policies, decent government services, relatively enlightened policies toward women, and little habit of making trouble in the region. Tunisia's GDP has grown by about 5 percent annually, on average, for the last decade. In 2010, the World Economic Forum rated its economy No. 1 in Africa in terms of global competitiveness, scoring it highly on respect for property rights and corruption. The country rose six spots in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, putting it among Africa's top performers.

But that economic success has come at the hands of one of the Arab world's nastiest police states. Tunisia has had only two presidents in its nearly 55-year history. The current leader, Ben Ali, 74, came to power after a bloodless coup in 1987. In a laughably unfree and unfair 2009 election, he won a fifth term with 89.6 percent of the vote. There are no effective opposition parties in the country. "Independent journalists, human rights organizations, union organizers -- anyone who raises concerns about the government's actions -- find their actions tracked and their outspokenness punished," writes Human Rights Watch analyst Rasha Moumneh.

One curiously overlooked factor in Tunisia's unrest has been the impact of the WikiLeaks cables, which revealed the U.S. government's view of the president and his ruling circle as deeply corrupt. One prescient cable from June 2008 reads, "Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants," and highlights growing frustration with the Tunisian regime, a "quasi-mafia" made up of Ben Ali's extended family. A more recent cable, from July 2009, bluntly states that Ben Ali has "lost touch with the Tunisian people" and describes the country as "a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems."

Western governments have criticized the crackdown, but so far have refrained from calling for Ben Ali to step down. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her way Wednesday to a regional meeting of civil society groups in Qatar, expressed her concern about the violence, but said the United States was "not taking sides" in the dispute. The European Union called on Tunisian authorities to "do everything they can to bring calm and to address the underlying social issues."

But U.S. officials admit privately they have few interests in Tunisia and little leverage. "The U.S. is not the most important external player," said a State Department official, asked what more the United States can do to promote democratic change. "How effectively can you 'push a country to the wall' without other actors coming along?"

Tunisia's largest trading partner and most important ally by far is France, its former colonial master. So far, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said nothing about the violence and evinces little interest in pressuring Ben Ali's regime to respect democratic values. Tunisian activists say bitterly that France is happy enough with Ben Ali's cooperation on immigration and counterterrorism and has no appetite for risk in its near abroad.

Arab leaders have a funny way of hanging on long past their sell-by dates. Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi has been in power since 1969. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reigned in Yemen since 1978; Hosni Mubarak has been running Egypt since 1981. All have weathered severe unrest at one time or another.

Still, the writing may be on the wall for Ben Ali. Once dictators lose their legitimacy, and coercion fails to keep the masses at bay, they can fall from power with astonishing speed -- as in the case of the late Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu. "He is finished," one Tunisian democracy advocate says. "But the regime, maybe not. It depends on if he goes in one week or six."



Justice for a Spy

It's time for Obama to grant Jonathan Pollard clemency for his crimes.

The AP reported on April 9 that Jonathan Pollard has been hospitalized since April 4, 2012 due to "increasingly debilitating and incapacitating medical problems," renewing calls for his release. The White House reiterated that the president did not intend to release Pollard.

On Jan. 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of the Knesset to read a letter that he had sent to the president of the United States, calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard. The Israeli leader admitted that Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst serving a life sentence for espionage, "was acting as an agent of the Israeli government." He nevertheless contended that Pollard's 25 years in prison represented a sufficient punishment for his crimes and pointed to the support of a number of former U.S. officials and congressmen for clemency.

Netanyahu's request did not come as a surprise to me. On Dec. 20, 2010, after speaking to the Knesset, I met with the prime minister and urged him to go public with his request. Unless he did so, I argued, the issue would not gain the traction it needed. I also pointed out to him that he needed to publicly apologize and pledge to never again recruit Americans to spy against their country, which would allow supporters of Pollard's release to respond effectively to the argument that the Pollard case was business as usual for Israel.

The invitation to speak to the Knesset and meet with the prime minister was the culmination of two decades of my involvement with the case. I became involved when Jonathan's father, Morris Pollard, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, wrote to me asking why my former boss, Caspar Weinberger, had written such a strong statement about the damage done by Jonathan's spying for Israel.

I answered his letter not to score political points or settle scores, but as one father to another. However, it eventually found its way into the press. As the press began to ask questions about the letter, I began researching the issues of the Pollard case more closely. Over the past 20 years, I have spoken to one of Pollard's prosecutors, a judge on the court of appeals who considered the case, a top lieutenant of former CIA Director George Tenet, several of Pollard's lawyers, and Pollard himself. And I have become convinced that Pollard's sentence of life was disproportionate to his crime.

Therefore, as a matter of simple justice, President Barack Obama should grant Netanyahu's request. Pollard has now been in prison far longer than anyone else who had spied for a friendly country -- the average sentence for a spy convicted of passing intelligence to an allied country is seven years. Information has come to light since Pollard's arrest that shows that the intelligence he passed to Israel never made its way to the United States' enemies, such as the Soviet Union. Furthermore, as U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross noted in a 2006 article in the Canadian Jewish Tribune, "Pollard has been in jail for so long that whatever facts he might know would have little if any effect on national security today."

Netanyahu was correct in saying that support for Pollard's release has come from a broad segment of American political and cultural life. In the last two months, the White House has been deluged with letters from 39 members of Congress, 500 religious leaders from all faiths, a former attorney general, and a former head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, all urging the president to commute Pollard's sentence.

Of course, such a step will not come without a cost for Obama. Netanyahu learned this lesson in 1998, when he first pushed for Pollard's release in a meeting at the Wye Plantation with President Bill Clinton as a way of facilitating an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Clinton had to back off when Tenet threatened to resign.

Every time the issue of Pollard's release comes up, intelligence professionals and prosecutors rise up against it. After Netanyahu's request in 1998, a group of retired admirals wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post condemning the request. Late last year, after 39 members of Congress wrote to Obama requesting clemency, a retired navy captain argued in The Intelligencer, a journal of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, that clemency would be ill-advised. And the day after Netanyahu's public request, the attorney who prosecuted Pollard told the Washington Times that the idea of Israel seeking clemency is "a joke."

Most of these claims have been refuted by people such as former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, former Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey -- all supporters of granting clemency to Pollard. But I can say from personal experience that these claims resonate with some elements of the public because of concerns over Jewish Americans' supposed dual loyalty to the United States and Israel. That is, because Israel is a Jewish state, some Jewish Americans might place a commitment to Israeli survival over the interests of the United States when the two are in conflict. Since I became involved in the Pollard case two decades ago through public speeches, letters to the president, and op-eds in major newspapers, I have received volumes of hate mail for my stand.

But this is no reason to keep a man locked up for longer than he deserves. In his letter, Netanyahu noted that the United States is "based on fairness, justice, and mercy." With these principles in mind, Obama should commute Pollard's sentence to time served. It is the right thing to do.