Gimme Shelter

Why is Hosni Mubarak clinging to power? Maybe because the life of an exiled dictator isn't what it used to be.

Time was when a dictator like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, watching his hold on power crumbling in the face of an uprising, had plenty of retirement options. Odds were he could find a quiet life in one of Europe's posher watering holes: Mougins in the hills above Cannes, on the shores of Lake Geneva, or maybe a smart Belgravia townhouse. He generally had plenty of cash parked outside the country and often would take a last dip in the treasury on the way out the door. To be sure, he had to keep his wits about him to avoid anarchists and assassins, and he had to avoid too much obvious meddling in his homeland's politics lest this jeopardize his host's grant of asylum. But he could usually look forward to a peaceful and comfortable run for his waning days.

So why is Mubarak trying to squeeze a few more months out of his three-decade career in office and avowing his intentions to stay in Egypt rather than packing for the Riviera? It may be because exile isn't what it used to be; over the last 30 years, things have gotten increasingly difficult for dictators in flight. Successor regimes launch criminal probes; major efforts are mounted to identify assets that may have been stripped or looted by the autocrat, or more commonly, members of his immediate family. I witnessed this process myself, twice being asked by newly installed governments in Central Eurasia to advise them on asset recovery measures focusing on the deposed former leader and his family.

More menacingly, human rights lawyers and international prosecutors may take a close look at the tools the deposed dictator used to stay in power: Did he torture? Did he authorize the shooting of adversaries? Did he cause his enemies to "disappear"? Was there a mass crackdown that resulted in dozens or hundreds of deaths? A trip to The Hague or another tribunal might be in his future. Slobodan Milosevic, who died while on trial there, and Charles Taylor, whose prosecution there is expected to wind up later this month, furnish examples that any decamping dictator would need to keep in mind.

The dictator may well proclaim his altruistic, patriotic motives, tout his service to the country, and insist on his intention to die on his native soil, as Mubarak did in his rambling non-concession speech on Feb. 1. But more likely than not, a frantic effort is under way behind the scenes to ensure that, if he leaves, he will not face the nightmare of criminal probes and battles over assets. A friendly government offering sanctuary may quickly conclude in the face of such a barrage that its old friend just isn't worth the effort and the damage to reputation associated with sheltering him.

There's no doubt that the endgame for Mubarak involves many of these concerns and backroom machinations. So, how can Mubarak protect himself if he eventually makes an escape from Cairo? He's taking the usual steps now. Start with his decision to install foreign intelligence chief and CIA confidant Omar Suleiman as vice president and constitutional successor. (Mubarak himself came to the presidency through this route; he had been Anwar Sadat's vice president.) This comes close to matching what in the Russian-speaking world is known as the "Putin option," a reference to the exit strategy adopted by a teetering Boris Yeltsin: Fearing possible retribution from opposition figures, Yeltsin opted to surrender power through a transitional period to a wily senior player in the intelligence community. In exchange, Yeltsin is said to have extracted a firm commitment from Putin that the full machinery of the Russian state would be mustered to protect him. There would be no criminal probes or inquiries, and no cooperation with foreigners who undertook the same. Yeltsin would be free to live his final days shuttling between Moscow and the French Riviera. Putin scrupulously kept his end of the bargain.

Suleiman, a close and loyal advisor to Mubarak, had of course long been expected to emerge as vice president, but his assumption of the office had been blocked by his bitter rival, Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. With the forces of opposition swirling out of control, appointing a successor who was both credible and capable of protecting Mubarak in exile was a priority move, and identifying someone with the tightest possible connections both to the United States and Israel was doubtless an added advantage.

This is not to say that such a maneuver is always successful, as Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali already discovered. When Ben Ali fled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he left his trusted prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, in control. But Ghannouchi's presidency lasted barely a day before power passed to more hostile hands. Within two weeks, the new Tunisian government had issued warrants against Ben Ali. The European Union -- acting on Tunis's request -- froze his bank accounts, and even Interpol requested his apprehension and extradition.

This is now standard practice for dealing with an ousted leader whose escape plans don't work out quite as neatly as hoped. When the old regime falls and opposition figures come to the fore, they will consult lawyers who invariably recommend a series of procedures. Domestic criminal inquiries are launched into corruption and theft involving the old leader and his family, with a hard focus on hard cash. Did they loot state assets or leverage their position with the government to seize commercial opportunities? A quick check of bank transfers in the last desperate days of the regime is organized, and forensic investigators are put on the trail of the cash.

Quick letters go out: to the U.S. government, requesting the assistance of the FBI in a probe of the old dictator's thievery; to Britain, asking Scotland Yard's help in the same sort of investigation; to Swiss authorities; and to other jurisdictions that appear in the internal investigation whenever evidence surfaces of banking activities. (These days Latvia, Dubai, the Cayman Islands, and various other island jurisdictions figure prominently in such probes.) Sometimes the efforts strike instant paydirt, as when a Swiss court froze the assets of former Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and a U.S. court arrested the holdings of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

These letters are always accompanied with a request that the state use its power to identify and freeze any bank accounts or investments associated with the deposed leader, to be held pending further development and proof of claims. One of the major game changes comes on this point: A generation ago, such requests usually got a polite brush off. Today, more often than not, the government on the receiving end is delighted to comply. Some argue that this is the result of stronger international cooperation in efforts to combat money laundering; the more cynically minded, however, point out that banks themselves are generally delighted about a freeze, since it leaves them managing the money, often for a decade or longer, as litigants battle over who really owns it.

Once assets are identified, a litigation strategy is formed. The hub for such activities is now well established: the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Because London plays a central role in global finance and because English courts pioneered the concept of a global freezing order (known as a "Mareva injunction" or simply a "Mareva"), English lawyers have been center stage in such struggles for more than a decade. Getting such a freezing order, enough to clip the financial wings of the fleeing dictator, is usually the first step of litigation; actually seeing the case through to the end is a more difficult proposition. Doing so may be too expensive a burden for a poor country to bear, but a patient and tenacious prosecution is often rewarded.

Then there's the criminal side of the ledger: a more perilous matter, especially to the dictator with blood on his hands. The days when head-of-state immunity was a show-stopper are now long past. Sixty-nine current and former heads of state have been successfully prosecuted for international crimes since 1990, and the trend has been moving steadily towards more prosecutions. The turning point came in Latin America, where courts and prosecutors gradually overcame the grants of amnesty and statutes of limitation that had previously hamstrung investigations into the brutal regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, essentially arguing that no legal immunity could be granted for certain gross human rights violations. Mubarak's regime, with its well-documented record of torture and brutal methods of repression, is a prime candidate. His government provided a key spoke in the CIA's extraordinary renditions program, which squarely falls within the international crime of "disappearing" -- a program that was run, incidentally, by Omar Suleiman.

Mubarak might cut his losses by avoiding a bloody exit from office (though the escalating violence in Cairo suggests that may not be an option), but the past may come back to haunt him. Consider the cautionary tale of deposed Chadian dictator Hissène Habré. Human rights investigators documented thousands of politically motivated murders and instances of torture carried out by his regime, and Habré was ultimately indicted in Belgian courts using universal jurisdiction concepts. He secured asylum in Senegal after he was toppled, but the Senegalese were forced to place him under house arrest and are now coping with aggressive efforts to have him extradited to stand trial. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir also faces an indictment, and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov is  widely expected to face prosecution efforts if his grip on power loosens.

If Mubarak leaves, he will need a safe haven: a government that will protect him from lawsuits and criminal charges. It is increasingly difficult for any Western state to make such promises. And that leaves him with few and generally unappealing exit options. He may find a welcome in Saudi Arabia or under the roof of an equally unstable dictator in the region. But his troubles are not likely to end when the wheels go up on his jet from Cairo.



The Al Jazeera Revolution

The satellite television station is seizing the message away from the bland propaganda of Arab autocrats.

As darkness fell on Tahrir Square the night of Feb. 1, a giant makeshift TV screen broadcast Al Jazeera's live coverage of the Egyptian uprising to the enthusiastic crowd. The channel would later transmit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's speech, in which he announced that he would not stand for reelection but would stay in office for the remainder of his term; below the screen, the protesters chanted their displeasure at what they viewed as this insufficient concession.

It was a moment that spoke volumes about the unique link between the Qatar-based channel, the uprising in Egypt, and the Tunisian revolution that was its inspiration.

It also underscored the new reality facing Arab regimes: They no longer control the message.

Since Jan. 28, Al Jazeera has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Mubarak regime, which knocked it off the government-controlled Nilesat satellite, shut its bureau, seized its transmission equipment, and arrested some of its staff.

But over the weekend, at least 10 other satellite broadcasters in the region began replacing their own programming with Al Jazeera's feed, foiling the Egyptian regime's efforts to prevent its citizens from watching the channel that has become its chief nemesis.

"We have been working round the clock to make sure we are broadcasting on alternative frequencies," Al Jazeera said in a statement on its website. "Clearly there are powers that do not want our important images pushing for democracy and reform to be seen by the public."

And therein lies the reason Al Jazeera has emerged as such a central player in the drama now unfolding in the region. Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station, or its more conservative, Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.

"The genius of Arab satellite TV," Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, once told me, "is that it [has] captured a deep-seated common existential pain called Arab sensibility and turned it into a picture narrative that speaks to something very deep in the Arab psyche."

Put another way: There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.

The media is by no means the only force at play in the continuing upheaval in Egypt, the Tunisian revolution, or the copy-cat demonstrations going on elsewhere in the Arab world. At root is a raw anger fed by decades of political, intellectual, and economic stagnation that has led to a powerful convergence of the region's three main political trends -- pan-Arab nationalism, nation-state nationalism, and Islamism.

However, Arab media have been at the vanguard of articulating this new and explosive development. Arab satellite television, such as Al Jazeera -- and the increasingly aggressive ethos of Arab print journalism exemplified by newspapers like Egypt's Al-Masry Al-Youm and Tunisia's crusading Kalima Tunisie -- have fueled a sense of common cause among Arabs across the region every bit as real as the "imagined communities" that are at the core of the concept of nation.

As Faisal Kasim, host of Al-Ittijah al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction), one of Al Jazeera's most popular and controversial shows, which often features shouting matches between those representing the region's most extreme views, put it: "Our media should be harnessed to liberate the Arab people from their internal gladiators."

Change was Al Jazeera's raison d'être from the day 15 years ago when the upstart ruler of the tiny emirate of Qatar founded the channel, which he called Al Jazeera ("The Peninsula," named for the tiny thumb of desert that comprised his Gulf fiefdom). He hired a bunch of out-of-work Arab journalists who had lost their jobs with the BBC and gave them a mandate: Make his rival autocrats uncomfortable -- and boost his political juice throughout the region in the process.

Even though the Egyptian government cut most Internet and cell-phone links, disrupting the ability of political activists to use social media to organize, satellite television (including an array of privately-owned Cairo-based stations) continues to be the great unifying force as Egyptians -- and Arabs across the region -- watch live coverage of the violence in the streets and Mubarak's faltering response.

Journalism purists in the West may object to the idea of news organizations overtly helping to foster revolution. But the history of American journalism is replete with media activists: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams, to name a few. The state of politics in the Arab world today has much in common with 18th-century America; the same is true of its journalism.

That is not to say the Arab media is a monolith or that Al Jazeera is without its critics in the Arab world. Just as Fox and MSNBC attract partisans in the United States, Arabs turn to Al Jazeera, its Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya or various other channels, depending on their politics. Many claim Al Jazeera supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, a notion bolstered by its recent WikiLeaks-style release of secret documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has undermined the Palestinian Authority. And there has long been a perception that the Qatar-based channel is anti-Mubarak. Whether that is a good or bad thing lies in the eye of the beholder.

On Jan. 29, when partial cell-phone service was restored in Cairo, my teenage daughter finally managed to reach several friends. One was in tears; gunshots could be heard in the background as roaming bands of thugs broke into neighboring homes. Another friend said her father and other men from the neighborhood were out on the street to drive off armed looters who had just torched a nearby shopping center. I said a quick hello to her mother. "Are you watching the coverage?" she asked. Of course, I told her. "What channel?" I said I was switching between Al Jazeera, CNN, and BBC World.

"Oh, don't watch Jazeera," she exclaimed. "They exaggerate."

Many Arabs would beg to disagree. Not long after, I read this tweet -- "people in #alexandria: #aljazeera is the only honest channel, all #egyptian channels are liars."

Still, no matter what satellite channel they prefer, most Arabs would agree that all are a vast improvement over Egypt's state-controlled television broadcast, which is dutifully serving the regime, broadcasting footage of otherwise elusive pro-Mubarak rallies, punctuated by patriotic videos of stalwart citizens and the Egyptian flag set to the soundtrack of the national anthem.

Note to Mubarak: The era in which government broadcasters can manufacture reality is as dead as the age of the fax. Just look at that big TV screen in Tahrir Square.