Curtains Up for Arab Despots

Monday, 08 Aug 2011 08:42 AM

By Judith Miller

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Arab dictators are on show this week. On TV last week, you could watch Hosni Mubarak caged in a Cairo courtroom, on trial with his sons for crimes against the Egyptian people. And on the silver screen, a major Hollywood film allows us to see Saddam Hussein's crimes against the people of Iraq. Curtains up for Arab despots.

Start with the "The Devil's Double," Lee Tamahori's brutal film adapting the true story of the young Iraqi army officer forced to become the body double of Uday Hussein, Saddam's vicious son.

So violent are some of the re-enactments of Uday Hussein's cruelty that they prompted some audience members to walk out of the film's premiere at the Berlin film festival. Yet the man forced to shadow Saddam's son, Latif Yahia, told the Guardian that the film only hints at the true extent of the horrors that the dictator perpetrated.

The film's portrayal of Uday's insatiable appetites — his torture of Iraqi Olympians who underperformed, his cocaine and alcohol binges, his habit of raping and killing brides on their wedding day — are all accurate. So is the film's recreation of the world of the Tikriti clan: the Rolexes, race cars, designer suits, Persian rugs and whores . . . right down to the crystal chandeliers that lay shattered in 2003 in a palace near the Baghdad airport where I lived for two months after Saddam's fall.

"You are a good man in a bad job," Latif, the double, tells one of Uday's minders at one point. But there are few heroic, or even decent, people in the film. How could there be? They are all real or potential victims in a "Republic of Fear," as writer Kanan Makiya called Iraq.

A full-fledged totalitarian state like Iraq, wealthy and "modern," with multiple intelligence agencies reporting on everyone about everything, was worse than other despotic states, Mr. Makiya argued. If ever there were a case for removing a dictator on human rights grounds alone, Saddam was it.

The Egyptian case is far less clear. Evil comes in degrees, as the opening of the trial of Hosni Mubarak suggests. The case has riveted Egyptians and other Arabs, for whom the prospect of trying an ousted ruler in open court once seemed the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. But Egyptians are divided by the trial.

Those who lost loved ones to torturous deaths in Mubarak's prisons, and the relatives of the more than 850 unarmed protesters killed last February in Tahrir Square, have rejoiced. But others have been sickened by the sight of the cancer-stricken, 83-year-old ruler, his hair still dyed shoe-polish black, being wheeled on a gurney into the makeshift courtroom in a police academy that once bore his name.

Mubarak denied having committed any crimes — and of course, this isn't true. He tortured Islamists and other critics in his jails. He permitted a small clique around him, including his sons, to enrich themselves at public expense. And he stayed 18 years beyond what Egyptian law allowed, as Egypt's pharaohs have tended to do.

But unlike Saddam, or Libya's Gadhafi and Syria's Assad, he relinquished power rather than order his army to shoot protesters. He kept the peace with Israel, and he fought al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists. Unlike Saddam, he supported American policies under five presidents.

Watching Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood flex its political muscle in Tahrir Square late last month, one must wonder: How long will it be before Egyptians wish that they had granted Mubarak his sole request as he gave up power — to live and die peacefully in Egypt?

There have been pleas for mercy — from Israelis, disheartened by the trial, and from one brave Arab columnist. But from Washington there is only silence. America shuns a role in this drama.

When asked last Wednesday if such a trial would really help move Egyptians toward democracy, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner replied that Mubarak's trial was "a process for the Egyptian people."

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