Starting in mid-January the Arab world — from Morocco on the Atlantic to the Arab emirates of the Gulf — has been shaken by a mass public uprising of world-historical moment. Governments once thought stable have been toppled or at this moment are in the process of falling — starting with Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, and on to Qaddafi in Libya, Saleh in Yemen and Assad in Syria. The revolution strikes America's allies and enemies alike with seemingly equal force. One cry has risen from Rabat to Cairo to Sana'a: "dignity." People demand the right to live their lives in dignity; they want jobs and an economy that offers them promise. But the more fundamental demand they raise is for a state that is worthy of them and, more importantly, a state that does not abuse them physically and spiritually. They want an end to the outrageous kleptocracies of the past, and new governments that are accountable to the people. Make no mistake about this: the cry for "dignity" is about torture. It focuses sharply on the abuse of police and intelligence forces throughout the region. Torture is an icon for a state that is fundamentally corrupt and illegitimate.
Americans often feel that the balance of the world revolves around them; we naturally tend to inflate the importance of American policies and actions. But America has operated with a heavy hand in the Middle East for the last decade, and its actions have had immense consequences. It's extremely important for America to come to a sober understanding of how it has shaped the landscape in which this revolution is born. And America's fingerprints are unmistakable.
We already hear a note of triumphalism among American neoconservatives: Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer see in this revolution the realization of the Bush doctrine. They say that the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are now validated; they have laid the groundwork for changes sweeping the region that will bring a new kind of society which comes closer to the Western model. Kristol and Krauthammer are right to see the rise of an unquenchable thirst for freedom behind this movement. And I think they are right to suppose that Bush's wars in the Middle East have deeply affected the region and laid the seed for revolt. But I am convinced that this has happened in an altogether different way than they suppose.
Even a casual visitor to the Middle East quickly learns that America stirs strong emotions there. They are simultaneously negative and positive. On one hand, America's foreign policy towards the region is met with almost unmitigated contempt from the street, which views it as ignorant and extremely violent. On the other, the admiration for aspects of American culture, its youth-oriented ways, its respect for faith, the great wealth produced by its economy and the comfort and freedom enjoyed by its people is tremendous. To put it simply, the average Arab on the street is horrified at America's use of violence in the Middle East, but he would immigrate to Michigan in the blink of an eye.
But the current revolution appears to have been profoundly influenced by another quite specific relic of the Bush years. Shadi Mokhtari, a professor at American University, dealt with this closely in a smart recent piece in Open Democracy. She notes that the American patterns of torture so vividly established at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantánamo dramatically altered the dialogue throughout the region. Before the Bush years, human rights was viewed as a Western conceptualization with little relevance to the Middle East. Moreover, the largely closed societies of the region, while permitting some nominal dialogue on human rights issues, were closed to any meaningful investigation or public discussion of their own human rights abuses.
The photographs from Abu Ghraib changed this dramatically. Suddenly newspapers and broadcast media across the region began to focus intensely on the torture issue. Mokhtari writes:
"Denials of fair trials in Guantánamo, CIA black sites, renditions of terrorist suspects to third countries known to torture, and legal formulations paving the way for 'enhanced interrogation techniques' all brought discussion of human rights further to the fore of Arab consciousness. Instead of viewing human rights as a Western imposition, increasingly it became a language that Arab populations embraced to challenge America's post-9/11 policies."
On the example of the Bush administration's policies, people learned about the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions and the international enforcement process. In many nations they also learned that their government had ratified the CAT and passed criminal legislation outlawing torture. America was excoriated for preaching civil liberties and civil rights and then giving the Middle East torture practices which sometimes seemed indistinguishable from those of the dictators they had deposed.
But throughout the region, this criticism of America had a powerful subtext. It was a proxy criticism of their own regimes. Readers knew and fully appreciated, for instance, that the stress positions, sensory deprivation tactics and waterboarding used by the Americans were also tactics developed by Mubarak's hated Mabahith Amn al-Dawla (State Security Investigative Service, SSI), by the Tunisian interior ministry or Morocco's Direction de la Securité du Territoire (DST). Moreover, they fixated on the covert relationship between the American CIA and the intelligence agencies of their own regimes, a partnership forged in torture as much as intelligence gathering.
The demand for "dignity" that went up in Tunis, Cairo and Alexandria was most frequently exemplified by a negative — by photographs of prisoners, stripped naked and held by a leash, smeared with feces, or in body pyramids — photographs from Abu Ghraib, all images reflecting practices approved by George Bush, with the formal blessing of his Department of Justice, and implemented by America's Defense Department and CIA — but also practices common to the shadowy police and intelligence agencies of the Arab world.
At the core of the dark relationship between the CIA and the state-security services of the Arab world is a complex network of secret prisons, black sites and torture. When things got too hot for the CIA in Europe in 2004 because of the opening of formal inquiries by the Council of Europe and European Parliament, the focus of its extraordinary renditions program, and specifically the "torture by proxy" aspect of that program (as a study by the New York City Bar termed it), shifted across the Mediterranean to the Middle East, and not coincidentally, to the three nations where the bonfire of revolution is now raging: Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. In these countries, the CIA developed special arrangements with local security organs — they would import prisoners they wanted tortured, and their local collaborators would do the torturing, often in the presence or even under the direction of CIA officers. The CIA, using tax- payer dollars, would fund the construction of special prisons, and often would control special sections of prisons run by the local security services.
In Egypt, the CIA's then-station chief, M.D., who now heads the agency's powerful Counter-Terrorist Center, cultivated a special relationship with Mubarak's head of international intelligence, Omar Suleiman. M.D. and Suleiman were effectively the operators of the torture-by-proxy regime that American and Egyptian intelligence co-ventured. A flavor of the CIA's relationship with Suleiman is furnished by this anecdote from author Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine: