How the West protected the Arab dictators

Torture instruments and secret files are being discovered in Egypt. They raise tough questions for Western powers that turned a blind eye for many years.

The uprising in Egypt may already have achieved its purpose in the removal of the dictator Hosni Mubarak but the turmoil continues, disclosing new and shocking information and throwing up difficult questions.

In recent hours, protestors in Egypt's capital, Cairo, have defied the orders of the army and stormed the fortress-like offices of State Security Investigations (SSI), to seize some of the secret files collected during thirty years of brutal repression and surveillance.

In the secret police building in Nasr City, east of Cairo, the Guardian reporter describes hearing 'shouts and loud bangs' as desperate officers destroyed evidence while protesters burst in and searched for prisoners they believed were being held in underground cells. (When the cells were eventually found, the prisoners had disappeared).

Evidence of many years of torture and spying is emerging. One implement found inside the building is designed to dangle a person for hours on end while giving them electric shocks.

This has caused a new bout of anger and soul-searching in the powerful countries of the West, especially America. The burning question: How did we back and encourage the brutality of the Arab dictators such as Mubarak over so many years?

Yesterday the author Roger Cohen, in his column in the leading US newspaper, the New York Times, called for congressional hearings. He described the West as 'morally bankrupt' and pointed out that it was well known for decades that 'thousands of people were illegally murdered by secret police in Egypt and Libya and tossed into mass graves,' while America secretly supported the dictators responsible and helped them to stay in power.

Earlier this week, one expert pointed out that if the West was to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, at least we should know the weak points of the Libyan fighter planes since we built them and sold them to Libya in the first place.

Morality or realism?
Now that the torture chambers are being thrown open there are demands for the full story of American and British support to be examined in public. The moral hypocrisy of the West will probably be exposed in brutal detail.

However some wise voices are already warning the moralists to be careful. Nothing in international politics is morally pure, they say. If the West had not befriended the dictators we would all have suffered. Our living standards would have been lower and the world a far more dangerous place.

You Decide

  1. Are there any countries in the world that you would not travel to simply because you really disapprove of things they do and would not want them to profit from your money? Which countries are they?
  2. Which should be more important in foreign policy: morality or national self-interest?


  1. Imagine the Egyptian security forces arrested you for protesting in Cairo. Write a newspaper article about your interrogation.
  2. Make a wanted poster for Libya's Colonel Gaddafi. What would you accuse him of?

Some People Say...

“All political leaders are corrupt in different ways and you can't say one is worse than another.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why might opposing Arab dictators make the world more dangerous?
Opposing dictators doesn't always have the desired effect. Politically isolated regimes are unpredictable, and have nothing to lose by attacking western interests. Hostile Arab dictators might have attacked Israel, or disrupted global oil supplies.
How does a dictator stay in power?
First: you create an inner core of family and religious loyalists. Second: create a special army whose only job is to protect you. Third: make your generals so rich that they want you to stay in power.
Why does the real inquest always start with the torture chambers?
Often there's a surprising amount of evidence there. Saddam Hussein's secret police took daily photos of all their victims – including one at the end with the victim dead.

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