Policy

How Arab Dictators Find Support in our Ugliest Prejudices

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This picture is pretty much its own alt-text

Middle East despots have for some time been fond of playing up western fears about terrorism and immigration to maintain their grip on power, and as their regimes come tumbling down, they're falling back on old tricks. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak played up sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims within Egypt as proof that Egyptians could never be trusted to govern themselves democratically, to the point where some have even alleged that his regime orchestrated its own church bombings to blame on al-Qaeda when real terrorism wasn't stoking enough fear. Bahrain's government, too, has tried to frame its own oppressed Shiite minority as a pawn of Iran—though to their credit, American diplomats have doubted these claims.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who has been dutifully parroting the maniacal rants of Muammar Gaddafi and his faux reformer son. Gaddafi might be crazy, but he knew that threats that "Europe will become black" would get Italians' attention. Frattini has proved him correct, publicly fretting not about the bloody disaster unfolding within Libya, but about "the repercussions on the migratory situation."

The obsession with illegal immigration is not surprising given Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi's gratitude for Gaddafi's help in turning back would-be migrants who landed in Italy by boat. Deutsche Presse-Agentur says that migration, not oil, was "at the heart" of the two countries' newly-friendly relationship, and that Gaddafi's cooperation allowed Berlusconi to fulfill promises made during his 2008 election campaign to an increasingly xenophobic Italian public. (Though the relationship turned personal at some point—Berlusconi is currently embroiled in a scandal linked to sex tips he reportedly received from Gaddafi.)

And when Gaddafi threatened that his overthrow would unleash "people of turbans and long beards" on Libya, Foreign Minister Frattini was one step ahead of the Libyan leader, warning on Monday about the possibility of an "Islamic Emirate" in Benghazi, the newly-freed city in eastern Libya. Frattini also announced Monday that he supports Saif Gaddafi's calls for reform, and that he's working on convincing Hillary Clinton to do the same. (Frattini has since taken a harder line against the regime, though his breathless fearmongering about Islamic emirates has not abated.)

American and European support likely won't be able to hold back the tide of revolution in the Arab world forever. But between what we tried to do in Egypt, what we're currently doing in Bahrain, and what the Italians wish they could do in Libya, the West has certainly played its part in propping up some of the region's most odious regimes.