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Rasool Nafisi Headshot

An End to the Politics of Revenge?

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News sources indicate that France has agreed to let Qaddafi remain in Libya if he cedes power. Qaddafi's acquiescence notwithstanding, this is the best decision made by the Western powers so far in the Libyan conflict, not only because the offer presents a reasonable alternative to continued bloodshed in Libya, but because by discarding the politics of revenge for one of pragmatism, France may have created a powerful tool for negotiating with tyrants in other war-torn countries of the Middle East.

For many Muslim countries, successful revolutions lead to an endless quest for revenge on the ousted tyrant and his allies, which forestalls progress in the best case and begets new tyrants in the worst case. Egypt has not progressed since the removal of Mubarak, because a great deal of revolutionary energy is spent debating whether to hang Mubarak and his son, what to do with imprisoned cabinet members and other officials, and how to locate the fortunes stashed away by Mubarak and his family. Egypt is better off focusing on the future by strengthening its civil society, creating national unity, establishing viable political parties to contend with and beat the Wafd party and Muslim Brotherhood, and lastly, convening a robust and healthy election for the new parliament where the new constitution will be drafted. Instead of focusing on a deposed and dying general who is politically powerless, Egyptians need to put an end to the rule of a military that is more than happy to offer more sacrifices to the national appetite for revenge in exchange for a continuing lease on power.

It is unlikely that Syria's Bashar Assad and Yemen's Saleh would cease killing demonstrators and resign if granted permission to stay in their own homeland, protected by their own clan members. But the cost of making the offer is negligible. And no alternative approaches have worked. Caught between rock and hard place, the tyrants of the Muslim world choose terror.

Iran's failed revolution for democracy in 1979 is instructive. The Shah fled the country relatively quickly, after less than a year of intensive street demonstrations and some casualties. At the time, the Shah was under the assumption that he could reside in the United States, where he had previously sought exile status (when the Shah fled the country in 1953 for the first time, he showed interest in living and working on his own farm in the US). Events did not turn out as he had planned, but had the Shah known of his impending demise in Mexico and Egypt, he almost certainly would have demonstrated more resilience against the uprising.

In the last days of his short career, Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of the Shah, made an offer to the mullahs that fell on the deaf ear of hectoring Khomeini. Bakhtiar suggested that he would turn the holy city of Qum into the "Vatican" of Shiite mullahs, where they could enjoy full sovereignty, similar to that of the pope and his entourage in the Vatican. Had the mullahs accepted the offer, a world of mayhem, suffering, and disorder inside and outside of Iran would have been prevented. And the Shiite clergy would have earned a great deal of prestige and power which would have enabled them to maintain their traditional status as the supporter of the poor and powerless, while exerting a great amount of leverage against the Shah's regime. Ayatollah Khomeini would have gone to his grave as the Gandhi of Muslim world, and the Shiites would have fulfilled their historical yearning for moral superiority over the Sunnis.

Instead, the ayatollahs' reign turned the politics of revenge into state policy. Donning the mantle of the avenger of the blood of the third Shiite Imam, the mullahs unleashed an enormous wave of state-sponsored atrocities on the Iranian populous. One of the first victims of the new regime, ordered to death by Khomeini himself, was a octogenarian general who faced the firing squad in his wheelchair. Since then, the politics of revenge have cascaded, and the ayatollahs today maintain their tenuous hold on power through sheer force and brutality, perpetually diminishing their claims to religious authority.

The offer to Qaddafi is a wise choice. In the future, similar offers can be improved by offering asylum outside of the tyrants' home countries. The Iranian ayatollahs, for example, may feel more comfortable with offers of US protection in the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Though granting a tyrant asylum will pose political and practical difficulties, they pale in comparison to the costs of maintaining the status quo -- the politics of revenge.