What Do Arab Dictators Offer Their Subjects?

Since I am a student of history and interested in the middle east I have been following the uprisings there closely, from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to the civil war in Libya and now the spreading violence in Syria. It is more difficulty for me to tell whether the situation in Yemen is more or less chaos than usual in that semi-failed state so I find it less compelling. Iran too is simmering I think that with the victories by the opposition elsewhere we will see that state rise up again.

As far as Syria, we have the supposed “modernizer” ophthalmologist son Bashar al-Assad, son of brutal former dictator Hafez al-Assad now facing an uprising. In past decades his father dealt harshly with uprisings, such as his infamous “Hama Massacre” where 20,000 – 40,000 were killed to put down a challenge to the regime in 1982.

Now the son is using tanks on unarmed civilians in the town of Deraa, according to this article. Deraa has been a center of unrest and now the military has sent in armored vehicles and positioned snipers on the roofs of buildings to keep people indoors.

I would be quite interested to know what al-Assad would say to the nation if given the opportunity to speak about WHY he should be elected president, if there were elections that weren’t completely rigged. He took this opportunity when he addressed the nation on March 31 as summarized here. Assad was defiant and blamed the usual suspects:

From the opening remarks of the speech and a further near dozen times, President Assad referred to the “conspiracy”, “plots” and “sabotage” targeting Syria from outside, of which the protests for change which have centred in the southern city of Daraa, “a border area”, were a part. “The objective was to fragment Syria, bring down Syria as a nation to enforce an Israeli agenda,” said the president, a message that resonates with his supporters.

It is interesting. The primary purpose of Syria, per Assad, is for it to EXIST in its current form, under dictatorship of Assad’s minority group, and not be “fragmented”, likely into units that could potentially represent themselves. And also for Syria to continue to fight Israel.

This really is how he is presenting the VALUE of his regime to his nation, although about half the people are under 21 and have no memories of even minor engagements against the Israelis and virtually no one alive except the elderly remember the “real” wars of 1967 and 1973 much less 1948 and 1956.

It is amazing the childish nature with which he openly treats his subjects; without an ubiquitous and arbitrary security apparatus, the state would apparently implode and disorder would break out everywhere. And this is what the dictatorship of him and his father, since 1970, for over 40 years, has purchased? A simmering state about to explode the second he takes his boot off their neck?

It is difficult for me to understand how he will be able to re-integrate in the community of nations after using tanks against his own people when they are unarmed. By this I mean have himself and his rich friends travel to Europe for fine meals, medical care, and all the other things he denies his own people. This is something that he will care about, being confined in a state of seething rage surrounded by murderous neighbors and wailing about Israel, a country that for practical purposes poses no threat and doesn’t impact their day-to-day existence.

As he puts down revolts and only offers further promises of violence and nothing else to hold together his state, without a counter-vision there is nothing. Blaming Israel for every failure of your regime may buy you 40 years in the Arab world but it can’t buy you an infinite life span.

The end game may take many forms but the army of conscripts and the fact that his people are in a small minority and have a web of alliances may take him down. God knows what may replace him but it is likely that those he hit with violence (other ethnic or religious groups) won’t look kindly on those that propped up the regime for 40 years on the way down. It won’t be easy and obviously Assad will stop at nothing (along with his relatives, who may actually be ruling the place, anyways) but without some vision other than the threat of death his regime is dead.

7 thoughts on “What Do Arab Dictators Offer Their Subjects?”

  1. No matter how good the ruler, some one always wants to get rid of him. No matter how bad, some one always wants to keep him. The only advantage Democracy provides is an orderly way to remove rulers without bloodshed and orderly way to place new rulers in command without bloodshed, death and destruction.

    We all know that in our Democracy in 2012 we shall get a chance to remove Obama and, no matter what happens, that in 2016 he will be gone for good and he will never be ruler again. And we don’t have to worry that his wife or daughters will take over unless they get elected.

    But in Syria, as in every other middle east country except Iraq and Israel, the only way to change rulers requires killing and torturing vast numbers of “innocent” bystanders. It is their form of government. The Democrats claim the peoples of the Middle East prefer bloodshed, death and destruction to Democracy. Which is why Obama and the Progressives do not try to replace it with Democracy or some other bloodless system for changing rulers.

  2. As a student of history, does not what you describe of Syria sound like the previous millenium of history in the Middle East? In this light, isn’t 40 years of power as good as it gets? And if we to predict what would replace the Assad regime, wouldn’t the best guess be Pete Townshend’s, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”?

  3. I don’t know what the future holds.

    People want opportunities and freedom.

    The Arab world is very young and I think they want to build their own future. I don’t think that they want a dictator or to be dominated by religious zealots.

    Whomever replaces Assad really can’t be more brutal. Everything could descend into chaos though.

    And maybe perhaps they’d realign the borders in the middle east to match the people instead of just staying with the arbitrary borders that they originally received. for Libya, for example, the East may just belong with Egypt. Syria could be carved up. Staying together in a miserable marriage can’t work forever.

  4. I was able to travel fairly extensively in Syria in 2002. It was wonderful to walk down streets just wide enough for donkey carts in Damascus, a city that has been continuously inhabited for about 6,000 years. Tourism alone could create an economic boom in Syria if it had a legitimate government.

    Everywhere in Syria are photos of Basher al Assad. Every business establishment has one next to its entrance. At first I wasn’t sure what that meant, do the people really love him or is it just too risky for one’s health to not have the picture on display? While no one would say so directly it became clear that the photos did not represent any admiration for Basher, but were there strictly an attempt to ward off the secret police. I knew I was in a true police state.

    Later I came to understand this even better from reading Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.

    See also this post at Instapundit on Preference Cascades. Perhaps this is why Basher al Assad seems desperate.

  5. Carl, you are right about the crux of the matter being the new generations. Perhaps my thinking is overly influenced by David Pryce-Jones and Bernard Lewis. Things can change. It depends to a great extent on the frames children learn to think through. From what I see on this count (all second hand), I am pessimistic about the Palestinian culture. On the other hand, the upcoming generations in Iran seem more encouraging. Is there reason to be more hopeful more broadly?

  6. Michael, You summed it up evocatively. Thank you. The universalization of the sense of innate, God-given rights and the internalization of a locus which makes us feel guilt but also empowers us with responsibility are surely the great gifts of Western thought. And from them, the belief that man’s law, enacting justice as well as protecting those rights and the property without which those rights are meaningless, should be codified and impartially applied. From this comes an ordered and purposeful life. Our God grants mercy, our laws grant justice. Oh, well, these are concepts we are in danger of losing ourselves. I’ve just finished grading papers that see Amelia’s speech in Othello a positive feminist expression and Hester & Dimmesdale weak in The Scarlet Letter because they accept the judgment of the community rather than listening to the voice within, which a “moral” person would follow self-righteously (and passionately). If we’ve lost what that great old vision is, how can we expect others to embrace it? And if we undervalue what we have to offer, then don’t we and they over value what a dictator does?

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