Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Last dictator standing

The popular revolts sweeping the Middle East are not just directed against despots like Gaddafi, but also against those who have propped them up, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed*

When the history of our extraordinary times is written, pride of place will go to the ordinary people of the Middle East. From Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen, and Bahrain and Jordan to Algeria and Morocco, it has been the humble, faceless multitudes who have accomplished the unthinkable -- demolishing the fearsome old order armed with nothing but prayers on their lips and unrelenting faith. Their matter-of-fact defiance has stripped the new emperors of their fig leaves of legitimacy. The revenge of the dispossessed couldn't have been sweeter.

How utterly wrong were all those stuffy pundits who claimed that the Arabs were antipathetic to free-thinking. On the contrary, their spring of hope and faith has turned into a ferocious tide that has already swallowed up two gilded thrones. If Muammar Gaddafi thinks he can stop this tide with fighter jets, helicopter gunships and squads of female bodyguards, he's living in a fool's paradise. Using fighter jets to bomb your own people? Only a truly diabolic lunatic could resort to something like that. How low will yesterday's so- called revolutionaries go to protect their decaying palaces and thrones?

However, we have been here before. Remember what another self-styled Arab leader visited on the Kurds, the Shiites and of course his own fellow Sunnis? The ultimate target of the force and fiercest weapons at a tyrant's disposal is his own people. This is what happened in the Shah's Iran and Saddam's Iraq. This has been the hallowed tradition of the Arab republics. Thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood were persecuted in Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak. In neighbouring Algeria, thousands of Islamists simply "disappeared" for flirting with democracy and beating the powers that be at their own game by winning elections.

As a result, Gaddafi's murderous response to peaceful protests is hardly surprising. This is how he and fellow Arab republicans have long dealt with dissent or even with a harmless political gathering. This is what the tyrants and the empire's satraps have done all these years, and they have got away with it. This is how they have perpetuated themselves in power, and international champions of democracy and freedom have not just humoured them, but have also cosied up to them -- all in the name of peace and stability of course.

Yet, now the game is up -- both for the Arab potentates who have been the curse of the Middle East and for their opportunistic, shameless patrons. Gaddafi's homicidal crackdown on the people power sweeping Libya only does more to justify courageous protests on the streets, reminding the world once again of the living hell many of these Arab republics have been for their own people.

The greater the force this self-anointed champion of the Arab-Islamic world uses against defenseless civilians, the more he strengthens their resolve to throw him out. No wonder that what started as a reluctant and copycat demonstration after the events in Tunisia and Egypt has now mutated into a powerful, glorious jihad against the tyranny and oppression that Libyans and Arabs have long suffered from. Every bullet the regime fires at the swelling sea of protesters is another nail in its own coffin.

Like his disgraced fellow dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Gaddafi could go on fighting till kingdom come. However, everyone knows he's fighting a losing battle. Like others have done before him, he could drag his feet like a vicious urchin. But it's a hopeless cause. Those around him are jumping ship. The Libyan ambassadors to the United Nations and elsewhere have quit in protest against the government's going on the rampage against its own people. Both the Libyan interior and justice ministers have joined the protesters.

Yet, Gaddafi is sticking to his guns, even as he increasingly looks like a failed Shakespearean hero, or rather villain. Wildly waving his arms around and promising death and destruction, the crazy old man reminds one of another crazy old man, Shakespeare's King Lear. As the British journalist Robert Fisk wrote last week, "the old boy looked bad -- sagging face, bloated, simply magnoon (mad) -- a comedy actor who has turned to serious tragedy in his last days, desperate for the last make-up lady, the final knock on the theatre door."

Rest assured that that final knock will come sooner than Gaddafi and his gang might think. He and his kind are on their way out, no matter how dirty they fight. The end is nigh. You don't have to be an armchair pundit to see it. People power will triumph in Libya, as it has in Tunisia and Egypt. The juggernaut of change unleashed by the desperate action of a Tunisian fruit vendor across the Middle East will come to rest only with the fall of the last dictator standing.

Yet, none of this is really surprising. This had to be the natural outcome of the long years of oppression, injustice and all- pervading corruption that people have suffered from. This is why the voices from the streets of Tunis and Cairo are resonating across the Middle East, from Tripoli to Tehran and Manama to Marrakech. The elites will ignore them at their peril.

We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese saying has it. And the Arab masses will remember who stood by them and who remained on the wrong side of history. Having promised a "new way forward" in the Arab and Muslim world, US President Barack Obama had a rare opportunity to take just that when the ground began to shift in the Middle East. Unfortunately, there has been the same moral obfuscation and double standards that have characterised successive US administrations. So much for the "yes we can" once promised by Obama.

While the Middle East has changed almost beyond recognition over the past two months, the western response to this tsunami of change has been predictable. Everything is still viewed through the prism of what such change could mean for Israel and its geopolitical interests.

The empire is understandably jittery over the prospect of losing the control it has exercised over the region, even as much of it was formally ceded in the last century. If there were free men in power, these could not be ordered around as the West has done all these years. Those who have been capable of cutting their powerful tormentors to size could also now boot out the empire.

In a way, the West has every reason to fear the change. The people's revolt is not just against the gods who have failed them. It's also against those who spawned and propped up the corrupt order that made the Arabs helpless slaves in their own lands. It seems the Middle East is ready for change, at last.

* The writer is a Gulf-based writer on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs.

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