Saturday, May 7, 2011

Our dictator, our fault?

The images of a fallen autocrat defending himself from within a chicken coop can be enthralling. Watching Hosni Mubarak on trial earlier this week, Arabs all over must have superimposed a face of their own choosing on that of the dying man lying in his bed.

The killing of the father is a favorite theme in literature and psychology, but its most forceful manifestations can usually be witnessed in politics. A democratic Egypt, if one emerges, will need to transcend Mubarak—not to mention the garland of fathers in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. However, a warning is in order. Those Arab societies that have rejected their regimes and are going through revolutionary transformations today should also address seriously why they remained for so long under the boot of absolute, kleptocratic, usually homicidal leaderships.

If events in Egypt end mainly with punishment of Mubarak and his sons and cronies, then Egyptians will have achieved relatively little. Getting rid of a dictator is no substitute for the overhaul of the deeper infrastructures of Arab societies facilitating authoritarian rule.

Take the Arab reaction to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003. Overwhelmingly, the peoples of the Middle East condemned the American invasion of Iraq, coloring their views of Saddam. The region’s worst mass murderer somehow received a dispensation because no one could stomach his enemy. Saddam became associated with what was soon perceived as a legitimate resistance, despite its systematic murder of innocents.

A personal episode helps illustrate how warped was the reasoning in those days. When Saddam was caught in his “spider hole,” an Arab academic living in the United States explained to me how much he regretted the development. “Bush will benefit from it,” he groaned.

When observers can take such a functional view of what was, in its own way, a moral accomplishment, you know there is a problem. Saddam Hussein’s crimes, regardless of who removed him from power or benefited from his capture, were sufficiently monstrous for sensible Arabs to consider them independently of context, on their own terms. The region is indeed a better place without a man who butchered nearly half a million Iraqis, and provoked a war against Iran leading to the death or injury of well over a million others.

Instead of turning Saddam Hussein’s downfall to their own advantage in battles with their homegrown greater or lesser Saddams, many Arabs talked only about America. What they could have said was that it was up to the Iraqis themselves, and Arabs in general, to depose such an odious individual, not the Americans. They could have said that, with Saddam gone, it was incumbent upon Arabs to help rebuild a postwar Iraq, thereby accelerating an American withdrawal. They could even have said that, American intervention aside, Saddam was a victim of his own hubris and egoism, the same hubris and egoism saturating their own leaders, so that any strike against hubris and egoism was for the greater good of the Arab world.

Yet a crushing majority of Arabs said no such things.

As Egyptians debate the meaning of Mubarak’s trial, shouldn’t they be engaging in greater introspection? Shouldn’t the Iraqis or the Tunisians, too, like the Yemenis, Bahrainis and Saudis? Or the indomitable Syrians? That entire countries were governed for decades by despots and their families, whose mere presence was a daily insult to citizens, was—and in many places still is—quite troubling.

Nor can this flaw be washed away solely by the trial or execution of a former leader. Removing the father is only one step in a liberal revolution. Unless societies build institutions to preserve and enhance democratic behavior and individual freedom, revolutions replace one despot with another, one authoritarianism with another.

Syrians are paying an intolerable price for 40 years of dismal, stifling Assad rule. It would be unfair to portray the ongoing carnage as penance for having permitted a single family to humiliate Syria for so long. By pursuing their struggle peacefully and avoiding the sectarian traps set by the regime, the demonstrators have grasped that the essence of their democratic renaissance must be to embody the antithesis of what Bashar al-Assad and his acolytes represent. When the Syrians finally do overcome the beast, and provided they do so without violence by way of sectarian inclusiveness, they may be better placed than Egypt to move toward a democratic order.

Despotism is a frame of mind as much as it is an individual imposing his writ on all. Arabs striving to regain their liberty and impose the rule of law will have to break down complex structures of obedience and conformity that were, or still are, manipulated by their leaders. These structures include fear of violent repression, but also oppressive ideologies, sectarian prejudices, social and financial dependencies, a tendency to engage in self-censorship, and much else.

Congratulate Egyptians for putting Hosni Mubarak before a judge. However, they, like all Arabs, should also place their society before a severe judge—themselves—and determine what responsibility they bear for Mubarak. The answer will truly set them free.

No comments: