Savagery and Respect

January 28, 2011 Topic: AutocracyCivil Society Region: EgyptIranSyriaTunisiaYemen

Savagery and Respect

Notice how no one's protesting in Middle Eastern countries where brutal tactics are the norm.


The felling of dictatorships and the achievement of democracy in various parts of the world are among the more attractive features of contemporary history, and the ongoing surge of people power in the Muslim Arab world—a broad, uniform swath of authoritarianism—is praiseworthy.

But it is worth looking a little more closely at where exactly street-orchestrated regime change is taking place—and where it isn't.


The regimes that have crumbled or appear to be on the verge of crumbling, are those linked to the West, and they are regimes characterized by a relatively soft authoritarianism, and are commonly perceived as weak, if not downright flabby, well past their prime. As such, and partly, no doubt, in deference to Washington's wishes (much like the shah of Iran in 1978–1979), these regimes desisted from massively using lethal weapons.

The Tunisian leaders, over many weeks of street violence, by and large refrained from unleashing live fire against the demonstrators and the Egyptian and Yemeni leaders appear to be following suit. Similarly, the so-far-small demonstrations in Jordan have essentially faced canes and tear gas, which don't really deter resolute, desperate youngsters, driven by brutal poverty and unemployment. In Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt deaths have been relatively rare.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the Iranian regime's successful suppression of last year's street rebellion, triggered by the fraudulent elections that left President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in power. (During the past week or two, strangely, few or no journalists have made this obvious comparison.) In Iran a resolute, religiously fanatical and brutal dictatorship displayed no hesitancy and made no effort to cloak its iron fist. Rather the opposite. The police and militia thugs were given their head, and they slaughtered hundreds, savagely beat and tortured many more, and raped imprisoned male and female demonstrators. And it worked.

Perhaps this also explains why the streets of Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia have so far been completely quiet. Not a peep: most Syrians are also poor and (presumably) would like to live free. But one senses that they know that they will meet Iranian-style resolution and viciousness—as President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafiz al-Assad, displayed against the rebels of Hama three decades ago—should they take to the streets. So they haven't.

There is probably an unpleasant lesson here. What is clear is that the West, as usual, is faring poorly among the Muslims of the Middle East, where real savagery—sadly—wins respect, and irresolution, a kick in the pants.