To me it seems obvious: if you want a happy country, you’re going to need some happy citizens. You can go the Saudi Arabia route and bribe your people with incentives and subsidized luxuries. You could go the Canada route and provide a system of elected representation that works hard to lay out respect and fair laws for its citizens. You could even go the German route and provide quick and efficient industries and well-run infrastructure. But if you want a revolution, if you really want your citizenry to be able to tap into the seemingly endless supply of democratic rage sweeping the system, make sure you shoot at them.
As we look at the revolutions that took place in Tunisia and Egypt, the struggle in Libya, the recent upsurge in Yemen, and the violence in Bahrain, we see a fairly predictable pattern emerging. Now it seems Syria is on the horizon of a revolution, but why? What do all these countries have in common?
Well first, they all have autocratic leadership. Each one of these countries either had a 25+ year “president” or a ruling family that lives in substantial and disproportionate wealth. Discontent has also fermented over rising food prices, heavy unemployment, a large youth population, the expansion of global ideas and a incredibly powerful momentum for positive change.
Yet, on the other side of this coin, if we look towards Morocco, Oman, and Jordan we will see all these same factors come into play. Morocco and Jordan are ruled as a kingdoms and Oman as a sultanate. There are, of course, Parliaments and a level of voting, but there is still a fair amount of repression as far as freedom of speech, ability to move in and out of the country, and independent businesses. Unemployment, heavy food prices, and a large youth population also exist. All these same countries also saw recent Jasmine-Revolution inspired protests, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands. However, neither Morocco, Jordan or Oman experienced the same kind of rage and violent discontent leveled at their governments.
“One can’t help but wonder,” I said to my friend who is currently studying in Tel Aviv, “if the one differing factor was that the protests in Morocco, Jordan and Oman saw very limited violence.”
“I think that has something to do with it,” she replied. “Also in Jordan, the king immediately dismissed the government and vowed to make changes. He’s actually showing that he’s listening to his people rather than just trying to repress them. In Oman they also shuffled the government and promises of reform have been announced in Morocco as well.”
“So the main difference, it seems, is really just dealing with the people’s concerns in a peaceful way that encourages mutual respect,” I mused.
“I think that’s a huge part of it.”
“Do you think,” I asked, “other leaders realize this but just don’t care? In Yemen and Bahrain and so forth. Or do you think that they are so, incredibly out of touch that they didn’t realize that brutal crackdowns in this day and age just adds fuel to the fire?”
“Well,” she pointed out, “some of these gambits might end up working out for the government.”
We volleyed these ideas back and forth for a while. She pointed out that perhaps because these revolutions have spread so quickly (really all of this began on December 17th, 2010) that the kings and presidents didn’t have time to realize what they were up against. I suggested that perhaps they really had no idea the level of societal discontent that had brewed in their own countries. Finally she brought up a point that I think has been missed by most within these oppressive regimes: “Really,” she said, “once you have a tyrannical government that is firing on you, what’s the point in turning back? You’re just going to get hunted down by the secret police and tortured in prison. You might as well go full force and change history.”
Oddly enough, all this violence has had the inadvertent effect of turning the armies’ sympathies toward the protesters’ causes. In Tunisia, the army refused to violently suppress the protests. In Egypt, there were reports that airplanes and tanks outright ignored commands to shell protesters in Tahrir Square. In Yemen, the general in command of more than half the army has sided with the cause of the opposition because of a recent massacre that left 41 dead and over 200 wounded. In Libya, the rebels acquired numerous weapons and tanks because members of the army could not bring themselves to destroy their own countrymen, and now in Syria, we are seeing the same pattern play out again. Recently protesters were fired on and Syrians have entered a rather unprecedented fifth consecutive day of protests in the capital and numerous towns.
What these recent events highlight is just how out of touch these dictatorships have become. The last 25+ years of oppression has seen policies and people quietly outgrowing their governments. As ordinary citizens watch the surges and the successes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya they cannot help but feel a type of cautious optimism. Things have been brutal in the past four months. Countless lives have been lost and these regimes have deployed tactics at peaceful protesters that are horrendously inhumane. But it has only pushed the opposition further, strengthened their resolve, and caused their shouts and demands to grow louder.
As things stand right now, it looks likely that these regimes could have stayed in power if they had chosen not to use lethal force, but rather made a certain amount of governmental concessions. If, instead of shooting into public squares, they had created city-hall forums where they heard the grievances of their people and worked to enact change. For men like Hosni Mubarak, Zine al-Abadine Ben Ali, and Muammar Gaddafi (and most likely Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen), it is too late to ever know. Now King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain and President Bashar al Assad of Syria have to be asking themselves the same thing: What if, instead of pulling the trigger, we had only listened? As illegitimate and ousted leaders continue to pile up, it seems they’ve taken too long to answer.