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President Assad and supporters

With his troops busy occupying various cities, his snipers randomly killing, and mass arrests being made by his secret services, President Bashar al-Assad, son of the former President, is apparently out to follow in his father’s foot-steps by becoming another mass killer.   Above, in what appears to be a sumptuous place, a crisply white-uniformed military guard in the distance, Assad is surrounded by his rather obviously high-class admirers and supporters.  Part of the regional oligarchy we must assume.   The Syrian government is a – yet another – kleptocracy, in which a tiny minority skims off the national wealth, backed by a military, secret service, all of whom are kept relatively well-off while…*

Non-supporters of Assad, evidently of another “class of people”

“We will not go out, leave on our boat, go gambling, you know,” he said at his plush, wood-paneled headquarters in Damascus. “We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” He added later, “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

So was quoted Rami Makhlouf, giving the customary explanation – as given by elites the world round – that without the ruling regime of which he, (aged 41, the richest businessman of Syria, cousin of the President), is a major part, the country would fall apart.  That for most of its citizens it has long since fallen apart seems never to occur to the likes of Mr Makhlouf, of Mubarack, or their crazed kin, Gaddafi.  Living within the cushioned cocoon of wealth, surrounded with adulators, such people seem ever to stumble blindly to their own guillotine, never understanding why, until far too late.  But, as the quote above suggests, in going they will make sure to take many with them.  Noblesse oblige.

In the middle-east these are an old stories, in many of which the US, or some other once colonial power, has a hand in writing.  Today, as a consequence of this history, ignited symbolically by the self-immolation of a simple street peddler,  Mohamed Bouazizi  in Tunisia, the region is – thanks in part to those western inventions of the internet and social networking pages – aflame.  Able to see the wider world, mired in a suffocating dead-end of economic, political and social tyranny, the younger people have risen up, voting often with their feet and fleeing to Europe and America, and now with mass demonstrations, and more recently, armed rebellion.  Bouazizi’s was an act of despair, provoked (it is said) by the slap of a police-woman who was confiscating his street cart – again.  He could not know his gesture would act, in concert with the long-forming political climate of the region, to ignite a regional uprising.

Mohamed BouaziziFuneral of Mohamed BouaziziEgyptian police before Mubarack’s departure

While Tunisia and Egypt sort out the aftermath of the symbolic collapse – if not the real collapse – of the previous regimes, neighboring countries  (potentates or whatever scrambled agglomerations Western powers drew in the sands of Arabia) now shudder under the impact of this new-found capacity for ordinary people to share their views, and unite to make those views into action.  In Libya it is being costly, and Gaddafi, the mad-hatter of Tripoli, is clearly intending to do whatever is needed to stay in power.  In turn the country is being dragged into a civil/tribal war, though assisted now by Nato on the  side of the anti-Gaddafi forces.  Nothing like some oil or other interests to draw in the Big Powers.  The battle in Libya seems slowly to be tilting towards the rebels, mostly courtesy of Nato air-power being applied in large doses against Gaddafi’s hired guns.  The brutish nature of the fight has seen the chants of “peaceful, peaceful,” which signaled the new nature of the Arabic uprisings, degenerate into killing squads for evening up old scores.  The longer it carries on, the uglier it is likely to get.

Muammar, the couturier of Tripoli

Meantime, to the other side of the region, east of Egypt, the situation in Syria seems to worsen, as the government of Bashar Assad clearly takes father’s path and comes down hard on the rebellion under way.   Similar toughness bought the Assad family some 30 years in power, following the crushing of  Hama in 1982 by Hafez al-Assad.   His son Bashar was thought to be a “reformer” and coddled by the west, in part in an attempt to mollify Israel.   However, it appears when backed into a corner, like father like son.   Also he is closely allied to Iran, and one must presume they consented and encouraged this response.  However, in the current era of the internet, cell-phones, al Jazeera, and with a majority population of testosterone energized youth with no jobs and little future to look forward to, it seems doubtful that even a brutal crackdown such as that going on now will work.  Perhaps for some months, or even a few years.  But if anything it is likely to add to the pressure and assure an even more explosive denouement for the House of Assad and hangers-on.

Bashar al-Assad Official Web Page

Troubles in the House of Bashar “Modigliani”: Bashar, his wife, his friend

While it seems now a pundit’s commonplace to cite the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi as the trigger for the present events, it would seem to me that a better case can be made for a much broader mixture of elements, and that if a single iconic figure must be given the titular role, it should be that of  Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman killed on June 20, 2009.    The Iranian Green revolution, which failed, or at least has done so thus far, provided the example of how the internet and social media could be utilized, and I am sure all around the middle-east the events in Iran provided lesson, hopeful and sobering, of the new realities in which their world finds itself.

Neda Agha-Soltan

What unites all of these revolts, aside from geography and a cultural commonality, is that in each case the ruling elite constituted or constitutes also an economic elite – whether as in Egypt or Iran, with the military functioning as a de facto corporate entity, with its own self-interests qua business, and the typical corruptions that ensue and/or that the government itself operated in such a manner.  In both cases those in the elite completely lost touch with the general populace, and for varying reasons applied state terror to quash public opinion, whether allegedly to suppress religious fundamentalism as in Egypt or Algeria (currently out of the equation of uprisings) or in the case of Iran, to support State Islamic fundamentalism.   Operating in a cocoon of blind self-interest, engaging in highly alienating police-state behaviors, and dispersing wealth to themselves at the cost of the general public, these governments laid the groundwork for the present situation.  They did so seemingly unaware of the powers of internet communications, social networking tools, and the presence of al-Jazeera, a non-State-run broadcast system run by and for Arabic people.   This combination has proven to be a toxic brew for the entrenched, often US and Western supported, dictatorships which fill the region.

I have little doubt that over the longer run all those oligarchic police-state systems will be overturned, and that the viral nature of this regional revolution will go full circle and engulf Iran again.   What these countries will become will largely be a function of how brutally these regimes act in attempting to survive.

As-Salāmu `Alaykum

*  sound vaguely familiar?

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