Monday, July 8, 2013

800 Words: Pity the Dictator...

It is said that no matter what other works of art he banned, Stalin never missed a performance of Boris Godunov. You would think that The Great Russian Opera would be the first to be censured by the Soviet Union - an opera about Russian tyrant who murdered his way to the throne, causes untold suffering to his people, and lives in perpetual terror of being held to account for his crimes. Even if this opera was about Czarist Russia, nobody could mistake the parallels to the Stalinist era. But at every performance, there was Stalin in his box, apparently listening quite intently. Even the stoniest heart of the century was moved to pity by the sight of his own soul’s reflection. So invested was he in Boris Godunov that he barred the Bolshoi’s music director, Nikolai Golovanov, from ever conducting again because Golovanov preferred a different bass for the role than Stalin’s favorite.

Brecht (rarely...) summed it up quite well: “How exhausting it is to be evil.” It is difficult to imagine that Stalin, the former seminary student who nearly became an Orthodox priest, could shed every last vestige of his former religious belief. Perhaps his psychopathy was untroubled, but it’s also possible to imagine him in his private gloom, awaiting the tumultuous hellfire which he knew was his ripe desert.

But historical figures like Stalin and Mao, as they existed in the twentieth century, are no longer possible. For the moment, there’s simply too much information and not enough means to collate it to gather useable dossier files after the manner of 20th century totalitarian states. In place of the totalitarian leader returns a creature both less and more lethal than the absolute monarch/dictator - the warlord. The warlord has no true power over his subjects in life, he only has power over them in death; and should the apparatus of war fall to pieces, so will he. Such is the lot of Bashar al-Assad, who has ceased to be an authoritarian dictator, he is now a warlord whose power is only demonstrable by the number of people he can kill.

Those of us who supported the Arab Spring have little to show for our beliefs thus far but an endless list of war crimes which will probably grow far more endless before the war ends. In the Syrian Civil War, there are as many as 120,000 dead, 130,000 missing, 1,500 foreign civilians killed, 1.2 million refugees, and 3 million internally displaced. The Syrian dictatorship as it existed before The Arab Spring exists no longer, nor could it ever. Syria is not an authoritarian state, it is chaos. And into that chaos was thrown a fifth of that country’s people, and who knows how many more millions will be thrown in before the chaos subsides?

Meanwhile, Egypt continues its dance upon an even deadlier volcano. Egypt’s elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was worse than a dictator, he was an incompetent would-be-dictator who attempted power seizures in the clumsiest possible manner. Even if he was elected, only way in which he could not be deposed by the Egyptian military was to entice the liberals to remain on his side - and yet he insisted on near-absolute constitutional power, and secular liberals left the Constituent Assembly (charged with drafting the new constitution) in disgust. No doubt, Morsi saw the example of Ayatollah Khomeini and thought that liberals could be casually brushed aside with a simple declaration the way Khomeini did in Iran. But the Egyptian revolution was built on far less solid ground than the Iranian one. The Iranian protests against the Shah involved as many as nine million people, whereas the protests against Mubarak were 2 million strong. Such was the hold of Khomeini’s charisma that upon his return to Iran, he was greeted by more than five million followers. Khomeini inspired so much devotion in his following that he could brush a liberal government aside with a wave of his hand, and no other Iranian had anything like the power to stop him.

Mohammed Morsi was never supposed to be president. He only became a candidate because the Egyptian military banned the candidacy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy chairman - Khairad El-Shater. No one knows how any Islamist in Egypt could believe that an Islamic president could get away with giving himself dictatorial powers, but there should be no doubt that any Islamist President would have done the same. There are still more extreme Islamic parties in Egypt, powerful ones like the Salafist al-Nour party which got 28% of the vote. As much pressure as there was on Morsi to stay within the limits of constitutional law, there may have been still more pressure on him to become an Islamic dictator.

Meanwhile, the protests in Turkey have become so common that, in comparison to Egypt, the media has barely reported on them - seeing little difference in what’s happening in Turkey to what happened all over the Arab world. But what’s happened in Turkey is, in some ways, even more dramatic. Turkey’s protests against Prime Minister Erdogan have attracted at least 640,000 people. And when Erdogan definitively took violent action against the protests, it was the reverse of Mubarak. When Mubarak took action, it showed that he was a dictator no longer in control of the country he ruled with an iron fist. But when Erdogan took violent action against those who protested him, he officially was no longer a mere democratically elected leader - he became a would-be-dictator who rules by force. Mubarak is the authoritarianism of the past, Erdogan is the authoritarianism of the future. He was once the great hope for all of us who believed that political Islam needn’t be compatible with tyranny, but there can be no mistaking that Erdogan has opted for despotism. Over Erdogan’s time, Turkey has censored over a million websites, the country’s imprisoned over a hundred journalists, has bomed Iran and Iraq in violation of international law and continually threatens to bomb Syria, and killed as many as 60,000 Kurds (though probably half that). It’s possible, however unlikely, that Erdogan has plans to exploit the instability of the Islamic world to be its imperial overseer. No one has more to gain from the Arab Spring’s plunge into chaos than Erdogan. But how can Erdogan rule over all Islam he can’t even control his own country?

And finally, there’s the Israel/Palestine conflict. The third and definitive piece in the tic-tac-toe board of regional war. Where this perennial cause celebre goes, there will the world go. Syria is already in catastrophic Civil War, Egypt seems on the verge of it. All that’s required to become a regional conflict is for Civil War to occur in Israel/Palestine. One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, I’ll go into all the reasons why war between Israelis and Palestinians, or even war between Palestinian factions, remains the most lethal danger for the entire area - the difference between contained conflicts, or a war that could metastasize to literally any corner of the globe.

But even if it doesn’t, barely lower levels of instability circle the governments of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Tunisia, and Bahrain. The entire Middle East is operating at a simmer, waiting for a match to strike the powder keg that will ignite it into the twenty-first century’s first grand conflict. If the rest of the world is wise, it won’t get too entangled. It’s the twenty-first century, but The Middle East looks very much like the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, because no matter how militant and extreme a warlord gets, there is always someone whispering in his ear that he must become still more extreme, still more violent - or risk violence being done to him.

(The Grand Inquisitor Scene from Verdi's Don Carlo)

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