The Middle East: Liberation or Fundamentalism?

Daniel Wilson: How to Survive a Robot Army, Doubleday 2011

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This is an appropriate quote for what is happening in the Middle East right now. With many years of being ruled by dictators, whether benevolent or not (Singapore is described as a benevolent dictatorship) the people of these countries have had the same leader for decades.

First Tunisia, then Egypt, now Libya. We didn’t hear much about Tunisia because the media doesn’t consider them important on the world stage, but Egypt, land of the pyramids, sheiks and oil is important and we heard about that. But more importantly, social media and the internet means everyone is hearing about the protests and uprisings, including those people living under such regimes. Egypt tried to shut them up, seizing cell phone companies and shutting them down and to no avail. Al-Gadaffi has tried to shut up the media by banning them from the country but pictures taken on cell phones and other devices have been uploaded to the internet. Whereas we live in an age when Big Brother seems to watch our every move and keep us under constant surveillance (not that far a step from a dictatorship) we also have the freedom of getting information out no matter how hard tyrants and dictators try to tamp it down.

It’s interesting that even the poorest people, living in cardboard or corrugated metal shacks, will have a TV or a cellphone. Suppression of the news is getting harder and harder to do for your local despot. However, suppression of the masses still continues, often with a heavy hand, cased in metal and wielding a big metal stick, which holds ammo. It is one reason the Egyptian revolt was successful, Mubarak refrained from plowing down his citizens. That and the army didn’t stick behind him. I can’t say how Tunisia played out because we didn’t hear much about that. Al-Gaddafi on the other hand, is clearly mad and willing to go down, taking as many people with him as possible. Hooray for maniacs.

But perhaps these dynastic rulers (such as Gaddafi’s over-forty years and the possible succession by a son) have striven in some way to keep their countries from falling into religious fervor and fundamentalism as bad and as crazed as other dictators. There are many who would argue for al-Gaddafi, as those against him but the problem with one permanent ruler is that people never get to voice their opinions or see their votes really matter. And yeah, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Gaddafi may suppress his people until they are nothing but corpses and that will not liberate Libya. It all depends on who controls the army in the end. I sometimes wonder what would happen here if we had a similar dictator, and Harper has been accused of a heavy hand here, and what our forces would do. Just as the Tienanmen Square uprising in China did not succeed because the government rolled tanks over the protesters and shot them dead. Perhaps these protests will only bring about change if the governments don’t massacre their people. Perhaps those who revolt will have to gain their own weapons.

So which will it be, as rebellions, their like not seen in centuries, sweeps through the Middle East? Will the people be liberated, have safer lives and see democracy (not by any means a perfect system) in their governments? Or will the despots of decades be replaced by religious fundamentalism that will have people cower in their homes and subjugate some groups? You can bet the first group to be subjugated will be women, if that happens. And if Gaddafi stays in power, well, he hates the West, Berbers and who knows what else. But he certainly loves virginal women as that is what his bodyguards are purported to be. Supposedly martyrs to the faith in Islam will be greeted by a host of virgins in heaven (What do the women get and who wants a virgin anyways?). It looks like Gaddafi’s getting his now.

We are living through a crux of change, but then there is usually change. How the protests in the Middle East play out remains to be seen, but I’m not yet sure we’ll see a society more balanced in some of the countries. And in others the bloodshed will be high and the dictatorships will continue.

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