Saturday, February 18, 2012

Curb Your Ambition

A year back, I ventured into unchartered territories and made some bold predictions on how world events would be playing out in 2011. The seminal piece was completely ignored by the elitist western media which seemed to prefer ‘experts’ with a penchant for esoteric and speculative musings. Extremely disappointed with this rejection and appalled to see how PhDs and actual knowledge is being passed off as basis for expertise, I refrained from writing any more authoritative treatise on how the Arab Spring would play out. It turns out that was a very wise decision as I got most of my predictions wrong.

Last time when I commented on the Middle East, the Arab Spring had just been underway. Tunisia’s Ben Ali had flown the coop with all the gold he could lay his hand on and Egypt’s Mubarak was flirting with the idea of protesting the protests by unleashing deadly camels on the unsuspecting folks at Tahrir Square. It was business as usual in the rest of the region. Gaddafi was trolling Facebook looking for more pictures of Condoleeza Rice. The only promise Abdullah Saleh of Yemen was making was to his family that the next vacation would definitely not be in Socotra again. The only tanks Syria’s Assad was ordering were while playing Risk with his brother Maher. I had predicted that the Egyptian army would ease Mubarak out and control the country through a puppet president. As the consequent events proved, I was way off. In a stunning nod to the environmental lobby, the Egyptian army decided to take control on their own eliminating all the paperwork usually associated with installing puppet regimes. I had conjectured that Mubarak would be exiled. That almost happened except that it didn’t and he was jailed and made to stand trial while lying on a bed. I have to apologize for not having seen this coming. I come from a country where misuse of power usually makes you eligible to be the president of BCCI or the Congress Party or even the Indian Republic.

It’s a miracle I didn’t bet my money on Gadaffi’s survival. Given the opportunity, I surely would have. But apparently Libyans don’t share my enthusiasm for dictators with great bed-sheets which double up as commanding outfits for state visits. Tyranny and brutal repression is but a small price to pay if your dear leader has great taste in east European nurses. I think the UN played it beautifully by lulling Gadaffi into a false sense of security by being a mute observer to world events for 66 years and just when Brother Leader thought he could remodel Benghazi, down came the gavel on Resolution 1970 . A mandate so generous in its wording that NATO could use it to even block Bieber videos on YouTube saying it would save valuable Libyan lives. That was not the only bad decision he made in 2011. His recruitment policy of hiring half-emaciated mercenaries from Mali and Niger by telling them that all they had to do was gentle target practice on civilians back-fired when the new employees rose in protest pointing out that their contract didn’t include facing bunker busters which the NATO jets had started raining down on them. But all these tactical missteps could have been overlooked if only he had gracefully exited the stage at the appropriate time and spent the rest of his life in the care of his nurses and body-guards in any of the myriad tin pot African states whose dictators were willing to play host. The Greeks would have diverted the world’s attention like they always do every two months and the great dictator could have passed the rest of his days watching Seinfeld re-runs. Instead he chose fame in the viral videos circuit and decided to run into a sewer. Even in the best of times, experts have unanimously concluded that running into sewage has its disadvantages. However Gadaffi’s surprised look after being caught indicated that he perhaps didn’t account for any of them in his plans.

What Gaddafi lacked in luck and expediency, Saleh of Yemen made up for it in more ways than one. Every time it seemed that the game was up for Saleh, he managed to put up an elaborate show on how he would immediately leave only if the over eager mob gave him at least time to pack his essentials. And as soon as everything cooled down, he usually attempted to get back to business as usual as if the whole revolution business was just about a few people venting their disapproval about his dietary habits. Needless to say this incessant flip-flopping only made the population rebel with greater ferocity each time. Even when a bomb went off next to him in his palace and left him recuperating in Saudi Arabia for a few months, he managed to return to Sana’a undeterred and reclaimed power, also winning the Alec Baldwin 2011 Brass Balls Award in the process. However in spite of his swagger and aggressive posturing he knew if he didn’t let go, he too would meet his sewer maker. In politics, timing is everything and Saleh bid Yemen good bye when the state of affairs was just one straw away from inconveniencing the proverbial camel’s back.

That brings us to Syria, previously famous for inspiring the names for movies about fictitious Arab countries. Events in this country have finally answered the age old question, how much damage can someone who looks like a ventriloquist’s doll actually cause? A pertinent question which unfortunately President Assad has answered with vigor usually associated with Bond villains. He made his disdain for peaceful protests known by unleashing his tanks making Tiananmen Square look like Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The doyens of the global liberal movement have written numerous editorials severely critiquing the double standards of the West for not being as proactive about stopping the Syrian government’s atrocities. Some have gone even so far as to pin down the reason on the fact that Libya received the special attention of Patriot missiles and Euro fighters just because of the abundance of some obscure commodity experts are calling crude oil. And as Syria doesn’t have much to offer to the world market apart from hummus and falafel, the West has allowed the Arab League to try and resolve the morally and ethically complex issue of one megalomaniac trying to hold on to power by killing a lot of people. When I first heard of an organization of Arab countries dedicated to regional peace, I mistakenly assumed it to be about some little known Monty Python sketch and spent a lot of futile hours on YouTube looking for it. But apparently it’s as real as the erstwhile League of Nations and reportedly almost as effective. Unfortunately in spite the League’s best efforts, the crises in Syria continued to take a heavy toll in terms of lives and property. Who knew that battering the Syrian landscape with laser-guided requests for restraint wouldn’t have much effect on the Assad regime. Even when the West tried to scare Assad with a deadly condemnation letter from the Security Council, they got cockblocked by the poster boys of democracy, the Chinese and the Russians. The obviously well-intentioned Chinese & Russians are convinced that Assad is just a misunderstood leader and as soon as he coaxes the disgruntled citizens into death, all will be fine.

Assad has given numerous indications that he has more of Gaddafi’s delusional streak in him rather than Saleh’s pragmatism. In all probability there is a sewer somewhere in Damascus receiving a fresh coat of paint and getting readied to welcome an esteemed guest. I guess it will start in the usual way where some of the influential behind-the-scene players will switch sides and before you know it, the great erstwhile dictator will be scrambling to keep his vital organs in place. This whole Arab spring has brought out a few important lessons for all those people despairing about what they want to do in life. Appearances may suggest that a career in tyranny and despotism is great. The hours are good and the perks usually involve a decent access to the better restaurants in town. But it’s better to aspire for the middle and near-the-top ranks in the regime rather than be a part of the inner circle of the dear leader or be the dear leader himself. Relinquishing the glamorous positions will afford you the opportunity to induce a moral epiphany at an ideal point in any future rebellion and help you choose the winning side before it is too late. If you don’t believe in this train of thought, just ask the poor souls in Egypt and Libya. They are still trying to understand how a post-tyrant life is so eerily more of the same, how the faces have changed but the diktats remain the same and how terribly fickle the attention span of the world is. So all aspiring tyrants who also want a secure career, curb your ambition. Just a little bit.