The people are coming for you

In February last year, drunk on the euphoria of the Arab Spring and cheap wine, I put this rant up on Facebook:

“Bouteflika, Saleh, Assad, Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and you silent eminences his masters, Abdullah the Hashemite, Abdullah of the House of Saud, don’t sleep, don’t turn out the lights, don’t blink, the people are coming for you.”

Well, yes. They really were coming for Gaddafi. Saleh of Yemen is gone too, though allowed to live.


Billboard with portrait of Assad on the old city wall of Damascus 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Things aren’t looking good for Assad, though I daresay he can murder a few more of his people yet before they drag him, kicking and screaming, from power. But I wonder about Assad, who studied to be an eye doctor in London, I wonder what he thinks of as his guns tear his people apart.

What does he think of in those dark, lonely hours when sleep does not come? Does he think of Gaddafi, dragged out from that drain, pushed and slapped around, blood pouring from his face, bewildered, at the mercy of violent men, all his power and majesty stripped away, dying out there on that dusty road?

Does he think of Mubarak, humiliated and on trial? Does he think of Saddam, mustering a little dignity at the last before the noose, with the witnesses whooping like jackals around him?

I’m sure he does. He shakes himself free of those thoughts, gets out of bed, washes his face — thinking, as he does, of the blood on Gaddafi’s face again. You have to keep going, he tells himself. For Syria.

Without him, he reasons, there would be civil war. He is the only thing holding his country together. Without his regime, without his guiding hand, they would all be at each other’s throats: Muslims, Christians, Sunni, Alawites, Druze. It would be Lebanon in the eighties, only worse.

And beneath it all, unacknowledged, the thought of Gaddafi on the back of that pick-up truck. He watches the scene play out again, watches through Gaddafi’s eyes, those young men looming over him, strong enough to snap his old body like a twig, still scared, wondering how far they can push it, wondering what will happen if they hurt him.

And what are they thinking of in their palaces across the Middle East, as Assad goes back to bed in Damascus, tries to empty his mind and find solace in sleep again? A little south, does King Abdullah wake in a sudden cold sweat? Does he think Jordan will remain immune forever? Does fear walk behind him, a constant attendant through his palaces?

Further south, across the empty desert wastes, what of that grander King, Abdullah of Saudi Arabia? Is he haunted by the same thoughts? Does he have his moments of blind terror in the night?

Across the Gulf in Iran, Ahmadinejad and his masters have plenty to keep them awake. An Israeli air strike on their nuclear projects, a full American attack, a disastrous war. But these are not the only things to fear.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad thinks he can walk the tightrope between populism and serving the system. Perhaps he has deluded himself that he is on the side of the people, as he has deluded himself about so much else.

What of the silent eminences, the ayatollahs? What fears come to them in the night?

These are unquiet nights for the rulers of the Middle East. All of them must think of Gaddafi from time to time and wonder.

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