December 16, 2013:
The Arab Spring uprisings that began throughout the Arab world at the beginning of 2011 did not work out as many had hoped. Several nasty dictatorships were overthrown, but there were more corrupt and inept leaders to replace them. Democracy and honest officials did not, as many hoped, replace the tyrants who had for so long dominated the region. This indicates that there is a fundamental problem with Arab culture, something most Arabs have always vehemently denied. Some Arabs, and many Westerners have long insisted that there were a lot of bad habits in Arab culture that would have to be changed before the many problems in Arab countries would be eliminated, or at least diluted.
One of those habits involves blaming outsiders for Arab bad behavior. For example; the brutal Sunni Arab opposition to the new government in Iraq after 2003 is often blamed on the presence of foreign troops in the country. Yet at that time no Arab country was ruled without the application, or threat, of great brutality and the Iraqi Sunnis were not willing to give democracy a chance. In effect they were saying that either we run Iraq or we burn the place down. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was.
There were no Arab democracies for the Sunnis to look to for guidance. All Arab nations were police states of one type or another, living in fear of a violent uprising. All depended on terror to keep their populations under control. Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party maintained control by murdering thousands of Iraqis a year, and threatening that, and worse, to anyone thinking of resisting. The government countermeasures included kidnapping, torture, mutilation and group punishment. That last measure was one of the most effective. If someone was known, or thought, to be against the government, their family could be arrested, tortured or murdered.
Arab populations provided themselves some measure of protection from this kind of tyranny by organizing into tribes or religion based organizations. Thus if the government used its power too arbitrarily, violently or persistently the tribe or religious group would resist (usually in passive ways), escalate the dispute, and make the government consider if the next atrocity was worth it. But this sort of arrangement also recognized the government's right to rule. Anyone who actively opposed Saddam could be summarily killed, or worse, and the tribe or mosque would not stir itself to help. When the tribe or mosque did rise up, the retribution was on a massive scale and incredibly brutal. Over the centuries many mosques, and a few tribes, disappeared because of this. This was no outside scourge, it was invented locally.
Since 2003 the Sunni Arabs of Iraq generally agreed that it was a bad thing for the Sunni Arabs to no longer be ruling Iraq. Thus while community pressure among Kurds and Shia Arabs brought peace in that 80 percent of the population, the Sunni Arab minority backed the violence by some of their number. This was easier to do than it was in the time of Saddam. If the Baath Party were dealing with this kind of rebellion, thousands of community leaders would be arrested and held as hostages to the good behavior of their followers. If some of their followers continued to fight, the hostage leaders would be killed, and the next in line would be given a chance to pacify his erstwhile followers.
Syria did this in 1982 when Islamic radicals opposed the rule of the local Baath Party. The city of Hama was reduced to rubble, and over 20,000 people were killed. Until 2011 the memory of Hama was sufficient to suppress opposition to the dictatorial rule of the Assad family and the Baath Party. Now the Assad family is again under attack in Syria and their solution is to create many more Hamas, and with help from Iran and Russia, this brutal solution appears to be working.
Because of this bloody history of brutal ruling techniques, many, inside and outside the Arab world, insist that Arabs cannot be ruled as a democracy. The Kurds and Shia Arabs of Iraq disagreed with this after 2003, as have many Sunni Arabs after 2011. But post-2003 Iraq was the first real Arab democracy in the region, and the continued brutal Sunni Arab resistance to this puts the new democracy to a harsh test. Every democracy is different, and the Iraqi government that was democratically elected in 2005 did indeed apply some traditional Arab solutions to the continued problems with dissident Sunni Arab terrorists. The democratic government in Iraq did use force, decisively and effectively against Shia rebels. But against the Sunni Arab rebels it took more American troops and an American brokered peace deal with the Sunni tribes. This involved promises to tribal and religious leaders and payments of cash and government jobs for Sunni Arabs. Al Qaeda was not interested in this kind of deal, but by 2007 al Qaeda was widely hated by all Iraqis and only tolerated by Sunni Arabs because al Qaeda suicide bomb attacks were seen as the only effective weapons the Sunnis had. But the Sunni Arabs were losing their war and once the majority of Sunni Arabs made their deals, al Qaeda had no place to hide. The Sunni Arabs understood that the alternative was annihilation, a fate that was rare, but not unknown in Arab history. That sort of end game is common elsewhere. Americans forget that during the American Revolution a third of the population still supported the king. At the end of the revolution, over five percent of the Americans, those loyalists who would not tolerate this new democracy, were killed or driven into exile. Large chunks of the pre-revolution American culture simply disappeared from what is now the United States. These people were not only gone, but largely disappeared from the historical record as well.
This reluctance to compromise, despite a Middle Eastern tradition of haggling at the market place, has led to many locals and foreigners believing that democracy does not work for the Arabs and no matter how many revolutions there are another dictator will arise. A similar situation arose after the American Revolution, when George Washington was proposed as king of the United States (which were not nearly as united as they are now.) Washington refused and backed giving democracy a try. It was rough going for several generations culminating in a bloody civil war. Not all new democracies stay democracies. But if people don't try, they'll never know how far they can take it. To most Iraqis, anything's better than Saddam Hussein and his brutal thugs but to some Saddam is still a hero, a hero worth killing and dying for.