The Arab Spring

In July 2013, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was removed from power by the Egyptian military. News of the ouster brought cheers from the crowds gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, just as the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, his predecessor, had brought cheers in 2011. At the time, the removal of Mubarak seemed part of a larger democratic movement destined to sweep away the outdated dictatorial regimes of the Arab world. The movement was described as the Arab Spring.

The ouster of Mubarak, in February 2011, was followed by the overthrow, capture, and execution of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in October 2011. There were predictions that Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, would be next. There was talk of easing Assad from power and establishing a transitional government. Somehow he managed to hold onto power until August 2013, when a chemical attack outside Damascus killed, according to U.S estimates, 1,400 civilians, including women and children. The possibility of U.S. involvement climbed dramatically when warships were moved into the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast and preparations for an attack were begun in response to the use of chemical weapons.

The fighting in Syria beginning in 2011 has resulted in over 100,000 deaths. How those deaths have been reported comes with a political slant. For those who favored intervention and the ouster of Bashar al-Assad, such as John McCain, the claim was that Assad had killed 100,000 of his own people. For those undecided or opposing intervention, the 100,000 figure was the total killed by both government and rebel forces.

The argument has been made that the world has a "moral imperative" to act in situations such as Syria. In the case of Syria, the idea that Assad had killed 100,000 "of his own people," provoked a particular outrage. Yet, in mid-August of 2013, when the Egyptian military opened fire on Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, there was little said about the fact that the Egyptian government was "killing its own people," even though estimates placed the number of deaths as high as 1,000. There were also photos of rows of bodies in morgues or on the streets, as there have been coming out of Syria following the August chemical attacks. If the level of moral outrage, or even calls for world action in the light of shocking events, seems to vary with every country, or from one news cycle to the next, it also seems to be in the eye of the beholder. There were reports out of Egypt that when the military took action against the Muslim Brotherhood, they were cheered by onlookers. What the crowd seemed to be expressing was not moral outrage against government actions, but a sense that the killings were justified and should be encouraged. In August 2012, South African police opened fire on striking miners, killing 34 and wounding 78. What governments will do to their own people has not been limited to discussions about dictatorial governments. The U.S. military, following World War II, subjected its own soldiers to atomic testing. To see how soldiers would function on a nuclear battlefield, Marine units were helicoptered into radioactive areas after nuclear test shots. Army units were stationed near test shots to determine their ability to function following a nuclear explosion.

Changing Dictators

Dictators come to the attention of the world through their bad acts. If what they do is the problem, the obvious solution to the problem is to remove them from power. At least that was the assumption going into Iraq. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, there was an inititial optimism, followed by an increase in violence. It was believed that the "surge," an increase in troop levels would solve the problem. For awhile it seemed to have worked. When U.S. troops left, the violence returned. In Libya, the elimination of Muammar Gaddafi did not bring stability to the country. Gaddafi loyalists would retaliate by capturing and torturing one of the fighters involved in Gaddafi's capture. In 2012, the American ambassador would be killed in an armed attack in Benghazi. The violence in Egypt seems to be a repeat of what happened in 2011. In the unrest leading up to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, around 850 are believed to have died.

Recent events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have shone an unwelcome light on the operations of dictatorial governments while giving a worldwide audience to individuals who have not had a voice before. A strong desire for freedom and a hatred of dictatorship have been common sentiments coming out of the Arab Spring. Not only have new voices been heard, but television reporting brings the most recent atrocities and turmoil into every living room. Television has brought both a sense of belonging, a feeling of empowerment, and a sense of urgency. If there is the assumption that satisfying the demands of the immediate audience will satisfy them forever, there is a cautionary note. Roman emperors were only too aware that one crowd-pleasing spectacle in the Colosseum had to be followed by another, more spectacular event, or the crowd was likely to turn on them. Pontius Pilate may have wondered how long the Jerusalem crowd would remain satisfied, even as they shouted "Give us Barabbas."

History in perspective

The debate continues on the wisdom of invading Iraq, NATO participation in Gaddafi's overthrow in Libya, continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and possible intervention in Syria. Was the invasion of Iraq, with its idealistic beginnings, creating a path to democracy or simply setting the stage for the next dictator to come along?

What impact have individuals, such as Alexander the Great, or Joseph Stalin, had on history, in the long run? The larger question may be whether individuals, such as Alexander, ultimately control events or are at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. Can a charismatic leader, by force of will, rescue a society from a path which will lead to tyranny? Conversely, can a determined individual, turn a society to dictatorship against its will?

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