The scenes being reported out of Syria have become only more grisly. In recent weeks, troops have repeatedly opened fire on unarmed, peaceful protesters. With each march or rally, the body count grows. Human rights organizations estimate that roughly 500 people have been gunned down and 5,000 more swept up in arrests. The Syrian military is dispatching tanks into towns and cities to quell the protests. Only last month, President Bashar al-Assad was offering his people promises of reform. Any government that could so quickly veer from those proposals to the brutal crackdown we are witnessing today was obviously never sincere. Some time, probably weeks ago, Assad made a decision. He would remain in power, no matter how many lives it cost.
On its face, it should hardly be a revelation. Dictators often choose to cling to power at the expense of the people they subjugate. If the lives of their citizens had ever weighed heavily in their calculations, they probably wouldn’t have ruled their countries with iron fists. But there is something a little different about Assad choosing this course. For years, we have been told that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he might be different from the rest. Assad was part of a new, younger generation of Arab autocrats, and beneath their Savile Row suits were the beating hearts of reformers. Once they were safely ensconced, when the time was right, if we would only be patient, then surely they would begin the long, slow path of political reform. But again, we needed to give them time. Patience.
The idea that Arab dictators have democrats for sons is surely another myth that has been shattered by the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. Yes, they had traveled widely and attended European universities. And yes their speeches were peppered with words such as “consensus,” “dialogue,” and “process” — hardly the typical talk of their dictatorial dads. But, as the deans of the London School of Economics learned in February, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi is not a different man because of his tutorials on politics and globalization. When the Libyan people rose up, the young Gaddafi quickly took to the airwaves and promised that his father’s regime would fight to the “last bullet.”
In nearby Egypt, Gamal Mubarak never got the chance to show the world the type of Egyptian president he would make. For the past five years, every member of the regime’s ruling party whom I interviewed told me that the presidential scion wasn’t like his old man. Gamal, a former investment banker, was modernizing the ruling party. Several told me that his goal was to model it on Tony Blair’s New Labor. But judging by the massive piles of cash that Egyptian investigators are finding, he shared his father’s passion for secret bank accounts. In the end, Gamal appears to have had a greater love for Switzerland than Britain.
And Assad’s bloody campaign in the streets of Syria reveals him to be his father’s son, too. In 1982, his father ordered a brutal crackdown against an armed rebellion that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians. The number of people who have died in Syria since protests began there in March doesn’t approach that figure. But then again, by calling out the tanks, Assad is clearly willing to risk many more.
So, let’s bury the myth that, if democracy was ever going to come to the Middle East, it would be because of the sons of strongmen. If we ever believed it, we should have known better. Because, whether it’s nature or nurture, they were always dictators in disguise.