Everything begins with the laws of physics. If you’ll drop an apple, it will fall. This is an undisputed truth, a rule of nature; this is how the universe works, this is the world we live in. Another truth, another rule, another fact, speaking about the ME, is that it is ruled by kings. This is the way the word is built; this is how the system looks like. They may be called “presidents” or “chairmen”, but they are kings, sultans, tribal leaders. In the ME, this is a truth absolute just as Newton’s apple. Or so it was.
Nine years ago, two images cracked this truth. And to the ME it was a shock equal to an apple that refuses to fall. A king was dethroned, but even more – he was humiliated, his honor was lost in the Iraqi mud, when the soldiers pulled him from his hole and checked his teeth, as if he was a potentially sick animal. Such things didn’t happen in the ME for generations – and when they did, it wasn’t transmitted to every home and every coffee shop from Kabul to Marrakesh.
In the ME, honor is life. There is nothing more important than face, and when someone looses face he needs to do something drastic to return it. Otherwise he will spend his life humiliated and mocked. All of his life, because the ME does not know how to forget. Here everything that happens echoes forever.
An old Syrian tale speaks about a prince who was first in line to inherit his father’s throne and become the sultan of Damascus. As many other princes, he was proud and arrogant. One of the days, as he walked in the market, an old man was passing by. The old man didn’t pay attention and the sack he was carrying touched the shoulder of the proud prince, leaving a muddy mark on his silk robe. You cannot ignore something like that. Another man could have laughed, dismiss this with a joke, give the old man a dinar and tell one of the bodyguards to help him with his burden – such a man would be loved by the people and respected.
But this prince was young and unwise, and so he pushed the old man in anger, and he fell to the ground. A crowd gathered around, standing in silence. The old man slowly stood up, looked around, and then, before anyone of the prince’s bodyguards could move, slapped the sultan’s son loudly and with great intention.
Of course, in a second he was dead on the market’s floor, but the sound of the slap echoed through Damascus’ alleys for days, and then weeks, and then months. Wherever the prince went, people laughed behind his back, whispering the story from ear to ear. The sultan in anger published a law, forbidding talking about the slap – which made it the most popular subject in every coffee shop. Poems were written about it and storytellers told about the old man and the evil prince. Eventually the prince couldn’t bare it anymore and he ran away.
For many years he traveled the world. He had many adventures, he got married, he had children and grandchildren. One day he understood that he missed home and decided to go back for a visit. He wore simple clothes and entered the Damascus by foot. Happy and exited he walked the markets, until on one corner, not far from the butcher’s shop, he heard a young mother telling her little boy: “Do you see this place? This is where the old man slapped the prince…” And he slowly walked away, never to return.
When Saddam was pulled from his hiding place, it was his problem. When the picture appeared on every screen in the ME it became the problem of the existing regimes – the seed of what we’ve seen this year in Tunisia and Libya, Egypt and Syria. For suddenly, the farmers and the shoemakers, the students and the shopkeepers saw that the laws of physics as they knew them do not apply any more. The apple remained floating in the air. A king lost face. The sultan of Baghdad, the butcher of Kurdistan, the marshal of the Iranian war, the invader to Kuwait became a dirty and frightened old man, being stepped on by soldiers. And immediately people thought about their own kings, such as king (president) Gaddafi, king (president) Mubarak or king (president) Assad, now fighting for his life.
It all began there, with that picture. It continued with the trial, in which the old lion tried to roar at the face of the laughing mob, and the execution at midnight. The king was gone.
More than a century ago, Lyman Frank Baum wrote about the Wizard of Oz:
…They saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were. The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, “Who are you?”
“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” said the little man, in a trembling voice.
And so the king was gone. And the West applauded. He was an enemy, a murderer, a terrible man, yes, but even enemies have to be respected. Now other kings are gone, not all of them enemies. And the West applauds. But while they are not effective, cruel, even murderous – those kings are, were, the system. Now, that system disappears. Tomorrow the sun will rise over a much more religious, much more radical, much more reactional Middle East.
Because that what happens when you act without understanding why and where and how and whom. When you pull out a card from the bottom, the tower will fall eventually. This is a law of physics.
You exposed the Wizard, but what will happen to Oz now?