What a difference three decades make. In April 1982, I was assigned to be the Beirut correspondent for The Times. Before I arrived, word had filtered back to Lebanon about an uprising in February in the Syrian town of Hama – famed for its water wheels on the Orontes River. Rumor had it that then President Hafez al-Assad had put down a Sunni Muslim rebellion in Hama by shelling the neighborhoods where the revolt was centered, then dynamiting buildings, some with residents still inside, and then steamrolling them flat, like a parking lot. It was hard to believe and even harder to check. No one had cellphones back then, and foreign media were not allowed access.
That May I got a visa to Syria, just as Hama had been reopened. It was said that the Syrian regime was “encouraging” Syrians to drive through the town, see the crushed neighborhoods and contemplate the silence. So I just hired a cab in Damascus and went. It was, and remains, one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen: Whole neighborhoods, the size of four football fields, looked as though a tornado had swept back and forth over them for a week – but this was not the work of Mother Nature.
This was an act of unprecedented brutality, a settling of scores between Assad’s minority Alawite regime and Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority that had dared to challenge him. If you kicked the ground in some areas that had been flattened, a tattered book, a shred of clothing, the tip of a steel reinforcing rod were easily exposed. It was a killing field. According to Amnesty International, up to 20,000 people were buried there. I contemplated the silence and gave it a name: “Hama Rules.”
Hama Rules were the prevailing leadership rules in the Arab world. They said: Rule by fear – strike fear in the heart of your people by letting them know that you play by no rules at all, so they won’t ever, ever, ever think about rebelling against you.
It worked for a long time in Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, etc., until it didn’t. Today, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son, is now repeating his father’s mass murdering tactics to quash the new Syrian uprising, again centered in Hama. But, this time, the Syrian people are answering with their own Hama Rules, which are quite remarkable. They say: “We know that every time we walk out the door to protest, you will gun us down, without mercy. But we are not afraid anymore, and we will not be powerless anymore. Now, you leaders will be afraid of us. Those are our Hama Rules.”
This is the struggle today across the Arab world – the new Hama Rules versus the old Hama Rules – “I will make you afraid” versus “We are not afraid anymore.”
Good for the people. It is hard to exaggerate how much these Arab regimes wasted the lives of an entire Arab generation, with their foolish wars with Israel and each other and their fraudulent ideologies that masked their naked power grabs and predatory behavior. Nothing good was possible with these leaders. The big question today, though, is this: Is progress possible without them?
That is, once these regimes are shucked off, can the different Arab communities come together as citizens and write social contracts for how to live together without iron-fisted dictators – can they write a positive set of Hama Rules based not on anyone fearing anyone else, but rather on mutual respect, protection of minority and women’s rights and consensual government?
It is not easy. These dictators built no civil society, no institutions and no democratic experience for their people to work with. Iraq demonstrates that it is theoretically possible to go from an old Hama Rules tyranny to consensual politics – but it required $1 trillion, thousands of casualties, a herculean mediation effort by the U.S. and courageous Iraqi political will to live together – and even now the final outcome is uncertain. Iraqis know how vital we were in this transition, which is why many don’t want us to leave.
Now Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia are all going to attempt similar transitions – at once – but without a neutral arbiter to referee. It is unprecedented in this region, and we can already see just how hard this will be. I still believe that the democratic impulse by all these Arab peoples to throw off their dictators is heroic and hugely positive. They will oust all of them in the end. But the new dawn will take time to appear.
I think the former foreign minister of Jordan, Marwan Muasher, has the right attitude. “One cannot expect this to be a linear process or to be done overnight,” he said to me. “There were no real political parties, no civil society institutions ready to take over in any of these countries. I do not like to call this the ‘Arab Spring.’ I prefer to call it the ‘Arab Awakening,’ and it is going to play out over the next 10 to 15 years before it settles down. We are going to see all four seasons multiple times. These people are experiencing democracy for the first time. They are going to make mistakes on the political and economic fronts. But I remain optimistic in the long run, because people have stopped feeling powerless.”