I've been worrying (yes, I do that) these past few days that the events in Egypt, while convincing many Arabs that they can take charge of their futures, and while convincing foreign policy realists that autocrats cannot repress their way to stability forever, have also convinced Middle East dictators not to make the same mistakes Hosni Mubarak made, to wit, letting people gather in sizeable numbers in public squares in the first place. Remember, though Mubarak now has been cast by the media as the Middle East's foremost monster, he was a second-tier oppressor, at best, when compared to an Assad, or an Ahmadinejad. In part, this is because he respected some limits, and also because he was an American client, subject to periodic American criticism of his human rights record.
These thoughts were prompted by an exchange I recently read between the New York Times columnists Gail Collins and David Brooks. In the exchange, about events in Egypt, Collins wrote plaintively that "(I)f we'd just left Iraq alone, the young people there might be out in the streets, and the army holding back, hedging its bets. Democracy that you win for yourself counts. Democracy that's dumped on you from above will just turn into ... whatever Iraq winds up turning into."
This struck Brooks, rightfully, as non-serious: "Saddam would shoot. He proved that when he killed a million Shiites in the 1990s. Besides, Iraq is in a much better place right now than Egypt. Iraq has a semi-functioning democracy. Egypt is still going to have to sort out its parties and its ruling arrangements and all the rest."
We can debate whether Iraq now is in better shape than Egypt, but what is not debatable is Brooks's assertion that Saddam would shoot anyone who dared protest in public, or in private, for that matter. He was a terrifically brutal and genocidal dictator who made Hosni Mubarak look like Bernie Sanders. There was never a chance the people of Iraq, particularly the oppressed majority of Kurds and Shia, could have accomplished what the people of Egypt accomplished. The reason the Kurds and Shia of Iraq are no longer threatened with genocide is because the U.S. forcibly removed the dictator who murdered them on a mass scale. We can debate the means, the execution, and the ideology of this American operation, but I don't think it is possible to argue that Saddam would have gone into exile peacably.
And this is what I worry about in numerous Arab countries: The dictators who will shoot their own people in large numbers in order to keep power, and who might be especially ready to do so, now that they've seen Mubarak's fate.