The Magazine

The Crackup of the Arab Tyrannies?

From the July 7 / July 14, 2003 issue: They tried every bad idea of the 20th century. Maybe it's time for liberal democracy.

Jul 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 42 • By AMIR TAHERI
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IN A SPEECH in Washington on February 26, 2003, President George W. Bush spoke of his hope that a change of regime in Iraq would herald the Arab nations' joining the worldwide movement toward democracy. Some critics dismissed this "pious hope," arguing that Arab culture, and Islamic civilization generally, were unready for so momentous a transformation. Others questioned the president's sincerity, at a time when members of his administration were still debating Iraqi self-rule after Saddam.

Yet one thing was certain then and remains so today: The Arab world is in crisis, and change in Iraq could trigger change across the whole arc from North Africa to the Indian Ocean. While it is too soon to tell the shape of things to come in Iraq, it is clear that we are witnessing the end of a certain nationalist and socialist model developed in several Arab countries in the 20th century.

Most of the states where the nationalist-socialist model developed were created after the First World War, with the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France played the central role in shaping them. Sometimes described as "Sykes-Picot" offspring, the new states were designed to protect or further the strategic interests of the colonial power. Iraq, for instance, was created around the oil fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. Egypt's task was to protect the Suez Canal. Lebanon was carved out to place the interests of the Maronite Christians under French protection. Transjordan was a British military outpost with the task of keeping an eye on the Arabian Peninsula, to the south and east, and providing a base for intervention in the Levant.

Each new state was built around an army created by the colonial power largely for policing purposes. In almost every case, the new army drew its officer corps from ethnic and religious minorities. In Iraq, Assyrian, Turkmen, Kurdish, Faili, and Arab Sunni Muslims provided the backbone of the British-made army. In Syria, the French favored officers from the Alawaite minority. In Transjordan, most of the officers were Bedouin, Circassian, or Chechen fighters. In Egypt, many senior officers had Turkish or Albanian ethnic backgrounds.

With the advent of decolonization, these newborn army-based Arab states lost their original function. Anxious to protect their power and privilege, the military elites decided to seize power. Armies that were originally instruments of colonial domination redefined themselves as standard-bearers of Arab nationalism. The excuse they found for intervening in politics was the Arab defeat at the hands of the new state of Israel in 1948. The Arab armies blamed their poor performance on incompetent or even treacherous political leadership, and vowed that, once they were in power themselves, they would restore Arab honor.

A SERIES of coups d'état began in Syria (1948) and continued in Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958), Yemen (1960), the Sudan (1962), Algeria (1965), and Libya (1969). In most cases, the military overthrew a traditional regime that derived its legitimacy from Islam and tribal loyalties. The new military regimes, by contrast, found nationalism doubly attractive because it cut across religious divides and thus legitimized rule by officers who subscribed to creeds other than mainstream Sunni Islam. Socialism appealed to the urban poor and a secular intelligentsia that wanted to distance itself from tribal and "feudal" social and cultural structures.

The army's direct assumption of power led to a gradual militarization of Arab politics. Force came to be seen as the main source of legitimacy, and the rulers did what they knew how to do: wage war. They began by waging war on their own societies, with the aim of destroying within them all potential alternative sources of authority.

They disarmed as many of the tribes as they could and executed, imprisoned, exiled, or bought most tribal leaders. In some cases, these measures reached the level of genocide--the anti-Kurd campaigns in Iraq between 1932 and 1988 come to mind. Operations akin to ethnic cleansing were also conducted against Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt and against Jews and Persians in Iraq. (At one point almost a fifth of Baghdad's population were Jews. By 1968, only a handful remained, all others having fled to Iran, emigrated to Israel, or been put to death by military rulers. In 1972-73, Saddam Hussein conducted the biggest ethnic cleansing campaign in Iraq's history when he expelled over 600,000 Iraqis to Iran on the grounds that they might have had Persian ancestry.)