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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.)

Next it was the turn of religious authorities to be brought under state control and deprived of the independence they had enjoyed for over 1,000 years. Traditional religious organizations such as Sufi fraternities, esoteric sects, and charitable structures were either infiltrated or dismantled. The new states assumed control of these groups' property, worth billions, depriving civil society of its most important economic base.

The military state also annexed the educational system, nationalizing thousands of private Koranic schools and dictating the curricula at all levels of schooling. The traditional guilds of trades and crafts, some with centuries of history, were also disbanded.

Political parties and cultural associations did not escape the destruction. In the 1950s, some of the newly independent Arab countries were home to genuine political movements representing the various ideologies of the 20th century. By the end of the 1970s, all of them, including parties such as the Baath that were nominally in power in Syria and Iraq, had been destroyed.

The elimination of the independent press, state ownership and control of all radio and television networks, and the vast resources allocated to "information" ministries enabled the new Arab regimes to stifle dissident voices and impose their version of reality.

Evolving toward totalitarianism, the Arab military state embarked upon wholesale nationalization. In some cases, such as the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, this clashed with the interests of the former colonial powers and led to war. In other cases, such as land reform in Egypt in the late 1950s and the seizure of small businesses by the first Baathist regime in Iraq in 1963, the result was economic dislocation and widespread hardship for the most vulnerable strata of society.

The fact that the state now controlled the biggest sources of national revenue--the canal in Egypt, oil in Iraq--facilitated the imposition of a command economy. It also meant that the state had no real need of the population. Foreign experts and workers managed and ran vital sectors of the economy. (In 1990, Iraq hosted 1.5 million foreign experts and workers, almost 50 percent of the non-military, non-civil service urban work force.) And the government drew little or no revenue from taxes, relying instead on national assets like oil and the canal--and, from the 1960s onwards, on foreign aid.

The new Arab state could also do without the people when it came to national defense. The officer corps provided the bulk of the manpower for special units designed to protect the regime. In a broader context, the regimes relied on foreign alliances, mostly with the Soviet Union, for arms, training, and ultimate protection against potentially hostile neighbors. (Thus, in the late 1960s, Egypt was host to some 25,000 military experts from the Soviet bloc.)

Finally, the new regimes didn't need the people to vote for them. Although elections were introduced in the 1980s, their aim was merely to confirm the rulers in power, with 99.99 percent or even 100 percent majorities. By the start of the 1970s, traditional Arab society had been all but destroyed. Totalitarian states--ideologically confused, unsure of their legitimacy, addicted to violence, and ridden with corruption--dominated all aspects of life.

The allocation of large budgetary resources to the military further warped the economies of these countries. Average spending on Arab armies in the 1950s was no more than 2.3 percent of their estimated gross domestic products. By the mid-1980s, however, the figure had risen to 18 percent, with some countries, Iraq and Syria notably, spending as much as 23 percent. Virtually all Arab states maintained armies far larger than their demographic base warranted. The military machine also distorted labor markets by sucking up most of the scant technical and managerial skills available.

In time, the military in these countries developed into a new caste of rulers that controlled most decision-making positions: High government officials, provincial governors, ambassadors, chief executives of state-owned companies, and even media editors were recruited from the ranks of active or retired officers. The new caste was reinforced by an even more tightknit sub-caste, the intelligence and security services (mukhabarat), which eventually established themselves as the source of power in almost all the Arab states.

The emergence of this monstrous new state apparatus was accompanied by tens of thousands of executions, the imprisonment of countless people, the flight into exile of millions, and, last but not least, the destruction of the moral fabric of Arab society.

IT WAS NOT ONLY against its own people that the new Arab regime waged war. Almost inevitably, it became embroiled in foreign wars--conflicts unrelated to the national interests of the countries concerned.

The Suez dispute could have been resolved through negotiations to phase out Franco-British ownership. Instead, the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, provoked a war that he must have known he could not win against a Franco-British-Israeli triple alliance. That he was bailed out of his crushing defeat by the diplomatic efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union working in tandem does not alter the fact that Nasser took a reckless risk with Egyptian national interests. In 1960, Nasser intervened in Yemen, first covertly, then openly, dispatching a 60,000-strong army of occupation, which remained bogged down for almost seven years. In the early 1960s, Nasserite agents and sympathizers engineered Egypt's annexation of Syria. In 1967, Nasser provoked another, more disastrous, war with Israel, which ended with his losing the Sinai Peninsula and the Israeli army dipping its feet in the Suez Canal (which remained closed for a decade). Syria, Jordan, and Iraq also participated in the Six Day War, this time sharing defeat with Egypt. Syria lost the Golan Heights, while Jordan lost the West Bank, the eastern part of Jerusalem, and chunks of territory along its border with historic Palestine. And Egypt engaged in smaller military adventures, in the Sudan, the (Belgian) Congo, Somalia, and the British protectorates of southern Arabia.

The Iraqi military regime flexed its muscles with an attempted annexation of Kuwait in 1961, setting the pattern it would follow for three decades. Between 1969 and 1975, Iraq fought a major, but unpublicized, border war against Iran that ended with Iraqi capitulation in 1975. In 1977, Iraq had a military showdown with Turkey over the water of the Euphrates river. Border clashes took place between Syria and Iraq in 1978. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, starting a conflict that lasted eight years and claimed a million lives on both sides. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and remained in a state of war against the United Nations until the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The Syrian military regime, for its part, clashed with Turkey over the Iskanderun enclave, and fought several battles with the Jordanian army on the pretext of protecting the Palestinians. From the late 1950s onwards, military intervention in Lebanon was to become a permanent feature of Syrian policy. Then in 1973 came defeat in the Six Day War.

Other Arab military regimes had their share of war. Algeria triggered a war against Morocco over the issue of the Spanish Sahara starting in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Libya tried to conquer Chad, an adventure that ended, despite the investment of billions of dollars, in a decisive defeat for Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's government.

All the Arab military regimes also used terrorism as a routine instrument of policy. One can hardly find a terrorist organization, from the Japanese Red Army to the Irish Republican Army, including the Basque ETA and the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso, that did not forge some link with one or more of the Arab military regimes. In some cases, the links came via Palestinian terror organizations, including Yasser Arafat's Al Fatah. In other cases, the link was the Soviet or East German intelligence service. In the 1970s, Syria and Iraq were the most active centers of international terrorism, providing shelter and diplomatic and sometimes financial support to dozens of groups.

Depending on the Soviet bloc for aid, protection, and diplomatic guidance, the Arab regimes closed their societies to influences from the West, thus reversing a trend that had started in the 19th century. Many of the Arab regimes concluded treaties of friendship and cooperation with the USSR and sent tens of thousands of their young men and women to study in the Soviet empire. The result was a deepening of the culture of totalitarianism within the ruling elite. By the mid-1980s, the last representatives of Western-style liberal thought in the Arab world were either dead or dying.

That opened the way for the reemergence of Islamic extremism as the only alternative to military rule. In Egypt, the regime alternated between ruthless repression of the Islamists (under Nasser), unsuccessful co-optation (under Sadat), and a mixture of the two (under President Hosni Mubarak). In Libya, the state has been fighting an Islamist insurgency since 1986. In Syria, the regime managed to break the back of the Islamist movement by organizing the massacre of an estimated 20,000 people in the city of Hama in 1983. In Iraq, the regime used the iron fist against the Islamists, mostly Shiites, throughout the 1980s, then adopted an Islamist posture of its own in 1991 to rally support against the U.S.-led coalition. In 1991, Saddam ordered the slogan Allah Akbar (God is supreme) inscribed on the Iraqi flag. In Algeria, the government's war against the Islamists started in 1986 and intensified after 1992. In the Sudan, the military came to power in alliance with the Islamists but broke with them in 1999 and has cracked down on their leaders and organizations ever since.

By the start of 2003, the Arab Islamist movement was in deep crisis. It was split in Egypt between those who urged accommodation with governments and those who preached endless war. In the Sudan, the Islamists were going through a process of "self-criticism" and trying to recast themselves almost as Western-style democrats, though few people were convinced. In Iraq, the Islamist movement found itself faced with a choice between alliance with the United States to topple Saddam Hussein and alliance with him in the name of patriotic unity. In Algeria, despite persistent terrorist violence, the divided Islamist movement seemed to be petering out. In Libya, the Islamist guerrillas appeared to be reduced to an enclave in the Jabal al-Akhdar region, while in Syria, hopes for reform under President Bashar al-Assad led to a split within the Islamist movement.

The pan-Islamist movement seems to have suffered a strategic setback with the failure of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the tragic experience of Islamism in the Sudan, and the dramatic end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The emergence of al Qaeda as the most potent symbol of Islamism also weakened the movement by alienating key elements within the Arab urban middle classes. Al Qaeda's extremism frightened large segments of Arab traditional opinion, forcing them to rally behind the regimes in support of the status quo.

THE PRESENT SEASON of change in Iraq comes at a time when both the Arab military state and its principal challenger, the Islamist movement, are both in crisis. Nor can traditional monarchy, still present in some Arab states, offer a serious alternative. (Jordan's campaign to restore the monarchy in Iraq has been rejected by virtually all Iraqi political parties.) So what might a new Arab state look like?

The failed model is the power state, known in Islamic literature as "saltana," whose legitimacy rests on the possession and use of the means of collective violence. In saltana, there are no citizens, only subjects, while the ruler is unaccountable except to God.

The only alternative to this failed model is what might be called the political state, whose legitimacy rests on the free expression of the citizens' will. Such a model could be based on what the 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldoun called "al-assabiyah," a secular bond among citizens. The key feature of this model is pluralism, known in modern Islamic political literature as "ta'adudiyah" and "kisrat-garai."

Both the Islamists and the secular authoritarians of the Arab world have persistently opposed the idea of bonding through citizenship. Nevertheless, Islamic political and philosophical literature offers a wealth of analyses that could be deployed in any battle of ideas against both the Islamist and secular enemies of pluralism. Both Farabi (d.950) and Avicenna (d. 1037), partly inspired by the work of the Mutazilite school, showed that there need be no contradiction between revelation and reason in developing a political system that responds to the earthly needs of citizens. On the contrary, because Islam places strict limits on the powers of the ruler, it theoretically cannot be used as the basis for tyranny.

The new model for the Arab state should reassert those limits. It should allow civil society to revive. The resuscitation and renewal of nongovernmental institutions should be accompanied by a massive program of privatization, designed to reduce the government's power to dictate economic policy, including the allocation of national resources. The early privatization of the media should receive top priority, as it did in post-Nazi Germany and Japan.

In a multi-ethnic, multi-faith country like Iraq, a federal structure would encourage popular participation in decision-making while limiting the power of the central authority to impose any radical ideology on the nation as a whole. The army should be reduced in size, its role redefined to emphasize defense against external threats and rule out internal repression. Its relationship with the political authority should be clearly stipulated.

The Arab Middle East is one of the few parts of the world as yet untouched by the wave of democratization that eventually swept away the Soviet empire and numerous dictatorships in the Third World. The liberation of Iraq provides a historic opportunity to open the entire Arab world to democracy. For the liberators to allow tactical concerns to distract them from that strategic opportunity would be a grave mistake.

To sell the democratic ideal, it is important to draw on the experience of past generations of Arabs and Muslims who struggled for democracy and in some places--Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere--achieved certain victories against tyrannical regimes. It is essential to show that the ideal of self-government is not alien to Islam and that, given a chance, many Muslims will reject the despotic model in favor of one respectful of human rights and popular participation in the political process.

Winning the military war against Iraq's dictatorship may prove to have been the easy part. Defeated in war, despotism must also be defeated politically. The hardest battles remain to be fought on the field of ideas.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist and the author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam.