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

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.