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

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.