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Shehadi: Saddam’s downfall paved way for democratic revolution

February 27, 2011 3 comments

Arab peoples are understandably proud of the democratic uprisings that are sweeping away their tormentors at a rate of one a month. They will tell you that this is the real, home-grown democratic change that they have been crying out for, unlike the “fake” democracy in Iraq which has been imposed by foreigners and buttressed by US marines.

The beginning of the end

Amidst this euphoria and revolutionary zeal however, Arabs risk losing a historical perspective on how these uprisings came to be.

Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House, was in Barada TV’s studios last week and he said something very interesting. “It all started with the fall of Saddam” he said, “it just took eight years for the effects to be witnessed.” With my historian’s cap on, I couldn’t agree more.

Saddam’s Iraq was a prime example of a type of regime which came to dominate many Arab countries during the latter half of the 20th century.

This type of regime tends to be:

a) A revolutionary republic, usually erected on the ruins of a liberal monarchy and/or colonialism; b) Deeply authoritarian with a single ruling party and a frightening security apparatus; c) Personality cult, the dictator being the idealized “hero” whose images are displayed everywhere; d) Socialist, with most services provided by the state; e) Corrupt, state patronage being the major avenue; f) Anti-Western, at least in rhetoric; g) Militaristic, with huge armies and vast defence expenditure.

The key to survival for this type of regime was a combination of brute force, and wrapping itself with the national flag. Ordinary people living under such a regime appreciated its evils, but they saw no real alternative.  Looking around them, they saw other Arab peoples lived under identical regimes. “It is our fate, what can we do?” was the mood music.

Then in April 2003 one regime of this type came crashing down. The collapse of Saddam’s Iraq was so spectacular, so swift and so ungracious, that it made Arab peoples not only question all the old certainties, but to dare imagine that a similar fate may befall their own regimes.

9 April 2003 was the day that the Arab imagination was re-awoken.

It took eight years for that burst of imagination to translate itself into action, partly because the Iraqi experience was an unhappy one. Many became cynical of Western interventionism, but it was that interventionism which began got the snowball rolling, the results of which can be seen today on the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli.

As Nadim Shehadi told me as I walked him to the lifts, “All the Arab regimes fell with the downfall of Saddam, they just didn’t know it.”

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Categories: Arabs & Democracy
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