Home > Arabs & Democracy > Shehadi: Saddam’s downfall paved way for democratic revolution

Shehadi: Saddam’s downfall paved way for democratic revolution

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.”

Categories: Arabs & Democracy
  1. Outis
    March 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    Give me a break. How does seeing the world’s top superpower expensively and violently topple one dictator’s regime – with results worse than another decade of him could ever have been – inspire ordinary people from half a world away to think that _they_ could topple similar regimes, with no jet planes or anything? Find me one protester who claims Iraq inspired him/her.

  2. Rhona Johnson
    March 3, 2011 at 5:30 am

    I simply do not agree the snowball effect was caused by the suicide of the Tunisian fruit seller.

  3. March 3, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Outis, history works in weired and wonderful ways. It’s true that protestors in Tunisia and Egypt did not have jet planes, but the point that I was trying to make was that pre-Saddam’s downfall, the “Arab system” appeared impregnable. There was no chink in its armour. Arab dictatorships looked like they would last forever, until April 2003 when one collpased spectacularly.

    I would argue that at that moment, the military regimes that had ruled these countries from the 1950s-60s had reached the end of their life cycle and Iraq was the first to collapse. Saddam was an extreme by-product of the particular type of regime that I analysed in my blog entry, which is why perhaps Iraq collapsed first. But really, all of the regimes based on the Nasserite model had outlived their usefulness and the fall of Baghdad merely focused the minds of the Arab peoples to this point.

    I would also add that it is no coincidence that all of the regimes that have fell or are about to are republics. The power structure of monarchies is different, which is why talk of regime change in Jordan, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia is perhaps premature.

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