portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article portland metro

imperialism & war

Baath Party losing its grip on the Arab world

The fall of Baathism implies that the age of ideologies in the Arab world is finally coming to an end. Baathism, like Arab nationalism, Nasserism and Communism is now reduced to a political concept and theoretical point of view...
Marwan Asmar: Baath Party losing its grip on the Arab world Marwan Asmar, Gulf News, 15-04-2003

The disappearance without a trace of Saddam Hussain and the rest of his cabinet is a rather unbefitting end to a Baathist regime that ruled Iraq through "tooth and nail" for the past 34 years. All the narrative about the strength of Saddam and the Baath Party to stand up to western invaders has come to naught.

Unlike other cities, Baghdad, the great and ancient capital, did not put up any resistance. Saddam and his close party leadership - all the cabinet members, including Mohammad Saeed Al Sahaf, who built a flamboyant image during the war as Information Minister - were sent scurrying for their lives.

It was a pitiful conclusion to the once mighty leadership of Saddam and his Baath Party that ostensibly espoused the concepts of pan-Arab unity, socialism, secularism, development, modernisation and above all revolutionary zeal; that wanted nothing to do with colonialism and imperialism.

While the great majority of the world - including Arabs - was against the U.S.-led war to unseat Saddam and his henchmen and against the novel concept in international relations of regime change, many are, nevertheless, beginning to feel a disquieting sense of relief.

This is largely because of two factors: that the bombs and missiles have stopped raining on the country and that what has happened is nothing less than a historical watershed in Iraqi and possibly Arab politics.

In one sense, the end of Baathism - the exclusivity of governance by one-party - which appeared an oddity towards the new Millennium, fettered away a nationalist ideology that had been in the main stream of Arab politics.

With the fall of Baathism in Iraq, many in the Arab world are now saying that the ideology itself, which is to "rejuvenate" the Arab world through a renaissance, will recede in geography, content and purpose. Syria now stands as the only Baathist country in the Arab world, developing policies and relations in international affairs that seem to be far different than the ones pursued by Saddam.

Age of ideologies

The fall of Baathism implies that the age of ideologies in the Arab world is finally coming to an end. Baathism, like Arab nationalism, Nasserism and Communism is now reduced to a political concept and theoretical point of view, not quite to arm-chair debates but to ideas that are losing out to globalisation, the opening up and withering away of the borders of states to the onslaught of trade liberalisation, the World Trade Organisation and the like.

The rapid collapse of the Baathist regime was just as dazzling as its beginning as a pan-Arab movement. Its roots go back to the late 1940s and early 1950s. After the Baath Party was established at its founding congress in Damascus in 1947 by Michel Aflaq and Salah Al Din Al Bitaar, several Iraqis attending, including Abdel Rahman Al Damin and Abdel Khaliq Al Khudyri, moved to establish the Baath branch in Iraq.

The move to establish such an organisation that was linked to the centre was prompted by the party's doctrine that the territorially and politically divided Arab countries are mere regions of a collective entity called the Arab nation.

Thus what existed in Iraq was a "regional command". Although their activities were clandestine in those days, the young Baath members recruited from students, intellectuals and professionals. Said to number 300, they took part in the 1958 revolution that overthrew the monarchy in Iraq and established the path to republicanism.

While the new entity, officially titled the Arab Baath Socialist Party, briefly took power in 1963 when Abdel Karim Qassim was overthrown, it was only in 1968 that the Baathists established their supreme rule through yet another military coup.

In the forefront

The role of Saddam was always in the forefront, having climbed the greasy pole as it were, from a poor and troubled family background - he was always beaten by his stepfather - to a rising star in the ranks of the Baath, which he joined in 1957.

Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, early biographers of Saddam, said he was a man of "action" rather than of "letters"; "an operator rather than an intellectual", as "evident from the early days of political activity".

As such, he first took part in the assassination attempt of Abdel Karim Qasim which went wrong and resulted in his fleeing to Cairo to pursue a law degree. He never completed the degree because he was recalled when the Baathist took power in 1963.

He did get a law degree but it was from Baghdad University rather than Cairo. The year was 1970; he was now the No.2 man in Iraq, the Deputy President, who insisted on being called "Mr Deputy", according to a 1991 article by Judith Miller and Laurie Mylorie.

With the Baathists now firmly in power, they moved to establish a one-party state under the leadership of Ahmed Hassan Al Bakir, who become the General Secretary of the Baath Party in 1966. Saddam was a close kin to Bakir who also served his deputy then.

The years of the late 1960s and early 1970s were bountiful. Armed with much oil revenues, especially after the 1973 oil price rise, the Baathists continued to increase their grip on state and society. With their pan-Arab credentials taking a backseat, the Baath began to concentrate on the domestic front, increasing their role in the state bureaucracy and public service.

It introduced collectivisation programmes and nationalised significant parts of the economy, including the fields of commerce, agriculture, and industries such as iron and steel and petrochemicals. It was a period of prosperity.

The party built "local cells", "divisions" and "branches" to ensure its influence on society would be maintained. To date, statistics of membership of the party are somewhat scarce, but it is suggested that in 1988, the party had 1.5 million supporters and sympathisers in Iraq, about 10 per cent of the population. However, only 30,000 are active members - 0.2 per cent of the population.

Tariq Aziz, a leading politician and one who held leading posts in the party, such as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, was quoted quite recently by David Brooks of the Weekly Standard as saying: "The ABSP is not a conventional political organisation but is composed of valiant revolutionaries... They are experts in secret organisation. They are organisers of demonstrations, strikes and armed revolutions... they are the knights of the struggle."

However, in spite of its small representation in society, the Baath Party had overwhelming power.

Brooks says: "It built a parallel party structure on top of the normal party bureaucracy to enforce loyalty and conformity. It established its own army, in addition to the regular Iraqi army, and its own intelligence services... Ambitious young people were compelled to join the party if they hoped to rise or even study abroad."

Many, especially in western circles, had come to give the Baath party various labels in a derogatory sense. At various times, it had a "Leninist structure", or a "Stalinst" one, and was even labelled a "Nazi" Party in formation.

Many had come to argue that staying, as "Mr Deputy" was too small for a man with much political ambition and the drive to be Number 1. By 1979, Saddam persuaded Al Bakir to go into retirement on grounds of ill health and took his place as President. But that was the first in a series of steps to control the party.

Slowly he came to dominate the party and its structure, establishing himself as chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, General Secretary of the ruling party, Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

But this was not enough. Soon afterwards, he set upon purging the Baath Party, executing many of the top leaders under the pretext that they worked against the state. Thus, it was the start of enforcing the status of fear in Iraqi society and the building of a cult-like personality.

Era of prosperity

Henceforth, the era of prosperity in the 1970s was overturned in the 1980s through his eight-year-old war with Iran and his move into Kuwait in 1990, the war of 1991 by an international coalition to get him out of that state and the international sanctions against him that stayed in place till recently when America embarked on another war to unseat him.

Saddam remained defiant till the last moment. His domination, personality and mystique towered over a well-developed pan-Arabist party that long submitted to his diction and point of view. Some would say outright "tyranny".

In the last days of his rule, there was no delineation between him, the party and society, all were inter-related, all interactive, a one-way street dominated by the power and personality of Saddam Hussain.

His presence was overwhelming - a point that he sought to push forward through his numerous statutes all over the country, through his pictures and posters, and of course television.

Is what we are witnessing today the end of a totalitarian regime? Saddam, in the end, became the father, brother, son, uncle, mother, and sister, he encapsulated society.

Will his disappearance mean much other than an end of an era and the heralding of a new one that is no less challenging? Will the Baath party really disappear from the political scene in Iraq, or will it be rejuvenated under a different leadership and possibly a more pragmatist Arab ideology, ready to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq under a different political system?

Are we to see the institution of a viable democratic system from now on? Only time will tell.

The writer is Managing Editor of The Star, an English language weekly published in Jordan.

homepage: homepage: http://www.gulf-news.com/Articles/opinion.asp?ArticleID=84314