The moment of truth
Iraq has rid itself of a terrible regime, but at what price? Challenging conventional wisdom, Osama El-Ghazali Harb argues that despotism is worse than occupation.
The moment of truth
Osama El-Ghazali, Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt
I know I am going to make many people angry. Not ordinary people, and not our public opinion -- both are unfortunately silent. Those most likely to be angry are the vocal, politically active, intellectuals who fill the Egyptian and Arab press with their writings, and appear on the radio, television, and Internet -- locally, regionally, and globally -- to tell Egyptians and Arabs, particularly the young, how we should see the world around us, how we should relate to it, and what our concerns and priorities should be.
What I am about to say does not involve new ideas or opinions, most of which have been intimated, albeit in timid whispers, on the battles our countries have been immersed in for half a century. But this is a defining moment. It differs from anything we have experienced in our modern history. Have the Arabs, at least since they gained independence in the past century, ever witnessed one of their capitals -- with a long history and a distinguished cultural past -- fall so resoundingly as its three decade old political system crumbled into oblivion? Foreign occupation, effected by the world's mightiest military power, came to Iraq, with no internationally mandated legitimacy; and in full view of the entire world.
Is there a precedent for such an occurrence? None that I can think of. What happened was a shock to our very existence. Its implications surpass the worst of our former hardships, the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and the 1967 defeat included.
At this defining moment, we -- Egyptians and Arabs -- find ourselves faced with two versions of reality, far more distinct and disparate than ever before. I personally sensed the emergence of a rift on the first day of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq at dawn on Wednesday, 20 March. A nagging, uncertain sensation stayed with me until I received, in the thick of the crisis, a telephone call from a professor friend of mine, one whom I love and respect. He asked, "Is it true that you mentioned, in a television programme, following the march of invading troops into Baghdad and the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, that you do not see what happened as a 'fall' but as a 'rise' of Baghdad?"
It did not take me long to know what my friend was driving at. I hesitated for a while, reluctant to disappoint him, but in the end I had to admit it, "Yes." He replied, a barely-disguised sadness in his voice, "Do you remember the story of the Tokyo police chief who committed suicide upon learning, years after he retired, that his successor embezzled funds? He left a note to the effect that he blames himself for failing to educate and inspire his former protégé." I replied, "Do you mean that you want to commit suicide now because you're disappointed by your student's opinions?" He said, "No, I will not commit suicide. This is a Japanese thing. But please, don't go that far again."
As I put down the telephone, I sensed that this went far beyond an argument over a view mentioned on television. This is a profound disagreement between two visions and two ways of thinking, even two worlds. This is a disagreement between an outlook that dominated our life and thinking for over half a century and another that involves a radical revision of old assumptions, incorporating the tremendous changes that have taken place in our societies and the world around us.
The first view is embraced by some of our top thinkers and writers, people who were shocked by the Anglo-American invasion and scandalised by the fall of beloved Baghdad into the hands of the invaders. Regardless of their full and public condemnation of Saddam's abominable regime, they are now saddened by the new catastrophe, and reject in the strongest of terms all the "deviant" and "aberrant" views my professor friend intimated in his story about the Japanese police chief.
One positive outcome of the current events in Iraq is that they have allowed this divergence of views to surface. The conventional view must be contrasted with the new one, and their reasoning and implications must be examined.
This article cannot possibly provide a full anatomy of the dimensions and elements of the two divergent views, or a list of their pros and cons, but it may serve as an invitation for dialogue and an attempt to identify two main points of the controversy.
First, since the clouds of the war on Iraq began gathering on the horizon, differences emerged not only between the minority supporting Saddam, and the majority opposing him, but also within the latter. The majority, who opposed Saddam, also split into two parties, with a majority and a minority. The majority was of the opinion that in any confrontation between an Arab Muslim regime and foreign forces one must not stand with the foreigners against the Arab Muslim regime -- regardless of how wrong or even sinful the latter may be. This crisis, the majority maintained, was not about Saddam Hussein, whom we all condemn and reject, but about the Iraqi people. Above all it was about a conspiracy being hatched against Arabs and Muslims, and the US's wish to control supplies of oil and enable Israel to dominate the entire region.
The majority view was based on numerous Arab values and ideological principles. Its underlying assumption was that, whatever the differences between us, Arabs and Muslims should not side with foreign intruders. As the Arab saying goes: "My country is fair, even when unfair, and my people are kind, even when unkind." A common Egyptian saying corroborates this sentiment, "I and my brother would fight my cousin, and I and my cousin would fight the stranger."
There is a difference, stressed often by Marxists, between a major contradiction (involving an external enemy) and a minor contradiction (involving internal squabbles). Nationalists and Nasserists also see the confrontation between Pan- Arabism and imperial forces as more important than Arab internal problems.
Of course, there is also the confrontation between Muslims and infidels -- haven't the latter admitted that they were waging a Crusade? So, what reason do we have to stand with outsiders against an Arab Muslim force, even if the latter was evil? Certainly, the outsiders are making excuses to bring down Saddam's regime so that they steal our oil, boost Israel's hegemony, and rearrange the region according to their whims.
A minority view eventually emerged that the overthrow of Saddam's regime was a primary, not a secondary, objective. Saddam's downfall would be an achievement that could provide a solid basis and a cornerstone for Arab empowerment. It would give us a fighting chance against Israel's ambitions; even against US policy. This is true even if the Americans and British were the ones to topple Saddam.
What the minority view assumes, in essence, is that internal threats are more dangerous than external ones. External threats are like a benign disease. Even if serious, they can be diagnosed and treated. Corruption and internal decay, in contrast, are malignant. They debilitate the body of the nation, usually under boastful but fraudulent slogans. As the great Al-Kawakbi said, a century or so ago, "despotism is the worst disease". Despotism weakens the nation's immunity to foreign threats, not the other way around.
The minority view is opposed to the tribal and ideological way of thinking as well as a distorted interpretation of religion that tolerates despots so long as they pay lip service to nationalist and Islamic slogans. The main question, according to this view, is the internal not the external. Saddam's regime has ended and, yes, it has been replaced by foreign occupation, but this is not an unusual historical occurrence. Hitler's Nazi regime ended in the foreign (US, British, French, Russian) occupation of Germany. But Germany lived on, and moved ahead. Saddam is gone, and the occupation will go away too. But Iraq and its people will live on and move ahead.
Second, the merits of overthrowing Saddam's regime were hardly in dispute. The question was by who -- the Iraqi people or an invading and occupying foreign force? The majority view was that only the Iraqis have the right to change their regime. Naturally, almost everyone wondered: What gives the United States the right to interfere in Iraq, particularly given that both Washington and London announced their intention to proceed with the invasion without a legitimate international mandate and against the overwhelming opposition of the international community.
The minority view, as I mentioned earlier, maintained that the toppling of Saddam's regime was the first priority. Here one has to differentiate between the actual political reality and the legal and official position most governments took when rejecting foreign interference in Iraq's affairs.
For the past decade, at least, Iraq has been a bone of contention between a merciless and corrupt regime and a variety of opposition groups based inside and outside the country. Opposition groups in northern and southern Iraq were based in the no-fly zones; that is, under some protection by "foreign" forces. The expatriate community, made up of nearly four million Iraqis who left the country to escape the oppression of the Iraqi regime, was getting organised and held conferences in European and US cities.
Iraq, therefore, was not in a situation whereby the regime had full legitimacy. It was in a state of latent or inactive civil war, one that never materialised due to extraordinary political repression. In other words, it is fine to argue "officially" that the Iraqis alone have the right to change their political regime. But we all know that the Iraqis were not the ones who brought Saddam to power and were simply unable to unseat him. The Arab media, all worked up about the war, sadly overlooked the views of the Iraqi people. Saddam's regime was removed by foreign invaders and not Iraqis. This may be unfortunate, but the Iraqis never had the chance.
Two things come to mind here. Firstly, throughout history, whenever a confrontation has developed between a despotic regime and internal nationalist opposition, "foreign assistance" to the latter was the rule, not the exception. The Vietnamese could not have triumphed against the Saigon government and its American allies without Chinese and Soviet support. The Chinese revolution received external support. The Allies came to the aid of European resistance during World War II. And the Arabs gave support to the Algerian revolution. The problem was that "external assistance", in Iraq's case, came in the form of armed invasion.
Secondly, support to the Iraqi opposition and the toppling of Saddam's regime were not at the top of Washington's list of real, declared, or tacit goals. The United States came to the region to control oil, alleviate Israel's security concerns, search for weapons of mass destruction, and prevent Iraq from giving support to terrorist groups.
Yet, the United States also came to create a regime that, according to Thomas Friedman, is more decent and democratic. The United States we know has little credibility when it comes to the spread of democracy. It has a long and unflattering history of sponsoring non-democratic regimes in our region. There is, however, a lesson to be learned from the 11 September attacks. The Americans must have sensed that political despotism and socio-economic problems in the Arab and Islamic world are a threat to their national security. We -- for our part -- have to remind the Americans that democracy is something we demand more than they do, and that their disgraceful bias towards Israel is the primary reason for our anger.
Saddam's regime has fallen, and regardless of how this was done, the Iraqi people have sighed with relief. For the first time in years, Iraq does not conjure up the image of Saddam and his deputies, but hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqis. After years of despotism, the Iraqis are making their views known. In their first demonstration, they marched out of the Abu- Hanifah Al-Noaman Mosque to demand the departure of the occupation forces, reminding the world: "Sunnis and Shi'as are brothers. Our homeland is not for sale."
The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly Al- Siyassa Al-Dawliya (International Politics) issued by Al-Ahram, and a member of the Shura Council.
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