Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Silenced by Qaddafi
Last week the Sunday Telegraph in London asked me to pen a piece (along with one by the BBC's John Simpson) on the reaction in the Arab world to Saddam's capture. On Friday, however, Libya decided to give up its WMD, so the Telegraph didn't run my piece, as its priorities suddenly shifted.

So, here it is:

Saddam, alas, was no Hitler

BEIRUT--In the hours after Saddam Hussein appeared on television Sunday, Arab editorial writers scrambled to inject some meaning into the images of a once fearsome man—and former custodian of a state author Christine Moss Helms described in the 1980s as the “eastern flank of the Arab world”—transformed into a bewildered tramp.

A recurring reaction was that the episode, in particular Saddam’s reluctance to play Scarface and dissolve into a hail of gunfire, had somehow disgraced the Arabs. Most commentators in the region, but also Western observers and, even, Cardinal Renato Martino, the president of the Vatican’s Justice and Peace Commission, seemed to have but one word on their lips: humiliation.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi in London, reflected this mood by writing: “It was a shock to us, and an insult to millions of other Arabs [to watch]…the Iraqi president submitting to the humiliating [American] medical examination; we would have liked to see him fight to the end and die a martyr like his sons and grandson, or choose the death of Hitler by firing a bullet into his head or swallowing poison.”

Lebanese publisher and journalist Talal Salman, an unrepentant Pan-Arabist whose Beirut paper, Al-Safir, has been among the most strident critics of the American presence in Iraq, also seemed troubled by Saddam’s craven exit: “It was an end worthy of a despot, an oppressor of his people, weak in the face of foreign occupation…Every dictator is a coward, he kills but doesn’t fight.”

However, was Saddam’s capture really a slap to Arabs frustrated at seeing their champions—Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saddam himself—routinely pushed around by an alien superpower? For many it was, leading to often-voluntary amnesia regarding Saddam’s legacy. As Tunisian journalist Kamel Labidi wrote in Beirut’s English-language Daily Star, describing the reaction in Cairo to the capture: “Egyptian observers did not raise the issue of Saddam’s immense responsibility in bringing to its knees one of the wealthiest of Arab countries [and] in helping weaken an already tattered Arab world…”

However, this discomfort with Saddam’s fate merged with an understanding that he was also a splendid thug. A Damascus shopkeeper encountered on Sunday afternoon hardly seemed dishonoured by the arrest in Iraq. As he watched footage of the former leader, he smiled and remarked: “We got rid of him, but there is one left. Do you know who?” I hesitated: “No, you tell me.” He answered: “Osama bin Laden.” Somehow, I was not absolutely convinced it was bin Laden he had in mind, since the coded language of Arab societies will often substitute one villain for others much closer to home.

The humiliation argument also failed to adequately explain how much Arabs resent the suffocating reach of their autocrats, even if this is offset by powerful antipathy for the United States. In the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s arrest, this combination played itself out in a resort to conspiracy theories suggesting that the Americans had manipulated the incident. Saddam’s sister and daughter both argued he had been drugged, explaining why he had surrendered so quietly. The sister, Nawal Ibrahim Al-Hassan, explained: “If he were in full command of his mental capacities he would have resisted to [the] death.”

Other theories were more prosaic, seeking to explain the conditions leading to Saddam’s arrest. One account had it that Iran had collaborated in locating its old nemesis, in exchange for the Iraqi Governing Council’s expelling from its territory the Iranian opposition Mujahideen Khalq Organization. Another hypothesis was that the Americans had discovered Saddam’s whereabouts by intercepting his telephone calls to his second wife, Samira Shahbandar, who now lives in Lebanon with their son, Ali.

Arab conspiratorial thinking notwithstanding, the theories little approximated in duration those accompanying the fall of Baghdad last April, when it was rumoured that Saddam’s regime had been betrayed by its own security forces. It quickly became clear to all that the broken man on screen was indeed the former Iraqi leader, not one of his illustrious “doubles”, and that it was unlikely for someone in that condition to resist anyone.

But did the Arab world read into Saddam’s capture a general lesson about the fate of its autocratic rulers? Some did, and Arab-American academic Fouad Ajami summed up their argument most eloquently by writing: “Saddam is a crystal ball in which the rulers and the rogues in the region might glimpse the danger that attends them.” Perhaps, but it is doubtful that very many Arabs saw beyond the fact that Saddam’s captors were Americans. In the hierarchy of regional beefs, anti-Americanism still retains far more force than the overthrow of a brutal—yet also somehow palatable, for being home-grown—despot.

Saddam’s capture will not soon lead to an Arab liberal renaissance. However, the establishment of a truly open and democratic order in Iraq does have that potential, all the more so if it is soon transformed into an all-Iraqi venture. In that context, Saddam’s capture may one day take on more resonance in the region, though by then the Arabs will have likely airbrushed the Americans out of the narrative.

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