The Region: King Saddam meets his end

The fate of the Arabic-speaking world could hang on how he is remembered.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Though the dictator is dead, dictatorship is far from dead - at least in the Middle East. But perhaps the execution of Saddam Hussein, the man who not only terrorized but also mobilized Iraq for almost 40 years, is another step in that direction. Saddam was really a king. If he had lived a century ago or more would have established a dynasty, passing down power to his son. That was his intention, to create a republican monarchy. This, of course, is what happened in neighboring Syria, where Hafez I left the throne to Bashar I. Even democratic revolutions - as well as Communist ones - concluded that the continued life of the king was not possible if the new order was to succeed. The English revolution executed King Charles I in 1648; the French, King Louis in 1793; and the Russians, Czar Nicholas II in 1918. In each case, too, the inoculation did not take at first. The British took the monarchy back permanently, the French temporarily, and the Russians got Czar Joseph Stalin the Terrible. Of all these deposed kings, Saddam was the most personally deserving of his fate. Charles was stubborn; Louis, ineffective (though he did plot with the revolution's foreign enemies), and Nicky, foolish in the extreme. None of them were deliberate mass murderers. IN WILLIAM Shakespeare's Richard II, the main character, himself one of Britain's most incompetent rulers, urges his courtiers to sit on the ground in mourning "and tell sad stories of the death of kings," continuing: "How some have been deposed, some slain in war, / Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed, / Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed." These were the models for regime change in the early 17th century. The king might be brought down by the nobles, killed in battle, overthrown by the revival of the dynasty he displaced, or assassinated. Above all, in Shakespeare's theme, is death, the true king of all. Death merely allows the king, for a brief time, to "monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks," then disposes of him with a pinprick. WHAT IS missing here, however, because it only arrived on the scene much later, are the concepts of democracy and revolution, the notion that the people are the king and the ultimate arbiters of the nation's fate. Even if Saddam was thrown out of office by American and British armies, the situation has moved far beyond that point. In Iraq today it is numbers that count, quantity over quality. This is the age of democracy, even if it is often most palpable by its absence, in which case this is the era in which political forces must at least pretend to be democratic. When groups come along which are profoundly anti-democratic - a status of which one of the most important indicators is the systematic use of terrorism - many will reinterpret them in the spirit of the age. Much will be written about Saddam's execution. What is most important? In the wider Middle East context it is how Saddam is interpreted. To many, the great majority that accepts radical Arab nationalism and even lots of Islamists, Saddam is basically a hero. He fought America; he fought Israel; he (at least made believe) supported Arab causes. IF THIS is what prevails, then there is no hope for the Arabic-speaking world. For in that case Saddam's mismanagement, wasteful wars, murder, torture and intimidation are simply not important. And if these things do not matter, they will continue to be repeated and exalted. Within Iraq itself the key issue is whether Saddam will be seen as the greatest Sunni communal leader of modern times. Clearly, the Shi'ite and Kurdish majority hated him and is glad he is dead. If the Sunni minority - which he rewarded in many ways while treating them terribly in others - wants a new Saddam-type figure (even if an Islamist) rather than conciliation, Iraq's civil war will be long and bloody. "There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more dangerous to handle," wrote the Italian Niccol Machiavelli, perhaps history's greatest political analyst, "than to initiate a new order of things... partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it." If one knows only dictators - both on the political level and that of the individual in society - it is a long, hard process to establish a different kind of order. If one exalts dictators, such change is an impossible task. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.