Could the Arab Spring Have Removed Saddam?

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In early 2003, some weeks before the start of the Iraq war, I had a conversation about nonviolent protest with my friend Na’il, in Baghdad. Although he was assigned by Saddam Hussein’s information ministry to monitor my movements, Na’il was no fan of the Iraqi dictator. Whenever we were alone, he spoke candidly about his desire to leave the country. He had no hope that Saddam may one day be toppled. “Iraqi people are cursed,” he kept saying.

He was so depressed, I tried to lift his spirits by talking about how other peoples had extricated themselves from hopeless situations. Nonviolent movements had overthrown tyranny in India, South Africa and, more recently, in Eastern Europe, I said. But Na’il was unconvinced. Nonviolence could only work, he said, if the regime was reluctant to use violence against his own people. Saddam had no such compunctions. “If there were a million Gandhi’s in Iraq,” Na’il said, “Saddam would send the Republican Guard to kill every one of them, and they would do it without any hesitation.”

Na’il’s words have been with me these recent weeks as I’ve watched two Arab regimes toppled and half-a-dozen others wobbled by nonviolent people power. If Saddam had been in power now, would he too be brought down?

(See scenes from the unrest in Libya)

The more I’ve thought of it, the more convinced I’ve become that Na’il was right. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings succeeded because the military forces of those countries refused to protect the regimes by cracking down on their own countrymen. The Egyptian military’s self-image is that of a force that protects the nation and the people, not Hosni Mubarak. Yes, many top officers were his cronies, but when the push came to shove, their loyalty to the state was greater than their loyalty to the regime. The same was true in Tunisia.

Saddam, on the other hand, could always count on two armed groups whose ONLY reason for being was their loyalty to him: the Republican Guard, and the paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam. As they showed while putting down the Shi’ite uprising after the Kuwait war, these forces were perfectly happy to kill tens of thousands of Iraqis on his orders.

In that sense, Saddam’s Iraq was like today’s Iran. The regime in Tehran has been able to survive popular protests because it, too, can call on armed groups to suppress the protesters: the Revolutionary Guard and the ‘Baseej” militia.

(See photos of what Saddam Hussein’s former palaces look like today)

Saddam also had the apparatus of the Ba’ath Party, which had officials in every street and neighborhood, and a sizeable secret police. And finally, he allowed his people no cellphones or satellite phones, much less Internet access. (Most of these conditions exist today in Burma, North Korea and Cuba.)

So a revolution in Iraq would probably have been stillborn. Even if young Iraqis had been able to plan protests without the use of Facebook or text messages, they would likely have been betrayed by Ba’athist informers. And if they’d managed to avoid that fate, the Republican Guard and Fedayeen Saddam would have killed or jailed thousands of Iraqis to protect the regime.

Can nonviolent protest work in post-Saddam Iraq? Possibly, yes. I can’t see today Iraqi military fire on unarmed demonstrators. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki like to project himself as a tough guy, but his own coalition partners would never tolerate the use of brute force against Iraqis.

And indeed, there have already been antigovernment demonstrations in Iraq. But my friend Na’il isn’t among the protesters: after Saddam’s fall, he fled to Oman.

(See TIME’s complete coverage of the Middle East revolts)