Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Saddam Succumbs Saddam’s Capture an Ominous Sign for Arab World’s Remaining Autocrats by Gil Sedan

December 16, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When Saddam Hussein’s capture was made public, residents of Baghdad took to the streets, rejoicing.

But reaction elsewhere in the Arab world was more subdued.

For those who admired Saddam as an Arab hero, his defeat and ultimate humiliation by a foreign army was no cause for celebration.

Even for those who agreed that Saddam was a dangerous tyrant, his demise at the hands of America was hard to swallow in a region that runs high with resentment of U.S. power and influence.

And for Arab autocrats, the capture was yet another sign of the weakness of the Arab political model.

“Most people in the Arab world will be glad that he is captured,” professor Mohanna Haddad, of Yarmuk University in Jordan, told JTA. “Many of us share the feeling that he did more harm to the Arab cause than any good.”

Once a local leader is gone, the Arab masses tend to lose their attachment to him very quickly, Haddad said.

Even so, Saddam’s capture was not sufficient cause for celebration in the Arab streets outside of Iraq. In some places, like the areas under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, a few hundred people attended demonstrations held in support of Saddam.

For his part, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat remained mum on the issue.

Arab leaders sent President Bush messages of congratulations, but many of them also feel threatened by the president’s frequent references to a new era of “democracy in the Middle East.”

For most Arab leaders, democracy in their countries would mean an end to their iron grip on power.

No current Arab leader measures up to Saddam in cruelty and absolute power, but the collapse of the Baathist regime in Iraq has triggered growing demands for democratization in other Arab countries.

Such calls received a boost from last month’s “velvet revolution” in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

After the nonviolent revolution, several political thinkers from the Arab world wrote articles questioning why Arabs have not shown the same courage and deposed their own regimes, according to translations provided by the Middle East Media and Research Institute.

“Why don’t the Arab societies witness similar revolutions?” wrote Sa’ad Mahiu, a columnist from the daily al-Halij, in the United Arab Emirates. “Why do they lie in coma while all the peoples of the world, including the African peoples, have been dancing since 1989 to the beat of one genuine, universal revolution which sweeps the world toward the windmill of democracy?”

It’s because the peoples of the Middle East erroneously believe that Islam and democracy cannot coexist, Mahiu wrote.

“It is a long story before democracy can be established in the Arab world,” Haddad said. “People are too threatened by Islamic values to embrace democracy.”

Nevertheless, leaders like Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Syria’s Bashar Assad surely felt uneasy as they watched the humiliation of their former Iraqi colleague on television.

“Can you imagine what went through their heads watching the American physician comb Saddam’s hair searching for lice?” said Guy Bechor of the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya. “They know, just like everyone else knows, that the show is not over. It is only beginning.”

The real challenge, Bechor said, will come with Saddam’s trial.

Yossi Olmert, a professor of security studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and a former adviser to Israeli prime ministers, said Saddam’s capture could have a significant impact in neighboring Syria.

“I think Saddam’s capture will have a strong affect on Bashar Assad, whose recent moderate statements on a possible settlement with Israel reflect his concern over American pressure,” Olmert said.

Last week, Bush signed into law a piece of legislation that imposes trade sanctions on Syria and offers the president a range of other possible punitive measures unless Syria shuts down the local operations of terrorist groups, restores sovereignty to Lebanon and accounts for the country’s nonconventional weapons capability.

“When dictators see other dictators fall, they certainly receive the message,” Olmert said. “I can still remember the panic in Damascus when Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu was executed in 1989.”

Knesset member Azmi Beshara rejects comparisons between Saddam and Assad. The chairman of Balad, an Israeli Arab party, Beshara has visited Syria several times and met with both Assad and his late father.

“Assad’s regime is an undemocratic regime which is quite corrupt, but it is not a regime in which people disappeared, as happened in the Saddam regime,” Beshara said. “Assad is no megalomaniac and has not occupied other people’s land. One cannot compare him to Saddam, let alone the fact that at times he hosted the Iraqi opposition.”

Beshara said it is too early to tell what impact Saddam’s capture will have on the remainder of the Arab world. Much will depend on Saddam’s trial, he said.

“He may yet turn the trial in his favor,” Beshara observed. “He will try to turn it into a trial of the entire Arab world. He can show that the same leaders who sent messages of congratulations to Bush had embraced him in public.”

And on a practical level, most of Israel’s Middle East experts say Saddam’s capture will not curb regional terrorism in the foreseeable future.

“Many terrorists still do regard him an Arab hero, and their reaction to Saddam’s capture is likely to produce more terrorism,” Olmert said. “Therefore, it is much too early to celebrate.”

Recommended from JTA