by Azzam Tamimi
I find the theory that the eruption of the Arab Spring was somehow contributed to by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein farfetched. In fact, I don't see much relevance between the Arab Spring and the events that blighted Iraq during the period from the early 1990s to the late 2000s. If at all, any Iraqi relevance began to form only as the Sunni Arabs of the Anbar embarked on their own peaceful uprising against the Maliki regime. And this happened no more than two years after the Tunisian uprising was triggered by the self-immolation of fruit vender Bu Azizi. In other words, one may argue more convincingly in favour of a Tunisian or Egyptian influence on the recent Iraqi uprising than the other way round.
Undoubtedly, Saddam Hussein was an oppressive ruler, a tyrant loathed and feared by the majority of the people he ruled. Yet, it was not the Iraqi people who toppled him and it was not an uprising anywhere in Iraq that expedited the end of his tyrannical reign.
The marsh Arabs uprising was generally perceived, at the time, as an Iranian-instigated, U.S.-backed, riot aimed at exploiting the exhaustion of the regime in the aftermath of the defeat of its troops and their expulsion from Kuwait in 1991. The uprising never managed to gain the momentum needed to finish what its leaders hoped to achieve and the U.S. and its allies believed at the time that intervening directly to accomplish the mission was outweighed by the risks involved.
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq had hardly anything to do with the Iraqi popular discontent or any meaningful domestic dynamic aimed at change. It was planned and executed entirely by external actors who brought with them from exile remnants of Iraqi, mostly Shi'ite, opposition. It was the U.S. invasion that enabled these figures to be installed in power once Saddam's Ba'thist regime was finished off. Iraqis who stood to benefit from the change of regime justified the U.S. invasion and considered it, at best, the lesser of the two evils. Yet, the U.S. predetermination that the Sunnis of Iraq were potential enemies, in accordance with the incredible theory of the Sunni triangle, and should therefore be treated as such led to a gradual estrangement of most Sunnis and to a profound sectarian division unprecedented in the recent history of Iraq. Iran, of course, was the greatest beneficiary from the U.S. invasion and mismanagement of Iraq. Ironically, Iran's men ended up being the new rulers of Iraq. You can hardly think of a happier ending for the Iranians to their long ‘war and peace' epic with Saddam's regime.
The model of governance the United States helped establish in post-Saddam Iraq was far from impressive. Opposition groups and individuals in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the three Arab countries that led the Great Arab Popular Uprising (GAPU – referred to as the Arab Spring), had already been struggling peacefully for reform in their own countries during the years of the invasion and occupation. At the time they condemned the U.S. invasion and what they perceived as a U.S./Iranian stooge regime in Baghdad. Generally, nothing positive was seen about the U.S.-provoked change in Iraq. The U.S. & U.K. claims that one of the objectives of regime change in Iraq was to liberate the Iraqi people from tyranny and promote democracy and respect for human rights were hardly credible. Any claim that such a regime change encouraged Arabs elsewhere to engage in a dynamic aimed at achieving similar results is indeed illusory.
The uniqueness of GAPU is that it was triggered by an incident totally unrelated to the political opposition dynamic that had been brewing for decades. What happened really is that political activists saw in this incident a window of opportunity, which they immediately moved in to exploit. Bu Azizi and many of those who took to the street to denounce the Ban Ali regime that forced him to self immolate were not members of any political organisation. Nor were many of the young men and women who took to Cairo's Tarhrir Square on 25 January or the squares within major Yemeni cities soon afterwards inflamed primarily by the events in Tunisia. Traditional political parties and groups were indeed taken by surprise and might have hesitated initially to join in. Western powers and some of their allies in the region were taken aback by the eruption of these ever-growing popular protests. No analyst or commentator or observer could credibly claim he or she foretold the eruption.
It took the United States and other international and regional actors some time to draw up a meaningful strategy for dealing with these events. Tunisia's Ben Ali could not be saved nor could Egypt's Mubarak or Yemen's Saleh, all staunch U.S. allies. The Libyan case is slightly different because it was not simply a popular tide that swept him away from power but NATO intervention.
In Tunisia and Egypt in particular efforts were soon coordinated among external and internal circles that stood to lose as a result of the change. These led to specific measures being adopted to make the transition from autocracy to democracy in all these countries difficult if not impossible. Much of the difficulties faced today by these GAPU countries are due to foreign intervention, spearheaded regionally by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who fear the long-term repercussions of an Islamist take over in neighbouring countries. Nothing would explain better the pouring of huge sums of money from both of these countries into the pockets of media moguls and political leaders opposed to the transition in Tunisia and Egypt. The UAE unprecedented onslaught on Islamists, both national and expatriate, is seen as a pre-emptive protective measure. Thousands of intellectuals, mostly Islamic, are detained without trial today in Saudi Arabia because of suspected associations with demands for reform and change.
Despite all the intrigues, obstacles and challenges the GAPU countries are marching forward, albeit rather slowly, with tangible steps toward genuine democratisation. One important catalyst in this process is the general acceptance that the new orders, at least in Tunisia and Egypt, are expressions of a free public will. That can hardly be said of Iraq.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq did indeed succeed in toppling the Ba'thist regime of Saddam Huseein but had miserably failed to replace it with a truly democratic one. Not only is today's pro-Iran Baghdad regime considered unworthy of looking up to, it is perceived by many Arabs in the Middle East and Africa as a worse alternative to Saddam's. Hence the widespread sympathy across the Arab world with the burgeoning popular uprising in many of Iraq's Sunni provinces.
This Sunni uprising is further fuelled by the overt support of Al-Maliki's Iraqi regime for that of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. It is indeed ironic that the U.S. installed regime in Baghdad, which was supposed to be a model of democracy, is standing by Bashar's tyrannical regime that's using all means at its disposal, including chemical weapons and long-range missiles, to quell a popular uprising for democracy and human rights. One may contrast this with the stances of the GAPU regimes which stand firmly in favour, though mostly with little difference to make, of the Syrian revolution.
The Iraqi position vis-à-vis Syria, which is only a reflection of the Iranian stance, augments the sectarian divide inside Iraq itself amid growing sectarian tension across the region. Such a tension could have remained low-level and marginal had it not been for Iranian and Hezbollah direct participation in the military and security campaign aimed at suppressing the Syrian revolution.
Another irony of this highly complex Syrian affair is that while Iran and Hezbollah stand by the Syrian regime ostensibly to counter anti-resistance pro-Israel designs, the U.S. and its Western allies, despite the political rhetoric, are actively preventing a regime change in Syria lest this has adverse effects on Israel's security.
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Azzam Tamimi is the Director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought (IIPT). He has been a visiting professor at Kyoto and Nagoya universities in Japan. His books include:Power-Sharing Islam (1993), Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (2000), Rachid Ghannouchi a Democrat within Islamism (2001), and Hamas Unwritten Chapters (2006). He is a regular commentator on a number of Arabic satellite channels including Aljazeera and Alhiwar and frequently makes appearances on a number of English channels as well.
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