A few months ago, I hosted an Iraqi media figure close to the ruling regime in Baghdad, who surprised me by saying, “If we knew that the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime would lead to the fall of the Iraqi regime and that the Iraqi people would fall victim to sectarian politics and affiliate with warring factions, we would not have rebelled against the Hussein regime. Had we known that the Iraqi Army would disintegrate into sectarian militias, we would not have rebelled and called for an end to the regime. And yet, we have waited for years and years and during this, we have realised that an authoritarian regime is a thousand times easier than remaining patient in the aftermath of all that has befallen Iraq since the overthrow of the previous president.”
This type of language is significant considering that it comes from one of Saddam Hussein’s biggest critics. With the deteriorating situation in Libya, as it continues its downwards spiral into another Iraq, many of the Arab Spring’s supporters are beginning to regret their support for the revolution. These sentiments often echo those of the Iraq media personality I mentioned above. In fact, a few days ago I heard a respected activist say, “if we are forced to choose between a dictator remaining in power for a few years and the collapse of a state, then perhaps it is better for the dictator to remain. After all, a dictator, despite his negative qualities is much easier to deal with then the collapse of a state and a return to a time of statelessness.”
I am not advocating on behalf of the dictators who pushed their people to rebel, but, it is important to warn people that disposing of dictators in a quick, chaotic way is not beneficial as it can lead to the state’s collapse. This is as authoritarian regimes ensure that every institution is linked to the dictatorship so that if the state falls so do they. Let us look to Libya as an example, when the dictatorship fell the state also collapsed because Gaddafi failed to build solid state institutions that could withstand his fall. Libya did not have a national army, because Gaddafi was afraid of the army’s capabilities and as a result there was no army to protect the state.
The situation in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen demonstrate the need for opposition at all levels of political responsibility and we cannot risk opposing legacy-based institutions in any way because it would lead to “Somalisation” and the states collapse. A state, no matter what state it is, does not belong to a regime; the state is not the regime’s property. The state belongs to the nation and the people and the collapse of a state means the collapse of its people. It is because of this that those countries that have revolted and continue to revolt are in such a dire way. The state should not be tied to the ruling regime even if that is what the regime has been doing.
See how easy it is for a state to fall and how hard it is to rebuild! In those countries where states and governments have collapsed it is very difficult for those states to be rebuilt. Somalia is an example of how a people grow accustomed to living in a state of statelessness and how after an entire generation has grown up in this reality, many people oppose attempts to rebuild and re-establish the state. It is very difficult to re-establish a state after people have grown accustomed to, and perhaps now favour statelessness.
The Iraqi journalist mentioned above was undoubtedly right when he said that Saddam Hussein’s regime was, in fact, the lesser of the two evils. Iraqi politicians made a huge mistake when they decided to side with the United States and help destroy state institutions and dismantle the Iraqi army because they belonged to Saddam Hussein. The opposition failed to differentiate between the state and the dictatorship in their quest for revenge and as a result of this, Iraq has returned to an era that predating the state. The army and state institutions were destroyed as if they were Saddam Hussein’s property.
While it is true that the Syrian regime is even more closely tied to state institutions than its Iraqi counterparts, the fact that the state’s institutions are still intact is a good thing for the Syrian people, despite the fact that many consider Syria to be a failed state. While the destruction has destroyed much of Syria’s infrastructure and institutions (both governmental and non-governmental), the state itself is still partially intact. It is the responsibility of all Syrians, both the supporters of the regime and the opposition, to work together to maintain the state’s structure because it does not belong to the regime, but to all Syrians. If it is lost, it will be very difficult to rebuild the state.
There is a famous English saying, “do not cut off your nose to spite the face”. Those who destroy the state to seek revenge is the same as a person who cuts of his nose to spite his face. Finally, I cannot end without thanking everyone who has worked hard for the Arab Spring, whether they are supporting their regime or working in opposition to it.
Translated from Al-Sharq newspaper, 17 August, 2014
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.