Saddam Hussein was everything people said he was. A dictator. A butcher. A monster. He launched ballistic missiles against my country and I can still remember the soulless howl of the air raid sirens during that terrible winter of 1990-91. Actually, until this day this sound makes my heart shake.
Saddam was a monster. His secret police terrorized his citizens – or, better to say, his subjects. Life in Iraq was not easy. Freedom, as often in the Middle East, was a relative term. But it was better than civil war.
There are few things to know about the Middle East. First look at the map. See all those strait lines? Especially around Jordan? Sometime during the Great War of 1914-18, Britain and France agreed to divide the ME between them. Back then everything here was under the sacred rule of the Turkish Sultan of Sultans. And so, Britain and France prepared a map. It was drawn following a very simple Principe – “how do I get more power and resources”. No one cared about the natives and what they wanted. When the Amir (prince) Hussein founded a kingdom in Damascus, after the British promised him their support, France crushed it. And Britain did nothing. Why? Because the agreement with France was more important than promises given to some Bedouin sheikh. This decision was one of those that led to the fall of the British Empire.
The lines defined new territories. And the lines cut through ethnic and religious groups, separating families, tribes and religious sects. And so appeared Lebanon and Syria, Trans-Jordan and mandatory Palestine (read with a British accent). And so Iraq was created. Kurds in the north, Suni at the center and Shia in the south. A mixture of different people, different beliefs and different interests.
Another thing with the ME is that different groups tend to dislike each other. There is always “us” and there is always “them”. “Us” is good, just and noble. “Them” is strange, shady and cunning. In a way, this is a remnant of the ancient days, when the Bedouin tribes, that later became Muslim and conquered the entire region, roamed the Arabian desert. Life is hard in the desert. Survival depends on your tribe and friends. Recourses are limited. And there is always a fight with some other tribe and somebody else’s friends.
Now think about the “us” and “them” in this new, artificial, Iraq. Three major groups, two major religious directions. Countless tribes, families, parties. And everybody is angry, even if just a bit. Everyone remember all kinds of past wars and conflicts, victories and defeats. How can it work? How can it stay connected? By a monster. By secret police. By fear.
The last point about the ME that I’ll mention here is leadership. Basically, there are two types of leadership in our neighborhood – the loved leader and the feared one. The loved leader is “us” – head of the family, the sheikh of the tribe, the “father” of the nation. Remember the map? Look at the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. There is a man living in Amman. His name is Abdullah and he is king. He is the tribal leader of the Bedouin population of Jordan. He inherited the title from his father, the late king Hussein, and the Bedouins adore him. For them he is “us”.
The feared leader is “them”. He is a stranger. Look at Jordan again. The majority of its population is not Bedouin. They are Palestinians. In a different post I’ll write about how this happened, here it is enough to mention that such is the case and that for the Palestinian subjects in Jordan, Abdullah is “them”. And here enter the secret police, the arrests at midnight, the limitations on freedom of speech and other things that we, at the west, dislike so much.
The feared leader rules by intimidation. It is unjust and cruel. But this is one side of the picture. It is easy to see this terrifying image, it is easy to compare the feared Middle Eastern leader with figures from recent European history (hey – they all had moustaches!). But in the case of the Middle East, the other side of the picture is not democratic Germany or free (I know, I know…) Russia. The alternative for the feared leader are exploding markets in Baghdad. Terrorism, war, defragmentation of the state – that is what comes after the feared leader is gone. Just turn on CNN. Remember the Iraqis climbing on Saddam’s statue? The people cheering when he was caught? I wander what they are thinking today. If they made it.
This is from a general point of view. Now speaking from the Israeli one.
Iraq was an enemy. But on its other side was Iran, another enemy. And even if not always the enemy of my enemy is my friend, at least it is good to have one around. Keeping Iraq as a barrier was crucial. Both to us and to the West. And now we have the reborn Persian Empire as a central threat to our existence.
Saddam was a monster. But for us he was a familiar one. His disappearance created a void, soon filled with other, conflicting, centers of power. Ten years ago we knew an actor on the international arena called “Iraq”. We knew what he thought, how he reacted. It wasn’t a nice or a friendly actor but it was familiar and predictable in his egocentric madness. Why? Because Iraq was Saddam.
The same thing, but in other methods, is happening now. With Iraq we had war. With Egypt – peace. But this is the ME, and so I should say: with Saddam we had war, with Mubarak – peace. And then he also disappeared. And now we have the Islamic Brotherhood. Now we have people in Cairo talking about cancelling the peace agreement. “It’s just a paper,” they say. Now we have the Nazi (yes, the National Socialist) party re-established in Egypt earlier this week (http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=222367). Now we have the seeds of the future conflict. Now we have people in the White House calling this “democracy”.
And that is why I miss Saddam Hussein.