- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

Although it is too early to envisage the shape of a future Iraqi state, we may be witnessing the bankruptcy of a model of statehood developed in several Arab countries during the 20th century.
The model was presented under such labels as qowmi (nationalist) and ishtiraki (socialist) or, sometimes nationalist-socialist. But, perhaps, a more apt label for it is zaimist, a regime centered on a charismatic, and brutal, strongman. (From the Arabic word zaim which means chief or Caudillo.)
Most of the states where the model developed came into being after the First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France, the colonial powers that had inherited the Arab provinces of the Ottomans, created the new states.
These states were, almost invariably, shaped as instruments for protecting and/or furthering some specific strategic interest of the colonial power. Iraq was created around the oil fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. The Egyptian state's task was to help protect the Suez Canal. Transjordan was a British outpost to keep an eye on the Arabian Peninsula and provide a base for intervention in the Levant.
The new state was built around an army created by the colonial power.
With the advent of the decolonization movement, the newly created army-based Arab states lost their original function.
Anxious to protect its power and privilege, the military elite adopted the nationalist discourse. In practice, however, it did not join the struggle for independence until the colonial powers had indicated a readiness to withdraw.
After independence, the Arab military elites found themselves without a role.
They sought a role by seizing power in a series of coups. Armies that had been created as colonial instruments redefined themselves as standard-bearers of Arab nationalism. The excuse they found for their intervention in politics was the Arab defeat at the hands of the newly created Israeli state in 1948. They blamed their poor performance on incompetent or treacherous political leaders and vowed that, once in power, they would restore the Arab honor. (They often went on to earn even bigger dishonor.)
In most cases, the military overthrew a traditional type of regime, often in the form of a monarchy backed by tribal structures.
Because the traditional system of rule had based its legitimacy on Islam and tribal loyalties, the new military regimes adopted nationalism and, in some cases, socialism, as counterthemes. The nationalist theme was attractive because it cut across religious divides and legitimized rule by officers who subscribed to creeds other than mainstream Sunni Islam. The socialist theme appealed to the urban poor and the secular intelligentsia that wished to distance itself from "feudalistic" structures.
The army's direct assumption of power led to a gradual militarization of Arab politics, in which violence became the main source of legitimacy.
The military rulers did what they knew how: wage war. They began by waging war against civil society with the aim of destroying all potential sources of alternative authority and legitimacy.
They disarmed as many of the tribes as they could, and executed, imprisoned, exiled or bought most of their leaders.
State Model-02:
Next, it was the turn of religious authorities to be brought under state control and deprived of the independence they had enjoyed for more than 1000 years. Traditional religious organizations such as Sufi fraternities, esoteric sects and charitable structures were either infiltrated or dismantled. The new state assumed control of the endowments (awqaf) property worth billions, depriving civil society of an important economic base.
The army-based state also annexed the educational system, nationalizing thousands of private Koranic schools and dictating the curricula.
The traditional guilds of trades and crafts, some with centuries of history, were also attacked and disbanded.
Political parties and cultural associations did not escape the destructive urge. In the 1950s some of the newly independent Arab countries were home to genuine political movements representing the various ideologies of the 20th century. By the end of the 1970s, all, including parties such as Ba'ath, that were nominally in power in Syria and Iraq, had been destroyed.
The elimination of the independent press, the ownership and control of radio and television networks by the state and the vast resources allocated to "information" ministries enabled the new Arab regime to stifle dissident voices and impose its version of reality.
Evolving toward a totalitarian model the new army-based Arab state embarked upon a wholesale nationalization program.
The fact that the state controlled the biggest sources of national revenue e.g. the canal in Egypt, and oil in Iraq facilitated the imposition of a system of command economy.
In most cases, the state had no real need for the population. It drew little or no revenue from taxes and met its budgetary revenue from national assets such as oil, the canal, and, from the 1950s, foreign aid. Nor did the new Arab state need the people to run an economy in which vital sectors were managed and operated by foreign experts and workers.
The new regimes, holding no real elections, did not need the people to vote for them either.
By the start of the 1970s, the traditional Arab civil society had been all but destroyed. A totalitarian state ideologically confused, unsure of its legitimacy, addicted to violence and ridden by corruption dominated all aspects of life.
In time, the Arab military developed into a new caste of rulers that controlled most decision-making positions: Ministers, provincial governors, ambassadors, chief executives of state-owned companies and even media editors were recruited among active or retired officers.
The new caste was further reinforced by an even more tightly knit sub-caste: the intelligence and security services (mukhabarat) that established themselves as the veritable sources of power.
The emergence of this new monster-state apparatus was accompanied by tens of thousands of executions, the imprisonment of countless people, the flight into exile of millions and, last, but not least, the destruction of the moral fabric of Arab society.
It was not only against its people that the new Arab regime was at war from the start. It also provoked some 20 wars, none of which reflected the national interests of the countries concerned.
Some military-based regimes used terrorism as an instrument of policy.
State Model-03:
One can hardly find a terrorist organization, from the Japanese Red Army to the Irish Republican Army, and passing by the Basques ETA and the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso, that did not forge some link with one or more of he Arab military regimes at one point.
Depending on the Soviet bloc for aid, protection and diplomatic guidance, the army-based Arab regimes closed their societies to influences from the West, thus reversing a trend that had started in the 19th century. The result was a deepening of the culture of totalitarianism in which the ruler lies to the people and is, in turn, lied to by the people. By the mid-1970s, the last representatives of Western-style liberal thought that had persisted in the Arab world were either dead or dying.
That opened the way for the emergence of Islamic extremism as an alternative to the mukhabarat regimes.
Today, the Islamist movement is also in crisis as a result of the failure of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the tragic experience of Islamism in the Sudan and the dismal end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The emergence of al Qaeda, and its terrorist leadership as the most potent symbols of Islamism, also weakened the movement by alienating key elements within the Arab urban middle classes.
What could be the key elements of a new Arab state model?
The failed model was a power-state, known in Islamic literature as saltana, in which legitimacy is based on the control of the means of violence.
The alternative to the failed model is the one that could be described as the political-state, in which legitimacy emanates from the free exercise of the will of the citizens. That model is based on a civic bond among citizens. Its features are pluralism and accountability.
Islamic political literature offers a wealth of ideas that could be deployed in any battle of ideas against both the Islamist and secular enemies of pluralism.
There need be no contradiction between revelation and reason in developing a political system that responds to the earthly needs of its citizens. On the contrary, because Islam imposes strict limits to the powers of the ruler (sultan or hakim), it is, theoretically at least, impossible to use it as a basis for tyranny.
The new state model for the Arabs should revive and reassert those limits. It should help the civil society to revive, reorganize and re-dynamize its institutions. This should be accompanied with a massive program of privatization, to reduce the role of the state in controlling and dictating economic policy and the allocation of national resources in general. An early privatization of the media should be a priority, as it was in post-Nazi Germany and Japan.
The liberation of Iraq provides an historic opportunity to open the Muslim world to new experiences. Missing that opportunity for the tactical considerations could lead to a strategic mistake by the liberators.
Winning the military phase of the war against Iraq's despotic regime may be the easiest part of a larger campaign. Defeated in war, despotism must also be defeated politically. The hardest battles remain to be fought in the field of ideas.

Amir Taheri, Iranian author and journalist, is based in Europe. E-mail: amirtaheri@benadorassociates.com.

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