Is This the End of the Caudillo Arab World? the Challenges of Forging a New Iraq after the War

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Is This the End of the Caudillo Arab World? the Challenges of Forging a New Iraq after the War


Byline: Amir Taheri, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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