The soldier guarding the prison's backyard began shouting: go back, go back…!
We were a small crowd of journalists and Iraqi civilians, most of whom came from the neighboring tribal and rural areas, waiting for a possible new wave of prisoner releases at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. This was weeks before the prison scandal broke out. The American guard continued to shout without result. I was watching the crowd as they moved around in a chaotic fashion, my anxiety mounting in fear that the soldier might start shooting as his nervous tone was escalating. For this American soldier, who had known nothing of this land and its people before joining the phalanges of war, the situation, although very simple, was tricky. He was unable to grasp that most of the crowd did not understand English. The solution would simply have been to speak to them in their own language. The soldier – a fate he shared with all his colleagues deployed in Iraq - was lost in translation.
This was in the first years of the post-Saddam era, when the killing of civilians in the street was a daily occurrence at the hands, not only of the rebels, but also of American soldiers who were empowered to shoot at people in any situation where they felt threatened. The cases of civilians “disappeared” by the "friendly fire" of those who were supposed to be bringing them freedom from despotism was a challenging and emotive investigative story for my fellow journalists and I.
I recall the terror I felt everytime I was trapped in a Baghdad street near an American military convoy. The fact that any misunderstanding would grant the solider observing us from behind a long canon the freedom to end our lives in seconds was terrifying. Although our drivers had instructions to avoid military convoys, this was practically impossible in the extremely busy streets of Baghdad.
After years following the American-led invasion of an Iraq still shaken by daily violence, I was shocked to hear an American former advisor of President George Bush declare at a conference in London that the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was a child of the new Iraq. Echoing former US Vice President Dick Cheney, this advisor argued that the new Iraq and new Afghanistan were "catalysts" for the Arab youth swamping the streets of Arab cities, calling for their basic rights to democracy and often paying with their lives.
Arab Spring and Iraq: the dangers of comparison
The chaotic situation in Iraq, which is not coming to an end despite the heavy costs of Operation Iraqi Freedom, foreshadows the nightmare which could result from the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. The sectarian violence still blazing in Iraq is the strongest argument of those extreme pessimists predicting that the Arab revolutions will exacerbate the growing sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia, driving the region into a new vicious cycle of violence, and thus duplicating the Iraqi example. It is also the major weapon used by despotic regimes to nurture the fears which grant them a free hand to suppress their people on the pretext of providing them with security and stability. For all of these, the Iraqi situation is the best example of what not to do.
But a comparison between the American-led invasion of Iraq and the birth of the ‘Arab Spring’, while demonstrating a few similarities, highlights many more differences. The Arab revolutions are home-grown movements which were symbolically sparked by a Tunisian worker setting himself on fire in a cry of despair over his miserable fate. The new Iraq, by comparison, was the fruit of a sophisticated and costly military operation involving interplay of regional and international forces, a precedent for a military intervention outside the UN umbrella. Whilst the Arab revolutions look like spontaneous populist expressions, the new Iraq appeared like an artificially planned implementation. The recent American bid to keep a footprint in Iraq, by amending the agreement under which all US forces have to leave the country by the end of this year, was not welcomed by Iraqis. On the contrary, it has sparked a revival of nationalism among both Sunni and Shia protesters, although there are bitter sectarian divisions between them. The security challenge is yet to be met, despite a significant decrease in violence. Last June was the deadliest month for Iraqis, with 271 people killed and another 35 massacred in a car bombing in Taji. 14 US soldiers also died in June, making it the deadliest month for US personnel in three years.
Both the Tunisian and the Egyptian revolutions were born in a context of socio-economic and political grievances from which foreign dynamics were absent. As surprising as these rebellions were for the Arab world, they were also unforeseen by foreign forces. These populist movements seem to be turning their back on external factors and evolving outside the regional and international power game. Although the Libyan revolution shows similarities to the US-led invasion of Iraq on 2003, it was handled differently, with the allies choosing to support local factions without a long-term commitment and always under the umbrella of the rebels’ national legitimacy. Although the role of NATO is raising questions and debate (why intervene in Libya and not in Syria or elsewhere?), the Libyan rebels cannot be portrayed as manipulated by a “foreign hand”.
Iraq: the example of what not to do and the best weapon for rogue regimes
The common denominator in most of the ‘Arab Spring’ rebellions is their reluctance to call for foreign military intervention and their insistence on the national roots of their grievances. At the same time, the common denominator in the discourse of rogue regimes is their consistent attempt to present themselves as under an attack from evil external powers, the West or extreme Islam.
Both the Libyan regime of Mouamar Kadhafi and the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad are flagging the danger of al-Qaeda and extremist Islamists, along with the old slogan of Western conspiracy, in order to fuel fears of the period “After Me”.
In his speech to the United Nations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem accused foreign governments of instigating unrest in Syria, stating that the "model" of coexistence in the region is a source of pride for Syrians. Addressing the UN General Assembly, Al-Muallem said "I assure you that our people are determined to reject all forms of foreign intervention in their internal affairs. We shall continue to pursue security and stability".
For his part, Kadhafi has continuously accused al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb of being behind the unrest in his country, stressing that the extremist organization is recruiting rebels and leading them astray with drugs. “What would you do if you saw them controlling American cities, with the power of weapons?” he asked in a letter addressed to US President Barack Obama. “Tell me how you would behave, so I can follow your example.”
But the most powerful weapon in the hands of these regimes is the fate of Christian minorities in the Middle East. One of the main slogans of the Syrian state media propaganda in the battle for hearts and minds. Here the ordeal of Christian Iraqis is the best example. A YouTube video showing a gathering chanting the slogan “Alawis to coffin and Christians to Beirut” was extremely successful in achieving its goals. Syrian Christian leaders are openly expressing their fears over the fate of their communities in the “after Assad” era, with constant reference to the situation in Iraq. Prayers are held in Christian churches for the President and all the heads of Christian Churches in Syria have united in support of the President, frequently providing statements of support which are carried by the state media.
“We are not afraid of Islam, we are afraid of a chaos similar to that in Iraq," said the Melkite Greek-Catholic Patriarch and President of the Catholic hierarchy in Syria, Gregorios III, in statements to Vatican Radio. Recently, the head of the Maronite Lebanese church joined the chorus, stating on a visit to France that Assad should be given a chance to carry out political reforms and warning that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria posed a threat to Syrian Christians, expressing fears over their potential fate during a transitional period. This dilemma caused a media frenzy, to the extent that the French Foreign Ministry had to deny rumors carried by the media that President Nicolas Sarkozy had proposed that Europe offer a safe haven to fleeing Lebanese and Syrian Christians
Post-revolution transition and the danger of labeling
Although definitely not a safe journey, the ‘Arab Spring’ is an expression of empowerment by nations which are finally taking their fate into their own hands. It is a cry of national pride by those who claim they can change their destiny peacefully and in their own way, despite the brutal repression they face. This is definitely not the case of the new Iraqi democracy, which is deeply linked to a foreign occupation and remains a symbol of incapacity and shame.
The western intervention in Iraq led to a political system reflecting a fairer share of power, especially for the Shia majority, which had been marginalized and persecuted under Saddam’s rule. However, the sudden dismantling of Iraqi institutions and security forces and the lack of legitimacy of the transitional political bodies, especially the severe anti-Baath policies, all ignited sectarian tensions which have been expressed in the bloodiest forms. The major lesson that the Arab revolutions can draw from the new Iraq is the importance of a phased transition from dictatorship to democracy where national bodies govern by the rule of law and include a balanced representation of all factions and communities. The movements must lead to transitions which do not take the face of revenge.
In an attempt to embellish the face of US foreign policy, the Bush administration struggled to create a new Middle East paying billions of dollars in aid in an attempt to “train” Arab civil societies to embrace democracy. This only resulted in empowering the elite that surrounded the regimes, while the grass roots continued to hate America even more fiercely. The unfolding “Arab spring” was not expected to be a promenade. This expression, used by Westerners to describe the Arab revolutions, is very mild and does not express the bloody sacrifices made every day in order to honour the fight against fierce rogue regimes. No one can easily predict the outcome of this long "season".
Any transitional political process will generate periods of instability, short or long. The lack of prior political dynamics and solid institutions makes the Islamic groups, and their affiliates, the best placed to win the “cake” after the battle has been fought. It is not difficult to detect the Islamist influence of the new Jihadists in the slogans carried via social media channels.
However, in the subtle and extremely diverse Arab world, labelling is a risky exercise. There is a wide range of Islamic groups and movements. There are also all the others, known and unknown, who will surface from the undergrounds of despotism. It is equally risky to compare the different Arab situations, thus ignoring the diversity of the Arab scene and its various revolutions.
Denying the opportunity for Arab revolutions on the pretext of a threat to stability and out of a phobia of Islamic radicalism, although it may be not unrealistic, amounts to abandoning a historic chance for the Arab region to finally embrace modernity in its own way - a path which will definitely be long, thorny and unpredictable.
The lessons of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, at least of some of its elements, are undeniable: aspirations for democracy can only find their catalyst in the dynamics of democracy itself and, for all its possible dangerous side effects, the fight for democracy in the chaotic Arab world of today is an opportunity.
For the West, it is time to listen to the voices coming from the Arab region - but this must include an adherence to the region's complexity and there must be an accurate translation of this voice.
Get our weekly email