Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

A noose hanging over Saddam Hussein’s head

Posted by worriedlebanese on 06/11/2006

“It is a verdict on a whole dark era that was unmatched in Iraq’s history”, said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, commenting on the former Iraqi dictator’s death sentence, in a speech he delivered on Sunday.But is it really?

saddam.jpgThat’s not how the majority of Iraqi Arabic speaking Sunnis seem to see it, even though Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime was tough on the whole Iraqi population and not on the Kurds and Shiites alone. But during these last years, he came to represent Sunni power in Iraq, something that the Arabic Sunni population see as irremediably lost.

How did this come about? How did this tyrant become the symbol of a community and its alleged fall? Saddam Hussein is after all the person eliminated all his political rivals (many of whom belonged to the same community as him), set up a very authoritarian and centralised state, where power was imposed on the people, rights were restrained and their existence became merely formal, the distribution of State resources was discretionary, people were arrested, tortured, executed without trial… He was responsible for dragging his country into three very destructive wars that drained its resources and brought it to the state it’s in today. His brutality towards the Shiites and the Kurds created the grievances that we see today in both communities. But instead of seeing all this, the community which he belongs to sees him as its symbol.

Many elements can be taken into account to explain such a reversal of fortune. But I believe the most important one is the mismanagement of communal politics.

A month ago, I participated in a workshop on power-sharing where I went into a very heated debate on a closely related issue with another participant who’s working on Iraq. She was arguing that the main problem in Iraq was the recognition of ethnic identities by the new political system. I personally thought that maybe that recognition didn’t go far enough and that is probably the aggravating factor. Communities are social facts, and so expressions of communalism are expected when several communities live in the same polity and interact with each others. Ignoring communalism could be a way to manage diversity, but when several communities in a polity are demanding recognition and communal rights, such a policy becomes impracticable.

The greatest danger in institutionalised communalism is its tendency to transform power sharing into a zero sum game: what one community gains, the others loose. And even if that isn’t true, this is how it is felt by the population. And that’s exactly what is happening in Iraq, and that’s what happened in Lebanon after 1943 (when a rigid power-sharing formula was devised); any reform of the system was generally viewed by the Christian community as signifying a loss or a setback. On the other hand, the electoral system in which a candidate can only run against another candidate belonging to the same community as he does is quite effective in attenuating the political tension between communities: they never compete against each others during elections (except if the constituencies are very large and communally diverse, as the example of the latest elections in Lebanon have shown).

So communal politics are not bad per se. Whether they are adapted to the situation or useful is another question. But even when established, they can always be removed or replaced if deemed useless, or if they do not answer a specific need that is expressed in a country. Nevertheless, the greatest challenge is to imagine how to transform the political game that power sharing devises tend to institute into a win-win one. In Iraq as in Lebanon, such a game hasn’t been set up yet. Unfortunately.


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