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The temperamental state

By The true mystery of Saddam is not how he got the way he was, writes Abdel-Moneim Said,* but how he managed to get away with it for so long

Abdel-Moneim SaidIn medical terms, Iraq may have represented an acute case, but it shared at least some of its symptoms with a number of other Arab regimes. In the previous installments of this series, I outlined 10 different diagnoses of the Iraqi condition which are currently being proposed. However, while these may all help shed light on certain features of the picture, there is one aspect which remains obstinately obscure.

The Iraqi regime was not a divinely ordained absolute monarchy of the kind familiar from European history, where it eventually gave rise to the modern nation state. Nor was it similar to those dictatorships that have often prevailed in the Third World, such as those found in Chile or in South Korea, which eventually give way before profound democratic and economic transformations. Nor did it resemble the repressive communist regimes which, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet order, were superceded by capitalist democratic governments, at least one of which -- Poland -- currently numbers among the occupiers of Iraq. Like certain other Arab regimes, Saddam's Iraq may have borne a certain similarity to the fascist regimes of the 1920s and 1930s. But if it did so, the resemblance was essentially a caricature, parodying the outward forms, but lacking the inner regimentation and the capacity to mobilise resources.

The Iraqi regime also had a number of distinguishing characteristics which were unknown in political systems elsewhere, but which are more than familiar to us in the Arab world. These traits can best be subsumed under the notion of the "temperamental state": rule not by a designated commander or leader within the framework of a tightly-knit system of government, but by individual whim and caprice.

But let us move from abstract arguments to concrete evidence. The ubiquitous statues and portraits of Saddam Hussein may betray a certain pathological narcissism, but the underlying condition was, in fact, far more serious than even they suggest. On 18 November, 2002, Al-Sharq Al- Awsat reported:

"The District of Baghdad has announced that work has begun on an enormous project entailing the construction of a new clock tower in one of the squares of the capital. The clock in this tower will use a 'unique' calibration, described as 'Leader's Time'. According to official sources, history as President Saddam Hussein perceives it has a 'chronological content' whereby 'to lose a minute of work is to lose an opportunity for progress'. Since the customary numerical watch does not convey the leader's concept of time and history, the familiar 12 numbers of the clock are to be replaced by the names and titles of the president: Saddam Hussein, the Knight, the Companion, the Freedom Fighter, the President, the Commander, the Liberation Hero, the Warrior, the Exemplar, the Builder of Iraq, the Maker of Victory and the Hero of Peace. The clock tower will also house a museum dedicated to the leader's accomplishments, a multi- purpose hall and gardens. In addition, some Iraqi newspapers have recently proposed the creation of a new 'Iraqi calendar' taking as its starting point Saddam Hussein's date of birth: 28 April 1937."

This plain text is devoid of any editorial intervention, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Yet however laughable such plans might appear, the fact is that "Iraqi time" was different. And I believe that we can all name another Arab country that once altered both the months and the political concepts that people were to use to set their clocks by. It is a phenomenon that cannot merely be attributed to dictatorship or totalitarianism per se, but represents a form of mental derangement that is rarely if ever reproduced elsewhere. When President Abdel-Nasser was leader of the Arab nation, some members of the political elite discovered that as an adolescent he had written a short story called "The Price of Freedom ". As soon as word got out, some intellectual pundits hailed the "genius of the 'novel'," -- in fact, it was no more than a few pages -- and others suggested organising a competition to complete it because the leader no longer had the time to spare. To give him credit, Abdel-Nasser never took this fuss over his literary talents seriously. However, his successors in the realm of pan-Arab leadership have tended to think otherwise: for them, a leader isn't a real leader unless he can also vie with Naguib Mahfouz.

Some days ago, the Arab press announced an important discovery. Little did the Americans realise that they had rescued the people of Iraq twice over -- once from the Ba'ath Party regime, and a second time from Get out cursed one, an unpublished novel by "He Who is Championed by God, President Saddam Hussein". One cannot help but recall those literary soirees at which Saddam recited his early poems and stories to an audience of Iraqi intellectuals who had no choice but to sit and follow every word before swallowing their pride and showering him with unctuous praise for such peerless works as "Zobeiba and the king", "The impregnable fortress" and "Men and a city". Nor is this phenomenon in anyway unique to Iraq. Throughout the Arab world you will always find part of the cream of the intelligentsia that is only too ready to believe in their leader's unparalleled talents for verse or fictional narrative.

Perhaps Saddam himself was the "cursed one" that the Arab peoples had to get rid of? We do not need to go that far back in history to discover circumstances in which it was just as much a crime to have remained silent as it was to have perpetrated them. Since his birth in a small village near Takrit, the district capital of the governorate of Salaheddin, Saddam Hussein's life followed a trail which leads us straight to the core of that wretchedness in Arab history. Before he had turned 20, he was already one of the leaders of the Arab and Socialist Ba'ath Party. From this point on, he locked his pugnacious horns with reality, the Ba'ath, and the entire Middle East.

When, on 17 July 1967 Saddam boarded his first tank and crashed through the Republican Palace, prior to personally expelling his former friends and comrades from the party leadership, it was clear that fate was preparing something quite extraordinary for Iraq and for the world. To give him his due, President Saddam Hussein scored a number of successes of which almost any political leader would be proud. In just over four decades, he climbed from the ranks of an ordinary party member to become chief of every available national, regional, revolutionary, executive, syndicate, university, literary and artistic structure. More remarkable yet, he became the first president in history to receive 100 per cent of all possible votes in a referendum -- including the votes of those who failed to show up at the polls and those of a number of voters who cast their ballots from the next world.

Saddam's personal career prepared him well to act as the overweening star in that infamous superproduction, the Iraqi-Arab tragedy. Although he may have failed at school, being sidetracked from his studies by his political activism and the 10-year revolutionary struggle, his rise to power in 1967 gave him the opportunity, and perhaps the time, to complete his studies in law and graduate cum laude from the University of Baghdad. There followed a prodigious outpouring of academic studies and intellectual works in countless fields -- politics, economy, sociology and education -- all of which were duly translated into every major living language. In his few moments of spare time, the leader devoted himself to writing novels and composing historical maxims for the edification of the Iraqi people and subsequent generations.

Although there is no record of President Hussein ever having served in the armed forces, in 1973 he received a leading military award, the Mesopotamian Badge, and of the first order no less. A year later, he obtained the civilian version of the medal, also of the first order. Within another five years, he had obtained his Masters degree -- with first class honours -- in military sciences, along with the insignia of general staff, although he had never commanded a military formation in his life. But then, the talents of heroes cannot be gauged by ordinary standards. Nevertheless, even Saddam himself may have been surprised when, in 1979, his aides suggested he be promoted to the rank of Field Marshal to mark the anniversary of the Iraqi revolution.

The significance of all these degrees, insignia and ranks should not be lost on us. The mental disorder they point to went far beyond the individual person of the leader, whose derangement was sanctified and rewarded by the rest of the Iraqi elite. While fear may have been their primary motivation, this alone cannot explain the silence of other Arab elites, nor the fact that they were regularly prepared to pay tribute to him and display his works at various Arab cultural exhibitions and book fairs.

Not long ago, the Arab press relayed, without commentary, news of a meeting between Saddam Hussein and a number of Iraqi poets, during which he urged them to compose a powerful and inspiring new national anthem. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that. Iraq would not be the first Arab country to change its national anthem or its flag, and it certainly would not be the last. The problem, however, resided in the tenor of the dialogue between the leader and the poets. On this occasion, Saddam was a paragon of modesty. How meagre were his poetic talents compared to theirs, he protested, in the face of their impassioned insistence that virtually every utterance of his was poetry itself, so profound in its rhyme and so exquisite in its resonance. What shocks us is not just to see that these poets had sunk so low in their obsequiousness. To some extent, their groveling reflected the broader wretchedness of an entire people whose cultural blood had coagulated and whose poetic tastes, once so refined, had been made coarse. No, the real calamity lay in the fact that the rest of the Arab world simply accepted this condition without protest.

Perhaps the most eloquent manifestation of this endemic mania was Saddam's speech on the 12th anniversary of the end of the Iraq-Iran war. This was no ordinary speech. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any other head of state, in Iraq or elsewhere, could have so much as imagined such a speech, let alone delivered it. It is to Saddam that we owe a new and original commemorative rhetoric, in the form of 58 maxims encapsulating the lessons he had gleaned from the war and was now keen to impart to the Iraqi people and, undoubtedly, to all the other nations of the world as well. "Do not provoke the snake until you are sure of your resolve and your ability to cut off its head...It will do you no good to say that it struck first. Prepare yourselves for all events and trust in God." So read one. Another proclaimed, "To be gluttonous in food and drink is to be gluttonous in life. Although gluttons, in general, have hearts, just as fish do, do not give them too much power over people. To lead people requires a human heart, a heart that knows how to love, that hates despicable acts, that rages and then lets its rage subside, that gets angry and can be appeased, that frowns and smiles, that wrinkles up its nose at objectionable things and exults in what makes others happy, that leads a balanced life and exercises moderation in food and drink."

Between these two maxims stretch many many others. Some pertain to human relations: "Do not draw close to someone who thinks you despise him," and, "Take care not to judge others wrongly. It is better to blame yourself for letting someone who deserves punishment get away than to do injustice and violence to another human being." Others guide us to self-enlightenment and self- improvement: "Let your conscience and mind be your master, not your tongue or your whims. Bind your tongue to your mind and let your conscience control your whims." Another advises: "Make mercy the crown of justice, show resolve in the place of hesitation, prudence in the place of haste, wisdom in the place of recklessness, intelligence in the place of folly and do not give your enemy an opening."

A third group of maxims addresses politics and the art of good government. He exhorts potential leaders: "Base your general plans on the abilities of the majority, then urge them on to higher aims... and let the first among people see the last and the last the first." And to military generals, and the Iraqis, he declares: "Do not let your means and abilities determine your starting line in a conflict with an enemy, as though you were giving him an image of how you will remain, for such inflexibility gives him an advantage over you. Rather, if you want to win, constantly change your means, arrangements and abilities so as to augment them and enrich them." And so on, and so on.

Of course, for some reason you may have failed to discern the profundity of all this, and be left agape at the utter banality that can inhabit the mind of the megalomaniac. Yet the question is not why Saddam Hussein was that way, but given that he was like this, how it was possible for him to remain in power for so long. More importantly, why did the Arab world condone that and why does it continue to condone others like him? As for the political scientists, who are so eloquent on many other questions, I wonder if they can cite an existing paradigm which might account for this behaviour, and guide us to an explanation?

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies..

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