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Were the Dictators Right?

David Callahan

For decades, the dictators of the Middle East basically gave the following rap to any westerner who questioned their tyrannical rule:

You may not like us, but we're better than the alternatives. We're better than a democratic government that will inevitably be hijacked by Islamists. And we're better than the sectarian or tribal civil war that will erupt if we don't keep a lid on things. 

Think of all the dictators who made this argument, or are still making it: the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, the Assads of Syryia, the Husseins of Jordan, Ben Ali of Tunisia, Saleh of Yemen, and the sheiks of the Gulf states. 

A good number of those leaders are now gone, but many of their predictions came true: a de facto sectarian civil war in Iraq, a political crisis in Tunisia, rising anarchy in Libya, Islamists in Iran since 1979, and Egypt -- with 82 million people -- now on path to become a failed state.

All of this is enough to make one almost  hope that Assad prevails in Syria, lest that country also descend into permanent conflict. 

And all this history raises the question: Were the dictators right? 

Was Saddam Hussein right, when he used to say that without his iron fist, the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds would be at war with one another -- because Iraq was not a real country and, as such, could only be held together with force? Was Mubarak right when he said that any true democracy in Egypt would put Islamists in power and they would use that power to create a new tyranny, only with 13th century laws? Was Gaddafi right when he said that Libya would descend into civil war between the eastern and western halves of the country -- which, as with Iraq, had no real business being fused into the same state by colonial rulers? 

It's hard to deny that the dictators understood things about their countries that western democracy advocates never fully grasped. In particular, they understood the artificial nature of the states they governed and time bomb planted by colonialists when they drew national borders regardless of ethnic, tribal, or religious differences. And they understood just how strong was the pull of Islamist ideas in societies that remained deeply traditionalist in many ways. 

It's hard to deny just how naive some westerners have been about Middle Eastern countries. Many neo-conservatives saw Iraq as a would-be model democracy that could inspire the rest of the region. But Saddam saw Iraq as a civil war waiting to happen -- with the Kurds ready to bolt for independence the first chance they got and Iran itching to foster a Shiite revolt the second the opportunity arose. I'd say that Saddam was more on target than Paul Wolfowitz. 

Many human rights activists cheered the fall of Mubarak, sure that a bright democratic future would unfold. Instead, things played out pretty much as Mubarak always predicted: a majority of voters put an Islamist in power who then shifted quickly in an authoritarian direction. Next stop: chaos.

Of course, though, it's really an unfair question to ask whether the dictators were "right." Because the dictators pretty much insured things would end badly if they ever left by squashing the kind of moderate middle and strong civil society that these countries needed to thrive under democratic rule. They didn't prepare their countries for democracy -- quite the opposite -- and they often exacerbated ethnic or religious difference by exploiting these fissures to build their power. And they ensured a legacy of weak governance by packing the state with cronies more interested in personal enrichment than effective management. 

Meanwhile, the United States went along with all of this in many cases -- particularly in Egypt -- for its own self-interested and short-sighted reasons. And we're still going along, in Jordan and the Gulf states. 

The dictators may have been right about the challenges facing democracy in the Middle East. But they were wrong in the way they actually made all those challenges worse.