Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 8-Middle East- System Makers and World Shakers
Middle East: System Makers and World Shakers
The terrible sun, far redder than in more temperate climes, rises all at once, and in a
moment the heat is everywhere. The land it illuminates with razor-sharp light is some of
the most desolate on earth. A broad, lazy river, the Shatt al Arab, produces little that is
green or prosperous, even though this area along the Iran-Iraq border forms one tip of the
Although there are date palm plantations on both sides of the river-their
unharvested fruit squishes underfoot as you walk-they soon give way on the eastern,
Iranian shore to long-dried, cracked mud. On the western, Iraqi side are reed swamps,
flooded by the Iraqis in an attempt to block an Iranian advance. Fighting over this
seemingly forsaken land has killed or maimed more than 1 million people since the Iran-
Iraq War began in the autumn of 1980, including teen-aged Iranian volunteers who
marched forward through mine-fields to clear them.
The passionate hatred and iron commitment among both Iranians and Iraqis have
a number of causes, including centuries-old Arab-Persian suspicions and the inflammable
friction between the Shiite branch of Islam, which dominates Iran, and the Sunni branch,
to which Iraq’s rulers belong. Ethnic and nationalist patriotism grows from their clashing
histories, identities, and cultural differences. Yet patriotism and religious passions are
intertwined with support for their leaders and governments. Rulers in Baghdad and
Tehran have built an ideology, proregime institutions, and achievements to reinforce
loyalty, with a certainty of punishment when popular support wears thin. Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran and President Saddam Hussein’s Baath
party state in Iraq have shown themselves equally capable of harnessing mass support
and destroying dissenters.
The contemporary Middle East is a stronghold of modern dictators, men whose
energy, cleverness, and ruthlessness have enabled them to master their countries.
Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, Khomeini in Iran, Hussein in Iraq, and Hafez al-Assad in
Syria constructed populist, repressive regimes able to tame some of the world’s most
turbulent and violent political systems. To stay atop the tiger, they must have an ideology
acceptable to their cultures, a party and mass organizations furnishing a wide base of
supporters, and an energetic secret police to break up antigovernment conspiracies. To
ensure its financial and military power, the regime must also dominate the economy and
control the army. Anyone who can accomplish this Herculean task must be a tough
political realist. The Middle East dictators are even more ambitious since they claim to
have discovered a proper ethical and political system for the entire region or even the
With his eclectic philosophy, aggressive foreign policy, and subsidies for
terrorism, Qaddafi has made himself an international figure far beyond Libya’s tiny
population of only 2 million people. Khomeini ridiculed the idea that the Iranian
Revolution was conducted for material advantage-in his contemptuous words, “to lower
the price of housing or watermelons”-but rather attributed it to an effort to fulfill Islamic
values and to show the way to the oppressed throughout the world. The Baath party, the
quarreling factions of which rule in Syria and Iraq, and Nasser had only slightly more
modest goals. They wanted to promote revolutions to unite all the Arabs, from Morocco’s
Atlantic shore to far Oman on the Indian Ocean. If these leaders are brutal as well as
visionary, it is because they are simply acting on their own experience of the Middle
East’s unusual political framework.
The very first anecdote usually told to students of the Middle East is the story of
the scorpion and the frog that one day find themselves on a riverbank. The scorpion asks
the frog to carry him across to the other shore.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” answers the frog. “If 1 let you on my back, you’ll sting
But the scorpion points out that he cannot swim and if he were to sting the frog in
rnidriver, “we both would drown.”
So the frog, persuaded by the logic of the argument, allows the scorpion to climb
on his back, and they set out into the river. When they reach the middle, however, the
scorpion stings the frog and the paralysed amphibian starts to sink beneath the water.
“Why did you do that?” he croaks. “Now we’ll both die.”
“Oh, well”-the scorpion sighs, shrugging his carapace–”after all, this is the
Middle East politics are, as the fable suggests, violent and vengeful, but they are
not so irrational. In the regional context, realpolitik requires something quite different
from Western practice. Foreign policy functions to consolidate internal support by
playing on populist themes. The behavior of Arab leaders has been shaped by a set of
powerful ruling values. They are supposed to he militant Arab nationalists, supportive of
Islam, and opposed to Western influence and to Israel. Even terrorism is accepted widely
as a reasonable weapon to use in these causes. When a crazed Egyptian soldier in the
Sinai murdered seven Israeli tourists, mostly children, in cold blood in 1985, a number of
governments and movements were ready to proclaim him a hero. On the level of high
policy Nasser marched into a disastrous defeat in 1967 and Saddam Hussein made his
ruinous invasion of Iran in 1980 as the result of considerations of internal and regional
politics. Both leaders were trying to prove to domestic audiences and rivals alike their
strength and determination in combating the enemies of Islam and Arabism.
Yet most of these dictators temper ideology with caution. When Muammar al-
Qaddafi took over Libya in 1969, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser dispatched a
confidant, the famous journalist Mohamed Heikal, to Libya. Heikal returned with
startling news. “It’s a catastrophe,” he told his president. Why? asked Nasser. Is he
against us? No, much worse, retorted Heikal, he’s for us! But Qaddafi’s naïvete made
him far more dangerous than if he were an enemy. He was “shockingly innocentscandalously
pure.” These are not characteristics usually ascribed to Qaddafi, but
Heikal’s point was that the Libyan leader’s true belief in Pan-Arabism and regionwide
revolution would make him take too many risks to be helpful in achieving these goals or
in pursuing Egypt’s interests.
Heikal’s possibly apocryphal story is partly cynical and partly admiring. Dictators
in the Arab world (and in Iran) act rationally most of the time–if one understands the
structure of their rationality. They act in accord with domestic and regional political
needs rather than behave as the West might think proper. These modern dictators face
very exacting demands from Islam and from Arab nationalism and are simultaneously
manipulators and prisoners of the powerful symbols of these politics. Heikal disdains
Qaddafi as a fanatic who is more the slave than the master of these principles, but he also
recognizes that the Libyan leader’s very extremism allows him to use Arab and Islamic
symbols against more moderate Egypt.
For most of the last 1,300 years much of the Middle East has been at least
nominally united under one Islamic ruler or another. Division, brought on by internal
decay and external intervention (the Crusades, European imperialism), means decline,
weakness, and foreign domination. To overcome this problem requires unity under a
great political and military leader. Saladin defeated the Crusaders; the modern Arab
nationalists hoped to drive out the West and its influence. Arabs also sought models in
romantic nationalist movements that united fragmented countries (Germany and Italy)
and in ideologies (Marxism and fascism) believed to have built strong states.
New concepts were called upon to revive old dreams. If the unity of Muslims as
one people and of Arabs as one nation were essential elements of the golden age when
Arab culture, science, and military power had been in advance of Europe, then perhaps
their renewal was the missing ingredient needed to revive the Arabs’ power and
superiority. Twentieth-century anti-imperialism blended smoothly with Muslims’
profound suspicion of non-Islamic societies and resentment at their power; modern
nationalism reinforced their existing belief in Arab and Islamic superiority. In short, the
newly imported ideas were all the more quickly accepted and adapted because they
matched existing needs and traditions.
Islam, the religion of the overwhelming majority of people the Arab states and
Iran, is not merely a set of beliefs about God but also a very specific program for
individual behavior social organization. It sets high standards, demanding a
state that promotes social justice and promulgates laws in accord with the Islamic code.
Although some of its precepts constrain development, Islam has generally adopted itself
to dealing with new technology and industrialization as long as they can he fitted into its
rules of conduct and society. The Muslim clergy once denounced radio and movies; now
they want to make Islamic films and programs.
Beginning in the 1930s and reaching its apex with Na serism, Arab nationalism played a
more important role than did Islam in defining political identity and options. It demanded
a struggle for Arab unity, the removal of non-Arab influences and Israel’s destruction,
economic progress, and military might.
But there is, in all this, an inherent contradiction: reality does not match
expectation. Walid Khalidi, professor and political activist, wrote, “The manifest failure
even to approximate unity does not negate the empirical reality of the Arab Nation. The
Arab Nation both is, and should be one.” But in fact, the theoretically fraternal Arab
leaders and states struggle against one another as often as against anyone else. If Arab
states are merely, in Khalidi’s words, “interim caretakers” for the Arab nation and if the
existing frontiers are “illusory and permeable,” being the ruler of one of these fragments
in and of itself accumulates only limited respect.
Consequently, those in power in Arab countries faced a complex, delicate series
of decisions. In daily practice their primary concern was to be for their own territories.
Egypt and Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya had to operate in regard to
different kinds of capacities and problems. Pragmatic considerations often potentially
violated Islamic and Arab nationalist precepts. For example, a regime might need
Western support to counter the aggression of another Arab state. These necessities,
however, had no explicit legitimacy within the framework of Arab politics and ideology.
Thus were set the rules of regional relations, internal politics, and intellectual
debate: Everyone had to be in favor of greater inter-Arab cooperation and had at least to
give lip service to Islamic values. Each Arab country had the right to interfere in the
affairs of the other states but always under the rationale of promoting Arab unity. Every
Arab government could try to impose its will on the others but only under the guise of
seeking Arab leadership and struggling against traitors. No compromise was permitted on
the Arab-Israeli conflict; Western influence was always under a cloud of suspicion.
Militancy and radicalism in the name of Arabism or Islam could not he challenged but
might only he outbid. Beginning with Nasser, the rhetoric of revolution, socialism, and
anti-imperialism were enshrined as the only politically proper or effective routes to
development and independence.
Thus, Pan-Arabism and lslam represented for the incumbents a dangerous weapon
in the hands of the opposition, a force in public opinion that could not be neglected, and a
marvelous banner around which to rally support for rulers and their policies. Of course,
under the surface all the usual forces of politics were in operation: ambition and localism;
competition and calculation; pragmatism and realpolitik; greed and idealism. To gain
power, politicians had to be able to exploit the prevailing tides; to stay in power, they
could not stray too far from the mainstream. More often than not they even shared these
In highly stable, democratic societies politics is usually a race for moderation.
Each politician attempts to preempt the vast political center. Where strong ideological
postulates of what constitutes right and wrong are passionately accepted and where
politics is a life-and-death battle between competitors, it becomes a race to militancy. In
short, the principle of politics is in accord with Barry Goldwater’s dictum “Extremism in
the defense of liberty is no vice. And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Subversion, agression, and terrorism are justified by this intellectual framework. In short,
Arab politicians seek the same end as Western counterparts–maximizing their popular
support but they do so in the opposite manner.
Nonetheless, the Arab political outlook and the viewpoint the individual dictators
are marked by a curious combination of overweening self-confidence and deep selfdoubt.
After all, the rise of modern dictatorships in the Arab world and Iran is the
product of past failures and humiliations. Earlier regimes fell-and current ones are
challenged-because of the contrast between their promises and performances. Opponents
are able to pose difficult, critical questions: Why haven’t the Arabs been able to unite?
Why have Islamic values failed to prevail? Why are their states still behind the West, and
why is the West able to intervene so easily in their regional affairs? Why has Israel been
able to defeat repeatedly its more populous Arab opponents? Because the regime follows
the wrong policy! It strays too far from Islam or from Arab nationalism; it is servile
towards the West and afraid to fight Israel. The rulers must credibly respond that they
are pursuing these goals. The governments’ vulnerability to such attacks makes them all
the more strict in silencing potential critics.
Aside from their subversive capacity, these questions also have some
psychologically disquieting implications. Imperialist machinations can be blamed for
many setbacks, but if the enemy is so omnipotent and so successfully devious, perhaps it
cannot be beaten at all. Often the lack of self-confidence can be glimpsed behind the
belligerent rhetoric. Khorneini repeatedly proclaimed that the United States “cannot do a
damn thing” about the hostages in Iran, yet most Iranians believed Washington could
destroy the revolution. In the words of President Abol Hassan Bani Sadr, one could see
among the Iranian leaders, “A whole generation’s fear that the revolution could fail.”
Antagonism to the West became enshrined as a basic requirement for legitimacy. Yet as
political philosopher Hisham Sharabi noted, the Arab nationalist awakening “was
haunted by a sense of impotence and fear.” Fear of the West fueled a continued need to
“prove” one’s political “manhood” by confronting it.
The Middle East landscape from the 1930s through the 1960s was strewn with
overthrown regimes and murdered politicians. Governments that were too flexible in the
Western sense were often destroyed in the unforgiving Darwinian process of Middle East
politics, and the idea that the Arab world could advance by imitating the West was
discredited. History had disproved the claims of intellectuals and “democratic” politicians
alike (from the 1850s into the 1940s) that constitutionalism and political independence
would in themselves foster the growth of strong, prosperous states. An extremely small
elite continued to rule with a remarkable amount of corruption and incompetence. The
rulers of the old regimes had been from families that had been wealthy and powerful for
centuries, as merchants or officials of the old empires, or had been Ottoman officers who
had joined the Allied side in World War I. They held the traditional elite’s aristocratic
contempt for the mostly peasant masses, seeing them as uncivilized animals whose only
political functions were to pay taxes and furnish soldiers. As chief beneficiaries of the
social order they found change threatening once it went beyond removing foreign rule.
Their parties were small cliques united by a lust for office and fragmented by personality
conflicts. They had no interest in drawing in or harnessing the energies of the new
professional and urban groups that sought a share of power.
On matters of international politics, the old elites were much affected by their
ability to gain independence through bargaining. Dependent on aid and using foreign
leverage to protect their hold on power, the rulers were careful to maintain good relations
with London. On issues of Arab nationalism -like the Palestine conflict-these
governments competed in militant posturing and demagogic threats but were constrained
by a rational assessment of their own lack of power to alter events.
The generation of the 1930s and 1940s had a very different approach to politics.
They were revolutionaries who wanted rapid progress toward Arab union and
modernization along the lines seen in Germany and Italy. If subservience to Britain was
“rational,” then they rejected the idea of being “sensible” and moderate. No longer should
politics consist of visits to the British Embassy in order to gain London’s covert support
for one’s political ambitions. The first step toward overcoming the foreigners’ power was
to reject it, the second to organize mass support, and the third was to find new foreign
allies to counter Anglo-French economic and military superiority. While revolutionaries
in Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt turned toward Nazi Germany for help, Berlin’s
defeat set back their cause by several years.
But wasting this respite, the old regimes, the landed elites and old-fashioned
politicians in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, could not survive the demands of politics and
change. They failed the test of Arabism and Islam when Israel gained its independence
and administered a humiliating defeat to them in 1948. Constantine Zurayk, in an
influential contemporary book, expressed the despair and questioning of many Arabs:
“Declarations fall like bombs from the mouths of officials … but when action becomes
necessary, the fire is still and quiet, and steel.and iron are rusted and twisted, quick to
bend and disintegrate.” The disaster prompted officers at the front to argue, as Nasser did,
that the real battle was at home. Their guns were turned against their own governments in
coups. Some of the coup makers turned themselves into modern dictators; the coups
The conflict with Israel, then, was not the cause but merely a catalyst for the
operation of deeply rooted domestic trends. If 1948 showed the breakdown of the old
regimes, 1956 appeared to demonstrate the power of the new type of modern dictatorship.
Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal company and then weathered an invasion by British,
French, and Israeli troops. Political success was not endangered by military disaster.
Nasser had shown how the West was a “paper tiger.” Cairo Radio spread the message of
nationalist revolution; Egyptian intelligence operatives financed subversion in other
countries. Foreign holdings were taken over, and land was distributed to the peasantry.
Truly, Nasser had achieved what seemed impossible: social change at home; political
power internationally. Nasser was a dictator, yet he could have won a fair election in
Egypt or anywhere in the Arab world.
While Nasser’s charisma and Egypt’s social structure provided continuity in
Cairo, his would-be imitators in other countries found the going more difficult. The
1950s and 1960s were periods of learning and experimentation in the Arab world, not
conducive to stability. Syria, for example, had successful coups in 1949 (two) and 1954.
In 1958 it united with Egypt, and in 1961-after another coup-it broke away. More coups
followed in 1962, 1963, 1968, and 1970. Iraq had successive coups in 1958, 1963, and
1968. And for each military takeover, there were dozens of foiled plots, assassinations,
and acts of political violence.
The new regimes were run by military men who blamed Western imperialism and
domestic capitalism for the Arabs’ failures to achieve international equality and domestic
development. They willingly turned to the Soviets for help without ever becoming
puppets of Moscow. Nasser bought arms from the USSR when the Americans refused to
make them available. Since the West supported the old regimes and the Soviets backed
the new modern dictators, the foreign policy orientation of the latter was not surprising.
But for these regimes to last very long, they had to fulfill two tasks. First, they
had to build a base of support among civilians to uproot the old elite, disperse competing
groups, and avoid dependence on a politically ambitious officer corps that might make a
new coup. Second, they needed to cement the ruling group against perceived Western
pressure and the constant threat of internal schism.
Strong leaders could, at the same time, appeal to the general population while
intimidating or persuading their fellow coup makers on the Revolutionary Command
Councils of Egypt Libya and in the Baath party in Syria and Iraq. Personal charisma and
a cult of personality spread by public relations techniques were mutually reinforcing in
seizing the number one spot. Around this new leader the regime’s inner core was by
kinship or regional or communal ties. Most of the Syrians were members of the Alawite
Muslim minority; key Iraqi leaders came from the Sunni Muslim minority -, often from a
set of villages around Tikrit. Qaddafi also used mmen from his region and tribe as a
primary loyalty group, and Khomeini could call on his former theology students and
many–though by no means all-of his fellow clerics.
Techniques were also perfected for controlling the army. It was purged of all
officers loyal to the old regime or to competing political factions. The new ruling group
exercised tight control over promotions and ensured frequent transfers so that no officer
could depend on his troops’ loyalty if he tried to stage a coup. It placed trusted officers in
key positions and set up intelligence groups to watch each other and the military. These
efforts were reinforced by the ruling party’s monopoly on recruitment among officers.
Saddam Hussein suppressed the Iraqi Communist party and killed many of its leaders on
discovering its secret cells in the military. Khomeini repeatedly purged the armed forces,
first of monarchist elements and later of proleftists. Political leaders of the Iranian
Communist party (Tudeh) were merely imprisoned, but soldiers who were members were
executed. The Iranians also built an alternative, loyalist force, the Revolutionary Guards,
and placed Islamic “commissars” in the regular army.
Another central element in these modern dictatorships was the ruling political
party. The Baath in Syria and Iraq, Islamic Republican party in Iran, and the people’s
committees in Libya brought together in all parts of the country and from all sectors of
society a “vanguard” of loyalists who enjoyed special power and privileges. Party control
of jobs in the government, industry, unions, media, military, schools, and elsewhere was
a key factor in winning the active support of tens of thousands of people for whom
proregime activism was the key to a successful career and a comfortable life. Opposition,
of course, was more likely to lead to an early grave.
The effectiveness of this system is proved by its ability to survive mistakes. By
the 1980s these radical regimes had fallen short of their promises. Nasser lost the 1967
war, and the Syrian Baath the 1973 war with Israel. Arab unity still failed to appear. The
new governments actually exacerbated differences as they followed their own state
interests. Algeria and Syria supported Persian Iran against Arab Iraq in their war;
Lebanese Maronites allied themselves with Israel; Egypt signed the Camp David accords
with Jerusalem. While the regimes delivered an improvement in the living standards of
many people-higher oil prices helped this process a great deal–the prosperity was
uneven, and many groups were dissatisfied with their lots. But even when an individual
dictator fell, he was simply replaced by another who followed similar policies.
A new wave of Islamic fundamentalist revolutionaries tried to exploit these
failures. They argued that political radicalism, social reform, and economic
nationalization had not solved the essential problem. On the contrary, Arab defeats were
due to secularism and deviation from Islamic principles. But while such ideas smashed
the Shah’s traditional dictatorship in Iran–where Arab nationalism did not provide an
alternative to Islamic politics–it failed to displace the Arab regimes that had mastered the
techniques of modern dictatorship.
These skills of Middle East modern dictators and dictatorships explain why the
number of coups and political upheavals in their countries had declined from the unstable
1950s and 1960s. By 1986, excluding the Afro-Arab Sudan, the last real regime change
in the Arab world was Qaddafi’s 1969 coup in Libya. Elsewhere there had been some
transitions to new leaders without disrupting the system.
The modern history of the Arab world shows that as in Africa or Latin America,
there were values and issues that most people believed far more important than
democracy. A regime was considered representative if it was properly Arab nationalist
and stood basically (if not perfectly) in accord with Islam. The people’s judgment was
not made on the basis of the number of votes received by the rulers. Unpopular
governments had often been elected, and predictatorship elections were usually of
questionable fairness. The politically valid question is the “rightness” of the government
in terms of nationalism, distribution of benefits, and handling of popular causes. If it was
proper, 100 percent of the people might support it, but if it was not acceptably militant,
nationalist, free of Western influence, and pious, it did not matter how it came into office.
The same criterion applies to the surviving monarchies in Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi
Arabia, which must be especially careful to stress their allegiance to populism,
independence from the West, Arab nationalism and Islam.
As in other Third World cultures, conformity is considered a prime social
responsibility the absence of which threatens the whole society. Muslims are supposed to
form a harmonious community (umma) and Muhammad is often quoted as saying that the
believer should “not separate himself from the community.” Truth must be in accord
with God’s laws, but consensus is a sign of correctness. In Muhammad’s words, “God
will not allow my people to agree on an error.”
The majority Sunni branch of Islam went so far as to accept the idea that “tyranny
is better than anarchy.” The Shiites continued to maintain a right of rebellion against
unjust regimes–a factor important in the Iranian Revolution. But once pious rulers were
in control, the duty to obey them became just as strong as among the Sunnis.
In the Arab context, leaders and intellectuals constantly preached that disunity
was a major cause of weakness and that dissenters were conscious agents of foreign
powers or, at best, helped the nation’s enemies. Thus, political opponents are quickly
branded as American or Israeli puppets.
Healthy pluralism does not develop when the dominant world view defines every
act as one of patriotism or treason; democracy cannot flourish where there is no
acceptance of the idea that debate is legitimate and can be peacefully resolved. Generally
the modern dictator has the power to define what is patriotic and what is treasonous,
telling the people that “he who is not with me is against you.” But the roots of this blackand-
white distinction stem from the group solidarity of Islam and of the tribe reinforced
by modern nationalism and a sometimes accurate, usually fanciful paranoia about foreign
The constant competition among the regimes also puts an edge on all claims of
ideology and performance. The Cairo Islamic university AI Azhar, for example, issued a
declaration during Sadat’s rule: “We are proud that the true Islam is here in Egypt. Egypt
is the island of freedom, democracy, and man’s dignity as desired by Islam…. There isn’t
in Egypt a ruler who spends money on gambling tables while Muslims in many parts of
the world are suffering. There isn’t in Egypt a ruler who spends the money of Muslims on
plotting, bribery, and baseness just to build an imaginary leadership.” In short, Egypt was
claiming to be more properly Islamic than either Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Nasser never had much use for Islam in public life. He survived an assassination
attempt by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and broke up the organization in the
mid-1950s at a time when it had as many as 2 million supporters. So overwhelming were
Nasser’s control and charisma that he never had to demonstrate any Islamic credentials.
During his reign, from 1952 to his death in 1970, radical Arab nationalism, mixed in
various proportions with Marxism, attracted the activists and revolutionaries. Islam was
seen as a conservative, traditionalist tool exploited by Saudi Arabia to protect the status
Like Nasser, Sadat had been a youthful activist who had entered the military to
conspire for revolution and political power rather than as a professional career. During
World War II, along with other young officers, Sadat believed that Egypt’s first priority
must be to throw off British influence. In 1941 he was arrested twice after attempting to
spy for the Germans. Sadat was not a Fascist but, like other future modern dictators,
found attractive aspects and a useful ally in Hitler’s system.
Within a few months of his release he became involved in the murder of a pro-
British politician. Once more imprisoned, Sadat threw the prosecution’s case into
disorder by falsely charging that he had been tortured. After thirty-one months in jail he
was again found not guilty and, in 1950, was reinstated in the army.
Clearly Sadat was neither a good conspirator nor an able organizer. While Sadat
founded the Free Officers, it was the dour Nasser who built up the organization to
overthrow the decadent monarchy. Obviously Sadat resented his own reduction to a
secondary role, complaining that his fellow members of the Revolutionary Command
Council had “never known what homelessness and destitution meant, never served time
in jail,…never gone through the chastening cycle of hope-expectation-frustration.” This
is partly the pose of a man of the people and man of action confronted with latecoming
opportunists, but in Sadat’s case such statements have a certain validity.
Sadat’s most important characteristic, however, was an ability to learn from his
observations. Nasser took credit for defeating the invading armies in 1956, the event that
made him the most celebrated Arab leader. Sadat knew that it had been U.S. diplomatic
intervention that had turned the Suez crisis from a “military defeat into political victory”
for Egypt. Nassar’s baiting of the United States in the 1960s strengthened his position as
the valiant knight of Egyptian sovereignty and Arab interests. Sadat saw that it also led to
the loss of desperately needed economic aid and pushed the country deeper into
dependency on Moscow. Nasser’s regional and domestic popularity continued to ride
high after the disastrous defeat the 1967 war. Sadat, as a political insider, saw that Egypt
been pushed to the brink of ruin. “Nasser was smartvenough,” quipped an Egyptian
journalist, “to put the conservatives in charge of the economy and the radicals in charge
of propaganda.” But on the economic front as well, Sadat thought, such extreme populist
policies could no longer be afforded.
The role of successor in an established modern dictatorship is sometimes more
difficult than that of the founder, who can blame all problems on a vanquished
prerevolutionary regime. Until or unless he can eliminate his colleagues, the successor
must be more of a conciliator and consolidator than a commander. Sadat’s preparation for
this task came from two decades’ experience as an understudy. He was the only member
of the original coup-making group who avoided an open break with Nasser. For years he
was shunted aside and laughed at as a yes-man, only to emerge at the end as the sole
potential president who could appeal to all factions, partly because they
wrongly believed he would be easy to control.
This was the staggering negative legacy that Sadat inherited. He countered it by
using the novelty of his personality, redistribution of booty, and cautious criticism of
Nasser’s errors to “refinance” his rule. Once firmly ensconced as the president,
bloodlessly eliminating potential rivals along the way, he used the tremendous power of
incumbency to put Egypt back on a solid, if inevitably precarious, footing. In such a
centralized system Sadat simply gave the orders, and the country’s policy-if not society–
obeyed the helmsman.
When Sadat succeeded Nasser, he projected an image as a pious president.
Although Sadat tried to manipulate Islamic groups, particularly to counter his opponents,
the image reflected his character as well. Inheriting a country facing disaster on all fronts,
Sadat sought to revise downward Egypt’s ambitions and to repair its fortunes at home. He
contrasted himself with Nasser, whom he described as “suspicious, extremely bitter and
In order to deal with Egypt’s economic deficits, Sadat needed to attract Western
aid and (if possible) investment, reopen the Suez Canal, and regain the Israeli-occupied
Sinai oil fields. He waged the 1973 war against Israel in large part to strengthen his
diplomatic position and negotiated the Camp David accords to end the conflict with
Israel. These policies of peace, realignment with the United States, and an economic
opening greatly improved Egypt’s fiscal and global position. But pragmatism did not
make for popularity. By violating the Arab and Islamic injunction against making peace
with Israel, Sadat was ostracized by the Arab world and criticized by radicals at home.
Nasser’s economic policies might have brought stagnation, but Sadat’s were politically
more problematic because they created more visible inequalities. His friendly attitude
toward the United States and criticism of the Soviets made him popular in America but to
some Egyptians smacked of old-fashioned submissiveness. In short, every step taken
toward moderation conflicted with the militant attitudes of nationalism, Islam, and Third
When Sadat was assassinated in October 1981 his martyrdom was useful for his
successors. It was not that Sadat became, in death, a hero. Rather, the needed changes he
had made could now he taken for granted as established facts without any of his
successors’ being held responsible for them. To this day the hero of Egypt remains
Nasser, who was, in Western terms, a “failure.” Nasser was unable to win victories at war
or to make peace. He created a repressive regime that closely regulated intellectuals and
destroyed trade unions. His economic policies led to dead ends. In retrospect, however,
this negative side is less important for Egyptians than is the positive: Nasser restored
Egypt’s dignity in the world, made it leader of the Arab world and a leader of the Third
World, improved the lot of many peasants and allowed some of their children to rise in
the world, and so on. With Sadat, on the contrary, Shakespeare’s dictum holds accurate
that “The evil that men do lives after them,/The good is oft interred with
Yet the political significance of Sadat’s assassination can be easily overstated: A
small radical fundamentalist group was merely able to prove its ability to carry out a
killing. No revolution took place, and Sadat’s chosen successor, Hosni Mubarak, dealt
with the challenge not by ceding any real power but by talking with the left and Islamic
oppositions and avoiding any steps that would inflame tensions. As the Egyptian joke
goes, when Mubarak came to a crossroads, he asked his chauffeur, “What did Nasser do
when he came here?” The driver said he turned to the left. “And what did Sadat do?” He
turned to the right. Mubarak replied: “Signal left, signal right, then park.”
And even given all this, Egypt is the most secure and homogeneous of the Arab
states. Its long history provides an identity relatively independent of Islam and Pan-
Arabism. The fact that almost all of Egypt’s people live in the narrow Nile Valley and its
small river delta has made them used to bureaucratic, centralized rule.
Other Arab modern dictators cannot, however, afford the luxury of relative
passivity because they rule countries that are even more complex and volatile than Egypt.
In contrast with Egypt, they need to create much stronger parties and institutional
structures since loyalty and centralism can never he taken for granted. Syria, it has been
said, is a country where 60 percent of the people think they are leaders, 30 percent
consider themselves prophets, and 10 percent believe they are gods. Questions of national
character aside, the difficulty of ruling Syria and Iraq is due to their regional and
demographic diversity and their short, violent histories.
Syria gained independence from France’s mandate after World War II, and its
politics were remarkably unstable in the following years. Once the thin layer of political
legitimacy had been broken, there was no stable coalition or hegemonic group capable of
consistent control. Syrian politics was like an onion, with endless layers of skin and no
core. In communal terms there were Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Druzes, and Ismailis, all
represented in the officer corps. On a political level there were Nasserists, Communists,
Baathists, Islamic fundamentalists, and conservatives. Coups and purges during the years
of strife eliminated one group after another from both government and army. After 1963
only the Baathists remained, and by 1970 this group had been narrowed to one
predominantly Alawite faction of the party around General Hafez al-Assad.
Assad was born in 1928 to a poor Alawite peasant family in the backward
northwest region. He went to Latakia to attend high school and joined the Baath party at
age fourteen, becoming involved in underground activities against the French. His
official biography claims that he was a volunteer in the 1948 war against Israel and
afterward joined the air force, becoming a pilot in 1954. While in semiexile in Cairo
during period of Egypt-Syria union, he helped form a military commitee, which staged
the 1963 Baathist coup. Three years later, as air force commander, he helped his friendand
fellow Alawite-Salah Jadid-take over the leadership. Assad served as defense
minister and as prime minister. But the Jadid regime’s adventurism and Assad’s own
ambition led him to arrest Jadid and take over power himself in 1970. Jadid is still in
The Baath party’s ideology can most simply be described as Marxism heavily
adapted to Arab nationalism. Each Arab state is considered only a part of the Arab nation,
and thus, the party’s “regional” branch in each country is only a part of the “National
Command.” In practice, however, as with communism, the international aspect quickly
became subordinated to the interests of the rival Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq.
Otherwise, Baathism provides an ideal ideology and structural basis for a modern
dictatorship. It defines itself as scientific and modernizing, anti-Western, and populist
democratic. Like Marxism, it calls on the lower classes to play a central role in building a
new, nonexploitative society. But in Baathist terms “freedom” refers not to individual
rights but to national sovereignty, nonalignment, and the exclusion of imperialism. Party
cadres are supposed to serve the people, be accessible to the masses, carry out selfcriticism,
and be models of integrity.
The system is designed to give at least a large proportion of the population both a
psychological and material vested interest in the regime’s continuation. Coupled with the
party’s disciplined organization in the military, which its rivals could never equal, this is
the key to the regime’s staying power. The cadre is given personal benefits in exchange
for strengthening the regime; young people are encouraged to strive to become cadre for
reasons combining idealism and self-interest. The regime tries to give itself a monopoly
on patriotism; dissenters know they face swift and severe punishment.
The national appeal is also underpinned with the strong traditional forces of
family ties, regional loyalties, and confessional solidarity. In both Syria and Iraq the
leadership is reinforced by kinship and marriage connections. Assad’s brother Rifaat is
one of three vice-presidents and commander of his own military units. Cousin Adnan is
head of another part of the praetorian guard. Those who rule Damascus come
disproportionately from the Latakia region; those who rule Baghdad from the Tikrit area.
Assad’s supporters are from the Alawite minority, which includes only about 11 percent
of Syria’s population; Saddarn Hussein’s men are from the Sunni Muslim minority. But
enough members of the larger groups–Sunni Muslims in Syria, Shiite Muslims in Iraqare
included to hold a base of support in those sectors as well. Rifaat al-Assad,
incidentally, has two Sunni and two Alawite wives. The party becomes, in a sense, a new
tribe trying to instill over-arching loyalties.
Although radicalism is the stock-in-trade of these regimes-and Libya and Iran as
well-it is important to know where to stop short of straining the country’s resources,
creating unnecessary internal antagonisms, or attracting enough foreign intervention to
overthrow the regime. All four of these regimes have good relations with the Soviets, but
all are careful to keep Communists under control. One of the reasons why Assad moved
against Jadid is the latter’s errors: Excessive nationalization at home had endangered the
economy and alienated the urban mercantile Sunnis. Jadid’s strong secularism–including
the elimination of Islam as the state religion–had stirred up the fundamentalists and
underlined the Alawites’ questionable credentials as true Muslims. Jadid’s adventurous
foreign policy–supporting a Maoist-style “people’s war,” which in practice meant
terrorism against Israel–had helped bring Syria to its disastrous defeat in the 1967 war.
There is a clear, if unspoken, contract between the dictator and the party-military
elite. The leader makes the key decisions but takes into account the views of his
colleagues. The latter, in exchange, cooperate in purging their own institutions of anyone
who does not show personal loyalty to the dictator. Assad is the head of the government,
army, and the party’s National and Regional Commands. He chooses the judges, cabinet
members, military commanders, security and intelligence chiefs, party officials, leaders
of the mass organizations, heads of state economic organs, and newspaper editors. The
key group is the twenty-one-member Regional Command. Under it are organized the
branch, district, sub-district, and village commands which spread the party’s eyes, cars,
and voice throughout the country, creating a whole stratum of dependable loyalists. These
channels are more important than official governing bodies like the People’s Assembly,
the members of which are screened by the party and are regularly “elected” with 99
percent of the vote.
Other conveyor belts of support and control are the mass membership
Revolutionary Youth Organization, Union of Students (only the Baath can legally recruit
members in the universities), Women’s Organization, Peasant Federation, General
Federation of Trade Unions, and Union of Writers. These all are headed by reliable
people and will not deviate from the regime’s directives. The unions, for example,
represent the government’s economic directives rather than the workers’ demands, a
position rationalized by the need to mobilize all resources for development and national
welfare rather than selfish particularism. Needless to say, such unions are not likely to
call strikes, although each can do some lobbying for its interest group.
The youth organization holds mandatory summer training camps where children
from five to twenty years old are indoctrinated with Baathist ideology and loyalty to the
regime. They may be sent to help peasants with the harvest. School texts have been
rewritten; teachers must convey government-approved facts; cadres pass on party songs
and ideology; young people participate in parades and meetings. Entry to professional
schools and travel abroad are based on loyalty. Poor youths can follow this path to
advancement. Everything they have will be owed to the party and leader, and if they fall
from grace, it all can he taken away from them. As a source of benefits and punishments
the party can function somewhat like an old-fashioned American political machine. The
fact that loyalty is born of expedience as well as sincere belief only strengthens its hold.
Armed force may he the single most important pillar of the regime, but as has already
been seen, it is far from the only one.
These observations are not contradicted by the centrality of the regime’s
continued control of the armed forces. The Baath party has a monopoly on recruitment in
the military, which itself is a privileged sector of society. Pay and benefits are high by
Syrian standards and often include invisible perquisites, like the army’s lucrative
smuggling from Lebanon of stolen cars, hashish, and other goods.
Officers know that on retirement they can start or join companies that enjoy the
regime’s favor. The armed forces receive more than 30 percent of the country’s budget
and almost 60 percent of current spending. This priority on military spending, legitimized
by the conflict with Israel and kept acceptable by the regime’s constant claim that it is
surrounded by enemies, does not become a cause for resentment, as happened under
traditional dictatorships like that of the Shah.
The Syrian government conducts centralized economic planning and controls
about 85 percent of the economy. These two factors, not any implication of workers’
control, generally define socialism in Third World modern dictatorships. The private
sector is still quite active but is limited particularly to commerce, retail distribution, and
small-scale production. Even if the private sector is more efficient, political requirements
demand some loss in efficiency in favor of protecting the regime. Ideologically any major
expansion of the private sector would mean a growing bourgeoisie which might challenge
the party-military apparatus. Historically the prerevolutionary elite’s lack of social
consciousness, inability to develop the country, and open pragmatism rather than militant
patriotism persuade many that capitalism is an unacceptable system. Pragmatically,
contraction of the state sector would cut into government finances, the military budget,
and officials’ perquisites. In populist terms socialism is a powerful image. Why, Nasser
long ago asked, should one man live in a palace and another in a mud hut? If the modern
dictatorship does not ensure equality, many Arabs and Africans believe, it at least
Many Syrians have benefited from Baathist rule. The expansion of rural
electrification and the party’s distribution of seeds, fertilizer, insecticide, water, and
credit help the peasants while expanding their gratitude and dependence on the regime.
The Baathists never tried to impose collectivization. Hafez al-Assad’s liberalization of
the economy after unseating Jadid pleased the business community. Even merchants and
manufacturers critical of the regime came to like government contracts and officials’
flexible attitude toward bribery. They also fear the competition of foreign multinational
companies if economic controls were to be further loosened.
Repression, too, is an important pillar of the regime, and no chance is taken with
security. Executions and torture are routine. One man who had been sentenced to death in
Syria under a very different regime some thirty years earlier refused to return, saying,
“They hold on to all the old lists.” There are multiple security and intelligence agencies,
keeping an eye on one another as well as on the opposition and potential coup makers.
Special military formations considered ideologically reliable are created and stationed to
block any action by regular troops. In Syria these have included Rifaat al-Assad’s
50,000-man Defense Companies, stationed strategically near Damascus with their own
tanks, missiles, intelligence, and prisons, as well as General Ali Haydar’s 15,000-man
Corruption is more a privilege than a crime so long as it is kept within reasonable
bounds. The extent of Rifaat al-Assad’s unrestrained criminal activity made him
personally unpopular with most of the elite and seriously damaged his prospects for
succeeding to the presidency. The regime will periodically dismiss even Alawite loyalists
for poor performance. An anticorruption commission was launched in 1977 to investigate
illegal profits, kickbacks, collusion in awarding state contracts, and the pilfering of
government supplies. But the small fry have more to fear than the large violators.
The greatest domestic threat to the regime came from Islamic fundamentalists
who resent it as godless, Alawite, and socialistic. To reduce such antagonisms, Hafez al-
Assad introduced a new constitution specifying that only a Muslim could be president
(after first inducing top Sunni clerics to classify the Alawites as true Muslims) and
published a new printing of the Koran with his picture in it. The president began going to
mosque on Friday and talked about making the pilgrimage to Mecca. The continued
prominence of Sunni Muslims in the hierarchy-like Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas and
Foreign Minister (later Vice-President) Abdel Halim Khaddam-was also supposed to
help. The fundamentalist terrorism consolidated the solidarity of the threatened,
interlocking Alawite and Baathist communities.
Hard-core fundamentalists, however, were not impressed. They assassinated
members of the Alawite elite whenever possible. In February 1982 they began a poorly
coordinated uprising in the city of Hama. The regime sent in the army, whose house-tohouse
attacks and indiscriminate shelling wrecked the city’s downtown area and killed as
many as 20,000 people. But the regime never stopped to moralize or ask whether
repression would be effective. Instead, it wanted to persuade the citizens that armed
opposition or revolutionary activity would surely bring death. The lesson was effective;
thereafter the fundamentalists were decimated and demoralized.
Internal dissension in the ruling group was a bit harder to contain. When Hafez al-
Assad suffered a heart attack on top of other medical problems in November 1983,
would-be successors began maneuvering for control. Rifaat al-Assad’s Defense
Companies promoted his candidacy with military maneuvers and propaganda. They were
opposed by Haydar’s Special Forces and by General Shafid Fayyad’s 3d Arrnored
Division. When Hafez al-Assad recovered his faculties, he sent all three men abroad for
several months. His brother was the last to be recalled home but was rewarded with a
A showdown was avoided by leaving the succession vague. Syria, however, is
ruled by an institutionalized dictatorship as well as a personalized one. When Hafez al-
Assad dies, the fact that there may he a struggle and some new faces at the top does not
mean that the regime itself will he dismantled. No one is likely to throw away such a
widespread, prefabricated political-military-economic-ideological structure. Indeed, the
successor will likely owe his elevation to those very institutions and interests. Modern
dictatorship has a continuity even if the specific dictator changes.
Syria’s foreign policy rests on a combination of national interests–objectives that
transcend individual leaders-and regime interests. The idea that Syria is a steadfast
promoter of Arab nationalism, an important power in the Arab world, and a country that
stands up to the Americans, Israelis, and other enemies is bound to inspire pride and
patriotism. The predominance of the suspect Alawite minority in the leadership makes it
all the more necessary for it to prove its Arab nationalist credentials. A regime that stays
in power at home by using bazookas against Hama apartment buildings will view
intimidation as a very effective tool abroad as well. Thus, tough power politics, including
sponsorship of terrorism against others, is seen as a legitimate pursuit of Arab and
Islamic duty and of Syrian interests. The general domestic acceptability of a modern
dictatorship’s foreign policy applies to Syria’s intervention in Lebanon, Iraq’s invasion of
Iran, and Qaddafi’s foreign adventures.
The object for sponsors of international terrorism, as for masterminds in other
forms of criminal activity, is not notoriety but success. By that standard Libya’s
Muammar al-Qaddafi is a bumbler. Syria, in contrast, has used terrorism with remarkable
acumen to attain its goals.
Reluctant as they have been to publicize or react to Libya’s role in promoting terrorism,
West European governments are more horrified at the idea of tackling Syria and the West
is not likely to apply sanctions against Damascus. Syria’s strategic and military posture
makes such actions too politically costly. Syria is the state, after all, that President Ronald
Reagan profusely thanked for helping free the TWA hostages in 1985, despite U.S.
intelligence showing Syrian involvement in Beirut car bombings that killed close to 300
Americans and U.S. embassy employees.
Syria uses terrorism more effectively and with less risk than the other major
purveyors of international terrorism–Libya, the PLO, and Iran–because it follows several
–Employ terrorism for limited, well-defined goals rather than as a means of
sparking revolutions. For Syria, this has meant maximizing its influence in Lebanon,
destroying U.S. and Israeli leverage there, discouraging Jordan from making peace with
Israel, weakening any PLO independent of Syrian domination, and blackmailing wealthy
Arab oil-producing states.
–Deploy terrorism in conjunction with diplomatic and military instruments and
strategy. For example, terrorism, combined with Syrian Army’s occupation of parts of
Lebanon and Assad’s clever manipulation of internal politics there, allowed Damascus to
outmaneuver the United States and maintain its hegemony there.
–Avoid publicity and refrain from boasting about involvement in terrorism-which
is difficult to prove otherwise-to protect your image and gain sympathy. Organize
sporadic incidents rather than a continuous offensive to avoid provoking sanctions.
–Be strong enough in your own right and close enough to the USSR to deter
Syria learned these lessons from hard experience. President Assad’s adventurous
predecessor’s open, energetic support for Palestinian terrorism was a major factor leading
to the disastrous 1967 war with Israel and to weakening Syria’s regional position. Assad,
who took full power in early 1971, would he more careful and selective.
Lebanon provided the first test for Syria’s strategic use of state-sponsored
terrorism. The Syrian Army entered Lebanon in 1975 and easily overpowered the
indigenous militias engaged in civil war. But Assad realized that the conflict in Lebanon
was too complex to be resolved and that the country was too fragmented to permit total
Syrian control except at a very high cost.
Instead, Damascus’s policy was to maintain strong enough relations of alliance
and intimidation with each faction in Lebanon so as to be able to play them off against
each other. Thus, Christian, Druze, or Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups were subsidized
or punished depending on Syria’s immediate goals. Syria sought to prevent any faction
from winning the civil war.
Damascus apparently organized the murder in 1976 of Kemal Jumblaatt, the most
impressive and independent of the “radical” side’s leaders, because he was seeking a total
victory. Similarly, Syria was behind the killing of President Bashir Gemayel in 1982
because of his dynamism, determination to produce a Christian military triumph, and
connections with Israel.
In addition to assassinating leading Lebanese figures and controlling local groups
for terrorist actions, including the Lebanese Syrian Social National party (SSNP), the
Tripoli Alawite militia, etc., the Syrian Army systematically looted Lebanese property
and threatened citizens. As one Beirut witticism put it, a man went to the police to
complain, “A Swiss soldier just stole my Syrian watch.” “Don’t you mean,” asked a
police sergeant, “a Syrian soldier stole your Swiss watch?” The victim ansered, “You
said it, I didn’t.”
To avoid coverage of Syrian corruption and repression, at home as well as in
Lebanon, Damascus also used terrorist attacks against Arab and Western journalists.
Already in 1977, Lebanese newspapers had been closed down. In 1980 one of the most
outspoken editors, Salim Lawzi, was kidnapped and murdered during a visit to Beirut in
1980. He had moved his newspaper, Al-Hawadess, to London to escape the censorship,
and its columns had been critical of Syrian leaders. His body showed signs of horrible
torture. Other unsolved killings and threats also seem to have emanated from Syria.
The most important use of Syrian-sponsored terrorism within Lebanon was to
force the withdrawal of Israeli troops and U.S. marines. At the least the Islamic
fundamentalist suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. forces and Embassy in 1982 and
1983 were allowed a free hand to train and mount their operations through Syrian-held
territory. American hostages were also held in areas occupied by the Syrian Army.
Despite the anarchic conditions in Lebanon, it would have been impossible for these
operations to have been mounted without Syrian knowledge and assistance.
Having forced a U.S. pullout, Syrian intelligence then turned its attention to
southern Lebanon. Certainly much of the guerrilla and terrorist activity there was
organized by Shiite extremist groups, some of them tied to Iran. At the same time,
however, Damascus assisted some factions, particularly those of Syrian-controlled
Palestinians as a way both of striking against Israel and of showing that the pro-Syrian
groups were more successful than those of Yasir Arafat. Syria was also determined to
destroy the May 1983 Lebanon-Israel peace agreement.
Some suicide bombers were even more closely tied to Syria. In July 1985, for
example, a twenty-three-year-old Lebanese blew himself and his car up at a checkpoint of
the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army. The day before he did so, Abbas gave a
television interview, greeting Assad (whose picture could be seen on the table and the
wall) and calling him “the symbol of resistance in the Arab homeland and the first
struggler.” He was a member of the Lebanese branch of Syria’s ruling Baath party. Other
terrorists were members of the Syrian-controlled SSNP.
After the relatively successful series of operations in Lebanon, Syria’s main goal
was to wipe out those few PLO members who advocated serious negotiations with Israel
or alliance with Jordan. Syria itself rejects Arab-Israeli negotiations not at all because it
wants to ensure return of the Golan Heights or seeks better terms. Damascus’s
rejectionism runs very deep. Any solution is likely to strengthen Jordan’s hand over the
Palestinian question, make the PLO free of Syrian influence, allow Israel to be a
recognized state in the region (and hence a rival to Syria), defuse tensions and turn Syria
into a second-rate power, and increase U.S. prestige. Since Damascus views Palestine as
“southern Syria,” Assad has explained that Arafat has no right to make any decisions that
contradict Syria’s views. In short, almost any conceivable solution is anathema to the
Syrian government. Although it is often argued that an increased stress on pressing Arab-
Israeli negotiations would decrease terrorism, common sense shows that the three
terrorist-supporting states-Iran, Syria, and Libya-and the most actively terroristic
Palestinian groups as well all oppose any serious negotiations. Terrorism then, is not a
cry of outrage against a Western failure to pursue peace but an attempt to block
diplomacy altogether. Sadly, the more strongly the United States pushes for peace, the
more terrorism will increase. During the last few years whenever King Hussein of Jordan
has considered the possibility of negotiating with Israel these efforts broke down in part
because of Syrian pressure through terrorism. In April 1983 PLO moderate Issam Sartawi
was murdered in Portugal by Syrian agents. In October the Jordanian ambassadors to
India and Italy were wounded and a Jordanian security man in Athens was killed. In
December an attack in Spain killed one and wounded another diplomat. The Jordanian
charge d’affairs in Romania was killed in December 1984.
In December 1984 former West Bank mayor and PLO Executive Committee
member Fahd Kawasmeh was killed in Amman, eliminating a man considered friendly to
King Hussein, showing that Jordan could not protect the Palestinian leaders, and serving
as a warning to others. In April 1985 a rocket was fired at a Jordanian airliner taking off
from Athens. In July the Jordanian airline’s office in Madrid was attacked and a diplomat
was killed in Ankara. In September a Jordanian publisher was murdered in Athens. The
ensuing murders of Palestinian moderate Aziz Shehadeh in Ramallah and of Nablus
Mayor Zahir al-Masri could also be traced to Syrian surrogates.
These events were carried out through Syrian links with two sets of Palestinian
terrorist groups: those of Abu Nidal and the Syrian-sponsored PLO faction led by Abu
Musa. From the beginning Syria sponsored the original Palestinian terrorist groups of the
1960s, like Heroes of the Return, during the PLO’s pre-Arafat days. It directly controlled
AI-Saiqa, at one time the second-largest PLO group until Syria’s anti-Palestinian actions
in Lebanon discredited it. AI-Saiqa’s leader, Zuhair Muhsein, was killed in 1979 while on
a gambling trip in southern France.
To strengthen its terrorist capacity, Assad recruited Abu Nidal when he was
forced to leave Baghdad in 1980. Although Abu Nidal had earlier staged operations
against Syria, he was willing to accept the job. Many of the anti-Jordanian actions listed
above were carried out by his men. In the middle of 1985 Abu Nidal moved on to Libya
but continued to cooperate with Syria. Damascus has also been involved in supporting
terrorist attacks against Turkey (through Armenian groups) and Iraq.
Syria’s long history of supporting terrorism against Israel is due to a number of
factors. Obviously Damascus views itself as an Arab nationalist state playing a leading
role in an anti-Zionist struggle. But in practical terms Syria is also a regional power
desirous of undercutting Israeli strength without, most of the time, becoming involved in
a direct confrontation with Israel that it could not win. Consequently, Syria has been
careful never to strike directly against Israel through the Golan Heights-an act that might
prompt direct Israeli retaliation. Instead, it has routed operations through Lebanese,
Jordanian, and even European territory.
As in the cases of the Iranian and Libyan modern dictatorships, then, Syria’s
rulers have combined brutality, terrorism, and radical rhetoric with a certain amount of
caution in preserving the regime’s existence. While Assad has perfected much of the
modern dictator’s repertoire and added a few original touches of his own, the basic
pattern is repeated elsewhere in the Arab world.
The structural foundations for the Assad regime in Syria are paralleled in Baathist
Iraq, the National Liberation Front government in Algeria, the more explicitly Marxist
Yemen Socialist party in South Yemen, Qaddafi and his network of people’s committees
in Libya, and variations for more moderate Egypt and for non-Arab, Islamic
In Iraq, compared to Syria, the civilian party apparatus is even more important
vis-à-vis the military. The 1968 Baathist coup there was led by civilian Baathist
revolutionary Saddam Hussein, though for a decade thereafter he preferred to remain as
vice-president with a respected military officer as figurehead. Despite his lack of army
career, Hussein later made himself a general and was often pictured in uniform.
Saddam Hussein’s experiences as an underground fighter–he carried a machine gun in an
unsuccessful assassination attempt on a non-Baathist predecessor and had to flee the
country–have been reflected in his own regime’s toughness. He has never hesitated to
execute factional opponents, and there have been periodic purges in the party’s ranks. On
one famous occasion a repentant informant pointed out “traitors” in a televised meeting
of high party officials. The unfortunate individuals fingered were dragged out of the hall
and never seen again.
As with Assad, Hussein’s face is everywhere in the land. One local joke has it that
the population of Iraq is 28 million: 14 million people and 14 million pictures of Hussein.
He is omnipresent on television-often visiting villages or neighborhoods to chat with the
local people-and in the press. His speeches and writings are published in quantity. Again,
the narrowness of any distinction between personal and party loyalty does not weaken the
value of the Baathist organization.
Iraq, like Syria, has enough credible enemies to keep the core group of rulers and
beneficiaries together. A long rebellion by the non-Arab Kurds in the north was put down
by a mixture of ruthlessness and co-optation. The more dangerous threat was from the
Shiites, a traditionally neglected and poorer group, who form the largest sector of the
population. This problem was accentuated by pro-Khomeini agitation among the Shiites
after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Iraqi regime murdered such respected Shiite
leaders as Ayatollah Bakr Sadr and his sister and expelled tens of thousands of Iraqis of
Persian descent. At the same time, however, some Shiites were incorporated into the
leadership and party; others saw their living standards improved by the Baghdad
Most of these gains were made possible by Iraq’s oil boom. The higher price of
petroleum-and in 1980 Iraq was the region’s second largest producer-paid for billions of
dollars in economic development, higher wages, new jobs, better housing, health and
social security payments. Although this new money came easily, the government did a
good job of distribution and limiting waste, at least until the war with Iran ate up the
As it happens in modern dictatorships, the benefits were accompanied by
repressive terror. The slightest criticism could be punished with the greatest severity.
When asked the greatest problem of Iraq’s economy, an industrial expert replied that the
managers and bureaucrats were afraid to make decisions lest these lead to their downfall
or imprisonment. The party and secret police apparatus was more widespread even than
in Syria. Officials in all sectors were selected by the party hierarchy. Professors, teachers,
journalists, and writers all were strictly controlled.
The war with Iran brought heavy costs and seemed capable of wrecking the gains
of earlier years. But patriotism and a genuine hatred of the Iranians (and fear of
fundamentalism-Baathist Iraq is a relatively secular regime) inspired the populace as
much as intimidation frightened them. The army was watched carefully lest officers turn
their criticisms of the war’s conduct into an attempt to take over. Despite a number of
early pessimistic appraisals from observers, the regime showed impressive staying power.
As elsewhere in the Third World, these societies have a long record of
hierarchical, top-down organizations in which the citizen had little redress or protection
against the state. Family, clan, religion, and state all demanded loyalty. Political power
has repeatedly grown out of a gun barrel; parliaments have always been rubber stamps.
The modern dictatorship keeps the structure of authority but modernizes it and opens up
rewards and a chance for power to a much wider group. As political scientist Adeed
Dawisha has written: “Just as the process of modernization proved to be a curse for the
(traditional) rulers, it ended up being a curse for the ruled. For with modernization came
technological advancement, and that placed in the hands of the rulers methods of social
and coercive suppression that made earlier means of population control pale into
insignificance …. A two-pronged maxim was followed: put fear in people’s hearts but
also try to win their support, no matter how grudgingly given. On the other side of the
fence, the ruled realized very quickly through bitter experience the futility of demanding
genuine and full political participation.” All that is promised never comes true, but part–
for at least part of the people–usually does.