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Would Saddam Hussein have survived the Arab Spring?

A 2000 photo shows Iraqi President Saddam Hussein talking to military leaders in Baghdad. (AFP/Getty Images)

Bobby Ghosh, a Time reporter who made his name covering the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent war, revisits a counterfactual theory that's been floating around since the Iraq War first began 10 years ago: If the United States had not invaded, would Saddam Hussein still rule? Or would, in this question's latest iteration, he have been toppled by the Arab Spring?

Ghosh argues that Hussein would have survived any Arab Spring-influenced movements. Hussein's military was loyal enough, and his regime ruthless enough, that he would have destroyed any uprising before it got rolling.

Ghosh makes a persuasive case, though he spends only one sentence on what seems like the most plausible outcome: a Syria-style uprising that develops into a civil war. Like Hussein-era Iraq, in which a Sunni minority dominated the Shiite-majority country, Syria is ruled by a minority sect that lords over a disgruntled and underprivileged majority that has since taken up arms. The similarities between Assad's Syria and Hussein's Iraq go on from there: both are ruled by secular dictators with strong military ties; both contain unhappy Kurdish minorities; both espouse anti-Western ideologies that seem more about justifying their own regimes. Both governments even belong to the same political party: the Baathists, a relic of the otherwise-discarded Arab nationalist movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Here's what Ghosh has to say about the Syria-Iraq comparison: "Iraq already had its version [of a Syria-style uprising] in 1991, and the regime won easily." This is true: Hussein brutally crushed an armed Shiite and Kurdish uprising that year, destroying entire communities and sending hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the country.

But a lot has changed in the 20 years since 1991. Just as Egypt's failed 2008 protests did not accurately predict the successful 2011 revolution, I have a hard time concluding that the failed 1991 uprising predicts that any Arab Spring-era uprising would necessarily fail as well.

Maybe the most apt comparison for how Saddam Hussein's Iraq would fare in the Arab Spring isn't Syria, but Algeria. Though Algeria is ruled by an authoritarian, nationalist, military-aligned government, and though popular discontent appears high, there has been no revolution. There are many theories for why this might be, but one of the most persuasive comes down to uprising exhaustion. The county endured an awful civil war from 1991 to about 1999, which the regime won. In the thinking of some Algeria analysts, the legacy of that conflict has left the would-be protesters too tired, too wary of bloodshed and too weak to rise up again.

In this thinking, the case for Hussein's survival isn't that he would crush an uprising, but that the uprising, like in Algeria, would never really happen.



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Max Fisher · March 17, 2013

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