Across the Arab world, the fall of Baghdad on April 9 is seen as a day of shame, reminiscent of June 5, 1967, when Israel defeated the armies of three Arab countries, conquering the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in a mere six days.
Arab intellectuals, and indeed the wider Arab public, are now busy trying to analyze and understand the lessons of the Iraqi earthquake. Meanwhile, supporters of the former Baathist regime in Iraq and others are now busy defending the same old totalitarian mindset. Their tactic has been to obstruct a clear review of the Iraqi catastrophe by suggesting that any criticism of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussin's regime is tantamount to supporting the US-led occupation of Iraq.
For example, Fahd al-Fanek, a former Baath Party member, is now a columnist for the Jordanian newspaper al-Ra'i. In April, he wrote that the end of Saddam's hold on power in Iraq "provided the opportunity for the enemies of the regime to shed crocodile tears at democracy and to denounce repression and dictatorship as an indirect gesture welcoming the American occupation." None of the anti-Saddam sentiment, Al-Fanek argued, was "intended to serve the cause of democracy, but to support the American position and justify the American occupation."
Interestingly, such retrospective support for Saddam and his dictatorial regime is now being met with growing indignation in the Arab World, because ordinary Arabs are only now learning of the crimes perpetrated by the Baath Party regime. Apologists for Saddam's rule are now facing some difficult questions.
There is precedent for such soul-searching in the Arab world. In the aftermath of Israel's 1967 victory, Sadeq Jalal Al-Azm, a well-know Syrian intellectual and a professor of philosophy, published a book entitled Self-criticism after the defeat, which sharply criticized many aspects of Arab political culture. Al-Azm's book became a sensation, stimulating a wave of reviews and polemical exchanges.
Back then, the paramount question was: How did a small state like Israel defeat the armies of three Arab countries and occupy vast areas of Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian territory in a few days? This question still echoes through the decades, and the many answers have dwelled not only on military failings, but on broader questions concerning Arab political, economic, cultural, and technological development.
The prevailing response in the 1960s to Israel's triumph was that the Arabs should adapt the guerilla strategies pursued by the Vietnamese, Chinese and Cubans. Later on, the Soviet model became popular among nationalist and leftist movements fighting for independence when they seized power in Syria, Iraq and South Yemen. Demands for democracy, popular participation and political pluralism were shelved in favor of pan-Arab national slogans urging Arab unity, the liberation of Palestine and opposition to imperialism.
But looking back on the 1970s and 1980s, the socioeconomic failures of the despotic regimes that embodied this worldview are glaringly obvious. Their countries sank deeply into debt, with low rates of growth, endemic corruption and bloated public sectors. Prisons were overcrowded, and cultural expression was stifled. Unsurprisingly, these regimes viewed the slightest criticism as treason and subversion.