Saddam's death - a blow for Middle East democracy?
analysis by Jan Keulen* Radio Netherlands
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said the hasty execution of Saddam Hussein demonstrated that his government cares about human rights. He said the fact that the death sentence had been carried out served as a "lesson to all the world's dictators".
Political factors were the main reason why Mr Maliki wanted the execution to take place as soon as possible. With sectarian violence growing all the time, the prime minister's authority is dwindling. According to observers, the hanging of the country's former dictator on Eid al-Udha (Islam's feast of sacrifice and one of the religion's most important holy days) was mainly aimed at strengthening Mr Maliki's political position, within the Shi'ite community in particular.
However, it's now not likely that the images of Saddam Hussein's execution, with him first having been derided and belittled by his executioners, will do much good for the causes of democracy and human rights in either Iraq or the Middle East as a whole.
The amateur recordings of what happened - made with mobile telephones - have since gone around the world and have, in any event, caused much embarrassment to European leaders who, formally at least, were already opposed to the death sentence.
The Iraqi government has announced that it will hold an investigation into the recordings of the execution. The executioners and other people present at the hanging were explicitly banned from recording the event, yet it happened all the same. The resulting pictures first appeared on the Internet, but soon made their way to the major television news stations as well.
In official circles within Iraq's neighbours the reaction was one of icy silence. The only exceptions were Libya, which announced three days of mourning, and in Gaza and the West Bank where Palestinian governing party Hamas publicly condemned the execution. In Jordan, the opposition organised mourning and protest meetings, with Saddam Hussein's daughter Raghad Hussein notable by her presence.
The images of the hanging of Saddam Hussein unleashed a furious reaction among members of Iraq's Sunni population. The execution was regarded as an act of revenge on the part of the Shi'ites, not only by diehard Saddam supporters and members of the Ba'ath party, but throughout the entire Sunni community. The sectarian feelings of anger and mistrust were no doubt further enflamed by Sunday's closure of Iraq's pro-Sunni television station al-Sharqiiya.
The main aims
Given this atmosphere, it's clear that the trial of Saddam Hussein, his conviction for the murder of 148 men and boys from the Shi'ite village of Dujail following a failed attempt on his life in 1982, and now his death on the gallows have not contributed to achieving the main aims of the entire process: facing up to the past, national reconciliation and the strengthening of Iraq's judicial system.
On the contrary, the polarisation and divisions within Iraq appear only to have grown still further as a result of the trial and the execution, as reflected by the expressions of outright joy among Shi'ites and Kurds and a sense of humiliation and discrimination among their Sunni counterparts.
The conflict between Iraq's religious and ethnic groups, particularly the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, is also being anxiously followed in the country's neighbours. In Lebanon, which has its own tragic history of religious conflicts, Sunnis and Shi'ites appear to be moving ever further apart in political terms. In other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia for example, there's a somewhat uncomfortable status quo in which Shi'ites feel themselves to be the victims of discrimination. An even greater explosion of sectarian violence in Iraq could have truly dramatic consequences for the entire region.
Another consequence of the execution of Saddam Hussein is, ironically enough, the strengthening of the position of other Arab leaders. Many people in the Middle East regard the trial and subsequent hanging as an example of the 'law of the victor'.
Chaos and violence
The United States is regarded as being responsible for the far from perfect way in which justice was seen to be done in this case. In this way, the concept of ' democratisation' becomes equated with chaos, an orgy of violence and, now, the humiliating hanging of an Arab leader, and thus becomes a highly unattractive prospect in other Arab countries.
"Democracy and human rights have become dangerous, emotive issues in the Middle East," was the recent comment from one Syrian intellectual: "Each day on TV we see the results of democratisation and the removal of the dictator in Iraq. Our politicians are making grateful use of this and are saying, 'That's what American democracy is - beware of it'." For these politicians, the pictures of Saddam Hussein being taunted and then hanged may well have come like a gift from heaven.