The Iraqi Revolution We'll Never Know

Imagine for a moment that the United States never invaded Iraq. Would the Arab Spring have toppled Saddam anyway?  

In a tumultuous year that witnessed the fall of Arab tyrants and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, proponents of the 2003 invasion, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative academic Fouad Ajami, have sought to portray the decision to topple Saddam Hussein's regime as the hidden driver of the Arab Spring. But rather than revisit history, why not -- on this one-year anniversary of Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's downfall -- try our hand at alternate history: If the United States had never invaded Iraq, would Saddam's Baathist regime still be standing in today's Middle East?

This question, of course, is a bedeviling one. It is difficult to imagine the region absent U.S. military intervention in Iraq. The war itself fueled regional dysfunction -- particularly in reaffirming and expanding pernicious notions of sectarian identity. Clearly, the specter of enhanced Iranian influence and the spillover effects of Iraq's brutal 2006-2007 sectarian civil war loom large over the region, most obviously with respect to Syria and Bahrain.

Still, the admittedly speculative answers to this hypothetical exercise expose the many ways the Middle East has evolved since the days when Saddam brutally crushed the Shiite and Kurdish uprising of 1991 -- with the Arab world looking on in silence. At the same time, Iraq's strategic position and sectarian makeup highlight the geopolitical realities that continue to limit the trajectory of regional transformation.

Absent U.S. intervention, it is almost certain that Saddam would have maintained his repressive grip on the country. While his regional ambitions and threatening posture had been contained by devastating sanctions, the opposition to Saddam's rule remained fragmented and ineffective until the U.S.-led intervention. The ambitious efforts to foment internal unrest by the Iraqi National Congress, a purported umbrella organization for the Iraqi opposition in exile, had been an unmitigated disaster. And the internal opposition had not been able to seriously threaten the regime. When Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a venerated and politicized Shiite cleric, was murdered by the regime in February 1999, the short-lived riots that ensued were subdued quickly. The aftermath also exposed long-standing divisions between the external and internal Shiite opposition that would stand in the way of any effort to overthrow the regime.

That doesn't mean it never would have happened. With festering grievances, a repressed populace, and growing destitution, it is highly likely that Iraq would have been part of this past year's regional wave of uprisings. The wave of revolt has illuminated the manner in which transnational solidarity, buoyed by a shared media space and political links, still plays an important role in the collective imagination of Arabs -- even though the grandiose promises of pan-Arab nationalism have long ago been discredited. This phenomenon would not have bypassed Iraq. Furthermore, while the pre-invasion efforts of both the external and internal Iraqi opposition ultimately failed, they did represent genuine opposition politics. And the existence of a Kurdish safe haven would have provided physical space to plan and coordinate anti-government activities. Much more so than even in Tunisia, the building blocks for an uprising would have been in place in Iraq.

Had such an uprising broken out, the surest path for Iraqi regime change would have been a U.S.-led military action in support of local actors. Without the bruising legacy of the Iraq debacle, outside intervention, even absent legal authorization, would have been, for better or worse, a serious option for the United States and its allies. As with Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, the United States and its partners would have seen an opportunity to remove a longtime nemesis.

The propitious circumstances that created the moral and legal basis for the NATO-led intervention in Libya, however, would probably not have materialized in Iraq. Russia and China would have expressed serious reservations about meddling in Iraq's internal affairs and would likely have blocked legal sanction for any military action against the regime. Russian and Chinese aversion to more aggressive multilateral steps against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, after all, is not simply a fit of pique regarding the expansive nature of the Libya campaign but rather part of a long-standing assertion of strategic priorities and state sovereignty.

Regional intervention in Iraq would have been even less likely. While the Iraq war inflamed popular notions of sectarian identity, regional politics had long been shaped by sectarianism and regional rivalry. Saudi Arabia, for example, backed Saddam in his war with Iran in the 1980s because it deemed a revolutionary Iran seeking to export Shiite theocracy as more of a threat than an Iraq bent on regional hegemony. Such balance-of-power considerations would undoubtedly have counseled caution among America's Gulf allies in the face of a Shiite- and Kurdish-led uprising against Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime. The mere prospect of Iran expanding its influence after Saddam's downfall would have foreclosed the possibility of regional consensus on the side of an Iraqi protest movement. Similarly, fears of an independent Kurdistan and the potential revitalization of Kurdish nationalist aspirations within Turkey would certainly have pushed Turkish leaders to oppose foreign intervention.

To be sure, the Arab world is now witnessing the first stirrings of an effort to establish regional norms for combating dictatorial repression and violence. On a popular level, strident stances against Israel and the United States are no longer sufficient cover for the slaughter of one's people, as is clear from regional reaction to Assad's brutal crackdown on protesters. But, in the event of an uprising in Iraq, such considerations would have lost out to strategic concerns.

Even in Syria, where the Arab League has unexpectedly sought to intercede by suspending Damascus and sending an observer mission to the country, caution has prevailed despite the benefits that the country's Sunni majority would reap from regime change. Similarly, Iraq, Syria's long-standing nemesis, has suddenly mended previously damaged relations with its neighbor and opposed more coercive regional efforts in Syria due to the Shiite-led government's concerns about Sunni Islamist rule on its border. 

The current struggle between Bahrain's beleaguered Shiite majority and the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy is a further case in point. Sectarianism has undercut popular notions of solidarity, and many who are otherwise proponents of regional transformation have deemed Bahrain separate and apart from the other Arab uprisings. The prominent Sunni scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, has expressed support for attempts to overthrow dictators throughout the region but balked at the prospect of a predominantly Shiite-led movement in Bahrain, claiming that "there is no people's revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one." Sectarian animus would have similarly undercut sympathy and support for an Iraqi uprising that would have empowered the country's Shiite majority.

Barring a foreign military intervention, the question of regime change would have been settled by Iraq's internal balance of power and the ability of rebels to topple the government. As is clear from the case of the uprising against Assad's regime, a positive outcome in such circumstances would have been far from assured absent high-level defections. While silent defections aided the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, a popular revolt in 2011 would have likely resulted in greater regime consolidation. What is certainly clear is that the regime would have used overwhelming and disproportionate force to quell any signs of broad-based dissent. In the face of such indiscriminate violence, Iraq's rebels would have likely failed.

In the final analysis, absent the bruising legacy of the Iraq war and the dubious grounds upon which it was launched, the United States and its allies would have most likely taken military action to assist the rebels and topple Saddam Hussein, with or without explicit U.N. sanction. It is, of course, the ultimate irony that the proponents of unchecked American unilateralism and militarism, through their profligacy and poor decisions, have themselves created conditions that now bind and limit the exercise of U.S. power.

While the Middle East has begun to change in fundamental ways, it has done so despite the geopolitical constraints and sectarian biases that still guide decision-making in the region. For all the transformation that the Arab Spring has wrought, sadly, an Iraqi uprising in 2011, absent outside intervention, might not have played out much differently than the one that Saddam snuffed out in 1991.

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Democracy Lab

Down to a Trickle

The revolution in Egypt can’t succeed unless someone manages to revive the economy. Good luck with that.

As journalists like to put it, "experts disagree" on the prognosis for the Egyptian version of Arab Spring. But pretty much everyone does agree that the chances for a happy ending - i.e., a liberal democratic one - turn heavily on Egypt's ability to get the economy back on a rapid growth track. And while that is certainly possible, it won't be easy in the nation where trickle-down isn't working.

Bear with a little history here. The Nasser years were a disaster in economic terms; Egypt's experiment with full-throttle central planning led nowhere, slowly. Anwar Sadat's successor regime was able to tap foreign banks to augment spending. But this financial house of cards collapsed in a tangle of IOUs, and the economy stagnated through much of the 1980s.

Thereafter, Egypt caught a break. Much of its crushing external debt was forgiven by western governments in return for Egypt's participation in the Gulf War. And the IMF restructured much of the rest in return for promises (largely kept) to restrain spending and contain inflation. Between 1991 and 2001, per capita GDP calculated in terms of purchasing power rose by almost half - albeit to a still-meager $3,700.

With the introduction of serious market-based reforms in the last decade - privatization of most state-owned industry, deregulation of agriculture, encouragement foreign investment -- the pace of growth picked up considerably, reaching near-Asian (7 percent) rates. This was especially impressive in light of the fact that Egyptians save a far smaller proportion of income than East Asians and thus depended on foreign investors to meet the demand for capital.

Mubarak's technocrats also deserve credit for skating through the global recession without a pratfall, responding in timely fashion with domestic stimulus (mostly in the form of accelerated infrastructure investment) that largely offset declines in private investment and exports. The growth rate never fell below four percent. In 2010, per capita GDP (again, in purchasing power terms) exceeded $6,000, which bumped Egypt up to "lower middle income" status in the World Bank's pecking order.

Tahrir Square knocked the stuffing out of projections that Egypt would return to pre-2009 growth rates in 2011/12. Tourism, a mainstay of both employment and foreign exchange earnings, has taken a huge hit. And nobody with serious money has been in the mood to bet on the outcome of the revolution. The big question is whether the economy can get its mojo back once investors can be reasonably certain that the political rules won't change anytime soon.

Viewed from a proverbial 40,000 feet, the economy looks to be in a pretty good position to manage that. Egyptian manufacturing, aided by preferential access to the U.S. textile market, is sufficiently productive to be reasonably competitive at home and abroad. Trade and investment ties with both Europe and the Arab states are strong. Domestic oil and gas production aren't adequate to make Egypt a net exporter of fuels, but do protect the economy from energy price spikes. Consider, too, that some four million Egyptians live abroad (most of them in the U.S. and the Gulf), delivering some $8 billion or so annually in remittances.

But there's a darker side to this coin. For while Egypt made great strides in the last two decades in building a diversified market economy, it did not shed many of the liabilities that typically dog developing countries. Corruption pervades every aspect of economic life: Egypt's public sector ranked 112th of 183 countries on the Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2011, behind ethically challenged countries such as Gabon, Albania and Jamaica.

Not coincidentally, Egypt ranked 110th out of 183 countries on the World Bank's 2012 Ease of Doing Business index. It takes an average of 214 days to obtain a building construction permit, and a typical contract clash requires almost three years to settle in the courts. Indeed, one has to wonder how the economy made it this far.

Actually, one need not wonder. While corruption and red tape undermine the potential for innovation and business creation, they create a paradise for insiders. Like their counterparts in countries ranging from Mexico to Russia, crony capitalists benefited enormously from privatization, preferential access to foreign capital and technology, and unenforceable labor laws - and benefited again from the reality that the difficulty of doing business protected incumbents from competition.

It should not be surprising, then, that the rising tide of income and productivity has not carried all boats. To be sure, the quality of life has risen for most Egyptians: The UN's catchall Human Development Index suggests considerable improvement since 1980. But "development" is relative: In the report published last November, Egypt ranked 113th among 187 countries on the HDI index, ahead of Syria and Morocco, but behind all the major emerging market countries.

Poverty is especially serious in the Upper Nile region, where millions of Egyptian farmers must share far too little arable land to make a decent living. And since the Nasser era, Egyptian governments have kept a lid on trouble by heavily subsidizing wheat, sugar, edible oils and bottled cooking gas. Stark hardship is less common in the cities, but economic frustration is high - and has apparently increased in recent years. The obvious reason is unemployment, which has been stuck around 9 percent through the years of rapid growth. But there are other barriers to economic mobility.

One is the aforementioned difficulty of doing business. For while Egypt cities are brimming with small family enterprises, the non-profit Global Entrepreneurship Monitor estimated that, thanks to the daunting obstacles to expansion, only one in nine of them could be expected to grow to more than 10 employees.

Ironically, another barrier was created by the government's withdrawal from the role of employer as last resort for educated young. In pre-reform days, notes Christine Binzel of the University of Heidelberg in a recent paper, jobs could always be created to accommodate degree-holders in bloated government agencies and state-owned enterprises. But privatization, combined with far greater budget discipline, has left newly minted graduates to fend for themselves in a business culture in which who you are related to largely determines whether you'll get a job.

The revolution has thus exposed a weakness inherent in top-down economic restructuring. The only way Egypt can provide opportunities for the millions who have yet to benefit from market reforms is to grow rapidly. But the mechanisms of growth that have favored the rich and well-connected are not likely to remain politically tenable in a more democratic Egypt. And reforms that level the economic playing field by suppressing corruption, streamlining bureaucracy and opening the door to greater competition would be quite a stretch for any government - let alone one that must contend with an entitled military, well-heeled incumbent industrialists and newly empowered Islamic fundamentalists.

There's also the problem of what to do about the aforementioned food and fuel subsidies, which cost the government some $5 billion a year it cannot afford to spend and displace more productive uses of foreign exchange. Targeting the subsidies to the very poor would save a lot of money - roughly two-thirds of the benefits go to less needy households. But the urban middle-class that fueled the revolution isn't likely to stand for the loss of one of its few government entitlements. Egypt's next rulers are not to be envied.