For Arab Critics, Hussein’s Execution Symbolizes the Victory of Vengeance Over Justice

By HASSAN M. FATTAH

Jew York Times

December 31, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 30 — As daylight broke over the Arab world and news of Saddam Hussein’s hanging spread over the airwaves and the Internet, the execution proved just as profound for what it did not change as for what it did.

Hezbollah’s supporters in Beirut woke up on Saturday morning ready for another day of protests aimed at bringing down the United States-backed government of Fouad Siniora. Even in Iran, where the Foreign Ministry called the execution a “jubilation” for the thousands who lost family members in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, officials pledged to continue pursuing their nuclear ambitions and denounced the United Nations Security Council’s efforts to curb them, Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, reported.

Throughout the Arab world, opposition movements are still on the run, many pro-democracy activists are either imprisoned or have simply given up, and the very targets of the American campaign to transform the Middle East, like Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, are more emboldened than ever.

Almost four years after United States troops entered Iraq with a broader foreign policy goal of ushering in a “new” Middle East, one built on democracy and rule of law, the execution of Mr. Hussein on one of the holiest days in Islam marked the unceremonious demise of that strategy, many Arab analysts said.

“If you compare the results to the objectives the U.S. claimed to realize, whether it was democracy or control of the region, their policies have evidently failed,” said Nawaf Kabbara, professor of political science at Balamand University in Beirut. “They were not able to spread democracy, control anything or make any serious breakthrough. It is a failure on all levels.”

For those Arabs who celebrated America’s embrace of the rule of law, the quick execution, coming before the conclusion of other trials against Mr. Hussein for crimes against humanity, left a bitter taste of stolen justice. Even Mr. Hussein’s staunchest enemies expressed a sense of bitterness at the end.

“It is evident that they were not after justice,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “It was a political decision, because as soon as they got a sentence on him they executed him. What mattered was his death rather than finding justice.”

For those distrustful or disdainful of American intentions, the notion that the execution fell on Id al-Adha, one of the most sacred holidays of the year, seemed to symbolize the triumph of vengeance over justice.

“It looks like they just wanted to take revenge in a vulgar way; that was their gift to the Shia for the feast,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, assistant professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, referring to Shiites, who were oppressed under Mr. Hussein and now control Iraq.

“Bush and al-Maliki thought they could benefit from this, but this is going to backfire,” he added, referring to President Bush and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq. “Saddam’s execution is going to feed sectarianism and contribute to more bloodshed.”

Id al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, is ultimately a commemoration of the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael for God; instead he slaughtered a goat, and Muslims today slaughter goats, sheep and even camels to re-enact the event. As the blood of slaughtered sheep stained the streets of many Arab cities on Saturday, however, many found it hard to ignore the analogy of Mr. Hussein himself as a sacrificial lamb.

“Executing the martyr Saddam Hussein on the first day of Adha in one of the holiest months of the year is meant to defy the feeling of Muslims, to invoke sectarian strife and to confirm that Bush’s policy as vindictive and aggressive,” said a statement by the union of the Islamist-dominated professional associations union in Amman, Jordan.

“The phony slogans about freedom and democracy are fake,” the statement continued. “The professional associations mourn the death of the hero, the martyr Saddam Hussein, and stress that the day of liberating Iraq is near.”

Even those who believed Mr. Hussein was guilty expressed doubts about his trial, and about whether Iraq’s rebuilt justice system was really the kind of civil institution that could support a true democracy.

“Saddam Hussein was guilty a thousand times over, but still the Americans and the Iraqi government managed to run a shabby trial,” said Jihad al-Khazen, a columnist and former editor of the pan-Arab newspapers Al Hayat and Asharq al Awsat. “If they organized a fair trial with international observers that could have served as a model for other countries. Instead they messed it up, and I think Saddam in the eyes of many people will now be seen as another martyr.”

Many in the region seemed to view the execution as a harbinger of further sectarian conflict. This was the first time in modern history that a Sunni dictator had been executed by a Shiite, some analysts noted, a symbolic step that was widely expected to incur Sunni retribution throughout the region. American embassies throughout the region warned citizens on Saturday to avoid protests and be prepared for unrest.

Reporting was contributed by Rasheed Abou al-Samh from Jidda, Saudi Arabia; Suha Maayeh from Amman, Jordan; Mona el-Naggar from Cairo; and Nada Bakri from Beirut.