Saddam Would Have Survived the Arab Spring

The fall of other dictators lets Iraqis imagine an alternative to the 2003 invasion. But it's only a fantasy

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Iraq has not yet embraced the modern cult of the opinion poll. Voter research is unheard of, market research is rare, and surveys of national attitudes tend to be unscientific and unreliable. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party operatives can't tell you his favorability rating among 18-to-30-year-olds in Diyala province, consumer-product companies don't know what percentage of Baghdad households own a washing machine, and newspapers can only guess whether drivers in Mosul are more or less dissatisfied with the state of their roads than those in Najaf. And so, although we know for certain that the majority of Americans think the 2003 invasion of Iraq 10 years ago this month was a tragic mistake, there's no reliable way of telling what proportion of Iraqis feel the same way.

In the five years that Baghdad was my home, from 2003 to 2007, my informal polling of Iraqis turned up little interest in the rights or wrongs of the invasion itself: there was a general, if grudging, consensus that it was the only way they were going to be rid of Saddam Hussein. Instead, counterfactual speculation has tended to focus on what happened after the dictator was removed. Would the insurgency have been snuffed out quickly if Washington had not disbanded the Iraqi military in the spring of 2003? What if political power had not been handed over, a year later, to groups of former exiles plainly out of touch with the lives of most Iraqis? Would the sectarian wars between Shi'ites and Sunnis have been avoided if there had been better security at the golden-domed Askariya shrine of Samarra, which was blown up by terrorists in February 2006?

But events of the past two years have encouraged Iraqis to ponder a tantalizing hypothetical: Could their dictator have been toppled by the Arab Spring?

Shortly after Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were removed from office by popular uprisings, I wrote a column on TIME.com arguing that Saddam would not have been forced out by peaceful protests. Iraqi youth activists, had such a species even existed, would have struggled to organize Tahrir Square--type mass demonstrations because they would have lacked the tools of their Tunisian and Egyptian peers: Saddam forbade satellite dishes, and economic sanctions--in place since his troops were kicked out of Kuwait in 1991--meant Iraqis could have neither personal computers nor cell phones. That meant no Facebook, no Twitter, not even text messages. And no al-Jazeera to spread the word from Baghdad to other cities.

Unlike Ben Ali and Mubarak, Saddam would have had no compunction ordering a general slaughter of revolutionaries; and unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian military brass, the Iraqi generals would swiftly have complied. They had already demonstrated this by killing tens of thousands of Shi'ites who rose against the dictator after his Kuwaiti misadventure.

Saddam's Iraq had less in common with Tunisia and Egypt than, ironically, with its sworn enemy to the east: Iran. There, the people-powered Green Revolution of 2009, which foreshadowed the Arab Spring, failed because Tehran was able to deploy, to deadly effect, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia, two armed groups that swear absolute loyalty to the regime. Their Iraqi equivalents, the Republican Guard and the Fedayeen Saddam, would have done the same for Saddam.

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