Egypt’s president came out strongly against hanging Saddam Hussein, saying in remarks published Thursday that it could make Iraq explode into more violence. But Iraq’s prime minister said the execution could take place by the end of the year.
The statement from President Hosni Mubarak of Eygpt broke an uneasy silence among Arab leaders over Sunday’s verdict by an Iraqi court, which convicted Saddam for the killings of some 150 Shiite Muslims after an assassination attempt against him in 1982.
Mubarak, a regional heavyweight and a top U.S. ally, appeared to speak for many in the region who are uneasy about seeing a former Arab president tried and sentenced — no matter how much they disliked Saddam’s regime. Analysts suggested Arab leaders are worried about the precedent an execution would set, and said Arab publics often identify with their leaders.
“Carrying out this verdict will explode violence like waterfalls in Iraq,” Mubarak was quoted as saying by state-run Egyptian newspapers. Hanging Saddam “will transform (Iraq) into blood pools and lead to a deepening of the sectarian and ethnic conflicts.”
Saddam has appealed, and is being separately tried for genocide in the deaths of about 180,000 Iraqi Kurds, mostly civilians, during a crackdown in the late 1980s.
Al-Maliki eyes execution by year's end
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirmed this week that both legal procedures would go on simultaneously and that Iraq’s three-man presidential council is pledged to allow Saddam’s hanging if the court rejects the appeal.
“The way I understand the law that we passed ... the execution of the sentence should happen within a month, one month,” al-Maliki told the British Broadcasting Corp. “I expect it to happen before the end of this year.”
Leaders in Saudi Arabia, like Egypt a regional powerhouse and U.S. ally, have all but stayed quiet about Saddam’s sentencing. The presidents of Libya and Syria have also avoided personal comment, though the Syria government said it opposes the sentence because it was delivered while U.S. troops were occupying Iraq.
“The court acted under the shadow of occupation,” Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said Sunday. “Therefore, the entire court is rejected because the occupation itself is rejected.”
Jordan took a neutral line. “As far as we’re concerned here in Jordan, this is an internal Iraqi affair,” government spokesman Nasser Judeh said this week.
While many in the Middle East rejoiced at Saddam’s ouster in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, spiraling violence in Iraq and the nearly unprecedented public trial against an Arab ruler have left many in the region dubious.
Arab solidarity at issue
“Saddam’s yearlong trial has shocked Arab leaders, including those who are against him, as well as the masses,” said Egyptian political analyst Diaa Rashwan.
“We’ve witnessed leaders being assassinated, but never being judged in the Arab world,” he said, adding that many Arabs also perceived the trial as taking place at the whim of the occupying U.S. army.
Other analysts alluded to a peer solidarity among Arab rulers.
Dalal el-Bizri, a Lebanese sociologist and political columnist, noted the “vast authority that Arab leaders have, their endless stay in power, their cohesion.”
Mubarak has been at the helm of the most populous Arab state since 1981. He has repeatedly warned against worsening violence in Iraq, and voiced concern about tensions spilling over to the rest of the region.
He and Saddam, who rose to power in 1979, rarely shared the same views during the decades they both spent in office, but in 1991 Mubarak offered the Iraqi leader a haven in exile to avert the Gulf War.
Saddam declined, and Egypt sided with the United States during the war. Mubarak also initially condemned the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, but blamed the offensive on what he described as Saddam’s failure to cooperate with the international community.
El-Bizri said Arab populations tend to strongly associate with their presidents. “Their presence is felt everywhere. It causes a sick relationship between the people and their leaders,” she said.
“No matter how despotic a leader is, he becomes a symbol of his country, or even synonymous with it,” she said, explaining why many Iraqis and other Arabs were uncomfortable seeing an agitated Saddam arguing in the Iraqi court.
Some hoped the former president’s lengthy prosecution and sentencing would pave the way for more accountability in the region.
“Saddam Hussein deserves to be punished for the crimes that he committed against all the Iraqi people,” Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druse community, told reporters. He said Syrian leaders also deserve punishment for allegedly killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.