And Now, the Fight for His Memory

The Arab discourse is dealing with issues like whether the reaction to Saddam's death should be sadness or happiness.

"Revive the memory of the moment when the arch-slaughterer was executed, so that this memory will overshadow the experience of the collective death of the Iraqi people." This is the major concern of Safinaz Kazem, a theater critic for Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar. She fears that a different Saddam Hussein will win in the memory war - a new one, not the same slaughterer, but someone who treated the Iraqi people well.

Therefore, Kazem is angry at the Egyptian journalists union, which broadcast on Al Jazeera a condemnation of Saddam's execution. "When did we convene, Mr. Union Chairman, in order to phrase this announcement and vote on it?" Kazem wrote in response to the condemnation, in the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, which is published in London. "How dare you forge the will of Egyptian journalists, of whom I am one, and force on us your Nasserite leanings, which support the crimes of Saddam? How and where were your accusations on the day when Iraq was massacred, hanged and executed by the hundreds and thousands every minute for a quarter of a century?"

Kazem thinks the television stations should broadcast the old movies about Saddam's betrayal of his friends in 1979, those that document the way in which he executed them without a trial, which show how humiliated the Iraqi people were, the movies that describe the recreation of him and his families in his palaces and farms, and of course, his handshakes with Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of his American friends. That is the memory that Kazem wants to retain.

Kazem is an unusual figure among Egyptian intellectuals. Her "big mouth" and sharp tongue have given her a reputation throughout the Middle East. But Kazem's abhorrence of Saddam does not make her pro-American. On the contrary: "It's the wisdom of God that made it so that Saddam was executed with the blessing of the Americans. Thus does Allah destroy the vile at the hands of the vile."

Now Kazem is bringing the dilemma of Saddam's memory before the Arab intelligentsia, and here there are already quite a few players. Blogger Layla Anwar wrote a letter to Saddam Hussein after his execution on her English-language blog, called "An Arab Woman Blues - reflections in a sealed bottle." She wrote:

"I will address you as Saddam Hussein, sir.

"Even though I still consider you to be the legitimate President of Iraq, allow me not to use any formalities here. Let us forget titles, ranks and the rest. When it comes to death , all protocols fall...What remains though is the legacy left behind. A legacy made of words and acts. When I compare for instance your legacy to that of George Bush the American, I see that: You have remained true to your word until your last breath.

"I don't care what they say about you. The misuses and abuses of power, the Dujails, the Anfals and the rest of the well-knitted pieces of grossly exaggerated melodramas. I know one truth sir, you stayed in Iraq and did not run away like the rest. You did not seek asylum in the U.S., Egypt or Jordan like others. You did not pack your bags nor your millions. You stayed and that is what matters to me."

"Anwar is a Saddam denier," an Egyptian friend who monitors blogs reacting to Saddam's execution wrote to me. "She's no better than all the Holocaust deniers. People like her poison the public. The memory must be shaped quickly, so that Saddam will not be remembered on the same level as Saladin or Gamal Abdel Nasser."

The Arab discourse, which is already creating the memory of Saddam, is dealing with issues like whether the reaction to his death should be sadness or happiness and whether to condemn the role of the United States in Saddam's execution or praise the bravery shown by the Iraqi government when the execution took place.

But before the memory can be shaped, there are those who, even after Saddam's execution, are worried about expressing either overt joy or deep sadness. A reporter for Damascus newspaper Al Hayat, Ibrahim Hamidi, described this week the reactions of Iraqi refugees in Syria. In one of the streets in the town of Jurmana, near Damascus, he wrote, one of the Iraqi refugees distributed bread for free, a mourning custom for the death of a brave martyr.

The mourner in question, who refused to give his name, did condemn the wars Saddam fought against Iran and Kuwait, into which he "dragged" the country, but added that "those who control Iraq today are worse than Saddam. Saddam was executed because he killed 148 people, but who judges those who kill 300 people every day in Iraq?"

A quick look at the Iraqi press on the day of Saddam's execution turns up a collection of short articles from across the country. Articles in local papers publish the names of all the people killed. Unlike the national television networks of the Arab press outside of Iraq, which give the overall number of dead in a given day or a given attack, the local press provides the names of the dead and those of the mourners, along with funeral dates and photos of the dead people and their families.

An Iraqi Web site that showed the entire video of Saddam's execution also published a few other pictures the same day, no less gripping ones, of the going-away party of the American soldiers who served in Kirkuk. They know how to celebrate, it turns out. The happy soldiers are seated at tables laden with good things, while young Iraqi girls embrace them and dance with them. Next to the series of pictures, a writer explains that the region in question is governed by the Kurds, "that is, by the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani," the friend of "the American army of pimps."

A few days later, on Tuesday, the popular Web site Elaph published a large picture showing Talabani in a friendly embrace with Saddam Hussein, who is wearing a uniform in the photo. It's an old picture, from the days when Talabani still thought it was possible to get along with Saddam. But when it is shown now, it creates a new memory, one that wants to show the president of the new Iraq, the "friend of the Americans," with the bitter enemy.

These pictures are also part of the memory, just like the video clip published on the same site that shows Iraqi soldiers dancing in the streets - and the accompanying caption explaining that the dancing was drug-induced.

On the historic day of Saddam's execution, a curfew was placed on Baghdad and on some sections of large Iraqi cities, and the Iraqi national security adviser told the citizens of Iraq that from then on, a new security regime would be imposed that was meant to put a halt to the threats and the forced expulsion of citizens by gang members. The new idea is giving more authority to junior officers and even to regular soldiers to open fire in any instance of violence or if they see civilians carrying weapons without permission.

The criminals' light hands on the trigger will now encounter the security forces' light hands on the trigger. That is precisely what civilians fear, having seen in the last few months that the security forces mow them down too, that gang members serve in the police force, that ethnic violence has broken out among the Iraqi brigades. And now Iraqi soldiers have almost blanket permission to shoot civilians.

For the approximately 75 families whose sons or relatives were killed on the day of Saddam's execution, whether by car bombs or gunfire, the deaths will be their sole memory of the historic event. And the news provided by the national security adviser won't make any difference.

For the Americans, too, it's a historic week: The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq has hit the 3,000 mark. Perhaps there is hope in the new call by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to officers who served in Saddam's army, in which he asked them to go to the volunteer centers to rejoin the army. The officers involved are those up to the rank of major.

The major purging that the Americans forced on the armed forces immediately after occupying Iraq has turned out to be one of the greatest mistakes in running the post-war campaign. Now Saddam has been hanged and the new Iraqi security forces are having difficulty functioning. Perhaps the military experience of Saddam's officers will help.