Last week, a Shia member of parliament caused uproar when he praised former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and commended his notorious ruling Baath Party’s social policies.
Faiq Al-Sheikh Ali, who spent years in exile after joining the Shia uprising against Saddam in 1991, also blasted Saddam’s successors as “low persons” who were “collected by the US from the gutters to make them into Iraq’s rulers.”
A few days later, posts appearing on the Facebook page of the wife of an Iraqi diplomat at the Cairo-based Arab League sparked outrage for praising Saddam as a “hero” and a “martyr”.
Sixteen years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, nostalgia for his Baath Party era seems to be taking off in Iraq, and many Iraqis are now speaking of a longing for the tyrant’s rule.
Media reports show that resentment towards the post-Saddam political elite is at an all-time high in Iraq, and most Iraqis think that the US-driven regime change in the country has given them little of what they had hoped for in post-Saddam Iraq.
Most Iraqis fear an uncertain future as their country continues to fall short of being a working nation-state. The country’s entrenched political deadlock poses a significant source of political and security risk domestically and in the region.
In a nationwide opinion poll conducted before Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May last year, most respondents said they had little trust in the government and politicians.
Nearly 57 per cent of Iraqi voters boycotted the elections, which were marred by widespread allegations of irregularity and fraud. They produced a hung parliament dominated by coalitions and alliances.
Almost a year after the elections, the rival factions in the parliament have not been able to agree on four cabinet ministers, including the two key portfolios of defence and the interior.
However, today’s longing for the Saddam era is not new. It started soon after it had become clear that Iraq’s post-Saddam’s rulers had failed to deliver on their promises and the people’s expectations.
In an interview with the BBC in 2016, the man who took a sledgehammer to bring down a statue of Saddam in Baghdad when US troops stormed the Iraqi capital on 9 April 2003 said he wanted to see Saddam back.
Kadhim Sharif Al-Jabouri, seen tearing down Saddam’s statue in footage from the time, has become a national symbol of toppling the dictator and was himself once imprisoned by Saddam. Yet, he spoke to the BBC in 2016 of his longing for the relative peace of the years before the US-led invasion.
“When I go by where that statue used to be, I feel pain and shame. I ask myself, why did I topple it,” Al-Jabouri asked. “I’d like to put it back up and to rebuild it. But I’m afraid I’d be killed if I did,” he added.
Iraq’s current regime has significant flaws, the main one being that it is based on a quota system that distributes power and wealth among the country’s ethnic and religious communities.
Ethno-sectarian struggle, political stagnation, violence, economic mismanagement and insidious and chronic corruption have brought the country to near ruin in recent years.
All these setbacks raise the question of why Iraq’s post-Saddam democracy, which triumphalist US policy-makers trumpeted after 2003, has plummeted into such frightening stagnation and led Iraqis to long for Saddam.
The phenomenon of nostalgia for the Saddam period has become popular even though many Iraqis still believe their country was ruled by a dictator renowned for his brutal repression.
People one encounters in Iraq speak warmly of the days of the former dictator. They discuss the close relationships they had with their neighbours and the depth and commitment of the sense of community that existed at the time.
They recall how crime, especially violent crime, was very low by all accounts and how the state was less corrupt than it is now when the opposite is true.
Moreover, they recall how Iraq at its height was a regional superpower whose neighbours could not venture to interfere in its internal affairs.
The rise of Saddam nostalgia and the fear that it could become fashionable has prompted many Iraqi politicians to demand action to stop the phenomenon.
Several Shia groups have demanded a parliamentary inquiry into Ali’s remarks and the dismissal of the Iraqi diplomat at the Arab League whose wife made the pro-Saddam postings.
The Iraqi constitution enacted after the collapse of the Saddam regime in 2003 effectively banned the former ruling Baath Party. It also prohibits what it calls “glorifying” the party and its ideology.
A de-Baathification law passed later purged hundreds of thousands of former members of Saddam’s party from the Iraqi security services and government jobs and stopped any preferential treatment in the new Iraq.
But while the government’s present dysfunction could be a direct cause of the proliferation of nostalgia for Saddam in Iraq, there also seem to be other deep-rooted reasons for the trend.
Nationalist nostalgia, as the trend is known worldwide, is connected to romantic feelings of travelling back to the past and avoiding the specificity of today and the present reality and order.
In Iraq’s case, the desire to go back to Saddam’s era does not seem necessarily to be a longing for the dictator himself, but rather for a time when Iraq was a promising country and the embodiment of the progress made by the Middle Eastern nations.
The growing nostalgia is thus more about the unfulfilled promises that were made by all Iraq’s rulers who have failed to build the strong state and modern nation that Iraqis need in order to move forward.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, the country, once a mighty symbol of humanity’s glorious past, has become the embodiment of terrible decline.
The reason that made the Shia MP praise the Saddam regime’s social programmes was the acute housing crisis that has hit millions of families in present-day Iraq amid stifling corruption and government inexperience in managing housing projects.
Most of Iraq’s cities are today either in ruins or suffer from urban decay caused by uncontrolled housing problems and flawed policies.
Since 2003, Baghdad’s population, for example, has nearly doubled to some eight million people, largely due to internal displacement and migration from Shia towns and rural areas in the south of the country, in phenomena shared by other major cities.
The huge number of mostly poor Shias seeking jobs and opportunities in the capital has enormously influenced the city’s politics and cultural and economic infrastructure.
After years of negligence, the destruction of infrastructure that has included roads, bridges, buildings, industrial units, communication centres, farms and irrigation plants has severely set back the country’s limited reconstruction efforts, with serious consequences for the population.
During Saddam’s rule, even as the country was held back by despotism and convulsed by wars, the reorganisation and renewal of Iraq, including by building huge buildings, infrastructure and monuments, was carried out, part of Saddam’s vision of a grandiose pan-Arab country.
In the eyes of many Iraqis, therefore, it was the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 and the rise of the inefficient and corrupt political elite who followed that signalled the beginning of the current period of decline for Iraq.
Nostalgia for Saddam and his Baath Party, therefore, is not a political battle in a theatre of absurd, but rather it is about the imperfections of the present reality that most Iraqis feel.
Humiliation at the hands of foreign powers such as Iran, Turkey, the United States and others is certainly fuelling the nostalgia and making Iraqis turn to the past and patriotism to restore their wounded national pride.
The country’s ruling Shia factions have many reasons to worry about the rising phenomenon, and they will have to rely on the old narrative of Saddam’s brutality to put it down.
Nevertheless, the national debate that has been triggered by the growing longing for the former dictator’s era has showed that Iraq’s woes are still very present in the dysfunctional post-Saddam system.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraqis feel nostalgia for Saddam’s era