Pictured: Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on October 25, 2019. (Image source: Xequals/Wikimedia Commons)
Although it is too early to speculate about the outcome for the Iraqi uprising, one fact is clear: What we witness is the result of a multiple misunderstandings, by participants in the current drama and those who watch from the sidelines.
There are, first, those who see Iraq as a secular version of the “original sin”. To them, toppling Saddam Hussein was the starting point of a journey that could only lead to hell.
They claim since force cannot impose democracy, it was wrong for the US to invade Iraq and dislodge Saddam Hussein. They ignore that though force cannot impose democracy, impediments to democracy can, and have been, removed by force.
Then there are those who believe that though Saddam is gone, Saddamism remains a dominant feature in Iraqi life. The talk in Baghdad cafes these days is of the danger of the emergence of a new Saddam.
Those who hold that view ignore that a majority of Iraqis have moved beyond the Saddam era and are no longer haunted by the nightmare it represented. Two-thirds of today’s Iraqis were not even born in 1963 when the Baathists seized power. Nearly half were children in 2003 when Saddam ended in a hole in Tikrit.
Talking to Baghdad officials and pundits, one is surprised to hear the usual conspiracy theories according to which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been motivated to risk their lives — with more than 300 killed in the past four weeks — to avenge a ruthless dictator consigned to oblivion.
Those officials who try to avoid conspiracy theories believe that the uprising is prompted by lack of public services, poor economic performance and widespread corruption. Although those factors do count, there is little doubt that the revolt has other, possibly deeper, roots. Today Iraq has better public services than a decade ago, when even Baghdad and Basra had to cope with blackouts and shortages of water. The Iraqi economy is performing better, more robustly than that of Iran. The average Iraqi is materially better off than five years ago.
Therefore, the pseudo-Marxian interpretation based on class struggle theories and economic factors may well be misleading.
The ruling elite consists mostly of former exiles, people who had spent decades outside Iraq and who still keep families in Iran, Europe, the Arab countries or the United States. Many have dual nationality, although some have given up their foreign passports. This does not mean that they love Iraq less than anyone else. However, the fact remains that, having a different trajectory, they do not quite appreciate what the mass of Iraqis, especially the younger generation, feel about Iraq and its destiny.
The masses of Iraqis today is not only younger than their ruling elite but, in some cases, also better educated and more technologically savvy. The generation of smartphone and tablet has also had access to a wider choice of television, radio and printed press than Iraqis could have even dreamt of with Saddam’s iron control over media.
Iraqi officials wonder how so many Iraqis, including many statistically-classed illiterates, manage to send and receive text messages on their smartphones. Those officials do not realize that even the poorest peasant is now able to pick up the rudiments of the alphabet and a vocabulary of a few hundred words to express his anger and passions and to coordinate action with those who share his concerns.
The senior Finance Ministry official in Baghdad who jokes about “just any tribesman” now having an opinion “about everything under the sun”, does not realize that the joke is on him.
There is also misunderstanding from the outside.
In Tehran, where mullahs are shaken by the intensity of the uprising, the misunderstanding is woven around the claim that this is mainly the work of Iraq’s Sunni minority, seeking revenge against the Shiite majority that now dominates the government.
The Tehran daily Kayhan, reputed to reflect the views of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, echoed that misunderstanding in an editorial last Monday. It claimed that only 15 percent of participants in the uprising were Shiites. Even then, it claimed that the majority of those Shiites were followers of the self-styled Grand Ayatollah Mahmud Hassani al-Sakhri, the Mawlawi and Yamani factions, and the Shirazi movement now based in London.
The paper gives a list of mainly Sunni-inhabited districts of Baghdad as principal sources of the crowds that shook the capital. The report reads like an account given by agents of the intelligence section of Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s Quds Force who find it hard to explain how his claimed “fatah al-fotuh” (victory of victories) in Iraq risks turning into the Khomeinist movement’s biggest defeat so far.
It is hard for Iran’s leaders, who claim to be spearheading a universal Shiite revival destined to conquer the world and turn the White House in Washington into a Husaynieh, to admit that their consulates and cultural offices are set on fire and their flags burned by fellow Shiites.
The next misunderstanding comes from US officials, who believe the uprising is the fruit of a power struggle within the ruling elite and that things could be brought under control with a redistribution of cards through fresh general elections.
What these officials ignore is that the uprising is against all segments of the ruling elite and their foreign sponsors, notably Iran. To a lesser extent, the average Iraqi is also resentful of the continued American presence in Iraq, though it is now at the lowest in 15 years. A rejection of foreign intervention is also against Turkey that, without making the song and dance that Soleimani makes about his “victories”, has secured 11 military bases on Iraqi soil.
These days, Baghdad is a favored destination for all sorts of experts, including some, often from the United States, who still see Iraq as patchwork of tribes that could be browbeaten or bought.
In his heyday as US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus had a price list for Iraqi tribes. However, those days are gone and the new generation of Iraqis’ attachment to tribal origins is more sentimental than real.
Tehran is wrong in toying with the idea of ending the uprising with a bloodbath as in Syria. Washington is wrong to think that yet another election with the same rules and same cast of characters would do the trick. The Najaf mullahs are wrong to believe that Iraqis will obey their fatwas as they did a generation ago. Tribal chiefs are mistaken in thinking the big “Sheikh” could secure a big cheque in exchange for calming down his kith-and-kin.
These multiple misunderstandings may delay Iraq’s entry into a new phase in its modern history, hopefully as a people-based nation-state. But, the fact remains that old tricks will not push that genie back into the bottle.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.