By Adnan Hussein
8 February 2018
Some Iraqis amuse themselves by imitating the reply of an elderly woman who was approached on the street by a television reporter a few years ago. The reporter had asked her, “In your opinion, what is the difference between the current regime (under the control of Islamist parties) and the former regime (that of Saddam Hussein)?”
In a very distinctive and outspoken manner she answered: “May God punish the current regime which makes Saddam Hussein’s era look like a blessing.”
Aside from the humour in the style of her response, the answer echoes the general feeling of frustration, disappointment, and even desperation over life in Iraq since 2003. Iraqis had eagerly awaited the dawn of a new and glorious era as well as a new regime that would free them from the enormous hardships they had endured for decades under the Baathist regime of Saddam.
But the opposite actually happened. Many Iraqis feel that they wake up from one nightmare only to witness another and many feel betrayed by those who had promised to turn their dreams into reality.
In the marketplace and on public transport, cafes and social gatherings, Iraqis frequently compare the current situation with the times gone by, particularly on issues of security and public services. Very often they lament the loss of the earlier dispensation which they claim “provided security, public services and free ration”.
Their view is obviously simplistic and influenced by nostalgia. The two regimes are incomparable. Indeed human aspirations are boundless, and if a system fails to meet them to a reasonable extent it leads to a frustrating response like the joke of the elderly woman.
However, the ruling elite should take cognizance of the resentment and what people complain about. It might help them make amends, if not atone for the inadvertent ills resulting from their various policies. However, the reality is somewhat different.
For example, one of the most pervasive problems facing the current regime is endemic administrative inefficiency and corruption, which is affecting even those leaders who have vowed to fight it. Even the most powerful parties in power, Shiite and Sunni, are involved in huge corruption scams, which have been estimated to cost more than $300 billion so far.
Often the present political system starts highlighting the monstrosities committed by the Baathist regime of the past to present themselves in a better light, but this does not absolve the present government from making the required changes in the political system.
For example, when a series of demonstrations broke out in various Iraqi cities in early 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and in light of the deteriorating public services (electricity, health and education) and alarming rise in poverty, unemployment, administrative and financial corruption, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki claimed that the Baath party and al-Qaeda were behind these demonstrations. He used the pretext to impose a curfew in Baghdad during the days of demonstrations.
However, the demonstrations continued and proved that they did not involve Baath or Al Qaeda elements. The activists were all supporters of the new regime, most of them belonging to leftist parties, joined by thousands of ordinary people who complained about lack of security, rampant corruption, unemployment and poverty.
These days, the bogey of the Baath Party has resurfaced in the wake of parliamentary elections to be held in May. In order to understand the reason for resurrecting this fear again, it is important to note that the great predicament facing many influential parties (mainly Islamists).
Over the past two and a half years, there has been a groundswell of discontent in many cities, a movement that has stripped the facade of sanctity put on by various Islamist parties. This has led many of them to even give up their erstwhile Islamic names and have started using election slogans that speak of democracy and other more liberal ideals.
Two weeks ago, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis — a powerful figure in the current regime and deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilization Forces warned against the return of Baath parties to political life saying that “The Baath is now organizing its ranks and penetrating government departments. It is seeking to enter the election process with different lists and names.”
For ordinary Iraqis, Baath Party is no longer an issue of interest. It is hard to imagine that Iraqis will accept its return. The effects of its unmitigated tyranny, blatant repression and devastating wars are still fresh in collective memory, even as the party continues to refrain from apologizing for its mistakes.
The situation of political stalemate and confusion in Iraq continues as people wistfully compare present times with the past. This can only help the Baath parties as they might continue to haunt the imagination of Iraqis.
Adnan Hussein is the executive editor-in-chief of Al-Mada newspaper and head of the National Union of Iraqi journalists. Previously, he has held the position of Managing Editor in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.