Authoritarian Nostalgia Among Iraqi Youth: Roots and Repercussions
When I conducted fieldwork in Iraq in January, one of my research assistants was a 20-year old native of the city of Kerbala. He routinely accompanied me to meetings with prominent members of Hizb Al-Da’wa, Iraq’s current ruling party and a key force in the anti-Ba’athist opposition movement during Saddam Hussein’s rule. After spending nearly two hours listening to one party member discuss the repression he faced during Saddam’s Ba’athist era, my research assistant confided in me that he was feeling “lost.” He was unsure, he explained, whether Saddam was really as bad as the interviewees had described. In his view, Iraq’s current leaders only paid lip service to democracy and were so embroiled in corruption that they were, in fact, much worse than the notorious Ba’athist dictator.
Many Arab Iraqi youth, who constitute Iraq’s largest age group, share his sentiments. They are expressing feelings of nostalgia for a time that they did not live through but that they feel symbolized Iraqi national unity and strength. Strongman nostalgia is not unique to Iraq and has been observed in both transitioning and consolidated democracies. Frequently, this romanticization of the past is fueled by a disenchantment with the present. In Iraq’s case, it can be attributed to the inefficient leadership that my research assistant and many other Iraqi youth described, as well as to the ISIL invasion and the Kurdish referendum, both of which raised concerns about the strength of the central government in Baghdad. The apparent longing for the Ba’athist era is further compounded by the slow pace of Iraqi democratization, which can seem prohibitively costly to those who don’t remember the authoritarian past.
Scholars and policymakers should be concerned with how Iraq’s leadership vacuum and the accompanying authoritarian nostalgia will manifest itself in the future, particularly as Iraq’s youth reach the age of voting and political activism. How will these young Iraqis vote, and how will their presence and electoral strength motivate broader changes in party ideology? And if they choose not to vote, as they recently did, how susceptible is Iraq to capture by a strongman? The Iraqi political elite’s decision to ignore both the existence and the causes of authoritarian nostalgia could have serious political repercussions, ranging from anti-government protests to democratic backslide.
Disillusion with Democracy
A common refrain these days is that Iraq “needs a strong leader like Saddam.” During my time in the country, I heard these sentiments expressed by teenagers and twenty-somethings who were, at most, elementary school students during the Ba’athist era. These observations, though anecdotal, are corroborated by survey projects. Both the Arab Barometer and the Shi’a pilgrims survey—which was conducted by MIT’s Fotini Christia, Elizabeth Dekeyser and Dean Knox and encompassed a broader sample of Shi’a Iraqis –have similarly documented a feeling among young Iraqis that the country isn’t meant to be democratically governed. The Arab Barometer finds that “…most Iraqis are not perfectly convinced of the suitability of democracy for their country.” Relatedly, my observations and those in the Shi’a pilgrims survey indicate that even the Shi’a – a group Saddam had particularly targeted and who arguably are the “winners” of the post-2003 order – are expressing these sentiments of democratic dissatisfaction and authoritarian nostalgia.
Iraqi youth have created two separate false dichotomies. First, they seem to think that if their present-day political leaders are “bad,” then it must mean Saddam was “good” or vice-versa. Second, they believe there is a trade-off between stability and democracy and that Iraqis are uniquely unsuited to the latter. These beliefs reflect a lack of engagement in and understanding of democracy.
This failure can be attributed to a host of factors that have contributed to incomplete state-building in Iraq, ranging from the monopolization of politics by certain elites as well as occupation-era and Ba’athist-era relics. Iraq’s political elite have personalized party politics and institutionalized graft and clientelism. They have maintained the occupation-era model of informal sectarian division as well as the practice of not demarcating the realm of religious authority from the realm of political authority. Iraq has also inherited problems from the Ba’athist era, including the declining educational system and popular beliefs in entitlement to public-sector employment. To make matters worse, the slow pace of the democratization process itself has only been made more visible and jarring to citizens by the widespread use of social media, which allows Iraqis to easily compare their country’s progress to others in the region and beyond.
Iraqi youth – like all Iraqis – have legitimate economic grievances and concerns about the government’s failure to provide adequate public services and employment. Added to this is the fact that Iraq is experiencing one of the largest spikes in youth population in the Middle East, a factor that has commonly been associated with political instability. In 2015, protests erupted throughout southern Iraq and in Baghdad, calling for an end to government corruption and the establishment of a civil, non-sectarian state. Although protests continued to re-emerge every summer, the protest movement was vigorously re-ignited this past month in the port city of Basra. It has since spread to other cities in the Shi’a south, including the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, which house some of the most important shrines and seminaries to Shi’ism. Protestors have attacked and burned Islamist party headquarters throughout the south including that of Hizb Al-Da’wa, the anti-Ba’athist ruling party. The participation of people from the holy cities signals that even the Shi’a stronghold is fed up with the political elite’s poor performance. As renowned Iraqi sociologist Faleh Jabar emphasized, the 2015 protest movement was particularly striking because it consisted of Shi’a protests against the Shi’a political establishment.
Prior to the most recent protests, many Iraqis actively boycotted the May 2018 election, which led to the lowest voter turnout the country has seen yet. The boycotters were skeptical about the dramatic shift in rhetoric amongst political elites who were suddenly paying lip service to the idea of a civil state. Now, political elites across the secular-Islamist spectrum are expressing their support for the protesters in an opportunistic attempt to derive legitimacy from a movement that arose from their own failures. Some scholars argue that these shifts in rhetoric and in campaign platforms signal a transition from identity to issue-based politics. While the Iraqi electorate may be rejecting sectarianism and other forms of identity politics, the elites have merely disguised identity politics within issue frameworks. These political parties are largely constructed along ethno-sectarian lines and have thus far operated through in-group clientelism, which makes their supposed pivot to issue politics superficial and transient. This rhetoric also failed to convince the boycotters to vote, indicating that much of the Iraqi public is aware that it is insincere. In this climate, it is not so surprising that those who did not live through authoritarianism are seeing it as a possible way out.
The Roots of Authoritarian Nostalgia
I spent two months in south-central Iraq late last year and early this year, travelling between the cities of Kerbala, Al-Hillah, Najaf, and Baghdad. As such, my observations are naturally limited to a subset of young Arab (mostly Shi’a) Iraqis. I interacted with many youth who said they were dissatisfied with their lack of economic prospects and had little faith in political leaders. Although they felt a sense of Iraqi nationalism, this didn’t seem to translate into a sense of citizenship and civic duty. When I asked one young man if he was excited to vote for the first time (a very American question, I will admit), he told me he had no interest in politics because it was always the “same faces” running for office. His complaint reflects the sentiments of the broader boycott movement, whose slogan of al-mujarab la yujarab (“those who have been tried should not be tried again”) caused the political elite much anxiety.
Instead, reports of the country under the Ba’athists capture young Iraqis’ imagination. Many seem impressed that Iraq, in contrast to its difficulty fending off ISIL, once had the largest army in the Arab world that sustained a nearly decade-long war with Iran. The ideas of strict policing, efficient bureaucracies, and punishment for offenses are all appealing to them. They highlight Saddam’s role as a strong leader whose excesses they would be willing to tolerate for the sake of stability and of regaining their reputation as a regional power.
Beyond their aspirations to regional power, Iraqi youth are equally, if not more, interested in improving their economic prospects. Popular narratives of public employment opportunities, better educational standards and the provision of public services under Saddam neglect to mention that salaries were meager and public service provision prioritized Baghdad at the expense of other provinces. Unlike previous generations who had to contend with the immense brutality of Saddam’s regime, youth can afford to imagine the past in much rosier terms. In the words of a young man from Kerbala, “What did Saddam actually ever do to us?” Born in 2000, his only memories are of post-Ba’athist Iraq. Like his peers who are reeling from the aftershocks of the Arab Spring across the Middle East, he is willing to sacrifice freedom for stability and a job.
A Global Phenomenon
Iraq is not the only country to experience strongman nostalgia, which has both historical and contemporary parallels. The former Yugoslavian countries have long contended with “Yugo-nostalgia” and a romanticization of Josip Broz Tito among older and younger generations alike. In the Central African Republic, the crimes of Jean-Bedel Bokassa – who, with the moniker “Butcher of Bangui,” rivals Saddam’s reputation for brutality – have faded under the stress of violence and instability. In Argentina, both far-left and far-right activists rehabilitated Juan Peron’s image into that of an efficient strongman after his exile. More recently, citizens of nearby Brazil have expressed a nostalgia for military rule, despite the well-documented brutality of their generals. The public seems to welcome the military’s increased involvement in internal security: a recent poll shows that support for a temporary revival of military control has been increasing , and especially among youth. In the country’s upcoming elections, Brazilians will have the option to vote for Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer and apologist for the military dictatorship.
The roots of authoritarian nostalgia, unsurprisingly, lie with dissatisfaction with the instability of the present. In Brazil, some citizens claim there was a sense of stability, order and public morality under the military dictatorships. Even in South Korea – the poster-child of modernization theory – some citizens look fondly at President Park Chung-hee’s era as that of economic progress and national unity. It is not that these people are unaware of their countries’ authoritarian pasts; instead, they have diluted authoritarianism into a set of manageable rules. As one Iraqi put it: “At least with Saddam, the red lines were clear.”
In a working paper on democratic transitions in sub-Saharan Africa, David Ifkovits demonstrates that it is expressly because they didn’t live under authoritarianism that youth in democratizing states may claim to support it. More specifically, because they have not experienced authoritarianism, they are likely to have both higher expectations of democracy and less information about the costs of authoritarianism. By contrast, generations who lived their formative years under authoritarian rule are more forgiving towards democracies, despite their flaws.
This disenchantment with democracy can be observed even in consolidated democracies. Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have used the World Values Survey to document a rise in feelings of cynicism towards democracy in the United States and in Western Europe. They show that this cynicism is accompanied by political apathy and an increase in toleration of authoritarianism, particularly amongst younger people.
Repercussions for Iraqi Politics
In the words of a Baghdadi millennial: “You can either have freedom but no safety or you can have safety but no freedom.” Iraqis today perceive a trade-off between stability and democracy. The MIT Shi’a pilgrims survey found that over half of the respondents believed that “democratic regimes are not effective at maintaining order and stability.”
But what Iraqis view as a trade-off may actually be, in the long-term political trajectory of a country, an expression of the growing pains of modernization. In Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington warned that the path to political stability is paved with instability. This instability is engendered by increasingly active societal actors – like unemployed youth – who are left unaccommodated by political institutions. In Iraq’s case, the imposition of democracy by the United States, rather than its organic cultivation has led to a jarring mismatch between societal actors and political institutions. The result has been the proliferation of non-state actors (such as the religious establishment and tribes) that assume state responsibilities unevenly, perpetuating a cycle of dissatisfaction and instability.
If youth continue to feel ignored by existing institutions, they may channel their dissatisfaction into civil society activism or, on another extreme, they may resort to outright revolution. This warning has been echoed by scholarship in political science that has shown a link between youth “bulges” and political instability. To this already volatile cocktail of youth dissatisfaction, a new and dangerous ingredient has been added: a nostalgia for Saddam’s era. It is worth asking, then, how easy could it become for an opportunistic potential strongman to capture youth imagination and, by simple math, the Iraqi state?
Alarmingly, Iraq’s political elites do not appear inclined to recognize the resurgence of Ba’athist nostalgia, which prevents them from understanding its causes and the depth of public grievances. When I interviewed elites from Hizb Al-Da’wa on the subject, their response was to either elaborate on Ba’athist oppression or to claim that Ba’athist infiltrators from outside the country were responsible for fomenting discontent. Some political elites have even claimed that this last wave of protests was instigated by former Ba’athists. In reality, fragments of the Ba’ath party have been active in destabilizing the state, but they aren’t uniquely responsible for the rising authoritarian nostalgia. Their efforts have been inadvertently aided by the central government.
Iraq’s political elites are failing to understand a disturbing reality: not that Iraqis do not recognize that Saddam was a monster, but that many of them are beginning to think he is a monster they might be willing to tolerate.
Marsin Alshamary is a PhD candidate in Political Science at MIT. Her research focuses on the role of religious leaders in anti-government protest, looking particularly at the history of the Iraqi Hawza’s involvement in politics. She presented a version of this article at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ Symposium on Iraqi Youth. Twitter: https://twitter.com/MarsinRA
Image: Wikimedia Commons