In today's Iraq, an authoritarian leader is tempting
A marine removes a poster of Saddam Hussein, as the US military advances through Southern Iraq. March, 2003. Photograph: (Getty)
“Interesting question, and you might be surprised about the answer that you will receive here. I had no sympathy for Saddam Hussein, but I can’t really say I am doing good now that he is gone. At least, when he was there, there was only one Saddam. Now every city has its own Saddam who wants to rule,” Belan Shnanie tells me during a flight.
He worked in the UK for many years for a major oil company, and then decided to return to his hometown Erbil, capital city of Iraq’s Kurdistan, to start his own business. “Things are pretty slow now,” he says.
“Are we speaking about the same Saddam who persecuted all opponents on the sole base of their political and ethnical belonging for years, using torture, murder and random imprisonment?” I ask.
“Yes, we are. Look, I am Kurd and my father died because of Saddam, but I would not be honest if I say that things are better now. We have the same problems, the same inter-ethnic tensions, but less money and no one truly entitled to rule.”
This was just the first expression of an idea that I found, not without a certain surprise, to be extremely common in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region known for its historical struggle for independence from the Iraqi state.
Kurds were heavily persecuted by Saddam’s paramilitary forces during his regime, and many can't forget the massacre of Halabja in 1988, when chemical weapons killed more than 4,000 people. Nevertheless, an uncertain future and an unstable present risk to overcome historical memory.
One casual answer is never representative, so I decided to ask this very question to every local citizen I met. “Do you think Saddam Hussain was a better option than the present situation?”
“Yes, of course,” says Mahmud while driving his taxi. “I am a school teacher. Now you tell me in which country a school teacher drives a taxi? I have to drive this car because the government did not pay my salary as a teacher for the last four months, and I have a family to feed. I eat only at dinner to save money for them.” Mahmud’s situation is not unique; he took part in a protest held on September 26 across Iraqi Kurdistan, where thousands of teachers and government employees took to the streets to claim their unpaid salaries.
“Mahmud you look around fifty years old. You lived during Saddam Hussain as a Kurd, as a repressed minority, and still you think he was better?”
“Yes, at least he paid my salary.”
As a journalist, I must specify that any number of street interactions still amounts to anecdotal evidence, and so cannot claim to represent the people's consensus. Entire sections of the Iraqi population actively fight for a democratic state and have no intention of going back to the previous form of government. The current president, Masoud Barzani, has been regularly voted and elected. Kurds are actively fighting the Islamic State, and its sectarian, violent ideals in Syria’s Rojava and in all the countries where they have a foothold.
I must say though, again as a journalist, that among the great majority of the people I have been speaking to along the streets of Erbil, the most common answer has been: “Yes, Saddam was a dictator and did bad things, but at least the economy was good and we did not have to worry about our salary.”
The surprising part is that I received such an answer both by Arabs and Kurds.
I don’t really care about democracy and freedom, I care about food for my children and a salary in my bank.
It reminds of the many neo-fascists groups active in Europe, and the increasing appeal they have on a society suffering the long-term effects from the economic crisis.
A society who does not trust its political class expresses frustrations on the many Facebook pages, singing the praises of the repressive and fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for being an honest man who knew how to rule a country.
“You have to understand that for a big part of the young Iraqi generations who have not lived under Saddam, memory does not play a role,” says a young educated man in his twenties who asked to remain anonymous. “We only know that now we have problems and we think that before there were no problems. This is true for many young Arabs, like me, who perceive Saddam’s past as a period of grandeur, and his toppling only as another move made by the West to destabilise the area. Many of us think that war is not the problem, but politics is, and the politicians are all corrupt.”
This is another leitmotif among the answers: politicians are all corrupt, a belief which generates a significant mistrust toward the political class.
It is frightening where the lack of stability and secure livelihoods can lead. This nostalgia of an authoritarian, repressive and criminal regime is mainly connected to that, to the idealisation of a past which seems much better than a turbulent present. A human and totally understandable necessity of a salary, a house, food on the table directly affects people's political perception. In harsh situations - be it war, natural catastrophes or monetary crisis - liberty, freedom of thought, religion and press become secondary options which many are ready to drop in favour of economic stability.
This paves the way to whatever political group becomes able to provide an acceptable livelihood, to guarantee a salary and some food on your table. This is one of the aspects that make the Islamic State an acceptable form of government for entire sections of a society, a dynamic which IS knows well and uses it in its favour.
Frustration, economic difficulties, mistrust towards elected politicians and corruption have been constant elements used to achieve power by almost all the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
All together, they generate dangerous and reactionary attitudes which glorify the idea of a “perfect past” that in reality never existed, thus fuelling authoritarian temptations. An attitude clearly summed up by a banal and, for this democratic European writer, scary sentence, which Mahmud told me before shaking my hand outside the taxi.
“I don’t really care about democracy and freedom, I care about food for my children and a salary in my bank.”