Iraq: Memes and Protests Alone Do Not Make a Revolution

The demonstrators in Baghdad and in much of southern Iraq speak of their movement, now in its second month, as the harbinger of a “revolution.” Theirs is intended to be a radical revolution, aimed at removing – whether by constitutional means or not – the ruling political class that has been in power since 2003. However, as with the Khmer Rouge and their “Year Zero” in 1975 or “Year One” of the French republic in 1792, this type of revolution is rarely backed by clear thinking or political vision. Rather, it brings only uncertainty and a strong probability of copious bloodshed.

This is what we are now seeing in Iraq.

“We want a homeland” is the primary slogan of the demonstrators, as well as their revolution’s go-to hashtag. So far, they have agreed that this homeland shall be free of corrupt political parties unduly influenced by Iran’s point man in Iraq, General Qasim Soleimani. The demonstrators are vigorously turning out memes – units of cultural value, amplified by social media – around these twin themes of rejection and sovereignty.

Their revolution is young, brave, egalitarian and altruistic; it is also calculatedly photo-, tele- and “stream”-genic, with images of teenagers standing up to mindless repression. There have been hundreds of fatalities and thousands of injuries to date. The humble tuk-tuk drivers in their motorized rickshaws have been elevated to hero status for braving live ammunition and sniper fire to ferry the fallen to medical care. No one goes hungry at the barricades, thanks to generous donations of food, fuel, medicine and protective gear.

Such is the heartwarming carnival vibe that Iraqi families have taken to posing for selfies on the safe, outer edges of the protests.

It all looks like a revolution. It may even feel like one for those in the middle of it. But, alas, it is not a revolution and nor is it likely to become one. This new Iraqi “nationalism” – one that is post-sectarian and stridently independent – is likely to prove ephemeral. That is the nature of feel-good moments. They raise the spirits but without a firm intellectual base, they hardly propel history forward.

One could argue that discussing a nation’s future requires a tabula rasa or Year Zero approach, and that we shouldn’t expect youthful passion to have a new order all worked out before tearing down the old one. But the “new” Iraq is already in its 16th year – as old as many of the demonstrators – yet the country’s intelligentsia has failed to use those years to come up with remedies for the country’s ills.

The Iraqi constitution, passed by an overwhelming referendum in October 2005, should have made that task easier; it is an eminently good document for a troubled country like Iraq. Now amending the constitution is a key demand of the protesters, although they have yet to make clear the changes they want. As far as we can tell, punishing the ruling class seems to be the prime motivator for wanting to ditch the decentralized, parliamentary system and replace it with a presidential system under a benevolent, paternal “Great Leader,” preferably a military officer.

Many have just such an officer in mind: General Abdul-Wahab Al-Sa’idi. Regarded by them as the defeater of ISIS, his reassignment a few days before the protests was seen as a vindictive move by the prime minister and triggered the current events.

Iraq’s story is replete with rash military officers launching one disastrous coup after another. Yet very few intellectuals have spoken out against the idea of the general taking over.

None of this is sudden or unexpected. Back in August 2015, when the threat posed by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s jihadis was at its peak, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square erupted with anti-establishment, anti-corruption demonstrations. They lasted several months and frightened the ruling class into promising fundamental changes. The election in May 2018 was a chance to punish them for not fulfilling those promises. But the dominant parties prevailed.

Corruption in Iraq is at an unprecedented level. More dollars have been mismanaged, misappropriated or outright stolen In Iraq than in any other modern nation. The press is not fully free but there is a permissive media atmosphere. Yet the journalistic branch of the intelligentsia has failed to expose any of the more egregious cases of corruption. Not a single oligarch – and there are dozens of them – has been truly threatened by an inch of newsprint.

The young demonstrators should take note of this, not least because it shows what has already been tried before. But they prefer nihilism. Learning lessons from the past is deemed to be retrogressive when you’re seeking to remake the world.

Even the death a week ago of Al Baghdadi, whose “revolutionary” vision of the caliphate wreaked such nihilist destruction, was only the fifth or sixth news item of the day. It was not deemed worthy of a national moment of pause and reflection.

This is not a healthy sign.

Iraq does need a reformulated nationalism, but one that is borne out of a thoughtfully negotiated coexistence and is mindful of all the wounds of its recent past. Populism – strong on form but thin on content – is a luxury that only nations with solid national myths and narratives can afford.

Those youths manning the barricades revel in their anti-intellectualism, disdainful of the political brokers who do the hard work of negotiating between entrenched interests and pushing through tough compromises.

But history did not begin on October 1 and a new nation cannot be willed into being by the goodwill of starry-eyed youths. Nations cannot stand by memes alone.

Nibras Kazimi is the author of “Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy.”