The long shadow of Saddam’s dictatorship in Iraq

The political elite continues to use Saddam Hussein’s repressive tactics in dealing with dissent and opposition.

Demonstrators gather to protest against planned changes in electoral law, near Iraq's parliament in Baghdad, Iraq February 27, 2023. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
Demonstrators protest against changes to Iraq's electoral law near parliament in Baghdad on February 27, 2023 [File: Ahmed Saad/Reuters]

Twenty years have passed since the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The political class that assumed power in Iraq on a promise to do away with the Baathist regime’s authoritarianism and uphold democratic values has failed to deliver.

In fact, it has used the same oppressive tactics deployed by Saddam to protect the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system, known as “muhasasa ta’ifia”, which was established after 2003 and protects its narrow political and economic interests.

The biggest challenge to this system came in 2019 when Iraqis took to the streets en masse to demand political and economic change reflecting the promises they were given in the 2000s. The response from the political class was merciless. It has unleashed a deadly wave of violence and, under the current government, has sought to use all legal and legislative means to further entrench its repressive grip on power and quash dissent.

Iraqis fight to have a voice

The US-led invasion of Iraq was premised on the idea that deposing Saddam would allow democracy to flourish and human and civil rights to be upheld. Yet even the 2005 constitution, written by exiled Iraqi politicians and foreign allies who made these promises, contains vague wording, which allows for the easy abuse of civil rights.

For example, it says freedom of expression is guaranteed but only if it does not infringe on “morality” or “public order”. This, of course, has allowed the arbitrary and indiscriminate use of this provision to muzzle the Iraqi media and government critics.

The silencing of critical voices along with the deployment of political violence has allowed the Iraqi political elite to rule as it pleases and enrich itself on the backs of the Iraqi people.

But changing one oppressor for another is not something the Iraqi people have been willing to accept. As early as 2011 when the whole of the Middle East was in upheaval, trying to do away with dictatorships and oppression, Iraqis took to the streets against their new rulers’ failure to provide basic services and a reasonable standard of living.

In the following years, protests continued as the political and economic situation in the country worsened.

In October 2019, years of built-up anger erupted into mass protests across central and southern Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for weeks on end, demanding not just a dignified life but also an overhaul of the country’s failed political system. The protests also brought to the fore the issues of freedom of speech and human rights, raising awareness of their critical importance.

Despite deadly violence unleashed against the protests by state and non-state actors, demonstrations persisted. The nationwide solidarity they received delivered a major blow to the political elite, which thrives on sowing division and maintaining a culture of fear. It also led in 2021 to an electoral defeat of the parties that incited the violence against the protesters.

Crackdown on freedom of expression

The political forces that were punished by Iraqi voters in the last parliamentary elections for their corruption and participation in the crackdown on the 2019 protests came back with a vengeance last year.

They formed a coalition known as the Shia Coordination Framework, (SCF) and after the withdrawal of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc from parliament, which had won the largest number of votes, they were able to exploit certain constitutional provisions to gain power.

The SCF allied with Sunni parties and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to form the State Administration Coalition and control the parliament. Since then, the group has launched what can only be described as a “counterrevolution” against important gains made after the October 2019 protests.

The SCF-led government has restricted the space for free speech and criticism. Articles 225-227 of the Penal Code, which were frequently used by the Baathist regime, have been used to target civil rights activists simply for expressing their opinions on social or in traditional media. They contain vague and broad language that allows Iraqi authorities to prosecute anyone who “insults the government”, “military forces” or “semi-official agencies” and sentence them to up to seven years in prison.

One notable example of how these articles have recently been misused is the case of activist Haider al-Zaidi. He was sentenced in December to three years in prison for a tweet criticising Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the late head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, who was assassinated in a US drone strike in January 2020 along with Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp.

In March, political analyst Mohammed Na’naa’ was arrested for criticising Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, while journalist Qudus al-Samaraie was sentenced to one year in prison for defamation after a senior military officer filed a lawsuit against her. These are just a few examples of a growing number of silenced public figures who dare criticise the political elite and the status quo.

In addition, the Ministry of the Interior has also established a committee to punish anyone who posts “indecent content” online under Article 403 of the Penal Code, which relates to another vague term – “public morals”. As a result of this article, individuals may be sentenced to up to two years in prison for violating a standard that is determined solely by the ministry’s subjective view of morality.

In February, more than 10 people were arrested based on Article 403, including social media influencers such as Aboud Skaiba, who was later released after a public outcry, and Assal Hossam, who was handed a two-year prison sentence.

The Supreme Judicial Council, a supposedly independent legal body, has recently come out in support of the interior ministry‘s recent push to prosecute individuals for “insulting state institutions”.

Curtailing political participation

One of the most significant gains the 2019 protests managed to achieve was the adoption of a new electoral law. It enabled the new political forces to organise and challenge the status quo, and as a result, about 30 candidates representing these groups entered parliament.

The political elite saw this as a threat to its monopoly on power. After forming a new government, the SCF pushed for amendments to the electoral law, bringing back a method of calculating electoral votes that favours the parties of the established political class. There was so much opposition to this reform that the parliament had to vote on it overnight and security forces removed lawmakers who were protesting against it.

In empowering the dominant ethno-sectarian parties, the amended law solidifies the current failed political system and undermines Iraq’s democratic path. It also goes against the shared national identity, which the 2019 protests rallied behind.

Although it has been 20 years since the end of Saddam’s regime, the path to democracy in Iraq remains elusive. Yet it is very much worth fighting for. Although they have suffered many setbacks and face a formidable enemy – a political class that clings to power by any means – Iraqis must keep up their struggle. The 2019 protests and the gains that were achieved – albeit short-lived – have shown the way.

The Iraqi people must continue to push for civil rights, such as freedom of speech, fair elections and accountability and must keep these issues in the public eye to serve as a deterrent to those who seek to establish a new dictatorship. Even if progress is slow or meets with resistance, Iraqis should not lose hope. Change is possible and inevitable. And this time, it will not be exiled Iraqi politicians and their foreign allies leading it, but young Iraqis and civil society activists.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.