Iraqis respond to May’s elections with scathing satire

Jokes floating through the Iraqi Twittersphere reveal important shifts in public attitudes.
Sunday 04/02/2018
A bus displays a poster advising people to check about their voting information ahead of Iraq's parliamentary elections Baghdad. (AFP)
A bus displays a poster advising people to check about their voting information ahead of Iraq's parliamentary elections Baghdad. (AFP)

Iraq’s legislative elections are nearing and the street appears divided on everything but humour. The repertoire is quintessentially Iraqi, upturning the myth of democratic elections steadily losing charge.

Combining a curious blend of mockery, religious idioms and sardonicism, civilians hit back on internet platforms, transforming them into custom-made mood boards. One hashtag read: malyna min’kum — a rough translation of which is “enough of you already” — one of several openings Iraqis created to air frustrations.

Cynicism has its risks but more dangerous are establishment-led efforts to beautify the ugly to keep society poor and downtrodden. One illustration summarises the feeling. It depicts a scenario in which a destitute man wins Iraq’s “most patient creature contest.” A cactus comes in second and a donkey ranks third.

Another favourite is of an image of a second-hand street market blanketed in worn and dusty footwear, titled: “Elections are close but the choice is tough.” The electoral procedure is the butt of the joke.

The choice between multiple actors speaks to a representational political spectrum. The reality, however, cancels out a narrative masqueraded as truth.

“Bullets puncture the bodies of brave men, while thieving politicians line their pockets with cash,” a young man wrote.

A mischievous post captures a candidate’s visit to an internal displacement camp, photographed distributing bags of cucumbers, yes cucumbers.

In previous electoral cycles, food items featured visibly, representing little more than an exercise in canvassing. Regardless of the food item itself or its desirability, distribution is recognised as an act motivated not by altruistic tendencies but ill-gotten gains, a widely traded view on the Iraqi street.

“Don’t feign ignorance when they return to power” was the warning uttered by a southerner who recorded himself burning his voter ID card. “Religious figures hiding behind calls for a civil state are the worst,” he added.

Underlying many of the views is a sense of betrayal of a social contract, if one even existed between state and society.

“Wijhi al na’al,” a famous Iraqi slur that refers to the sole of a slipper, was photoshopped on an image of a bar of soap. The would-be product targets politicians that, in this imagined scenario, are the slipper sole, urged to clean up their act.

Jokes floating through the Iraqi Twittersphere reveal important shifts in public attitudes. Ballot-box politics and the prospect of electing a man chosen by and who serves his people long lost its appeal. Yet durable character defects continually exhibited by the ruling elite are the very ammunition the street is using to fire back, satirically.

2005 was when the first elections of the “new Iraq” took place. Since then, three prime ministers have served the country — Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Nuri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi — all representatives of the formerly outlawed Dawa Party. Across the 13 years, their tenures collectively cover accomplishments of the past, which, whether infrastructural, educational, cultural or medical, have been reset.

Under the guise of slow progress, stagnation has been written off as a handicap inherited from the Ba’ath government while touted reforms disguise the inaction of Islamist parties. Even Abadi’s support base, regularly cited by pundits hoping to see him win another term, has failed to convince the public of a democratic voting process free from irregularities.

The nauseating effect of the electoral carousel was captured in another tweet, under the title “14 of the Iraqi parliament’s miracles.”

The chosen image accompanying the list of “miracles” was a portrait of a man wearing multiple yet identical masks. One drops, another fills its spot, like a hydra.

While promoted by pundits and influencers as a moderate ruler, Abadi’s 30-year membership in the Dawa Party makes him a certified Islamist, loyal to a party that made him as quickly as it could unmake him.

This calls to mind another meme of a donkey resisting his owner’s attempt to forcefully push him into a stable.

The journey towards democracy, many say, has been derailed by the instalment of an elite that lacks the most basic skills but readily nod to Iran’s supreme leaders and foreign creditors.

The treadmill of corruption, spun by the greed and theft, has been the greatest test of people’s patience. Even popular protests have become somewhat of a gimmick that Islamists have incrementally hijacked, but not entirely fruitless.

Though ordinary voices are still muffled, like a rusty engine, the groans of public fury can be expected to grow louder.