Tahrir Square in Baghdad is considered the home of the country's popular protests. Over the past few weeks demonstrators have gathered every Friday, calling for government reform, an end to corruption and better state services. Often the demonstrators hold aloft pictures of Arab or Persian clerics or politicians whom they support. But last week, on September 4, there were pictures being carried of a blonde, European woman: It was Angela Merkel, the head of the German government.
The fact that these pictures were being carried came as a surprise to many; it was the first time this has ever happened in Iraq.
One demonstrator, who lives on the outskirts of Baghdad, had never seen any pictures of the German Chancellor before and he didn't know who the pictures were of. He thought that his fellow protestors were holding up posters of a foreign singer who had written a song about Iraq. But he was soon told about Merkel and when he realised who she was, he went to kiss her picture.
We want to tell our MPs - a woman from another country cares more about us than you do.
Iraqi social media was also buzzing with similar sentiments.
“Merkel is more honourable than the Iraqi parliament”.
“Merkel is more honourable than Arab rulers.”
“Oh God, give us a ruler like Merkel”.
“We are so thankful to you, Merkel.”
These were just some of the things young Iraqis were tweeting. Some even got into trouble with local clerics for – apparently falsely - quoting the German politician, who said: “One day, we will tell our children that Syrian refugees fled their land to ours on death boats, although Mecca was closer to them”.
Other locals found pictures of Angela Merkel online and made her the screen saver on their mobile phones.
“I wanted to thank her for her humanitarian position and for her efforts,” another of the young demonstrators in Baghdad, Muyad Abbas, told NIQASH. “We wish that all the presidents of the world would do the same because helping those escaping from conflict is very important. By carrying pictures of Merkel in the demonstrations we also wanted to send a clear message to Iraqi politicians,” Abbas added. “We wanted to tell them that a woman from another country cares more about Iraqis than you – you have ruled us but you've bought nothing more than destruction and devastation.”
Another of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square who carried a picture of Angela Merkel says that if he can save enough money he will go to Germany. “ I would like to carry pictures of Iraqis, to put them in my phone or in my house,” says Ammar Ali. “But they've done nothing but steal and cause Iraqis to lose their homes. They have taken us to a dark place. In Germany I would be distant from all that and I would find peace and respect,” he concluded optimistically.
Merkel is more honourable than Arab rulers, young Iraqis say.
“The fact that people are carrying these pictures of the German leader is a response to events in the region,” explains Wateq Sadiq, a local sociologist. “Iraqis are bitter about the way they have to live. They believe that Merkel's position deserves respect. And I believe it also sends a message that women should be given a bigger role in politics. But carrying these pictures of the German leader is also an Iraqi way of insulting local politicians. The young people carrying these pictures are indicating that they believe a foreign leader is much better than local politicians.”
The insult may well have worked. Phone calls to female MPs in Baghdad, to ask whether they compared themselves to Merkel now, went unreturned. The only politician who did call back was Alia Nassif, an MP for the ruling State of Law party. But when she heard the question – how do you think you compare to the German Chancellor – she hung up.