Up in Arms

Iraq's burgeoning protest movement shows that the country may have more in common with other Arab dictatorships than the United States would care to admit.

Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images

BAGHDAD — The only way to get to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square — yes, it has one too — on Feb. 25 was to walk. It was a treat to stride down roads usually solid with traffic, but the silent city also felt ominous. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had warned that the long-planned "Day of Rage" protests would be infiltrated by al Qaeda and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, and imposed a ban on all vehicles within city limits to reduce the risk of car bombs. Religious leaders warned people to stay away, while security officials made doom-laden predictions of violence. Most people were too scared to venture outside.

The hush throughout Baghdad made the clamor in Tahrir Square seem all the louder. Thousands of demonstrators had walked for miles to gather there, not even bothering to go to Friday prayers first. They were mostly men — some university graduates, others day laborers, but all with the same grievances. We have no electricity and no water, scant job opportunities, and our politicians are liars and thieves, they said. They flung themselves against the blast walls blocking the entrance to the Green Zone, a symbol of the distant and unaccountable elite that they were raging against.

The protesters’ banners were homemade and simple in their demands. "The government in the Green Zone is afraid of the people," said one. "Yes to democracy and public services," another proclaimed.

Settar al-Sammarai, a soldier with six children who had been retired on a pension of $200 a month when Saddam Hussein’s army was disbanded, said, "I would like my voice to be heard by the government — I would like to be heard condemning the robbery of public funds."

The Baghdad protests highlight the same frustrations that led Tunisians and Egyptians to topple their autocrats. A generation of Iraqis has grown up with even less control over their lives than youth elsewhere in the Arab world. They went from brutality and scarcity under Saddam Hussein to a U.S.-led liberation they never asked for. Foreign troops patrolled their streets, searched their houses at night, yelled at them in a language they didn’t understand, and, as the WikiLeaked war logs show, killed without good reason. The ensuing chaos placed them at the mercy of Iraq’s fearsome militias. And now, they’re living under a prime minister who is undermining some of the crucial checks and balances that are meant to make the Iraqi government accountable to its people.

Maliki, who has undoubtedly kept a close eye on the unrest that is threatening leaders across the Arab world, has tried to respond to the growing tumult. In a conciliatory speech on Feb. 27, he gave his ministers 100 days to evaluate their performance and suggest reforms to their ministries. He also declared that he would halve his salary and would not seek a third term as prime minister. On Feb. 28, Maliki announced his support for a law that would allow Iraq to hold early provincial elections, saying that it would allow citizens to make their demands for change felt.

At this point, as with last-minute concessions made by other Arab leaders, it may be too little too late. It’s true that the past few years have brought a measure of stability and democracy to Iraq that was sorely lacking before. Last year, more than 60 percent of the electorate risked terrorist attacks to participate in parliamentary elections, which were declared free and fair by international monitors.

But what came next made their bravery seem futile. Iraq’s politicians took more than eight months to build a ruling coalition. During this undignified ethnosectarian tussle, the country’s shoddy services and security improved not one bit. Maliki was eventually renominated as prime minister despite the fact that his bloc did not win the most seats in the election.

Lawmakers continue to live an insulated life in the heavily guarded Green Zone, an institution of the invaders that the new Iraqi elite seem in no hurry to get rid of. Parliamentarians make a fat $22,500 a month and are immune to the electricity shortages and curfews that make life so tedious for everyone else. The Iraqi press, who sit around parliament waiting for work to start, joke that it’s the only place in the country with 24-hour electricity. The debates usually start hours late and sometimes go on past midnight, leaving everyone else, from the boys who fetch tea to TV crews, stuck explaining to aggressive checkpoint security officers why they’re out past curfew. Meanwhile, politicians travel the short distance home in armored convoys.

There is more to democracy than elections, and, in some crucial ways, Iraq is becoming more autocratic. Iraq’s Supreme Court ruled in January that several independent institutions — including the central bank, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), and human rights and anti-corruption committees — should be under the control of the government’s council of ministers led by Maliki. The prime minister’s critics have accused him of pressuring the court to issue the ruling. The bloc led by Ayad Allawi, the former interim prime minister and Maliki’s rival, issued a statement condemning the verdict as "a coup against democracy."

This decision will have a significant and pernicious effect on Iraq’s nascent democratic system. Qassim Aboudi, an Iraqi judge and IHEC official, condemned the Supreme Court’s decision, raising fears that future elections could see more meddling if the elections commission is not politically independent. The human rights committee is also an important check on the security services’ behavior. A recent Human Rights Watch report, detailing abuses at secret prisons run by a security force close to the prime minister, is just the latest example of the sort of issue that the committee cannot be expected to investigate objectively if it is under political control.

The protest in Baghdad was dispelled at dusk with no major injuries. Protesters elsewhere in Iraq, however, were not nearly so lucky. At least a dozen people were killed in clashes with Iraqi security forces in Mosul, Fallujah, Basra, and near Kirkuk during similar protests on Feb. 28.

The spasm of violence in Iraq’s usually peaceful Kurdish region, where at least three protesters and a policeman have been killed in clashes at demonstrations in the last two weeks, is particularly notable. The semiautonomous area ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government markets itself as the "other Iraq" — a region that is safe, secular, and democratic. But Kurdish politics are dominated by two parties, both of which maintain corrupt patronage networks that bear more than a passing resemblance to the instruments of control wielded by autocrats throughout the Arab world.

The focus of the protests in Iraqi Kurdistan is the chilly mountain town of Sulaymaniyah, where citizens say they have had enough of the region’s scant resources being awarded according to political allegiance. But the demonstration became a perfect example of the repressive tools Kurdish leaders are prepared to wield to remain in power. Only one television station, run by the Nalia company, showed live coverage of the growing protests in Sulimaniyah. Two days after the protests began, it was mysteriously shot up and burned down in the middle of the night.

What next? Iraqi authorities seem shaken. Three provincial governors have resigned, and some local government buildings in Anbar province have been reduced to ashes. Mosul, the violent northern city where five people were killed in protests, witnessed another rally on Feb. 27. Iraqis have seen what an impact an angry population can have on their government — and few people have greater reason to rage.

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