2011: Why did Iraq miss the Arab Spring?

Salah Nasrawi, Saturday 31 Dec 2011

Iraq might have skipped the Arab Spring this year, but change may well come soon

Protesters chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday 14 February 2011, (Photo: AP).

When American tanks rolled into Baghdad on 9 April 2003, the aim of the Bush administration (so its neo-con supporters claimed) was to crush the autocratic regime of Saddam Hussein and unleash a democracy wave throughout the Arab world.

But with last US soldier out in December, the dream of turning Iraq into a model of democracy for region emerged as just one other myth America has spun to give a positive image to its devastating meddling worldwide.

Post-Saddam Iraq has become a sectarian autocracy, violence is rampant, corruption is endemic and politics has entered a dangerous phase of partisan hatred. Some even wonder if the country can remain unified.

Since the beginning of this past year's of massive pro-democracy protests across the Arab world, which led to the downfall of autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and threatened others, the question has been asked whether Iraqis would take to the streets to challenge the status quo.

An Iraqi version of the Arab Spring flourished briefly in Baghdad but soon came to an end, in part because of intimidation, crackdowns and curfews that prevented demonstrations from spreading nationwide.

For weeks, young protesters demonstrated in Baghdad's Tahrir Square for democracy and to demand civil and political rights, and to protest against government corruption and unemployment and the lack of basic services like clean water and electricity.

The demonstrations grew out of a day of protests on 25 February, known as the “Day of Rage,” in which thousands of Iraqis took to the streets before they were brutally beaten by security forces and assaulted by government-sponsored mobs.

One of the organisers, Hadi Al-Mahdi, a journalist, filmmaker and playwright, was later shot in his Baghdad home by assailants using pistols outfitted with silencers.

In the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, the demonstrations were even larger. Demonstrators demanded political reforms and protested corruption, a lack of basic services and unemployment.

The main opposition party in the region, the Movement for Change, demanded the regional parliament be dissolved and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan be dismissed.

Peshmergas (Kurdish troops) and security forces were used to disperse the protesters in Sulaimaniya and to prevent them from regrouping.

During the Kurdish protests which stretched from February to April, at least 10 people were killed and dozens more injured and arrested.

Iraqi government leaders were quick to dismiss the protests as nothing but rioting and refused to draw a parallel to pro-reform and democracy uprisings sweeping the Middle East.

They argued that unlike the rest of the Arab world Iraq has an avid "electoral democracy" capable of handling opposition peacefully.

Many Western media, apparently skewed by the “democratic” label Washington has applied to the Iraqi government, also ruled out any similarity between protests in Iraq and the revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Yet many world organisations say Iraq has failed to meet the minimum standards to be classified as an electoral democracy. They note that political participation in Iraq is impaired by violence, corruption, and that civil liberties and rule of law exist on paper but much less so in practice.

These seem to be enough reasons for Iraqis, who had hoped that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would bring freedom and good governance, to revolt against their new leaders.

However, the failure of a full blown "Iraqi Spring" to blossom is not a puzzle.

One reason behind the deadlock of democracy in Iraq is sectarianism. The sect-based formula forged by the Americans for power sharing among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, has made Iraqis entrenched behind their ethnicities.

Many Iraqis now are afraid of a full fledged democracy even when they know that the so-called "partnership government" is dysfunctional. They believe it can at least maintain a sectarian balance.  

Another factor behind Iraq's aborted democracy spring is that security forces severely cracked down on protesters. For weeks, the government deployed thousands of its security forces who set up roadblocks to keep the protesters from flocking to Tahrir Square where they hoped to turn it to an epicentre for anti-government protests.

Third, unlike in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria where protesters received international support, Iraqi protesters were left with little or even no sympathy, especially from the Americans who were still in Iraq.

Fourth, insurgents, and especially Baathists, tried to take advantage of the protests to destabilise the government, which backfired by casting a slur on the protests.

For now, the pro-democracy and freedom movements in Iraq seem fizzled. The elation and electrifying unity of purpose that can bring pro-democracy Iraqis together has given way to existential fear.

Given the recent political standoff and the latest wave of violence following the US troop withdrawal, Iraqis seem more worried about instability and the future of their country.

The ongoing crisis has placed Iraq at a crossroads. Depending on the outcome of the present crisis, it will either remain united, but with a fragile central government, or split into three main entities.

Either way, Iraqis are destined to see change, probably not before long.

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