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after the arab spring
does iraq\'s present day contain seeds of the middle east\'s future?

Saad Salloum
Recently the Arab world has started to feel what Iraqis have known since 2003: fear of civil war, religious politics, corrupt democracy. Change may be coming to their neighbours now - but young Iraqis, who continue…
25.10.2011  |  Baghdad

Iraq has been isolated from its Arab neighbours for some time. The invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the following 13-year-long imposition of economic sanctions insured this. And the US-led invasion of 2003 and the ensuing regime change do not appear to helped in freeing Iraq from this isolation either.

However it seems that Iraq’s version of the Arab Spring protests that have set off major change throughout the region may well put the country back on the Arab map. And somewhat ironically, it has been spontaneous young Iraqis who have achieved what Iraqi diplomacy and successive Iraqi governments had failed to do.

Their slogans and songs cross national borders with ease and have united them with the Arab world under a banner of change. Instead of the emotive speeches Arab leaders have given on regional and ethnic unity since the 1950s, the young people of the area were out on the streets, dreaming of a new world under new skies.

The attempt of the state to hold the protestors back has not prevented their message from reaching other Arab ears: Yes, the changes in Iraq after 2003 were the result of external forces. But today we start making our own changes, from within this time.

“It is different,” Bassam Jumaa, a member of the February Youth Movement, so named because this year in February is when the protests first began, said. “Because it is a change that we shape in our own way and not according to the interests of other countries. We now have the tools that allow us to hold the banner of reform high, without the help of any external forces,” he concluded while adjusting his hat.

Young Iraqis have begun to formulate their own philosophy of change. And it is a charge driven by the street’s heartbeat: a “trickle up” democracy rather than any “top down” democracy” imposed by others. These protests are more of a sign of true democracy than the post-conflict apparatus of power that has failed the country so far.

University professor, Mushtaq Faraj, 38, explains why he didn’t bother to vote in the last national elections. “What is the real point of these elections if they just bring us another Hitler, or a new Saddam, or even someone worse than either of those two,” he argued. “The real enemies of democracy are the political-religious parties of Islam,” he added.

Of course the calls for reform espoused by the February Youth Movement are not the same as those being called for by Arab peers in other lands. They have a different vision. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was toppled in 2003 but the mission is not yet complete.

The current version of “top down” democracy has not made Iraqis feel safe. So the message is: change from within. An end to corruption, more social justice and a change to the current political situation which is heavily based on sectarianism.

But the Arab Spring protests have brought with them more than this. It has also allowed other Arabs in the region to understand the fears and hopes that Iraqis have been living with over the past few decades. The transformations wrought by the Arab Spring revolutions have brought new opportunities and new fears in other nations.

Many of those were already present in Iraq. For instance, the fear of civil war after the fall of a dictator. Or increased state repression after protests – which in some cases, could result in mass killings, even genocide. Or the fear of an Islamic-led state, or of foreign intervention in one’s own national affairs. All of these things have been part of the Iraqi experience over the past two decades.

The optimism that saw Arab youth dreaming of a new world for themselves does not banish concerns that the old regime may yet return, albeit in a different form. The “children” who demanded the “father’s” departure could become fathers themselves.

“We are rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime,” Hana Hussein, 32, said, during a conversation about the infighting between today’s Iraqi leaders. “But now we have more than one copy of Saddam.”

Often the spectre of civil war has been used by various Arab dictators to maintain their grip on power. This theory has been tested by the Iraqis too, in the grinding war that erupted between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims in Iraq in 2006. Local politicians have refused to admit their part in this conflict, they have refused to acknowledge the sectarian nature of the conflict and they have never apologized to the Iraqi people for crimes they committed in the names of their own group, be it a religious sect or ethnic grouping.

The gloomy situation that many of Iraq’s minorities found themselves in made more easy grist for the propaganda mills belonging to other dictatorial Arab regimes. “Minorities have paid the price of radical transformation witnessed in the country after 2003 despite the fact that they were not engaged in the power struggle,” Father Youssef Thomas, editor-in-chief of an Iraqi magazine meant for local Christians, Christian Thought, has written. “And they have become an easy target because they are unprotected and helpless.”

Seeing the way in which [now deceased] Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was treating rebels against his regime, it brought back memories of Saddam Hussein’s brutal treatment of rebels against him. At least until the international community passed United NationsSecurity Council Resolution688, which resulted in France, the US and the UK establishing no-fly zones over northern and southern parts of the country in order to protect humanitarian operations there. Still, this resolution was not enough to prevent the mass graves all over the country.

Additionally the international intervention in Libya raises far more than one question. Why is it possible for Libyans to seek the help of international forces when similar behaviour by Iraqis is considered taboo? Why were Arab journalists, writers and politicians so highly eloquent in their enthusiasm for intentional intervention in Libya – yet they were incredibly reluctant about US intervention in Iraq?

According to Atheer Nathem al-Jasour, a professor at the department of political science at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University, questions like this are part of the reason that many Iraqis believe their Arab neighbours “need to rethink their positions. They shouldn’t have double standards. At the very least they need to stop behaving in such a hypocritical way,” al-Jasour argued.

The possibility that the freedoms of the Arab Spring could evolve into an autumn of chaos still exists. The Iraqi experience has proven it’s not possible to achieve this without some painful experiences. In the absence of a consensus-building figure like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or India’s Mahatma Ghandi who became figures of national unity and discouraged violent change, it is not easy to write up a brand new social contract.

And ever more questions arise around this: who will write this new contract and how will it be written? In the absence of a clear vision, is this yet another new challenge? As the Egyptians began their referendum on their new constitution and as they prepared for elections, their Iraqi peers might well have wanted to tell them to calm down a little bit.

The Iraqi experience proves that the mechanisms of democracy – new constitutions, new elections – are no guarantee of a civil society or a state where all are equal. The Iraqis have their new constitution and they’ve been to the polls twice – yet somehow the democracy has lost its way.

In fact, the Iraqi constitution is littered with land mines that threaten to blow the country apart. Elections have helped Islamic parties into power and, in a strange paradox, these parties appear to have plans to transform Iraq from a democracy into a more of a theocracy.

“The Arabs are too optimistic about change,” university student Sari al-Ghadban, 21, said. Al-Ghadban has been following news of the Arab Spring protests fervently. “Look at our situation after seven years and they will be looking into their future.”

So here, another question: Is Iraq’s present day the region’s future? This is the question Iraq’s neighbours should be asking – certainly, it will bring them a new perspective.

This essay is part of a book by Saad Salloum on Iraq and the Arab Spring; it is as yet unnamed but will be published later this year by Baghdad publishing house, Masarat.