In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and now Libya, courageous protesters have braved beatings and hundreds have lost their lives to bring down stubborn, entrenched dictators. It is tempting to put the outbreak of protests in Iraq in this same category. But the story is different in Iraq - and it holds lessons for the rest of the region.
In Iraq, where the United States invested billions of dollars and thousands of lives to give Iraqis space to create a functioning democracy, demonstrators seek not to dispose of an elected prime minister, but rather to force his government to listen to them. This call for action is intense; at least 29 civilians were killed in the country’s first "day of rage" on February 25.
The demands in Iraq are of a different sort from those in the uprisings rippling across the Middle East. Iraqis are calling not for freedom of speech, which they already enjoy, but rather for that speech to be heard. Having achieved access to the ballot box, they now call for access to better government services, such as reliable electricity and water. The rallying cry in Baghdad today is not liberation, but a demand for a democracy that listens.
Recent public opinion research that our firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, conducted for the National Democratic Institute reveals a public that believes democracy is not enough: it must be a democracy in which the leaders really deliver on the people’s needs. In focus groups, we hear voters intensely frustrated that the country’s political leaders and parties took nine months to form a government, during which time every one of the nation’s needs - from security to services - seemed to suffer.
The good news in Iraq: a 61 percent majority believes that a stronger democracy will improve services and their quality of life. But that’s in theory. In reality, voters complain that their politicians and civil servants seem focused on their own jobs and privileges, rather than on the well-being of the people.
The voters we interview cite many reasons for believing their elected leaders are focused on themselves, rather than on the people’s needs. They cite the glacial pace of forming a new government. They cite rampant corruption, with positions from sub-cabinet posts to low-level clerks allocated on the basis of patronage, nepotism, or sectarian formulas.
As a woman in one of our Baghdad focus groups said of the country’s politicians and civil servants: “They receive their salaries and take [from] government tenders. No one feels for Iraq and says that he is responsible and that it is haram (forbidden) to take money and see the citizens suffering.”
Last week’s demonstrations for basic services seemed to mark the moment when the patience of such Iraqi citizens ran out.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who faces the difficult task of governing a country divided along multiple axes, needs to recognize the nature of the frustrations that are fueling the new protests. So far, his response has been to brand the demonstrators as “Saddamists” and terrorists, and to enact a curfew and restrict movement in Baghdad. That is unlikely to connect with the public’s cry for government responsiveness.
Moreover, indifference to public needs opens the door to dangerous populism. Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - whose political party is part of Iraq’s new coalition government - has called for a one-week referendum to take stock of people’s biggest service needs. The current government’s lack of action allows leaders like Sadr to exploit these deep public frustrations.
The Iraqis are not yet finished demonstrating. On Friday March 4, a year after the country’s last elections, thousands more battled water cannons and batons to protest around the country. They promise more to come. Maliki, for his part, has given his ministers 100 days to improve the services they are charged with providing to Iraqis, or face losing their jobs.
This is certainly a step in the right direction. If 100 days pass without significant signs of changes that could improve living conditions for average citizens, one of the region’s few democracies is at risk of destabilization.
There is great hope and drama in the region’s protests for tahrir - “liberation.” Iraq’s protests are a reminder that post-liberation democracies also face the daunting challenge of delivery.
This article is based on focus groups and a survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the National Democratic Institute from September-November, 2010.