Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we have witnessed an unprecedented and simultaneous awakening by people who have shocked the world and rattled the thrones of dictators who have been in power for decades on end. In Iraq’s Day of Rage, tens of thousands have taken to the streets demanding change. However, the nature of the calls for reform in Iraq are drastically different from those we heard in Tunisia or Egypt, and those we continue to hear in Bahrain, Iran, Yemen and Libya.
In these countries, the people have openly called for the ousting of authoritarian leaders who do not represent their people. In Iraq the ruling elite have only recently been democratically elected into office and they need not fear their people as Ben Ali or Mubarak did.
It is high time the elite in Iraq recognize their failures openly and publicly and apologise for the lack of basic services that the Iraqi people continue to demand. The government in Iraq must stop making the same mistakes other leaders across the region have made when it comes to labelling their angry people as agents of foreign states who have hidden agendas. In most countries, anyone demanding rights is, by default, accused by government loyalists of being an American or Zionist traitor to his country.
In Iraq, the catchall term used to define anyone unhappy with the current situation is ‘Ba’athist’ or worse still, ‘terrorist’. Governments have become masters in deflecting blame and finding scapegoats to pretend nothing can be done whilst the ‘enemy’ is present. In Iraq, this dangerous phenomenon has reached hysteric levels and only makes the people even angrier. As if anyone demanding a few more hours of electricity a day, or calling for his or her neighbourhood to be clean, is being influenced by the Ba’athists who want the return of an oppressive military dictatorship.
Of course there is a danger of protests being hijacked by terrorists who want to destablise the country, but that doesn’t give a right to any government to quash them in their entirety in the name of national security. There is also a chance of mosques being hijacked by Muslim extremists who preach nothing but hatred, but does mean the Iraqi government should ban all of them in the name of peace?
Demanding better services, and indeed demanding essential political reforms that tackle the corruption and nepotism that plagues Iraq is not the same thing as wanting the return of the Ba’athist regime. By deliberately equating the two, the government makes it much easier for the security services to crackdown on innocent protesters in the name of fighting terrorism.
Iraqis should be proud that whilst they have jumped on the anti-establishment bandwagon that has swept the region, they are unique in that they are already one step ahead of their neighbours. The sooner the Iraqi government recognises that the people have real demands that must be met, the easier it becomes for them to deal with the problem, and the easier it becomes for the people to vent their frustrations. Instead of simply making excuses, the mere acknowledgement of peoples legitimate claims at least sends a signal that they have received the message.
Shooting protesters, issuing curfews, detaining journalists, raiding press offices and harassing intellectuals is precisely the same tactics employed by the previous regime that the government, ironically, is claiming what come back to power if the people are manipulated. Maliki’s recent ultimatum to his cabinet seems to be nothing more than appeasement and an effort to buy time. Maliki’s ill-advised move is proof that the government does not understand what the people want. The people are not calling for a cabinet reshuffle; they want rights and services and not simply new faces.
Everyone and his brother in Iraq owns an illegal weapon, but the fact that the protests have remained largely peaceful is proof of the good-hearted intentions of these disenfranchised and disillusioned masses calling for change. I am not going to be sensationalist by attempting to compare Maliki to Saddam, but the despicable behaviour of the Commander-in-Cheif’s security forces are taking Iraq down a very dangerous slope. The protests are not going to be peaceful forever if they continue to be subject to brutal mukhabarat-style harassment.