Thousands of Iraqis have already taken part in the demonstrations there since February 2011. These demonstrations, apparently inspired by the Arab revolutions sweeping the Arab and Muslim world since the end of 2010, have not attracted much attention from the experts of the Middle East and global media, probably because of their small scale comparing to Egypt, Libya and Syria, and also because of the false assumption that these demonstrations will not bring about any major changes in the Iraqi politics – already considered democratic, unlike the other Arab countries. These demonstrations in Iraq, however, should not be underestimated: they may not lead to more democracy, but to less stability.

The first mass protest in Iraq took place in February 25, 2011, when tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in ten cities across the country, most notably in Baghdad's Tahrir square. The protests, which came as a response to a call for a "Day of Rage," included confrontation between the demonstrators and the security forces. The security forces used violence in attempts to rein in the demonstrations. Since then, Tahrir square has witnessed demonstrations every Friday, while other cities have also witnessed protests against the Iraqi government.

The Demonstrators' Demands

The demonstrators demand a variety of things: the eradication of corruption in the state's machinery; better services; political reforms that would guarantee their political and civilian rights; more jobs; the end of the American occupation; the release of political detainees who have no charges against them, and improvement of the conditions in jails. The demonstrations seem to be righteous and to have burst out as a consequence of deep problems in Iraqi society: after spending immense amounts of American and Iraqi money, the infrastructure of the country is still extremely weak. Many citizens still do not have electricity, or access to clean water at home. They suffer from unemployment and poor personal security. Corruption is common in the civil service: and citizens who want to be treated have to transfer money to the officials first. Many people are being detained and waiting endlessly to go to trial. Some have been tortured in jail. There is no doubt that many Iraqis are frustrated after having expecting improvement in many fields.

The Government's Reaction to the Demonstrations

A Call for participation in demonstration in July 8, 2011 published on Facebook.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced at the beginning of the wave of demonstrations that he would not run for another term as premier in 2014. After the mass demonstrations in February, the government announced 100-day period for better services; the period ended on June 8, 2011. Since then, the demonstrators have become more assertive, and, as promises were not fulfilled, calls for toppling the government more common.

The Iraqi government has taken harsh measures to limit the demonstrations in Baghdad. The government has issued a traffic ban that kept many of the residents from reaching the capital, and it has used live fire against the demonstrators; limited press coverage; detained demonstration organizers and used paid thugs to beat demonstrators. There was information that al-Maliki threatened tribal leaders; that if they sent their tribesmen to demonstrations, they would lose their allowances. At the same time, money was paid by the government to tribesmen for organizing pro-government demonstrations. In many ways, the measures which al-Maliki's took against protesters seem similar to those taken by other Arab leaders who failed to suppress the wave of demonstrations.

Another Phase Toward Democratization?

The demonstrations may lead to more democratization in Iraq; reforms really are essential. One hopes that, through protest, civil society in Iraq -- especially after so many years when it did not exist, or was fully repressed under the Ba'ath party. The way the demonstrations are organized is similar to those in the Arab world: by internet -- especially YouTube and Facebook. The demands of the protesters also seem similar to the demands heard in other Arab countries. However, the demonstrations in Iraq differ from others in the region in that the people in the streets are not seeking a dramatic regime change. The people are calling, at most, to establish a better government: they see the current government not being fully devoted to the Iraqi people or capable of dealing effectively with the challenges there. In Iraq there are no calls for "toppling the regime," heard so intensely in Egypt and Syria. The demonstrations in Iraq are frequently held under the slogan "the Great Iraqi Revolt" ( after the name of the revolt against the British colonial power in Iraq in 1920), which symbolizes the unity, patriotism and greatness of the Iraqi people. This slogan aims to stress the Iraqi nature of the demonstrations, and portray them as national and patriotic to encourage the Iraqi people to join them and make Iraq a more independent and successful country.

A call for participation in demonstration on July 15, 2011 published on Facebook.

The road to full democracy in Iraq, however, is still a long way off. Democratic culture has not yet crystalized in the country. The demonstrations are not entirely peaceful: during them, government facilities were set on fire, and a concrete wall securing a bridge leading to Baghdad's secure "green zone," where the Iraqi governmental offices are situated, was torn down. Security forces responded by beating several of the offenders, and successfully blocked entry onto the bridge, while protesters threw rocks at them. This activity does not correspond with the standards of democracy.

Meanwhile, the steps taken by al-Maliki seem to be similar to those taken by other Arab leaders who are not considered democratic and who do not fully recognize the basic right of protest. These steps undermine the government's legitimacy.

With the exception of the national, civilian nature of the demonstrations, it seems ethnic and sectarian tensions still play an important role. The Sunni Arabs, who lost their political hegemony in Iraq in 2003, seem to be more eager than the Shiites to protest; and according to some press reports, the Sunni Arab minority embraced the protest. The Sunni Arab political block, al-Iraqiyya, called the complaints of the protesters "just." It appears that the Sunni Arab community stresses more than other communities the demand to release political detainees: many Sunni Arabs are in jail and are considered to be not guilty, but hunted merely because of their religious background.

The Shi'ite community is split. Al-Maliki called on Iraqis not to take part in the demonstrations, urging them to beware of losing everything they had achieved: all democratic gains; free elections, and freedom. The pro-Iranian cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, called on the Iraqis to stay home and not participate in the protests; however he organized a demonstration in Baghdad that included burning American and Israeli flags, probably to switch the fire against Israel and the US. Sh'iite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani joined the call to delay the protest; however, some Shi'ite tribal leaders called their tribesmen to join the protest. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the situation is quite different from the rest of Iraq as the protestors try to promote the Kurdish civil rights. The protests in the area are aimed against the leading parties, KDP and KUP, which control the area and handle matters on a tribal, rather than ona civilian basis. Nepotism and corruption are also widespread. The Kurdish regional government in Iraq (KRG) promised some minor reforms, but does not seem really interested in performing many of them. It appears that the traditional-tribal families of Barzani and Talabani are not really interested in creating a pure civil society that would cause them lose their special status.

Finally, the demonstrations movingly reflect the longing for a better future for Iraq. They are meant to bring about political and social reforms, but not a change of the regime. They have a uniquely Iraqi nature in that they have been held in most cases peacefully, and may serve, therefore, as an important and even crucial phase in Iraq's process of democratization. Democracy in Iraq is still fragile, however; measures that are taken too harshly by the government against demonstrators may weaken this process. Democracy in Iraq based on strong civil society is still a utopian dream; to fulfill it, Iraqis should develop their democratic processes and institutions of democracy – for example, civil law; equal justice under law; freedom of religion and, if individuals desire, from religion -- and overcome ethnic, sectarian and tribal tendencies.

Dr. Eli Amarilyo is an expert in Iraqi society and politics, and a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

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