Egyptian revolution sparks protest movement in democratic Iraq

In one of many protests in Iraq's capital, Baghdad residents carry a mock coffin meant to symbolize the end of basic government services.
In one of many protests in Iraq's capital, Baghdad residents carry a mock coffin meant to symbolize the end of basic government services. (Thaier Al-sudani)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011

BAGHDAD - The men who were gathered in Tahrir Square - the Baghdad version, not the Cairo one - were young and old, employed and jobless, Sunni and Shiite. But they spoke with one voice as they chanted: "No, no to corruption," "The government are thieves" and "Baghdad, Baghdad, spark a revolution."

If there is to be a revolution in Iraq akin to the one that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it was an inauspicious start. There were only 200 to 300 people, all of them male, watched over by an equal number of Iraqi soldiers who lounged casually in the sunshine against their Humvees.

Yet there seems to be little doubt that the tumult in Egypt is stirring a deep well of discontent not only among Arabs living under autocratic rule elsewhere but also in Iraq, the one country in the region that can claim to have experienced democracy after dictatorship.

Dozens of small-scale demonstrations have taken place across the country over the past two weeks, most of them protesting poor services, particularly the lack of electricity - a perennial complaint that has spurred Iraqis to take to the streets many times before.

But a new movement seems to be emerging, too, among students and young professionals clearly inspired by the events in Egypt and also by their own disappointments with Iraq's democratic experiment.

Multiple groups are springing up on Facebook calling for protests to demand reforms, among them No to Silence, Baghdad Won't Be Kandahar, the Blue Revolution and one simply called Join US Soon for the Biggest Ever Youth Sit-In in Baghdad, which initiated the small protest Friday in Tahrir Square.

Another is planned for Monday, but the biggest buzz is building around what has been billed on various Web sites as a "Revolution of Iraqi Rage" scheduled for Feb. 25 in the same square, the city's most prominent public space, just across the Tigris River from the fortified Green Zone.

The groups say their goal is not to overthrow the government - which is still not fully formed after elections nearly a year ago, another source of frustration - but to demand change on multiple fronts, from specifics such as the provision of electricity and jobs to more general issues such as good governance and accountability.

"People are boiling," said Adel Salman, 33, a businessman who was among those attending the protest Friday. "If this continues, it could grow very big."

How big is in question. A macabre joke making the rounds in Baghdad observes that if an Iraqi were to set himself on fire in a gesture of protest, as did the young Tunisian whose death sparked the Tunis uprising last month, Iraqis freezing without electricity in the winter chill would merely gather around to warm themselves.

The circumstances in Egypt and Tunisia are starkly different from those in Iraq. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled by a foreign army, not a popular revolt, and the deep sectarian divide that triggered widespread internecine bloodshed in the wake of his fall persists, precluding the emergence of a unifying Iraqi point of view.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is beginning his second four-year term after elections that were judged largely free by the United Nations, in which multiple parties and a clear majority of the electorate participated.

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