By Liz Sly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; A13
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.
Yet all the ills that provoked Egyptians and Tunisians to take to the streets are thriving in Iraq, too, demonstrating that it is possible to have both democracy and human-rights abuses, an elected government and chronic corruption, and constitutional guarantees of freedom alongside intimidation and fear.
"Elections are a mechanism, a means, but they are not the destination," said Hadi Jalu of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory. "We have a sort of democracy in Iraq, but this democracy is being run in a very bad way."
Torture remains widespread in Iraqi prisons, and thousands of Iraqis are detained for long periods without trial, according to an Amnesty International report last week. The watchdog group Transparency International ranks Iraq the fourth most corrupt country in the world, with Egypt faring far better, at No. 80. The Iraqi government estimates overall unemployment at 15 percent, higher than Egypt's official rate of 10 percent.
U.S. officials say the recent demonstrations offer evidence that democracy is flourishing.
"These are healthy indicators of the Iraqi people's freedom and ability to exercise their freedom of speech," Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the former deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said as he departed last week.
But many Iraqis question how free they are. An expanding roster of rules regulating the media and the closure of media outlets critical of the government, including the recently shuttered Baghdadiya TV station and the Arabic service of al-Jazeera, have raised concerns about press freedoms. Activists say a maze of bureaucratic requirements makes it almost impossible to secure permission to hold demonstrations.
"So many things are happening in Iraq that suggest freedom and rights are jeopardized. Step by step, they are eating them away," said Ali Anbori, a health consultant and civil rights activist.
Although Iraqis are undeniably freer to speak out than they were under Hussein, "there is a kind of ghost hanging over the head of every Iraqi person," he said. "You cannot say everything you want to say all the time. You have to be diplomatic and cautious because you never know what might happen to you. If they don't kill you, they might harm you in other ways or put you in a position where you can't get a job."
The fears are rooted largely in the lingering violence and the fierce political and sectarian rivalries still underpinning Iraq's fragile political system. The factions now joined in government are the same ones that sponsored insurgents and militias a few years back; all still have armed supporters, and any of them could take revenge against critics, Iraqis say.
And that also calls into question the likelihood that Iraq will see any kind of meaningful or unified protest movement emerge.
One of the new Facebook activists behind the Biggest Ever Youth Sit-In group was so nervous about meeting a journalist that he changed the location three times and came accompanied by a bodybuilder cousin for protection.
"I'm just afraid of some kind of act of violence -I won't say specifically from the government, but from people who don't like what we're doing," said Omar Fabiano, a 21- year-old student who requested that he be identified only by his Facebook nickname because of his concerns.
When the time came for the protest he had called for, he didn't show up, and his cousin said he was sleeping.
Special correspondents Ali Qeis and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.