Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Growing Pains of Democracy
Abdul-Zahra Mohammed sold religious books secretly for ten years near al-Khilani mosque in Baghdad.
Mohammed, 42, said he was trying to earn an income for his family and publicise Islamic thought by selling the forbidden texts. But he was regularly harassed and chased by security forces, and lived in fear of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Today, three years after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam, Mohammed's business is flourishing. He now has a stand where he sells his books publicly and faces no threats of censorship.
"Iraq's democracy is thriving, and no-one can take away any freedoms," said Mohammed.
But Iraq's experiment with democracy and freedom has received mixed reviews three years after the toppling of Saddam.
For large numbers of people, like lawyer Raja Hussein, 31, life has in many ways become harder since 2003. With democracy came American tanks, and as a woman she has faced many new hurdles.
"I used to work safely in the all the Baghdad courts," she said. "But today I have to wear a headscarf for fear of being killed by [extremist] groups, because I'm not veiled."
Like Hussein, many say that although in the past they were at the mercy of Saddam's security forces, they now fear American Humvees with signs warning cars behind them saying, "Don't get closer or you will be killed."
Many are particularly critical of the fact that political parties seem to be split along sectarian and ethnic lines. Their frustrations are inflamed by the fact that Iraq has had a lame-duck government for four months and has been plunged into civil conflict.
And despite the fact that Iraqis enjoy more freedoms than they did under Saddam, they still fear random violence. The conflict in the capital is restricting freedom simply because people are too afraid to leave their houses.
All this means that although they support democracy, many do not believe it is being properly practiced in Iraq.
"What is going on in Iraq is a long way from the democracy that we've never actually had," said Alia Talib, director of the international cooperation centre for media in Baghdad. "It was the will of Iraqis to live under democracy, not chaos, but that was never achieved."
Muntasir al-Amara, head of the Future Iraq Gathering's politburo, spent his life abroad because he actively opposed Saddam. He said Iraqis are not frustrated because the country lacks democratic leaders, but because democratic values are overshadowed by sectarianism and ideology.
"Parties are loyal to people based on sectarian and ethnic lines," he said. "This has kept them away from democracy."
Amara said citizenship, loyalty to the state and a practical project to implement democracy do not currently exist in Iraq, despite achievements such as the country's new constitution.
He said Iraq got "off to a wrong start … with a weak authority and democracy that has no roots or concrete application".
But for others like Mohammed, security and politics are less important than the freedom he now enjoys.
"Today I experience democracy because I sell books without cultural censorship," he said. "Despite the absence of security, I know if I talk about president [Jalal] Talabani or [prime minister Ibrahim] al-Jafari in any political way, no one is going to execute me.
"Under Saddam, a book was an excuse for execution. I would sacrifice safety for years rather than live another day under Saddam."
Emad al-Sharaa is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight