Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqis Enthused by Egypt Protests

But despite anger over ineffective government, there’s little sign of them emulating the North African revolts.
By Abeer Mohammed, Hazim al-Sharaa
  • Baghdad protesters demonstrate in support of the anti-Mubarak Egyptian movement last week. (Photo: Hazim al-Sharaa)
    Baghdad protesters demonstrate in support of the anti-Mubarak Egyptian movement last week. (Photo: Hazim al-Sharaa)

Iraqis, frustrated with high unemployment, poor services and corruption, have been fixated by media coverage of Cairo’s mass demonstrations – though seen reluctant to follow suit.

In cabs and teahouses, through text messages and social media, Iraqis have been tracking the protests in North Africa with an enthusiasm typically reserved for football matches.

“I never watched any news on TV, but now I am following it daily,” said Namareq Sultan, 22, a medical student in Baghdad.

“Even though we are busy with exams, we are making time to discuss the situation in Egypt. We want to have these kinds of protests. People there are speaking their minds while we are keeping quiet.”

“I used to listen to songs while driving through Baghdad, but now I am listening to the news in Egypt. I am eager to hear what will happen next,” said Abu Alaa, 34, a taxi driver.

Karar, a 12-year-old newspaper vendor in Baghdad's Karrada street, said, “People are now looking only for newspapers that have news about Egypt. Mine are only about Iraq, so my business is hurting.”

Seemingly emboldened by what they’ve seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, some Iraqis – fed up with the way their country is run – have staged demonstrations over the past week. But the gatherings have drawn relatively small numbers – the largest in east Baghdad, over power cuts, attracted just 3,000 people.

This, despite the fact that public anger has been simmering for years because of poor living standards and the government’s perceived lack of responsiveness to citizens’ needs.

Nearly eight years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime – which many Iraqis hoped would improve their quality of life – electricity and water shortages continue to be the norm.

In recent days, undercurrents of discontent have risen to the surface from Baghdad to Basra – and clerics have warned the government to heed citizens’ emands.

And it seems they have to some extent.

The state-run newspaper Al-Sabah reported this week that a government committee is considering cutting the salaries of high-ranking officials, the president and the prime minister. The funds would be used to improve the lives of the poor.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has already volunteered to cut his salary by half and provide citizens 15,000 dinars (12 US dollars) in cash every month on top of their food rations.

At the same time, the planning ministry revealed that it will create four million new jobs to curb unemployment, which the government estimates at 15 per cent. Analysts believe the actual figure is much higher.

The authorities, though, claim they’re not overly worried about the protests, with the Ahmed al-Khafaji, a senior interior ministry official, saying unlike Egypt the Iraqi demonstrators have not called for “radical political change”.

“Most were local demonstrations calling for better services,” he said. “This is a positive trend that is in line with democracy. They are holding officials accountable.

“We are a country in transition and the services aren’t good. It’s the people’s right to demonstrate.”

Yet the evidence suggests that few are prepared to do so. Quite why is a moot point here.

Some analysts suggest that security concerns and growing apathy are the reason for the poor turnouts.

Ihsan Mohammed, a 30-year-old former military officer now working as a taxi driver in Baghdad, says people feel their voice carries little weight, “The problem in Iraq is you can say whatever you want, but no one listens,” Mohammed said.

“Even if you take to the streets here, the government might only respond to ten per cent of your demands. And this wouldn’t be because of the people; they would make changes because of international pressure.”

Others suggest that the small demonstrations reflect the absence of a protest culture.

Hashem Hasan, a professor of media studies in Baghdad University, said, “Iraqis are so far behind – they are influenced by tribal traditions rather than democracy.”

Civil society groups have done little to mobilise the public, he said, and show them how they can make their voices heard in a democracy.

Yet there are some indications that Iraqi politicians are watching Tunisia and Egypt with some concern.

Al-Sabah quoted parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi last week as saying that “the popular fervour that is rocking neighbouring countries confirms that ignoring people’s dreams and deluding them with false promises during campaigns causes explosions”.

He continued that Iraqi lawmakers recognise the seriousness of their citizens’ concerns, specifically citing unemployment, displacement, homelessness, weak educational institutions and poor services. “We urge that quick solutions be found so we won't have a bigger problem that can't be handled,” he said.

Abeer Mohammed is IWPR Iraq’s senior local editor. Hazim al-Sharaa is an IWPR Iraq television producer. They are based in Baghdad.