Middle East

Arab unrest: Iraq's struggle a warning for protesters

Women demanding the release of detainees in Baghdad, April
Image caption Hundreds of people are said to have been detained for taking part in Baghdad demonstrations

In January, when the flames of revolt were starting to spread through the Arab world, Iraqi leaders rather smugly assumed they would be immune, but they were wrong.

"It can't happen here - we've got democracy already," said one.

A month later there were serious disturbances in Baghdad and many other cities in all parts of the country.

More than a dozen people were killed and hundreds injured.

The grievances were basically the same as those driving the Arab uprisings in many countries - anger at governmental corruption and failure to deliver services and jobs to a growing number of young people, and mounting disquiet at perceived dictatorial and repressive tendencies on the part of the country's new rulers.

The protests have continued. Every Friday, demonstrators gather in Baghdad's Tahrir (Liberation) Square to vent their many grievances and demands.

The northern city of Mosul has been partly paralysed by a prolonged sit-in by thousands of protesters demanding the withdrawal of US forces and the release of Iraqi detainees.

Kurdish complaints

Ironically, the most serious unrest sparked by the Arab drive for democracy has been in the part of Iraq where democracy has supposedly been entrenched for nearly 20 years, and which is not even Arab - Kurdistan.

Image caption Sulaimaniya has seen near daily demonstrations since mid-February

The region's second city, Sulaimaniya - which traditionally enjoys a reputation for liberalism - has seen a violent crackdown by Kurdish security forces against protesters demanding an end to what they see as corrupt and repressive rule by the two big parties, the KDP and the PUK.

Now the complaint of many is that it's impossible to get a job or win a contract without going through one of the all-pervasive parties.

The region's President Masoud Barzani has promised reforms in a few months.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan government's security forces are accused of suppressing dissent and intimidating the Kurdish press and media.

A prominent Kurdish writer, Rebin Hardi, was among those recently detained and beaten up.

After being released he said he had wept while he was being held in detention, because he would never have believed that Kurds could treat fellow Kurds in the same way that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein once did.

Secret detention centres

The same sentiments are being voiced by some in Arab parts of Iraq, which have followed a similar pattern after the Western-led intervention to overthrow Saddam in 2003.

Religious factions largely filled the vacuum and entrenched themselves after the dissolution of his monolithic Baath Party.

"We have detentions, abductions from the street, we're thrown into secret prisons, and some just disappear and nobody knows where they are, for months or years," said Ala Nabil, a civil rights activist who has been detained and beaten up twice for taking part in Baghdad demonstrations.

"We saw such things under the Baathist regime, and we see it again today in the government of Nouri al-Maliki. People are afraid to talk, just as they were under Saddam. In a way it's worse, because this is being done under the slogan of freedom and democracy."

Mr Nabil was detained by uniformed security forces while leaving a Tahrir Square demonstration on a recent Friday.

He was handed to armed plain-clothes operatives and ended up with hundreds of others in a detention centre near the old Muthanna airport in Baghdad.

He was beaten and humiliated, and accused of being a Baathist, a communist and a terrorist.

Mr Nabil said the main charge seemed to be that he had offended the state by criticising Prime Minister Maliki, though he had criticised other Iraqi leaders too.

Eight days later he was freed, but meanwhile a colleague campaigning for his release, Firas Ali, was seized by armed security operatives from an NGO office.

Now Ala Nabil is campaigning for Firas Ali's release.

Civil society NGOs say their offices are routinely watched by security elements, who infiltrate demonstrations to take photos of them.

In a recent BBC interview Prime Minister Maliki denied the existence of secret detention centres, and said that all detentions were carried out under judicial arrest warrants.

"There is no reason for us to maintain secret prisons. Iraq today is not a dictatorship for people to be afraid of."

"We are not alarmed by demands and demonstrations, in fact, we encourage them," Mr Maliki said.

After the dictator

Eight years into its own experiment in democracy - its dictator overthrown by outside military intervention rather than a mass public uprising - Iraq has clearly not been taken by aspiring Arab democrats as a model to be emulated.

One Iraqi civil rights activist who visited Cairo recently said the Egyptians were instead looking to Iraq for lessons on what to avoid, especially the kind of sectarianism that led to mass carnage in 2006-7.

Image caption Almost a year after elections, Mr Maliki has yet to appoint several key ministers

By contrast , Iraqi democrats are looking rather enviously at Tunisia and Egypt, whose peoples rose up and removed their own dictators in their own way, rather than having outsiders with their own agendas and clients do it for them.

"Now [Iraqis] know that democracy is not only about [voting on] election days," said Dr Ali al-Anbori, from the Committee for the Defence of the Constitution.

"They have come to realise that without calling for these rights, and going to demonstrations and sit-ins, these political blocs don't have an interest in providing good services and giving rights to the people."

There have been some signs of response from the government, although critics are sceptical.

Prime Minister Maliki, who fought tenaciously to retain his job for a second term, has pledged that he will not seek a third in 2014.

He has also set a deadline of 100 days for government ministries to shape up and meet targets. Activists are counting down the days till 7 June when the deadline expires.

They expect protests to redouble if targets are not met.

There are many other reasons why Iraq is not being looked to by the region as a good example of a functioning democracy - an experiment so far unique in the Arab world, with the qualified exception of Lebanon's highly sectarian political system.

Political feuds have ensured that there has not been a full working cabinet in Baghdad since 2007.

After the last general elections in March 2010 (held months late because of disputes) it took a record eight months to produce a government. That administration, headed by Mr Maliki, is still short of several key ministers - notably the major security portfolios - in a country still facing huge security challenges.

The power-sharing deal underpinning the new Shia-dominated government, between Mr Maliki and the man whose secular-Sunni coalition actually won slightly more votes, Iyad Allawi, is not really working and the two are constantly at odds.

Iraq's message to Egyptians, Tunisians, and others who have yet to make the first step towards democracy, is that removing the dictator is in many ways the easy bit.

However the transition from decades of dictatorship to democracy begins, it is necessarily a messy and difficult process with no easy answers or shortcuts.