"I'm optimistic; you need to be," said Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar Omar Al-Mashhadani about the situation in Iraq. "There is some improvement and more awareness in civil society."
But frustrations run high among the people. Protests in Iraq in recent months, inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, echoed some of the same concerns as their Arab Spring brethren. They have unleashed their exasperation using many of the same tools common to the Arab Spring: social media, especially Facebook; photos; jokes. They also choose Fridays for demonstrations, because Friday is the official day off in Muslim countries.
Unlike Arab Spring protesters in other countries, Iraqis do not necessarily want to overthrow their regime. But they too are calling for basic services—access to clean water, electricity, health care, and education—and constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. They too are discouraged by high unemployment and growing poverty.
"Iraqis want their constitutional rights that should be basic to any government for their citizens," said Al-Mashhadani, a political activist who is a former spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament. Grievances also include the incarceration of political detainees and the rampant arrests of demonstrators.
Another growing frustration is what Al-Mashhadani called "the dark side of the international media." Protests throughout the Arab world are getting coverage, he said, except in Iraq. The international media, particularly U.S. media, is operating under the premise that democracy has been achieved in Iraq, he said. But significant problems prevail and Iraqis want their voices heard.
On February 25, thousands of Iraqis protested in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, and in cities across the country, in what was called "the Day of Anger." This rally "was a landmark in Iraq," said Al-Mashhadani, "but it did not achieve the result we wanted" because media attention was focused elsewhere.
Another concern among Iraqis, said Al-Mashhadani, is the continued presence of U.S. troops, though the public and government have mixed reviews on troop withdrawal. On the one hand, "Since 2003, everyone in the Iraqi government wants U.S. troops out as soon as possible," he said. "But some politicians do worry what happens after [a pullout.] Our security forces are not qualified to handle it…If the U.S. is out, Iraq could fall into the hands of the militia."
The Iraqi government has relied on U.S. troops not just for security and troop training, but also for intelligence. "Some Iraqi officials are willing to ask U.S. troops to stay but can't admit it publicly or they might lose their credibility," he said.
There are also pressing questions going forward, including who would be in the next government. With U.S. troops based in Iraq, Al-Mashhadani said, there is a sense that they would intervene in an emergency.
Despite the frustrations and uncertainties, Al-Mashhadani remains hopeful. "It would be easy to pick up and leave, but what keeps us there—with all the risks and threats of arrests and assassinations—is the idea that you can do something," he said. "Progress is slow, but day by day, we have to go on. And I know the good shall prevail."