Omar Al-Mashhadani, Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, Political Activist and Former Spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament, discussed recent protests in Iraq and the obstacles to the development of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa region.
On June 8, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, "Iraq and the Arab Spring" with Al-Mashhadani. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Al-Mashhadani began by discussing the context in which Iraq's recent protests have emerged. He traced part of the impetus behind the current protests back to March 2010, when the results of the parliamentary elections and accusations of fraud led to high political tension. Al-Mashhadani noted that the spontaneous demonstrations that arose that summer were a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the government and its inability to provide "the basic needs for a decent life," such as social services, education, clean water, and electricity. He pointed out the demonstrations' success in forcing the Minister of Electricity to resign, sending an "encouraging message to all the Arab countries." He connected these Iraqi demands to those of this year's uprising in the Middle East, refueled by the Arab Spring and the efforts of individuals in other countries across the region.
Al-Mashhadani then commented on the course of this year's protests in Iraq, from the Facebook planning of an Iraqi "Day of Anger" on February 25th to current demonstrations. He indicated that Iraqi protesters, unlike their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, were not calling for regime change but, rather, for greater constitutional rights and the provision of necessary social services. The Iraqi government limited the scale of the planned protests by labeling activists as Baathist, terrorist, anti-Semitic, or anti-democratic and establishing roadblocks and curfews. However, Al-Mashhadani still saw the early movements as successful, for they managed to send a message to the government which induced the government's concerned reactions. He also noted the increasing momentum of the protests in Baghdad and other cities around Iraq.
Although generally optimistic about the course of the "Iraqi Spring," Al-Mashhadani also remarked that the "setbacks to democracy increase day by day." He emphasized significant differences between the efforts in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab region, the first being that neither the United States nor Iran have expressed any willingness to see change in Iraq. He pointed out that Iraq was not mentioned in President Obama's May 19th speech on the Middle East and North Africa and that many media outlets, even within Iraq, choose to focus on protests in Syria, Libya, and Yemen instead. He also noted that protesters in Iraq cannot expect help from the military because of its lack of professional expertise and internal structure.
Al-Mashhadani discussed other obstacles to reform in Iraq, particularly the corruption in the government. He cited constitutional article 136 which allows Ministers to prevent investigations of corruption among their employees. He also pointed out that despite a multi-billion-dollar increase in the Iraqi state budget over the past decade, infrastructure and services have not been expanded; for instance, no new electrical power plants have been built, even though many Iraqis still receive only one to two hours of electricity per day. Al-Mashhadani also stated that reforms could be difficult because reshuffling the cabinet would upset many smaller factions in a government that is already
By Laura Rostad and Rachel Peterson, Middle East Program
- Public Policy Scholar