Revolution in Egypt, Evolution in Iraq

On the front page of Tuesday's New York Times: Democracy protests in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain. But I want to talk about Iraq. As I mentioned on this page last week, the U.S. miscalculated badly there, spending hundreds of billions of dollars trying to bring democracy to the Middle East. But, in an ironic twist, as the winds of change sweep through the region, true democracy has not come to Iraq.

History teaches that real change is organic and comes from within; it cannot be imposed from without.

To be sure, there have been demonstrations, here and there, across Iraq over the last 20 days, as activists have attempted to harness the anger that led to the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt and inspired the wave of democratic spirit across the Middle East.

But let us not confuse inspiration with despair. Last weekend, a young father in northern Iraq, reportedly hopeless after failing to find steady employment, set himself aflame — an eerie imitation of the self-immolation that sparked the uprising in Tunisia and then continued across the Middle East.

Yes, Bagdad does suffer some of the same desperate conditions that gave rise to revolution in Cairo: joblessness, crushing poverty, crumbling infrastructure, disgust with a corrupt political class and masses of young people who meet online to organize.

Cairo even has it’s own Tahrir Square — albeit a very different kind of place. In Baghdad, Tahrir Square is a little plaza on the edge of a traffic circle. But "Tahrir" still means "Liberation" in Baghdad. And yesterday, 200 people met to protest there, waving colorful flowers and balloons. They chanted political slogans such as "We love Iraq" and "We need a change." There is that word again: Change.

But change from what, to what?

The first part — Change from What? — is easy. According to official numbers, one in five Iraqis is unemployed (the overall rate of unemployment is probably higher). Joblessness, as in most places, is concentrated among young people. The infrastructure is in a state of decay. Iraqis have only a few hours of electricity each day; summer is right around the corner and it promises to be a scorcher.

The second part – Change to What? – is not so simple. Iraqis don’t want a revolution. Think about it. Seven years after the American invasion, the U.S. occupation began to wind down even as the country trudged through months of political turmoil, in the wake of an indecisive parliamentary election held in March 2010.

In August 2010, President Obama declared an end to the American combat mission in Iraq. But it was not until November that the country's political leadership agreed on a new government of unity that would give Prime Minister al-Maliki a second term, and even then it took another month for the losing candidate, Ayad Allawi, to give his grudging (and conditional) acceptance. Parliament approved the deal just days before a constitutionally mandated deadline.

After that political slog, Iraqis are likely not interested in toppling their newly formed coalition government.

No, their needs are more basic: jobs, running water, electricity, safer streets. (Despite an overall decline in violence bombings, assassinations and other attacks left more than 100 civilians dead last month). Whatever may be happening in the rest of the region, Iraq is about evolution, not revolution.

The biggest demonstration thus far was earlier Tuesday, in the western city of Fallujah. 800 protesters marched through the city that was once the bastion of the insurgency in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. In the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, demonstrators turned out in traditional dress to call for better basic services, lower fuel prices, more jobs.

"There is no life without electricity," "Give us food," and "Stop corruption," their signs reportedly read.

Protesting is a right guaranteed under the Iraqi constitution. U.S. officials say the current demonstrations offer evidence that democracy is flourishing. Present, maybe. Flourishing, not.

As our own history instructs, it's possible to have duly elected officials and corruption; constitutional protections and human rights violations, notions of liberty and justice coupled with scare tactics and intimidation.

In addition to the call for jobs and services, Iraqis may be starting to question how free they really are. Reporters on the ground cite rules regulating media and the recent closure of media outlets critical of the government, including the Arabic service of al-Jazeera, as evidence that freedom of the press is restricted. Activists say bureaucratic requirements make it near impossible to protest, constitutional guarantees notwithstanding.

Elections are a means to democracy, they are not the end; elections are an indicator democracy may exist, but they are not proof. Nearly a decade and billions of dollars after we invaded Iraq, in the name of democracy, the people may not settle for a democracy in name only.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.