The U.S.-based women’s rights group MADRE (6/10/11) reported that members of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq—its partner organization in Baghdad—and other protesters were brutally beaten and sexually assaulted in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on June 10 by government-sponsored mobs. What were they demonstrating for that so threatened Iraq’s government?
“For months, young women have been demonstrating for democracy in Tahrir Square, joining thousands of others who believe in a vision of an Iraq that is democratic and rooted in human rights,” OWFI director Yanar Mohammed told MADRE. “But instead of being heard, they have been viciously attacked in an attempt to silence them.”
How to make sense of the fact that protesters are demanding the fundamentals of democracy in a country we’ve been repeatedly told by media already is a democracy—albeit a “fragile,” “nascent” or “rudimentary” one—one that the U.S. government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to establish? In the top U.S. newspapers, it seemed the easiest way out of that conundrum was simply not to examine it too closely.
When the Washington Post and New York Times covered the June demonstrations (6/11/11), they didn’t even use the word “democracy” in their reports; both simply called participants “anti-government protesters.” The Times gave the story only two paragraphs at the end of an article about unrelated military activity, and framed the mob attacks on the protesters as a pro-government demonstration that happened to attack a small group of “anti-government protesters.” A week earlier, the Times (6/3/11) explained that the movement “had quieted to a near whisper lately,” in part because of an ebbing of “public interest.”
The June demonstration grew out of a nationwide day of protests on February 25, known as the “Day of Rage,” in which tens of thousands of Iraqis across the country took to the streets to demand civil and political rights, and to protest against corruption and unemployment and the lack of basic services like water and electricity. In many places, they demanded the resignation of local and national officials—in a few cases, successfully. They were met with violent repression by security forces that killed at least 20; many were beaten or tortured, and journalists were detained and attacked (Amnesty International, 4/12/11).
The two papers’ coverage of that February uprising were hesitant to draw parallels to the rest of the Arab Spring. The Post (2/26/11) wrote that “the demonstrators who sparked the crackdown were calling for reform, not revolution” in Iraq’s “fledgling democracy.” The paper repeated that distinction the next day: “The Iraq protests were different from many of the revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in that demonstrators were calling for reform, not for getting rid of the government.”
Times editors (3/14/11) echoed the Post, pointing out that Iraqis, unlike other Arab Spring protesters, weren’t calling for “the political system’s overthrow”; the editors found it “reassuring” that the protests in Iraq were done “without picking up guns.”
The Post’s editorial page (3/6/11), for its part, took heart in the fact that despite the government’s violent assault on dissent, “Iraq is also a rudimentary democracy.” The editorial acknowledged some of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s unseemlier tactics, like “arresting and beating journalists and intellectuals,” dispatching “black-suited special forces” to suppress demonstrators, and taking “control of electoral authorities.” But none of that dissuaded the Post from expecting positive changes—as long as the U.S. stays involved:
That strong foreign involvement implies less democratic control by a country’s citizens seemed not to have crossed the minds of the Post’s editors.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (4/13/11) appeared completely unfazed by Iraq’s democracy problem:
But can Iraqbe deemed a true “electoral democracy”? And is it actually so different from the rest of the Middle East and North Africa? While the UN called the 2010 parliamentary elections “credible” (New York Times, 3/27/10), they were marred by allegations of fraud, intimidation and vote-buying, and by the disqualifications of many candidates who supposedly had Baathist ties—a majority from the parties of al-Maliki’s chief rivals (Financial Times, 3/11/10; Congressional Research Service, 5/18/11). And for several months after the elections, parliament’s inability to form a ruling majority left Iraqis without a representative government, as al-Maliki ruled in the vacuum and increased his authoritarian grip.
As MADRE director Yifat Susskind told Extra!, the Iraqi people “know that real democracy means more than just elections.” According to Freedom House (1/13/11), a conservative-leaning group that rates “rights and freedoms integral to democratic institutions” in each country based on an analysis of political rights and civil liberties, Iraq fails to meet the minimum criteria to be classified as an electoral democracy. The country ranks “not free” in the group’s 2011 report—at the same level on Freedom House’s 14-point scale as Egypt, Bahrain, Algeria and Yemen. (Afghanistan, the U.S.’s other years-long experiment in “democracy-building,” actually scores one point worse, though it has thus far avoided the kind of sustained large-scale protests that have broken out in the Middle East and North Africa.) And Freedom House notes that political participation in Iraq is “seriously impaired” by violence, corruption and foreign (read: U.S.) influence, and that civil liberties and rule of law exist on paper but much less so in practice.
Given the lack of freedom and access to political participation, and the repression facing protesters, how significant are the distinctions between Iraq’s “democracy” and its “authoritarian” neighbors? It’s worth noting, too, that the other protests across North Africa and the Middle East began as calls for reform rather than revolution—and the majority have been largely nonviolent. The “democratic” label the White House has applied to the Iraqi government, however misleading, seems to skew journalists’ analysis.
A front-page New York Times article on April 14, headlined, “Iraq Crushing Youths’ Efforts to Be Heard,” took a more in-depth look at youth-led protests rocking Iraq, but remained largely sanguine. After quoting an 18-year-old protester in Basra who argued, ‘’We don’t have democracy, and the politicians have no idea what it means,” the Times countered with a more upbeat note: “But it is a measure of progress that these students can speak out freely and join in street protests.”
Such attempts at optimism sat uneasily with information later in the article that “organizers spoke of being detained and beaten by security forces after the protests.”
The Times (3/23/11) provided a rare acknowledgment of the reality behind Iraq’s “democracy” in a piece on the country taking the helm of the Arab League. Noting the persistent violence, corruption and authoritarian moves by al-Maliki, the paper pointed out the “unintentional irony” of Iraq acting as a leader and example for other Middle Eastern countries moving toward democracy. But the Times was quick to place the blame on Iraqis—for lacking the democratic “mentality” (as an anonymous diplomat put it) in a country “where religion is intertwined with politics” (according to “many critics,” likewise anonymous ).
The Times seems to accept the common misconception that Islam and democracy are radically opposed to each other, but other countries disprove that stereotype: Both Indonesia and Mali are Islamic democracies that Freedom House ranks “free” and truly democratic. Both states also previously had long authoritarian traditions, like Iraq, proving that while it may be difficult, such histories can be overcome.
Curiously, the role of the U.S. in “democracy-building” in Iraq received little scrutiny. Reports on this effort (e.g., Stanford Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, 2/08) note that there’s little true understanding of what might work, so that even those developing and implementing policies and projects with the best of intentions are “often reinventing the wheel or making it up as they go along.”
The intentions of “democracy-builders” aren’t always the best, however, and military objectives tend to trump establishing civilian democratic rule; for example, the Defense Department plays a major role in the “democracy” project, using troops to provide aid and reconstruction services and blurring the lines between civilian and military rule.
And as MADRE’s Susskind argues: “Genuine democracy would be counter to U.S. interests in Iraq. After all, the two main goals of the U.S. in Iraq—controlling oil reserves and building military bases—would never have been achieved through a democratic process.”