Iraq and the Misnamed 'Arab Spring'
"Arab Spring" has become the default term for describing the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, the phrase is rooted in the assumption that there is some deeper trend underlying the recent series of protests and uprisings in the region. As Lee Smith points out, there is a widespread belief that there is "something uniquely Arab" tying together all the political upheavals, a notion perfectly illustrated in the Guardian's contention that the unrest is "about forging what both dictators and former colonizers alike have denied the people: a pan-Arab identity." Amir Taheri, writing for the London newspaper The Times, denied the existence of any "sectarian feuds" in the "Arab Spring."
However, a closer examination of the evidence reveals that the term "Arab Spring" -- peddled across the mainstream media -- is a misnomer on several counts. Most notably, nothing suggests a consistent profile that necessarily makes the protestors in the individual nations sympathetic to each other's objectives, let alone a unifying aim of a pan-Arab identity. True, the Egyptians who demonstrated in Tahrir Square found common cause with the Tunisian activists in the desire to mobilize protestors by means of social media like Twitter and Facebook. Yet we find little in common, say, between Mohamed Bouazizi -- the Tunisian vendor whose self-immolation ultimately triggered the overthrow of President Ben Ali -- and the Islamists among the Libyan rebels, some of whom fought American troops in Iraq.
In addition, consider that while the protests in Tunisia and Egypt generally sought an end to the rule of Ben Ali and Mubarak respectively, many demonstrators have not aimed for revolutionary goals. For instance, in Bahrain, the social-democratic al-Waad party and substantial parts of the Shi'i al-Wefaq movement only desire a move towards a constitutional monarchy with the same political rights for all Bahrainis. Meanwhile, in Morocco, large numbers of protestors are happy to leave King Mohammed VI with a degree of power beyond a ceremonial role, and have centered their demands on greater cultural accommodation for the Berber-speaking minority that accounts for around 35% of the country's population. In fact, it was for this reason that in his recent announcement of constitutional reforms, the Moroccan monarch agreed to grant Berber official language status alongside Arabic -- hardly indicative of a nostalgic longing for pan-Arab unity.
Similarly, blanket charges of appalling corruption ignore specific distinctions in the nature of the mainly authoritarian regimes in the region. In particular, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all rank fairly well on Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Coming in at 41st, 48th and joint 50th respectively out of 178 countries, these nations perform significantly better in the realm of transparency than EU members such as Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Italy.
More recently, we can view the development of protests in Iraq over time as a case in point of the existence of disunity and factionalism among demonstrators. Two groups that have been part of the weekly protests in Baghdad's Tahrir Square created a joint committee on June 17 and, three days later, held talks with representatives from Nouri al-Maliki's government. The conference is said to have lasted five hours and to have progressed well, according to remarks made by General Qassim Atta, who serves as spokesman on behalf of the Iraqi army's Baghdad Operations Command. This illustrates al-Maliki's carrot-and-stick approach to the protests, for the premier has also confronted demonstrators with his own supporters and a publicity campaign to garner media attention.
In any case, on June 24, the Iraqi newspaper al-Mada reported that several groups, which did not participate in the meeting with government representatives, had formed their own coordinating committee, excluding and branding as traitors the factions that did hold talks with figures in al-Maliki's administration. None of this should come as a surprise when one appreciates the diversity of the protest movement in Baghdad. Among others, the Iraqi Communist Party, university students, and an array of NGOs have all been singled out as apparently prominent members.
Naturally, the grievances that have been raised in these circumstances are highly eclectic. They range from discontent over corruption (in the 2010 CPI, Iraq was ranked 175th out of 178 countries, only surpassing Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Somalia in transparency) to calls for the immediate withdrawal of American troops still remaining in the country (they are due to leave by the 31 December deadline stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement). Others demand the release of family members arrested and detained indefinitely by the Iraqi security forces, or protest the poor provision of public services and electricity. Hence, any groups invited to meet with the government would always give rise to a feeling on the part of other factions of being left out, creating jealousy and rivalries among the activists organizing the demonstrations. Of course, this works to Nouri al-Maliki's advantage.
Unfortunately, however, too many commentators are willing to gloss over these divisions and have a tendency to view the unrest across the region through a single, dogmatic paradigm (Wikileaks, Twitter, al-Jazeera, pan-Arabism etc.), at the expense of recognizing shades of difference by country and within the nations of the Middle East and North Africa.