Getting used to democracy in Iraq
By Waleed Ibrahim
Before making a recent speech, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the following: “I was given a specific time in which to talk, so I have to be brief. I was informed that there are other people speaking after me.”
I was shocked. Did I just hear an Iraqi leader sound and act as if he were
an ordinary citizen who had to make way for others? Maybe he was joking, but he looked serious. Could this really be an Iraqi leader who wasn’t going to pontificate on and on to his heart’s content?
During the reign of the former president Saddam Hussein, who was deposed by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, no one even dared to look at their watch while he was speaking. Saddam’s speeches
lasted at least an hour. Sometimes he would speak for many.
In that speech he gave a short while ago, the prime minister of the post-invasion Iraq, Maliki, spoke about federalism and autonomy for the provinces. He said he believed authority should lie with the central government, not with local executives, but he told Iraqis it was up to them to decide. “I am stating my opinion as an Iraqi person, the decision is yours,” he said in the televised speech.
His opinion? Not a diktat? When Saddam was around, people used to say: “When Saddam has spoken, Iraq has spoken.”
Maliki’s apparent deference to the Iraqi people gives some Iraqis hope that a country still reeling from car and suicide bomb attacks may be on a path toward eventual, durable democracy. A history of authoritarianism in the Middle East and Iraq’s legacy of dictatorship suggest it won’t be easy.
Maliki’s increasing assertiveness as violence drops across the country and U.S. forces prepare to withdraw from cities by the middle of next year and the country as a whole by the end of
2011, has given some of his political opponents — and partners — cause to wonder about his ambitions. But many Iraqis are hopeful.
Ali al-Sai’di, a 75 year-old Iraqi professor living in Jordan, fled abroad during Saddam’s reign. He fled Iraq again after Saddam was toppled and Iraq descended into a frenzy of sectarian bloodshed.
“It is a golden opportunity that is in our hands now … If democracy succeeds in Iraq, all these sacrifices will have been worthwhile,” he said.
Millions of Iraqis, still struggling with little electricity and the threat of violence, are undoubtedly sceptical. But many, cheered by the drop in violence and the prime minister’s tone and demeanour, say they are willing to give hope a chance.