Of all the protests raging across the Middle East, Iraq stands out because it has already undergone recent radical political change. Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003 and Iraqis have held half a dozen rounds of elections, but people still do not feel their government represents them. The lesson is clear: going to the ballot box does not by itself constitute a democracy.
This might be because eight years after the end of autocracy, citizens and elected officials seem to have little or no understanding of democratic institutions. Friday's "day of rage" protests, when as many as 15 were killed, showed that Iraqis have been unable to differentiate between rallying for a cause, and simply expressing frustration mixed with violence. In one example, angry protesters in the governorate of Wasit burnt the mayor's offices, a key institution of local government.
Harbouring grievances against the elected mayor, who was elected in 2008, is legitimate. But setting fire to a public building, which actually is owned by the protesters as much as anybody else, shows the lack of a distinction between the mayor and public offices in general. And protesters shouldn't be resorting to arson anyway.
Like ordinary citizens, Iraqi officials seem unable to differentiate between the private and public spheres. Since 2003, Iraqi politicians have been treating the state like the spoils of the victory against the Saddam regime. Politicians have made ministries into personal fiefs, which they use to distribute rewards to their personal loyalists. Many if not most politicians have embezzled public funds and use patronage to foster their tribal-style leadership.
These politicians may only be able to wield absolute control over a few levers of power, but it is a microcosm of the autocratic regimes of Tunisian's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam's bygone era. Instead of having a single person at the helm of the entire patronage network, Iraq today has dozens of mini-autocrats, each controlling their slice of public funds to nourish their own networks.
Instead of state institutions functioning in the public interest, too often they are hijacked by private individuals. This has led to popular frustration despite seven years of elections, a free media and endless political debate. One common phrase compares the situation now to the former regime: "Saddam is gone, but we now have 100 Saddams."
Fortunately, in Iraq, like elsewhere in the changing Middle East, not all news is bad. Despite the odds, democracy is evolving. In 2003, a reporter with one of the many satellite TV channels conducted a "man in the street" survey of opinions about democracy in the country.
"Democracy? Where is this democracy? There is no electricity, there is no water, and I have been waiting in line to fill my gas tank," a middle aged man said. For most Iraqis at the time, there was no difference between an effective democracy and a queue at a gas station.
Since then, Iraqis have been slowly developing a deeper, although sometimes still troubling, political awareness. During the run-up to Iraq's parliamentary elections held in March 2009, another TV station did a report on favoured candidates. A young man said: "I will elect whomever of these politicians can steal money and pass it on to the people and those around him.
"There are some politicians who steal and keep the money for themselves, and there are others who steal and give to others."
While the country is fortunate to have the second largest oil reserves in the world, there is no amount of national wealth that can excuse the corruption of Iraqi politicians and their gifts to their cronies. For Iraqis to reap the benefits of their natural resources, politicians have to assume a different role - or be forced to. Instead of emperors of their own little kingdoms, Iraq is in desperate need of technocrats. The answer may begin with paying better salaries that will attract civil servants instead of profiteers - although many parliamentarians have drawn considerable salaries in recent months while achieving remarkably little.
The recent nationwide unrest has shaken the ruling elite, and lawmakers announced in the last two days cuts to their salaries and bonuses. Of course, nobody could promise to stop embezzling funds, although the protests were really about corruption and not salaries.
Iraq, like many other Arab countries, still has a long way to go before democracy takes deep root and governance improves.
Meanwhile, Iraqi politicians are being transformed from tribal leaders into elected officials, and ordinary people from followers into citizens with political rights. The process is certainly not completed yet, but it is on track.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries where despots might soon collapse, democracy should not be expected overnight. The process will differ from one nation to another and setbacks should be expected.
Like Iraq, the transformation process has started in some Arab countries and democracy should be expected to start budding here and there. After the revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Middle East will never be the same again.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a journalist currently based in Washington DC
Tuesday, March 1, 2011