Iraqis watch Egypt unrest with sense of irony

Baghdad, January 31: Iraqis who have long suffered from high unemployment, poverty and endemic corruption — the catalysts of unrest spreading in the Arab world — called on their own government to take notice.

Many watched footage of riots and looting on the streets of Egypt, the region’s traditional powerhouse, with a sense of irony. The scenes brought back disturbing memories of similar mayhem in Iraq, but also admiration for an uprising that came from the streets rather than in the wake of a foreign invasion.

The demonstrations come as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki grapples with complaints that he has failed to provide basic services and security as he begins a new four-year term with a fragile coalition.

“I wish similar demonstrations would take place in Iraq against the government,” said Najat Shaiyal, the 31-year-old owner of a tea stand in central Baghdad.

“The government does not provide jobs or services. We are still suffering from a lack of electricity,” he said, smoking a cigarette as he served customers in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Karradah.

Analysts and many Iraqis said people in the war-weary country were not likely to take to the streets en masse.

But U.S. officials have warned that poor services, such as electricity and water, pose one of the greatest threats to Iraq’s shaky peace.

A report released Sunday by the U.S. reconstruction watchdog agency noted that Iraqi officials are trying to improve the nation’s electricity grid with hopes of meeting power demands by 2014.

“The lack of perceived improvements in Iraq’s water, sewage, and electricity systems could lead to popular unrest more so than political or sectarian disagreements,” the special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction concluded.

Shiite hard-liner Hakim al-Zamili warned that the events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and even neighboring Jordan show that rulers must eventually answer to their people, and that the lack of jobs and services could prove the tipping point.

“Everything has an expiration date and the Arab regimes that neglected their people for decades have reached theirs,” he said.

He urged restraint region-wide, noting the damage done by widespread looting and chaos after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“Surely, what is happening in the Arab countries will expand to include Iraq if the Iraqi government fails to fulfill its promises and pledges given before the elections,” he said.

Many Iraqis from Baghdad to the semiautonomous northern Kurdish region said they were inspired by the uprisings and prepared to join protests at home.

“I wish the young people here would stage demonstrations and make an uprising — something that I would like to call the jobless revolution,” said Hazim Kadhim, a 27-year-old arts graduate who has been unemployed for four years.

Jameel Ahmed, a 40-year-old government employee in the former Sunni insurgent stronghold of Azamiyah, however, pointed out that Iraqis had been isolated for nearly three decades under Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted rule. Widespread protests against a lack of electricity last summer also failed to take root.

“The Iraqis do not have the culture of change that other nations have,” he said. “Besides that, Iraqis have been through a lot of disasters and they won’t risk having more disasters by asking for change.”

Al-Maliki has come under widespread criticism for the state of the country nearly eight years after Saddam’s ouster, and Iraqis remain bitter over months of political deadlock that followed an inconclusive March 7 election.

The prime minister seated a Cabinet on Dec. 21 but has not filled key security posts, including the defense, interior and national security ministries. Anger rose after a wave of bombings over the past two weeks that killed more than 200 people.

Some battle-hardened Iraqis chuckled when state-run TV reported that the embassy in Cairo was calling on Iraqis in Egypt to be careful and providing them with a number to call in case of emergency.

The Iraqi government also offered to evacuate its citizens living in Egypt, many of whom had fled violence in their own country.

Al-Maliki said the Egyptian government and other regimes need to give people space to express their views instead of punishing them.

“The best way to do that is the return to democracy and real and honest elections and transparency,” he said in an interview with Iraqi state TV.

Shiite cleric Sadriddin al-Gubbanchy called the regional protests an “Islamic Arab Revival” and urged the Iraqi government to appoint the new security ministers and improve services, according to the Ahlul Bayt News Agency.

“The people’s silence does not reflect their satisfaction, and their patience shall end just as the patience of the Tunisian people did,” he said during Friday prayers in the holy city of Najaf.

A few dozen activists gathered Sunday at a central square in Baghdad to show solidarity with Egyptians calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s departure. They chanted “Mubarak go out, the plane is waiting for you.”