BAGHDAD >> Inspired by the democratic uprisings around the Middle East to push for change, young lawmakers in Parliament are running up against an ossified political elite still dominated by the exiles who followed U.S. tanks into Iraq to establish a fragile, violence-scarred democracy.
On the streets, the voices of young demonstrators and journalists have been muted by the batons and bullets of elite security units that answer only to a prime minister who officials say sends orders by text message.
An Iraq spring it is not.
In a country where the demographics skew even younger than in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the wave of political change in the region has laid bare a generation gap here split by old resentments nurtured by dictatorship and war and a youthful grasping for a stake in the new Iraq.
“The younger generation is ready to go forward; they are carrying less resentments,” said Rawaz M. Khoshnaw, 32, a Kurdish member of Parliament, in a recent interview.
But the forces of youth are blunted by the same forces that have robbed Iraqi society of so much for so long — violence, a stagnant economy, zero-sum politics and sectarianism — and that have prevented a new political class from emerging to take Iraq in to a new democratic future.
A common sentiment from nearly three dozen interviews with young Iraqis recently is a persistent disenchantment with both their political leaders and how democracy has played out here.
“The youth is the excluded class in the Iraqi community,” said Swash Ahmed, a 19-year-old law student in Kirkuk. “So they’ve started to unify through Facebook or the Internet or through demonstrations and evenings in cafes, symposiums and in universities. But they don’t have power.”
Iraq’s unity government is showing increased signs of splintering over a U.S.-backed power-sharing agreement. If the government fractures and a narrow majority of Shiite parties led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a former exile, takes control, the result would be more divisiveness and potentially more violence.
For the young, it would be another sign of the difficulty in gaining a voice in Iraq’s democracy and a counternarrative to the grand new history being written elsewhere in the Middle East.
In Basra, Salah Mahmod, 18, said politicians here are “in love with power. We don’t have democracy, and the politicians have no idea what it means.”
But it is a measure of progress that these students can speak out freely and join in street protests. One small result is that bars re-opened in Baghdad after being closed in January.
“I do not want to be so negative about it,” said Shereen Ahmed, 19, who is studying to be a teacher in Anbar province. “Yes, we are witnessing a small part of democracy now from what we see from the protests in Iraq. When Saddam was here, not even one Iraqi could go out in protest because he would be killed.”
Talal al-Zubai, 41, a lawmaker from the Iraqiya bloc — the coalition led by Ayad Allawi, who was handpicked by the United States to be prime minister in 2005 and was once attacked in exile by ax-wielding assassins sent by Saddam Hussein — decided to form a youth bloc of Parliament members after witnessing the protests in the region and here.
He said that six have joined and that 20 others have privately told him of their interest but are fearful of going public because “right now they are afraid of their leaders.”
Al-Zubai, a Sunni politician who recounts with pride the number of assassination attempts he has survived — three: by car bomb, roadside bomb and pistol — has no such fear, and he spoke openly about his disdain for the political elite during an interview in the foyer of Iraqiya’s office in Parliament.
“The problem is, those leaders have more power than we do,” said al-Zubai, who is working on his graduate studies at a college in Baghdad. “They have more money to use in elections. They have more power to use the army and police to consolidate power.”
In Iraq, the demographic trends that have underpinned the wave of democratic uprisings and altered the dynamics of power across the Middle East are more pronounced than in other countries. The median age in the country is 21, according to the CIA World Factbook. In Egypt it is 24, and in Tunisia it is 30. Nearly 40 percent of the population here is 14 or under, compared with 33 percent in Egypt and Libya and 23 percent in Tunisia. The comparisons are similar for Bahrain and Syria.
Recently, a group of young Iraqis who used Facebook to organize protests in February to demand improved services gathered in Baghdad near a church where more than 60 Christians were killed late last year. The organizers spoke of being detained and beaten by security forces after the protests, of being called homosexuals and Baathists.
Ali Abdul Zahra, a journalist, related a story of seeing his friend beaten as the officer asked, “Are you the Facebook guy?”
The officer continued, according to Zahra, “You want freedom, huh? I’ll show you freedom.”
Here, violence and politics are still intertwined — eight years after the U.S. invasion, six years after ratifying a constitution, and after several national and local elections, all ratified by international groups as free and fair. A brutal attack recently on the seat of local government in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, left nearly 60 people dead, including three members of the provincial council.
That stubborn insurgency creates a space for leaders like al-Maliki to centralize power, especially over the security forces, critics say. For example, Allawi said in an interview that as part of the power-sharing agreement to form the government late last year, it was “agreed that the units which are attached the prime minister should be disengaged.” That has not happened.
“There is no power sharing,” he said. “There is no democracy.”
Khoshnaw, the young Kurdish lawmaker, explained the gap between the generations of leaders this way: The older generation that suffered under Hussein’s government and struggled against it in exile are “defined by the resentments inside themselves. They have a hard time letting go.
“People are fed up by the faces they have seen on television for the last eight years,” he said.