Democracy from Cairo to Madison

March 10, 2011

ON APRIL 9, 2003, images of Iraqis toppling the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square were replayed again and again on American TV sets.

Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave the U.S. media their sound bite, proclaiming "Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain."

An internal military study later disclosed that the entire event was an orchestrated psy-ops mission. U.S. troops covered Saddam's head with the American flag, just as they would later hood Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

On loudspeakers, the conquering Marines tried to coax weary Iraqis to join them in the square and take part in the toppling. Few emerged. A simple wide-angle shot of the square, had CNN or Fox chosen to broadcast it, would have revealed that there were few Iraqis present. Some media accounts generously said there were 200, but subtracting the U.S. military personnel who were in attendance providing Iraqis with sledge hammers, and the journalists who were milling around, the figure is likely closer to 60 Iraqis.

Since then, the U.S. has poured immense sums into allegedly building a democracy in Iraq. The war and occupation have sparked a mass exodus of 4 million people. There will be no democracy for the hundreds of thousands who have perished and, as we near eight years since a U.S. Marine draped the Stars and Stripes over Saddam's face, there is no democracy for those living in Iraq.

The U.S. has turned Iraq into a terror-zone and appointed itself as administrator. An entire network running on kickbacks, greased with Iraqi blood, contained within the skin of occupation, has arisen in what was once the cradle of civilization.

The U.S. method of top-down nation-building in Iraq did not end with the President George Bush, but has continued with Barack Obama's administration, much to the chagrin of voters in the U.S., the people of Iraq and citizens of the world who had hoped our new commander-in-chief would tone down U.S. imperialism and gradually bring the troops home as he had promised.

In 2008, when the Obama administration was in its infancy, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Iraq to "hustle," as United Press International put it, Iraqis into handing greater control and revenue of oil to foreign investors.

Meanwhile, the labor laws which govern Iraq's workforce are the same as under Saddam Hussein. Now Iraqis not only live in a war zone with shortages of electricity and clean drinking water, but their social relations remained locked just as they were under their former dictator.

IN EGYPT'S Tahrir Square, unlike in Firdos Square in 2003, wide-angle shots could not contain the millions of Egyptians who turned out, collectively overthrowing autocrat Hosni Mubarak. They did so without a single U.S. dollar. In fact, the U.S. had propped up Mubarak for three decades with $60 billion in military aid over the course of his reign.

The Egyptian revolution, itself inspired by the Tunisia'a "Jasmine Revolution," is spreading to other strategic allies of the U.S. in the region, including Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain, whose King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa describes his youth, when he studied at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Kansas, as "the most personally and professionally rewarding [time] of his life," according to Wikileaked diplomatic cables.

When his security forces attacked an encampment of demonstrators in the predawn at the Pearl Roundabout last month, was that something he picked up as a foreign exchange student?

But the sun rises like the people in the morning and falls like a dictator at dusk. The masses of Bahrain retook Pearl Square, tearing down the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the roundabout, and are continuing to push forward their democratic demands.

Anthony Shadid writes of the pan-Arab revolutionary fervor in the New York Times, "In the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was anger at the occupation, tinged with shame that destinies in the hands of a dictator were now determined by an invader. The experiences in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have unleashed a far different energy--indigenous narratives written with the pride of people running their own lives."

One can only imagine what would have transpired in Iraq if the U.S. hadn't invaded. Probably something similar to Tunisia and Egypt, an actual homegrown revolution and not one that installs an American puppet regime.

It now appears that after eight years of bloody U.S. occupation, democracy is coming to Iraq, and not the imported kind. Inspired by the wave of uprisings shaking the Middle East and North Africa, thousands of Iraqis have hit the streets to demonstrate against miserable wages, corruption and a lack of basic infrastructure.

Iraq has the world's second-largest oil reserves, but "democracy" under U.S. occupation means poor and working-class Iraqis don't see a penny of the revenue. To quote a recent statement from a coalition of independent Egyptian trade unions, "The right to vote is...dependent on the right to a loaf of bread." Iraqi's may have the right to vote for one or the other corrupt politician, but they still live under the tyranny of poverty.

Attempts by Iraqis to contest their predicament are met with violent suppression from the state. At least 29 people were killed by Iraqi security forces who opened fire on crowds and 300 detained in a crackdown on demonstrations two weeks ago. UPI reported that Iraqi security officials openly "described the detentions as an operation to frighten intellectuals who could influence public opinion." The U.S. said nothing of the violent crackdown perpetrated by its satellite.

THE PEOPLE of Egypt and Tunisia have confirmed once again that people in the streets and in workplaces hold far more power than those who rule society would like them to realize.

From the Middle East to the Midwest, movements are emerging that challenge this economic system, which requires militarism and exploitation in order to function. Union activists in Madison, Wis., carry signs that read "Protest like an Egyptian" as they contest a plan by their governor to annihilate their collective bargaining rights. In China, demonstrators are holding "Jasmine Sundays" to protest their own autocratic regime.

On a recent Friday evening in New York's Union Square, a group of us gathered to celebrate the victory of the Egyptian revolution and to honor the fallen. There were about 100 of us present that night--a small amount compared to those in Egypt who returned to Tahrir that same day, continuing to demand the absolution of emergency rule, a new constitution, and higher wages.

But there were still more of us in attendance than those who turned out for the staged toppling of Saddam, and there will be still more of us present this April 9 in Union Square.

As the names of the dead were read aloud, children decorated placards proclaiming a free Egypt with glue and glitter. Then, there was music. I couldn't help but feel a deep sense of hope, not only for the people of Egypt, but also in the recognition that any square can be a Liberation Square if the popular will should arise against its shackles.
Peter Rugh, New York City

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