Analysis

Iraq Protests' Sectarian Character Could Be Their Saving Grace

In 2012–2013, the stormy protests against the government were mainly by Sunnis, a minority that constitutes about a third of Iraq’s population. But this bout is different

An Iraqi protester, draped in a national flag, flashes the victory sign near the capital Baghdad's Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge on October 26, 2019.
AFP

“We are the heroes of the nation and we don’t fear death, ya Allah, ya Allah. I and she and she, ya Abu Tuk, stand heroic,” the well-known Iraqi singer Hossam al-Rassam sings in a clip he created especially in honor of the Iraqi protesters. The clip, which quickly went viral, has now become the unofficial anthem of the civil uprising in Iraq. With more than 1.5 million views, it recalls the videos and songs that came out during the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. 

The tuk, an amalgam of a motorcycle, taxi and pickup, has garnered accolades in Iraq. As it has replaced ambulances, of which there aren’t enough in the country to transport the thousands of injured protesters and the dead from the bleeding streets to hospitals and clinics. Courageous drivers risk their lives to pick up the wounded together with protesters and drive from street to street, dodging the bullets of the Iraqi army and the Shi’ite militias targeting the protesters with live fire.

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For over a month now, Iraqi youth have been flooding the streets, staging sit-down strikes in front of government buildings, throwing stones at soldiers, and demanding regime change. Like in other countries, graffiti artists, street singers and poster designers are also playing an inseparable and important part in encouraging the uprising. 

Near Tahrir Square in the heart of Baghdad, protesters took over a 14-story building called “the Turkish Restaurant,” named after a restaurant in this luxury office building in the early 1980s, and of which now only a skeleton remains after it was bombed in the second Gulf war. It’s from here that they lead the struggle. The building has now been dubbed “Mount Uhud,” after the site of a battle fought by Muslim warriors at the time of the prophet Mohammed against the Quraish tribe, which refused to accept Islam. This distant history has returned to fuel the anger and the actions of the protest movement in Iraq. It is difficult to see when and how this will end.

Hundreds of young people living in the building, which overlooks Republic Bridge which connects the two parts of Baghdad, and Tahrir Square, climb it via a dangerous, narrow staircase with no railings, one at a time in each direction. They get their food and bottles of water in packages from their supporters who tie them to ropes to be hoisted up from the ground. There’s no electricity or running water in this ghost of a building, surrounded by scaffolding that could fall at any minute. There is concern that some of the rooms are exposed to radiation from uranium bombs in the previous war. But at least there, they are protected from army snipers and tear gas lobbed at the crowds in the streets below.

Anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, October 28, 2019.
Hadi Mizban/AP

Their weapons are slingshots, from which they fling stones pried from the walls at the security forces. These are young people with nothing to lose. Most of them have been unemployed for months. Some of them are university graduates who have joined the sorry statistics of people living below the poverty line who can’t make a living, purchase an apartment or start a modest business.

The country with such huge potential for wealth and some of the largest oil reserves on earth has bled billions of dollars into private pockets of the well connected. Senior ruling party officials, contractors who received small fortunes for projects that were never built, and army commanders who lied about the number of soldiers in their units just to sweep their salaries into their own pockets.

In the streets leading to Tahrir Square, the young people are busy painting graffiti on the walls, some with simple slogans calling to bring down the regime alongside beautiful pictures in which the tuk tuk stars. Iraqi women artists were photographed next to a huge wall painting showing figures fighting the security forces. Women art students, physicians and medical students make the rounds of the protesters to take care of the injured.

One of these women, Dr. Saba Mahdawi, has already become a symbol of the uprising after she was abducted by unknown assailants on her way back home from Tahrir Square. Her picture was posted to social media showing her wearing a striped blouse, a kaffiyieh, a surgical mask to protect her from the tear gas, and making a V for victory sign with both hands.

Mahdawi is not the only one to have been abducted or disappeared. Reports in Iraq tell of dozens of people whose families don’t know where they were taken or even whether they are alive or dead. Now, another wave of protest has been launched by those families, to demand that their relatives be found, and the release of thousands of detainees swept up during the demonstrations.

Do these protesters have a chance of achieving their goals? In 2012–2013, the stormy protests against the government lasted for a year. But they were mainly by Sunnis, a minority that constitutes about a third of Iraq’s population. The government, which is controlled by Shi’ites and the army, put down the protests, and some 200 people were killed.

A demonstrator gestures during the ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq November 10, 2019
ALAA AL-MARJANI/ REUTERS

According to Iraqi media reports, this time, the Sunni population is not taking part in the demonstrations, mainly because of their frustration and a sense of uselessness they carry as a result of that bout. But perhaps precisely because the protest this time is by Shi’ites and focuses on Baghdad and the south of the country, it could achieve more meaningful results. 

The criticism and protest by some against Iran, the anger at the Shi’ite militias and the fact that the disenfranchised group comes from the Shi’ite majority might persuade the government that this time it should listen to them.