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A Fragile Inheritance

An Iraqi Youth Uprising against a Dire Economy and Foreign Intervention

Since October 2019, a protest movement has emerged in Iraq, led principally by high school and university students. Baghdad.

ISSUE:  Fall 2020

Protesters in Tahrir Square.

 
On October 1, 2019, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets and engaged in acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins, and protests launching the Tishreen Revolution—primarily in Baghdad and the southern provinces. The youth-dominated demonstrations call for an overhaul to the country’s corrupt political system—and, by extension, the influence of Iran in Iraq’s politics; for the government to address high unemployment, particularly among the country’s younger generations, where it stands at 25 percent; and for improvements to public services. There have also been widespread calls for the rejection of US interference in Iraqi matters following the assassination of Major General Qassem Suleimani in early 2020. 

 

Protesters dance in front of their encampment in Tahrir Square. <i>Tahrir</i> translates to “liberation” or “freedom.”

In my country we disagree, as we do with everything, on the names of things. For instance, the events of April 9, 2003, when American troops entered central Baghdad, have variously been called “a liberation,” “the fall,” “an invasion,” and “an occupation.” Albert Camus once said, “To name things wrongly is to add to the misfortune of the world.” Casting caution aside, I’ll name what happened on October 1, 2019, as the beginning of a revolution. In doing so, I part ways with many of the names used in the Iraqi media, including “Intifada,” “demonstrations,” “protests,” and “the uprising.” I use revolution for its connotation of radical political change at great cost and sacrifice. 

On that day last fall, young people poured into the streets of Baghdad chanting the slogan “We want a homeland,” in protest against what they feel is the erosion of Iraq’s political autonomy in the wake of the American occupation. Iranian influence in Iraq has steadily increased in the power vacuum, sapping national economic resources and recruiting Iraqi military power in service of its regional interests and proxy wars. The people of my generation wanted instead to build a country with a secular government, a modern economy, and respect for individual freedoms. The government reacted to the protests with force, firing live ammunition at the demonstrators. Witnessing this level of brutality galvanized other segments of Iraqi society and only made the size of the crowds grow as individuals and organizations alike joined to offer logistical, or perhaps just moral, support to the revolutionaries. 

Protesters take cover as small clashes with security forces begin.In Arabic, the word for revolution, thawrah, means “angry popular upheaval.” From the night the revolution began, my routine drastically changed. I lived in a state of frantic obsession with what was happening on the streets; I stayed up late to follow the events on social media and then found myself writing about them. It is not in my nature to write about politics, but I found myself doing just that: writing about the government’s responsibility, the state’s failure to improve our lives, my hope in the revolutionaries. 

It was, and has since been, impossible for me to talk about this revolution without speaking of hope—a spirit of promise, a renewed determination to effect change—that becomes visible and tangible in color and form. This visible hope could be called the aesthetics of revolution. Following October were months of resilience: The movement spread through grassroots organizing among Baghdadi youth and revolutionaries in other provinces. In Babil, Maysan, Basra, and Qadisiyah, public squares became filled with tents, bright flags, and the sound of protest songs. Street art proliferated, with graffiti adorning the walls of buildings and subways, expressions of the dream of a modern homeland; portraits of martyrs, especially that of Safaa al-Sarrai, who became an icon of the revolution after he was killed by government forces while protesting. People were living in the hope they had built; they looked daily upon its many faces. 

All photos were taken in Baghdad, February 6 – 10, 2020. A popular revolutionary rap song played through amplifiers placed throughout the square, telling us to “Show pride in front of neighbors.” Courageous women of all kinds—paramedics, artists, and writers—joined with student and faculty demonstrators known as the White Shirt Revolutionaries, so named for their school attire that they wore, to march together toward Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Men and women wore surgical masks for protection from tear gas as confrontations erupted between unarmed protesters and riot police—a global symbol of public health repurposed as one of defiance. My impression of the revolutionaries was formed by the uniform of civil disobedience—sneakers and loose clothes for agility; the big pockets to carry bottles of Pepsi, which many believe can relieve eye irritation caused by tear gas; gloves to handle the scalding tear-gas cannisters; helmets. As I observed these details, my education as an anthropologist studying fashion, ritual, and ceremony drew me toward the aesthetics; my attachment to my homeland, meanwhile, moved me emotionally toward the grace, resilience, and pride of the protesters and the hope they represented.

After nine months of perseverance, the demonstrators managed to bring down the government, forcing a vote on a new prime minister, who quickly took steps toward satisfying some of the most fundamental demands of the revolutionaries, such as fair parliamentary elections and protection against Iranian interference. Their struggle is not over, although COVID-19 has mostly forced them to delay plans for more large-scale protests on the first anniversary this October. ​Revolution threatens to unleash chaos, but the October Revolution gave us something completely different. It has awakened us from chronic despair and leads toward new possibilities that arise from the hope of one’s own creation. I feel born again in a homeland being remade by my own generation.

— Shahad Al Rawi

Filmmaker Mohamed Khalili (center), 22, and protester Asraa al Tai (left) scout locations for a short film documenting women’s support for the Tishreen Revolution.

Teenage volunteers clean the streets in Tahrir Square. Having lasted nearly a year, much of the protest movement has depended on donated food, medical supplies, and volunteer labor.

 

 

Nearly 20 percent of Iraq’s population is between fifteen and twenty-four years old, making the country’s youth-unemployment rate an urgent issue. Many young men arrive early each day to the commercial district hoping to be selected for menial jobs that are physically intensive and pay little.

 

Protesters prepare breakfast in an encampment.Tahrir Square, Baghdad.A café on Mutanabbi Street, known as the bookseller street, in Baghdad’s old quarter. A billboard of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his late father, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, in Baghdad’s largest slum, Sadr City. Muqtada al-Sadr was an early supporter of the protesters, but his position has been inconsistent; many speculate that his recent critiques of the movement are the result of Iranian financial backing.

 

 

More than six hundred people have died since the protests began, most of them protesters killed by security forces. Thousands, meanwhile, have been injured, and while weekly demonstrations continue, the movement has been jeopardized after the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew his support from the anti-government protests in late January, essentially turning against those who were not loyal to him. Since then, Sadr’s men, nicknamed the “blue hats,” have been accused of burning protesters’ tents in the night and kidnapping and torturing activists.

 

A woman offers prayers amid a makeshift shrine to those who’ve died during the protests.

Saddam Abdulkarim (center), 27, a self-taught hip-hop dancer, poses for a photo with his fans in Babylon Mall.

Abdulkarim, who has a substantial online following, works at the local mall as a mascot. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, his educational and employment opportunities have been limited.

Tuk-tuk drivers atop a blast-wall barricade prior to a student-led demonstration in Tahrir Square.

Protesters and security forces in Tahrir Square.

Protesters march from the Ministry of Higher Education to Tahrir Square.

Protesters march from the Ministry of Higher Education to Tahrir Square. 

 

 

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