Originally published on February 28th, 2012 on al-Akhbar English.
By Serene Assir
While Arab and international media dedicate countless hours of airtime to Arab uprisings from Tunisia to Syria, Iraq’s movement for change is almost completely ignored. Nevertheless, the push for Iraq’s freedom and independence amid increasingly corrupt and sectarian forces has managed to survive.
The Iraqi young father of three, Uday al-Zaidi, has every reason to give up struggling. His family has been based in Syria for three years, and “like any father, I would love to dedicate more time to my children.” He does not have any institutional protection. He used to work at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, but he was fired when his journalist brother Muntadhar threw his shoes at former US President George W. Bush.
Last year, al-Zaidi, who is the head of the Popular Movement to Save Iraq, had his leg broken and shoulder dislocated on February 25, Iraq’s “day of rage” when the Iraqi army violently suppressed anti-regime protests. He has also lost activist friends during years of struggle on many fronts since the 2003 US invasion and occupation that left over a million Iraqis dead.
One of the friends he lost this time last year was prominent activist Hicham Jarallah, “who was shot and martyred right before my eyes.”
After over a decade of sanctions and another of occupation, Iraq’s infrastructure remains in ruins. In reality, the occupation has far from ended, al-Zaidi said. “Not only does the US maintain 25,000 troops on the ground, but the political occupation remains to date.” To those opposed to the invasion, the sectarian division of power and moves towards the federalization of Iraq have long spoken only of attempts to divide the country into controllable enclaves.
While other uprisings in the Arab world have had varying degrees of media, institutional or foreign state support – even at times hypocritical – the Iraqi Spring been largely left to its own devices. This despite its defiance of a corrupt and violent local government and challenge to the interests of foreign powers dictating and supporting successive puppet regimes. The Iraqi Spring thus seemed an impossible dream. But in spite of all the obstacles, al-Zaidi continued to mobilize and protest. “We will protest until Iraq is fully sovereign, and we see an end to sectarian politics,” he said.
This year, on February 25 al-Zaidi took to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square once again, along with around 1,500 people. The protest was rapidly crushed by Iraqi security forces and plain-clothed thugs, he said. “We were surrounded, so some people tried to get away, while around 200 insisted on staying put,” al-Zaidi said. “We held a sit-in that lasted a few hours. Six people were detained. We don’t know where they have been taken.”
Al-Zaidi and others campaigned online for several weeks to ensure a high turnout for the protests. But just two days before the protests were set to take place, a string of deadly bomb explosions ripped through the country, killing more than 60 people.
The Interior Ministry, currently headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, blamed Al-Qaeda for the attacks. Activists including al-Zaidi and veteran journalist Hana Ibrahim said the Iraqi regime, whose ministries have long had deadly militias at their service, were likely responsible for orchestrating the attacks. Either way, the explosions were sufficiently violent and coordinated to deter people from taking to the streets last Saturday.
“People have good reason to be afraid of protesting in Iraq,” said Ibrahim. “The regime is ready to use all necessary means to suppress dissent, and at the same time, no solidarity from the media means that both mobilization and repression go unnoticed.”
From 2003 to 2011: Self-Renewing Rebellion
Early in 2011, when uprisings broke out across the Arab world – even before former Tunisian and Egyptian presidents Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubrak resigned – Iraqis started protesting too. Over several days through January and February last year, people demonstrated in numerous governorates over multiple issues, including corruption, insecurity, poor services, unemployment, and political rights. The movement culminated on February 25 last year, when demonstrations were held in around 60 towns and cities across 16 governorates.
But Ibrahim says that early on in the occupation and long before the Arab uprisings gave Iraqis new incentive to protest, civil resistance to the occupation had already started to flourish in tandem with armed resistance. “For example, we demonstrated over Abu Ghraib in 2004, and against sectarianism in 2005,” she said.
The level of violence used to quell any dissent from 2005 to 2007 pushed many longtime activists like Ibrahim out of the country, with the overwhelming majority taking refuge in neighboring states Syria and Jordan. By 2007, when the then-Commander of the Multinational Force (MNF) in Iraq launched the US’ infamous “surge,” almost five million Iraqis had become either refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to the UN. That number is now lower at 3,387,479 according to UNHCR, with more and more Iraqi families returning to their country since 2008.During the most intense period of forced exodus, flight also became the only option for many professionals and intellectuals who came under the very real threat of death. The number of professionals including academics, doctors, engineers and journalists made refugees was chilling.
In 2006, the UN estimated that 40 per cent of the middle class had fled. Anti-occupation network the BRussells Tribunal (BT) compiled a list of 459 academics’ names, detailing their assassinations from 2003 to 2011. “Even amid the horrifying levels of violence following the invasion in 2003, the killings of academics have stood out for their highly selective character,” read the March 2011 Ghent Charter in Defense of Iraqi Academia.
Because of the near-impossibility of dissent among intellectuals in Iraq, “a new generation of protesters had to emerge, and that is what happened in 2011,” said Ibrahim, who still tries to visit Iraq as often as she can. “The people protesting now are mostly young, and many of them are poor. They have nothing, and that is part of the reason why they will keep going,” she added. “Instead of intellectuals taking the lead, what we are seeing now is the emergence of a revolution of the poor.”
Partly because of this shift in the Iraqi movement for change, the nature of protesters’ demands have varied greatly through the past year. Since the start of 2011, some observers have criticized the heterogeneous nature of protesters’ demands as too disparate to actually achieve anything. Demonstrators in early 2011 did not have a single set of demands. Rather, they had a wide array of slogans that varied from high-level political calls for the fall of the regime and the occupation that supported it, to demands for electricity and jobs.Disagreements also emerged within the movement, which al-Zaidi blamed on “political interference by Iraqi political parties” that sought to usurp and tame protesters. But given the complexities a leaderless, even fragmented movement faced, broader questions of whether the whole regime had to fall or whether step-by-step reform might just do, echoed loudly in 2012. This was not only the case in Iraq, but across the region.
Strength and Unity in a Climate of Terror
Al-Zaidi says that without a total end to US occupation and Iranian hegemony over Iraqi political life, none of the more socially-oriented goals of other protesters could ever be fulfilled.
He largely blames the now deeply sectarian nature of the political process initiated by the US, and propped up by numerous states including Iran and Saudi Arabia. “We reject the idea of having to elect a Kurdish president, a Shia prime minister and a Sunni speaker of parliament,” said al-Zaidi, adding that his being of Shia background did not make him any less hungry for a non-sectarian Iraq. “Iraq’s system has been transformed into one similar to Lebanon’s. You know how dangerous that is.”
Ibrahim was somewhat more forgiving in her analysis. To her, any sign of movement was good, whether protesters had the kind of structural analysis defended by al-Zaidi, or whether they simply came out in defense of their rights as workers. “To me it is very encouraging that three months ago, petroleum workers in Basra went on strike when they were going to be kicked replaced by cheaper foreign workers,” Ibrahim said.
While the number of people who joined Iraq’s Tahrir Square demonstration on 25 February 2012 was relatively small, it was impossible to gauge just how many people had started to mobilize in protest over the past year. Given the serious security constraints involved in protesting in Iraq, any number appeared heroic.
For several months in 2011, protesters gathered every Friday in Baghdad. In April 2011, up to 2,000 people protested in Baghdad and Fallujah for better social services and more freedom of expression, according to CNN reports.
But since 2003, Iraqis have systematically faced the impossible choice of accepting to be co-opted into a criminal political process with multiple local and foreign stakeholders, or of being left pretty much to their own fate.
Linked to this was the fact that the Arab and international media has barely paid heed to the movement. “We have sent our statements time and again to news networks such as Al-Jazeera, but they barely ever even call us,” said al-Zaidi. “In fact, you are the only non-Iraqi media who has called me today,” he said, on the first anniversary of the Iraqi “day of rage.”Asked why he thought Iraq’s protesters did not hit the news in the same way as other Arabs rising against their respective regimes, al-Zaidi said: “We do not follow the politics of any state. Most of the international community has been complicit in crimes against the Iraqis. So it interests no network to really shed a light on us. That means we need to rely on ourselves, as individuals, to do our own media work.”
A number of Facebook pages, such as “Iraqi Revolution” and “Support Iraqi protesters in the Great Iraqi Revolution,” carry pictures and videos of recent protests. They also provide a platform for more general, socially-oriented news, and of demonstrations held in other countries in solidarity with the Iraqi people.
Combined, these two pages have more than 52,000 supporters. That is a far cry from the nearly two million supporters of the Egyptian “We are all Khaled Said” page, which also aims to inform and mobilize. While Egyptian social network activity saw a boom over recent years, Iraqis pushing for a stronger protest movement still have some way to go before they fully capture the imagination of a population so deeply affected by nine years of occupation, and counting.
What is clear, though, is that people like al-Zaidi have no intention of giving up. “The Iraqi people have already made enormous achievements,” he said. “Thanks to military resistance, the US cut its presence of troops by 10 times. The Green Zone is no longer the impenetrable stronghold it once was. Every time we hold a protest, more and more people from all sects join us. In reality, it’s only a matter of time before we win our country back.”