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Inside Iraq’s Protests: Students Are Defiant in Their Demands

/ 27 Nov 2019

Inside Iraq’s Protests: Students Are Defiant in Their Demands

BAGHDAD—It’s 9:30 a.m. and lecture halls are locked and empty at Al Iraqia University. Usually these corridors would be teeming with students at this hour but many haven’t been to class for weeks. Instead, they are gathering on the grass outside, preparing for the march ahead.

Student voices have been among the loudest in the large-scale demonstrations that have gripped Iraq’s capital since October 1. Many feel frustrated at the prospect of graduating with few opportunities to find a job, let alone one in their field. Now they see a chance for change and are determined to make their demands heard. (See a related article, “‘These Are Not Demands, These Are Rights’: Voices of Youthful Protesters in Iraq.”)

“We’re not playing here,” says Ameer Ahmed, a 27-year-old medical student who helps coordinate student protesters from several universities. “We’re holding a revolution.”

“We’re not playing here. We’re holding a revolution.”

Ameer Ahmed   A 27-year-old medical student who helps coordinate student protests

Every Thursday, Ahmed conducts a poll over the app Telegram to see whether the majority of students are willing to keep protesting. “Some want to return to their studies, maybe 15 percent,” he said, “but the rest want to continue our revolution. If any go back, we’d be divided.”

Youth unemployment stands at around 33 percent in Iraq, where a swollen public sector is struggling to absorb the country’s large youth population. Those who can’t secure government employment are even less likely to find jobs in Iraq’s under-developed private sector, where limited growth has failed to drive opportunities for the large numbers of Iraqis graduating each year. (See a related article, “In Iraq, Hunger for Jobs Collides With a Government That Can’t Provide Them.”)

Every week, students convene opposite the Ministry of Education and march to Tahrir Square, at the heart of the protests in Baghdad. Groups meet outside their respective universities and board hired buses to the ministry, blaring protest songs and waving flags out the windows. Drivers on the road beep and smile at the students. A lot of Iraqis support the protests and identify with youth concerns.

Opposite the ministry, music pumps from enormous speakers tied to a taxi, courtesy of a DJ whom Ahmed knows. A stage has been set up and organizers lead the crowd in chants, shouting “we will sacrifice our souls and we will sacrifice our blood for Iraq.”

Attempts to Intimidate

Despite warnings and threats from authorities, the protesters say they will not stop demonstrating until their demands have been met. “This is a promise, this is a promise, Baghdad will not return to study,” they shout.

Every week, students convene opposite the Ministry of Education and march to Tahrir Square, the heart of the protests in Baghdad. Above, a protester draped in an Iraqi flag prepares to join a march last week (Photo by Olivia Cuthbert).
Every week, students convene opposite the Ministry of Education and march to Tahrir Square, the heart of the protests in Baghdad. Above, a protester draped in an Iraqi flag prepares to join a march last week (Photo by Olivia Cuthbert).

Behind the crowd, armed soldiers watch from tanks, looking unconcerned. The atmosphere is buoyant and the students are having fun, but there’s determination in their faces too. “I’ll keep coming; nothing is going to stop me protesting unless they force me with death,” said Ali Hassan, a 20-year-old studying medicine.

The risks facing them are grave. At least 330 people have been killed in protests across central and southern Iraq, and more die almost daily on the frontlines. Security forces have used live ammunition and military-grade tear gas canisters against the mostly peaceful protesters, who have set up their own security to ensure demonstrators don’t bring weapons to the square.

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Many protesters have suffered horrific injuries. Rights groups said security forces have fired the heavy military-grade tear gas canisters directly at people’s heads, and targeted the small, three-wheeled tuk-tuks, which are ferrying the wounded through crowds and traffic to makeshift clinics staffed by volunteer doctors and medical students.

“It’s important for the students to show their support to the protesters because there is no other way. In all the world, the ones who make change are the young.”

Ruhaief Al-Essawi   A professor at Al Iraqia University

Videos of young men with shattered skulls dying in the streets are circulated via messenger apps. Social media has been a crucial tool for organizing marches, despite government attempts to silence activists with internet blackouts.

Kidnapping is another risk, particularly for those playing a high-profile role in the protests. Several activists have disappeared for days at a time, returning too afraid to speak. Others haven’t come back. “We know it’s risky, particularly in the night when a lot of the kidnappings take place,” added Ahmed, who said it’s better to be with a group in the protest areas after dark.

Careful Planning

Two months in, Ahmed is exhausted. Between organizing the students and tending wounded protesters, he’s getting just two hours sleep a night, but mostly he’s too busy to notice.

Sunday saw one of the largest student protests yet. Ahmed spent seven days arranging transport, meeting with other organizers in secret locations, planning media coverage and collecting donations to buy food, blankets and protective equipment for those on the frontlines.

Student marches are carefully planned and chants screened in advance to ensure they don’t incite violence or cause undue offense. “I want it to be near perfection,” Ahmed said. “I want all the students cheering in just one voice.”

Ahmed is responsible for around 2,200 student demonstrators, liaising with 25 others coordinating different universities. He is quick to point out, though, that he is a student representative, not a leader, in keeping with the egalitarian ethos of the movement.

Student protests are carefully planned, with chants screened in advance. Above, Ameer Ahmed, second from left, and other organizers lead chants from a stage before the protesters march to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square (Photo by Olivia Cuthbert).
Student protests are carefully planned, with chants screened in advance. Above, Ameer Ahmed, second from left, and other organizers lead chants from a stage before the protesters march to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square (Photo by Olivia Cuthbert).

Ostensibly, the universities are demanding that students go back to class, but Ruhaief Al-Essawi, a professor at Al Iraqia University, said that many sympathize with the students’ demands. “I know that none of the administrations will take any action against them,” Al-Essawi said. “It’s important for the students to show their support to the protesters, because there is no other way. In all the world, the ones who make change are the young.”

People of all ages, classes and sects have found a rare unity in these protests, which are calling for the overthrow of a political class that’s seen as corrupt and subservient to foreign powers.

In the streets around Tahrir Square, “Iran out, out” is a familiar rallying cry. Many blame Iran for propping up the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and its failure to address poor public services and high unemployment, which are the primary grievances in these protests.

The demonstrations are the largest Iraq has seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion. Sixteen years later, there has been little to no progress and protesters are determined not to back down. Young Iraqis are articulating a different vision for their country and, for the first time, they have a voice.

“There is nothing in the past like this revolution with this feeling of unity between us,” said Amna Anwer, 22. “I know my city better now, I know my people better now. I didn’t think something huge like this would come from us Iraqis, and now I’m really proud I’m Iraqi.”

A Matter of Dignity

Ahmed comes from a wealthy family and, as a medical student, he will be assured a job when he graduates, but he said his participation in the protests is a matter of dignity. “I want a better life, I want my passport to be more powerful, I want more services, more good strategies to control the country. I want the technocrats—people who are efficient at their roles—to take control of the country.”

“There is nothing in the past like this revolution with this feeling of unity between us.”

Amna Anwer   A 22-year-old student

October 1, the day demonstrations began, was the only time Ahmed didn’t attend. “I thought that maybe this would be just like previous protests, with a lot of religious opinions and no chance for young people to raise our voices.”

Then a friend called and told him about the violent response from security forces. A day later he was out in the square. “The people there were just cheering that they want a better life—nothing more, nothing less—and the government has attacked them with tear gas and bullets.”

It’s also why Ali Hassan, whose parents don’t know he joins the marches, risks his life to be in the crowd.

“Young people have been out here more than a month and nothing has changed,” Hassan said. “… The government says they are going to fix things but they are lying, they are not doing anything.”

For Hassan’s generation, there has never been much cause for optimism in Iraq. “I spent my childhood scared to go out and play football… my parents would say there’s been a car bomb outside and people killed, you have to stay in the house. All my life has just been stay at home, or go to school and that’s it. I haven’t seen anything, done anything.”




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