‘These Are Not Demands, These Are Rights’: Voices of Youthful Protesters in Iraq
Thousands of students have joined Iraq’s anti-government protests, which are now entering their second month.
The students skipped classes at several universities and secondary schools in Baghdad and across the South of Iraq to take part in the protests, despite the government ordering schools and universities to operate normally.
“It’s a student revolution, no to the government, no to parties!” demonstrators chanted in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests.
“No school, no classes, until the regime collapses!” students chanted in Al Diwaniyah, in southern Iraq.
Security forces have begun cracking down and using live ammunition. More than 270 people have been killed since the protests began on October 1, according to Agence France-Presse, including four protesters who were shot during a protest in Karbala on Monday. Eighteen people were killed during another protest in Karbala last week.
The demonstrations in Iraq, like those in Lebanon and other countries, are fueled by anger at corruption, economic stagnation and poor public services. Despite its vast oil wealth, Iraq suffers from high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure, with frequent power outages that force many to rely on private generators.
Many protesters also see the current regime as under the sway of Iran, and want to install a new government free of foreign influence.
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On October 28, Al Diwaniyah’s union of universities and schools announced a ten-day strike “until the regime falls,” with thousands of students and even professors flooding the streets.
Iraq’s Teachers Union announced also a four-day general strike last week, saying its members will protest peacefully across the country, excluding the Kurdistan region. “If the government does not respond to the legitimate demands of the people, Iraqi teachers will issue stronger decisions,” said Abbas Kadhim Sudani, a representative of the union, in a video statement. Several local syndicates, including lawyers and engineers, also joined the movement, with picket lines preventing government workers from reaching their offices.
The demonstrators’ demands include legal measures against killing protesters, the resignation of the government, and amendment of the constitution and electoral laws.
But Higher Education Minister Qusay al-Suhail has warned academics to avoid protests, according to Agence France-Presse.
Voices from the Streets
People involved in the protests who spoke to Al-Fanar Media stressed that the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, although there have been violent responses from security forces.
One person said black-clad riot police with little in the way of identification have shot at protesters in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, especially on Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge, which leads to the fortified Green Zone where government offices and the U.S. Embassy are located.
Several people praised the efforts of “tuk-tuk” drivers who are aiding the protesters. Tuk-tuks, or small, three-wheeled open taxis, have proliferated on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in recent years. They can maneuver through crowded streets and squares that larger vehicles and ambulances cannot enter, bringing supplies to the demonstrators and ferrying injured protesters to hospitals. (See a BBC video about tuk-tuks in Baghdad here.)
Following are some of personal observations that students, professors and others shared via social media messaging apps in both Arabic and English with Al-Fanar Media. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Senad Al-Fadhel, an assistant lecturer at the University of Al Kafeel’s Faculty of Pharmacy, in Najaf
The protests in Najaf, south of Baghdad, are “completely peaceful,” Al-Fadhel said, adding:
“I hope to hear a voice for academics in these demonstrations to promote academic freedoms.”
Professors support the demonstrations, he said, but are shy about participating.
“Most of the professors’ hearts are with the students and the demands of the people, but there are pressures that make their role unclear. There is an unwillingness to appear as instigators of the sit-in, which might put us in a position against the ministry.
“Most of the professors’ hearts are with the students and the demands of the people, but there are pressures that make their role unclear.”Senad Al-Fadhel
An assistant lecturer at the University of Al Kafeel, in Najaf
“Universities are open but there are no students in the classrooms.”
Al-Fadhel described a lecture he held in a tent set up at the protesters’ site in Najaf: “The lecture was a symbolic one. Personally, my message was that science is a necessity in all circumstances and a way to demand reforming the education system from elementary to university.
“The students’ message was that they would sit and study at the same time while boycotting [regular] lectures. This does not mean they want to waste time off campus.
“As learning and studying can only flourish in peace, and because we are peaceful and reformers and believing in the demands of people, we held that lecture as there will be no prosperity in Iraq without the flourishing of science.
“The students of the Faculties of Pharmacy and Dentistry at the University of Al Kafeel and the students of pathological analysis were keen to turn the sit-in into a seminar.
“Believing in my dream to see Iraqi professors and researchers getting the opportunity to pursue graduate studies in universities like Harvard, Oxford and Princeton, I gave a modest lecture on dietary supplements assessed in the light of scientific evidence compared to the drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”
Ali Hameed Ali, 24, an activist from Baghdad
Ali is documenting the protests in the center of the city, at Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge and in Khayyam Street, Abu Nawwas Street and Tahrir Square.
“I saw everything from people getting killed because of the flying tear gas [canisters] to the heroic acts of tuk-tuk drivers and medical students,” he said. “They are all doing their best to help the protests.
“Riot police have started to be more aggressive these days and to threaten people who get close to them. The army and the federal police are disarmed and allowed to carry nothing but flags. This is a problem, as they get shot as well.
“The riot police targeted ambulances and those who provide health care in particular. I saw two cases of shooting ambulances and medical students who got shot. They were trying to help suffocated people. Photographers and media activists are being targeted too. Local media journalists were shot at.
“The army and federal police are unarmed and unable to intervene to stop what is done by the riot police. I can call those militias because they wear black clothes without identification.”
Most of those protesting at Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge are young people between the ages of 14 and 25, he said. “I rarely saw kids there.”
He added: “People refuse to call what they want demands, these are rights. We are not demanding anything, we ask for something we have not been given. We want to change the entire political and electoral system and get rid of anyone who was part of the 16-year-old regime. We want social security and health care, as well as to be loyal to no other country except Iraq.
“People refuse to call what they want demands, these are rights. We are not demanding anything, we ask for something we have not been given.”Ali Hameed Ali
an activist from Baghdad
“Our slogans were related to Iraq only: ‘We are willing to give our souls and blood to Iraq,’ ‘Baghdad is free; Iran, get out.’”
Huda Alaa, 30, a physician in Baghdad
Alaa, who has been helping protesters in Baghdad, described a largely peaceful scene in Tahrir Square:
“It is my third day in Tahrir Square. I check the needs of the protesters and provide them through donated supplies. I move from Baghdad’s western part to the eastern part. If I buy three boxes of supplies, I pay for two and get the third for free to support the protests.
“No women were harassed. Some women started to wear their makeup and paint their nails in the Tahrir Square. The protests are so peaceful.
“We have lots of food and medicines, so I concentrate mostly on medical supplies. I saw tuk-tuk drivers wearing physicians’ coats. Why do they wear that, I asked one driver. He said, ‘I am an ambulance doctor.’
“The tuk-tuk drivers did not take money. So, we started to allocate money to provide them with fuel. We have medications, medical equipment and even free internet.
“We treat the simple injuries only. Others are moved by tuk-tuks to the hospitals. Ambulances cannot enter the square now and it is all done by the tuk-tuks. Two doctors were injured; one of them lost his eye. However, people are still coming. I met many nurses and junior doctors from university hospitals in the square.
“I saw my sister crying today. I asked her why. She said a tuk-tuk driver, who is not a graduate, said he is protesting to help graduates secure decent jobs.”
Alaa also described how she and other protesters use humor to ward off fears.
“We make fun of tear gas and call it a laughing gas.
“We also called the building of the Turkish restaurant—now occupied by many protesters—Mound Uhud in reference to an early Islamic battle. It is a black comedy. We are making fun of everything. On my first day, I was scared, sat on the ground weeping among my friends, being new to such a situation.
“The government forces in the square do nothing. They are shedding tears with us because of the tear gas and sharing our food. Those on the bridge are harming the protesters. The protesters carry no weapons. We are making fun of violence and proving our protests are peaceful.
“We want all the government out, not just the prime minister.
“Tahrir Square is the government now, nobody of the politicians is considered anymore!
“We have broken the fear border line, we are strolling the streets with the flags now, unafraid. I did not know how to go to that square in the beginning. I spent my life going to work and university and knew almost nothing of Baghdad neighborhoods.”
Many things have changed for her, she said.
“I am 30 years old, this is the first time I have seen Iraq united and beautiful; everything is beautiful but its government.”
Saad Salloum, an assistant professor of political science at Mustansiriyah University, in Baghdad
Salloum is an activist for minorities and human rights and the general coordinator of the Masarat Foundation for Cultural and Media Development.
He compared the symbolism of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, in 2003, with the current protests in Tahrir Square. He wrote:
“The moment when Saddam’s statue was toppled in Al-Firdos Square represented the postmodern Western desire to change our traditional societies by force, and the logic of ‘change from outside,’ ruled the experience of democratic transformation afterwards.
“The Tahrir Square protests offer a new logic of ‘change from within’ and an expression of the Iraqis’ desire not to compromise the freedom they received or [allow it] to be confiscated by hate promoters and sectarian business elites.
“The democracy train, which started in Iraq after April 9, 2003, went in the wrong direction after it was misrepresented by ‘those parties’ in a way serving their own interests. Now, the protests returned it back to the right track.
“In short, these protests represent the real desire for change from within against the dynamic of ‘change from the outside’ or ‘control from the outside.’”
Fatima J. (Nickname), a student at Al-Qasim Green University, in the Babylon Governorate, south of Baghdad
Fatima, who is studying environmental sciences, has joined demonstrations at her university and others in the area. She is originally from Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.
She wrote: “On October 28, I participated in a student sit-in at the entrance of the university. At the entrance, security officers confiscated the Iraqi flag and all the banners and printed slogans by order of the [university’s] President.
“However, the protest continued and the numbers increased in front of the university’s external gate. Revolutionary slogans were chanted before we joined the largest gathering in the center of Hillah and merged with the demonstrators from the University of Babylon.
“We were barred from entering the university with any flag, banner or even printed papers. Unfortunately, our professors were not involved, but there were hundreds of us. Babylon University professors and other staff members participated with their students.
“Our demands were like #WeWantAHomeland, #GoingToTakeBackMyRight, and #IranOutOut. It was not a political demonstration but a student one. Few of the students affiliated with the ruling parties felt upset at any slogans against the Iranian influence in Iraq.
“There was no violence in Babylon, unlike Baghdad and Karbala. My family protested in Dhi Qar, our hometown, and the numbers were staggering from Dhi Qar private and public universities. I came to my university in Babylon to attend the sit-in. The dormitory was forcibly evacuated before October 25.
“Yesterday was the first day of the sit-in. Only four students were not in solidarity and insisted on attending the lectures. A lecture was given to them according to the order of the President Hassan Al-Awady.
“The position of those four students was shameful.
“Students who live in or in the vicinity of Babylon will continue the sit-in, but I personally cannot move between the provinces now.
“I aspire to change the ruling system, amend the Constitution and abolish the provincial councils and any other ineffective councils, improve health and education, and achieve social justice for every Iraqi citizen through a simple salary for each individual.”