Publication date: 20 March 2023
Before 2003: ‘Walking along the wall’
In the 1990s, my family, like most people living in Iraq, were afraid of the Ba’ath regime and wanted to make themselves invisible. They would ‘walk along the wall’ – an Iraqi expression similar in meaning to keeping one’s head below the parapet – as much as possible and not engage in politics or civil society activities. My family’s fears were well placed, as our distant relatives who had been vocal in opposing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship had been arrested, forced to flee Iraq or killed.
While I was sheltered from the details of the horrors inflicted upon my family as a child, at the beginning of every school day, my peers and I were required to chant, ‘With our soul and our blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for Saddam.’ I would often recite this pledge to my family when I returned home; it was my earnest attempt to fit in. I was unsure what I was supposed to do and what my parents believed. They seemed uneasy but did not explain why, as they were afraid that at school I might repeat what they said, putting us in danger. And so we went on walking along the wall.
Throughout the sanctions period, which lasted my entire childhood, relatives would sometimes visit from abroad and would bring treats that had been denied to us – bananas or chocolate bars that my grandma would ration and split between me and my three brothers. Our visitors would also speak in hushed tones about the possibility of war and weapons of mass destruction. I was not usually allowed to listen; and if I did, then I was told not to repeat what I had heard. This was the norm for most people living in Iraq before 2003. We survived by staying silent.
After 2003: the false hope of freedom
After 2003, we hoped that the space to speak up would expand. Instead, new walls were built across Baghdad, preventing our voices from being heard by various politicians hiding in the fortified Green Zone.
By 2006, as I entered high school, the sectarian civil war had broken out. I had to change schools several times to avoid being attacked or caught in crossfire on my way to and from school. Against this backdrop, my family thought the youth group activities I had begun to participate in were reckless. While they appreciated my intense desire to contribute to the future of our country, my parents feared for my life. I slowly reduced my involvement in these activities, only occasionally attending meetings and participating in youth activities in Karada, one of Baghdad’s civil society hubs.
At the time, the space to actively engage in civil society was limited. The concept of civil society was not fully understood or supported. Much of the international funding allocated to civil society initiatives was driven by donor priorities and did not necessarily reflect what Iraqis needed or wanted. In addition, many of the organizations that accepted international support had ties to the elite or the invasion, making participation in those organizations politically fraught. It could also be dangerous to be seen to criticize the new political elite and emerging armed groups.
After finishing high school, I entered medical school. However, I felt increasingly dissatisfied with my choice, as I began to experience at first hand the issues that still plague the Iraqi higher education system today. The university was mismanaged, severely under-resourced and beset by concerns about corruption; many Iraqis perceived it as being under the control of a political party that frequently hired its supporters as staff and increasingly restricted student activities.
Much to my parents’ disapproval, I applied for and won a scholarship on the Tomorrow’s Leaders Programme. The scholarship took me to the American University of Beirut, where I would have the privilege of studying a module on civic engagement. My parents felt I was taking a huge risk when I decided to leave my secure future as a medical doctor to pursue a career in something that they knew nothing about. However, later, when I returned to Baghdad and became active in the protest movement, I learnt that formal civil society work has its limitations. It is powerless when faced with violence, lack of resources and constant attacks on its most prominent figures.
Post-2011: developing a united Iraqi voice
In 2011, the Arab Spring started. With that, I began to realize that the problems we faced in Iraq were more widespread than I had thought. I started following events in the region and was quickly involved in the protests in Iraq myself. Protests that were ignited by the lack of services, and by politically sanctioned corruption and elite capture of the state.
On 25 February 2011, known as the ‘day of rage’, there were protests all over Iraq. These protests were violently supressed, and tens of protesters were killed. The government tried to portray protesters as either Ba’athists, Al-Qaeda members or traitors. In the face of these accusations, we appropriated a modified version of the Ba’athist mantra that we had been forced to recite in school, chanting at the top of our voices, ‘With our soul and blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for Iraq.’
Even when the 2011 protests ended, discontent with the actions of the political elite continued to boil over in certain cities across Iraq. This contributed to the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS). By the summer of 2015, ISIS controlled one-third of Iraq, pushing us on to the streets once again. Our grievances now were against the muhasasa, an ethno-sectarian power-sharing system, and the corruption that it had enabled. Through these protests, we, as young Iraqis, advocated for our right to engage in decision-making, something that had been denied to us by an older generation widely seen as self-serving politicians. Civil society organizations were key in initiating and leading these protests.
In 2015 we still believed in democracy and the possibility of reform. The prime minister at the time, Haider al-Abadi, had a unique opportunity to instigate reforms with the support of the public and the powerful Iraqi Marjiya’a, Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority. However, he came up with a weak reform package and the status quo continued. Abadi claimed that he was preoccupied with the fight against ISIS, although he stated later that ‘corruption is more dangerous than terrorism’.
The 2015 protests were eventually hijacked by the Sadrists. I remember vividly how many of the protesters were now chanting for Muqtada al-Sadr instead of Iraq. This is when I, among many others, decided that I could not continue participating in these protests. Such incidents led us to lose some of the faith we had in civil society and the political leadership of the protest movement, especially as, following the protests, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and some prominent activists allied with the Sadrists in the elections.
2019: The October Protest Movement (Tishreen Revolution)
In 2019, a fresh wave of protests reached new heights. This time the protests were sparked by disillusioned youth, not the civil society leaders who had let demonstrators down in 2015. While we continued to call for our basic rights, we had developed an acute awareness of the extent to which the political elite had captured the state and was widely seen as having nearly gutted it of public resources. This became all the clearer as members of the elites came together to violently suppress the protests, murdering more than 600 protesters and injuring tens of thousands.
In response, our demands escalated. We began calling for the end of the system of muhasasa, and we rejected the political elite that had been involved in its creation and maintenance. We summarized our demands in one sentence: ‘We want a country.’ A country which we felt belonged to the political elite, and which the elite felt we wanted to take from them. Facing an existential threat, some of them tried to demonize us, arguing that protesters were foreign agents, Ba’athists or ISIS members. Now, when I reflect back on those days, my biggest concern at the time was not the snipers or the riot police, but mostly where to tell my mother I was going before leaving the house and what to do if she called me when I was at a protest.
During the 2019 protests, the spirit of our country was in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad under the monument of freedom. We experienced everything there, from unbound happiness to despair, and from hope to frustration. We hoped, laughed, loved, cried and feared for our lives. I remember walking down Rasheed Street near Tahrir Square and seeing two young women painting a mural with the words:
Do not reconcile
even if they give you gold
if I were to gouge out your eyes
and replace them with two gems
would you see?
These things are priceless.
As I was talking to the women who were painting this mural, one of them told me that this poem represented all the friends and years of her life that she had lost to the greed of corrupt politicians. And that, even if they now rewarded her with all the riches in the world, she would not forgive them. She, too, had to sneak out of her house and pretend she was somewhere else because her family were scared for her safety.
These protests were a major life event for most of us. They briefly shook the country and forced the government to resign. Tishreen planted the seeds for change through raising young people’s political consciousness and allowing new political actors to emerge.
Is there more space?
Over the past two decades, Iraqis have longed for freedom and a more prosperous future. However, their attempts to achieve this, whether through civil society activism or mass mobilization, have often been violently supressed.
Before 2003, we hoped that walking along the wall would keep us safe. After 2003, new walls were erected all over Baghdad literally separating ordinary people from the political elite, many of whom lived lives of comfort and luxury inside the Green Zone while those outside suffered from the impact of systematic corruption and everyday violence. In 2019, Tishreen tore down those walls, removing the veneer of legitimacy that had safeguarded the muhasasa system and the place of the elite within it.
Since then, young people have pushed to make space for themselves in decision-making by creating new political parties and engaging in alternative forms of activism. They have advocated for change on issues as wide-ranging as climate change, gender equality and human rights. For substantive change to take place, such grassroots initiatives must be nourished. For it is ultimately Iraq’s youth, not those politicians who have taken every opportunity to empower themselves and their parties for the past 20 years, who hold the key to the country’s future.