Iraq’s Tishreen Movement Lives, Despite Government Corruption, Oppression

11 October, 2021
Tishreen protests in Bagh­dad (pho­to cour­tesy Enabling Peace in Iraq Cen­ter EPIC).

Octo­ber marks the sec­ond anniver­sary of Iraq’s thawra. The non-vio­lent Tishreen move­ment con­tin­ues to demand all the things many of us take for grant­ed. Tens of thou­sands of Iraqis have marched in cities across the coun­try. Notes Beau Beau­soleil, edi­tor of the Al-Mutan­ab­bi Street Starts Here anthol­o­gy, “Those march­ing are work­ers, stu­dents, pro­fes­sion­als, writ­ers and artists, women and men…The Iraqi gov­ern­ment brought down an iron fist on these activists and using its secu­ri­ty ser­vices and gov­ern­ment spon­sored mili­tias, killed more than 700 men and women and wound­ed more than 10,000…A rev­o­lu­tion that begins in the hearts of ordi­nary cit­i­zens can­not be erased by thugs and killers. The Iraqi peo­ple will rise again and again until true change comes to every Iraqi.” [Ed.]

 

Hadani Ditmars

 

A week after a thou­sand pro­tes­tors marched in Tahrir Square to mark the two year anniver­sary of fierce protests in the Iraqi cap­i­tal, and on the eve of elec­tions, I remem­ber watch­ing them from my hotel room in Erbil, and won­der what has changed, and what will.

From the cav­ernous con­fines of room 510 at the Classy Hotel, run by dis­placed Chris­tians from the Niniveh Plain who had fled the advance of ISIS, and bor­dered by a stat­ue of the Vir­gin Mary on one side and the Amer­i­can con­sulate on the oth­er, I watched it all unfold on Kur­dish tele­vi­sion in the fall of 2019. Dur­ing dai­ly excur­sions to ruined Mosul, where not much has changed in two years thanks to ram­pant cor­rup­tion, I learned that peo­ple were too afraid to protest. I recall footage of a young man in Bagh­dad with beau­ti­ful eyes, singing a song. Behind him was rub­ble and smoke. His mask low­ered as he sang a poignant protest maqam:Iraq, Iraq, my love, my coun­try. I will fight for you. I will nev­er give up. He was singing for legions of fol­low­ers on Face­book, the new forum for young free­dom seek­ers, and main­ly for peo­ple out­side of Iraq, where the inter­net had not been cut off by des­per­ate, cor­rupt politi­cians; but he was singing from the heart.

Iraqi boy as old as the inva­sion in Bagh­dad dur­ing 2010 elec­tions, near Mutannabi street (pho­to cour­tesy Hadani Ditmars).

The image recalled one I had tak­en in 2010, on my last trip to the trou­bled land, of a boy as old then as the inva­sion. He stood on Baghdad’s Mutannabi Street dur­ing the nation­al elec­tion cam­paign, in front of an old Ottoman vil­la, once the home of a Jew­ish judge at a time when Bagh­dad was 40 per­cent Jew­ish, a time before con­crete bar­ri­ers sep­a­rat­ed neigh­bor­hoods across sec­tar­i­an lines, and before a nation­al protest move­ment unit­ed Iraqis across those same lines. His par­ents were Com­mu­nists out cam­paign­ing for their can­di­date, the daugh­ter of the poet Al Jawa­hari who once wrote:

“Shout at the poor and the hun­gry, but only if you first insult their tor­men­tors whose bel­lies are full.”

The boy wore a tiny gold­en pin in the shape of his coun­try, close to his heart. His adult eyes stared into my cam­era with a sad defi­ance. On the edge of the frame, next to a Seljuk but­tress, a sol­dier manned a tank. What had become of that boy now? I some­times search for a decade-old­er ver­sion of the 7‑year-old in the crowds of CNN; but in vain. Every­one has that same look of lone­ly defi­ance, the out­rage of a lost gen­er­a­tion raised only on war and tele­vi­su­al lies; protest­ing for jobs, for elec­tric­i­ty and water, for a life.

There’s no short­age of names and faces to mourn – hun­dreds of pro­tes­tors and 35 activists killed since the lat­est round of protests began in Octo­ber of 2019, by “unknown enti­ties,” who most believe were pow­er­ful Iran­ian backed mili­tias linked to the Iraqi gov­ern­ment that will nev­er be held to account.

But this has been going on for some time. Who remem­bers activist Khaled al Kahli­di assas­si­nat­ed near his home in Kut, south of Bagh­dad, in 2015. Or anoth­er fresh-faced mar­tyr of the anti-cor­rup­tion protest move­ment — his like­ness still being tweet­ed as he stands cau­tious but proud in a Tahrir Square self­ie, in front of Jawad Salim’s famous Mon­u­ment to Free­dom. His eyes bear a pre­mon­i­to­ry sad­ness that seems to speak of all the mar­tyrs to the Iraqi cause that have come before him, and those that will follow.

Before the era of sham “democ­ra­cies” run by cor­rupt crony­ist thugs installed by an ille­gal and bru­tal inva­sion, I remem­ber a time when free­dom of speech in Bagh­dad was lim­it­ed to staged press con­fer­ences by Baathist gen­er­als, and we journos had to pay “guides” — essen­tial­ly spies from the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion — for the priv­i­lege of their “ser­vices.” In this Alice in Won­der­land meets Kaf­ka world of the dying days of the Sad­dam regime, I recall an “elec­tion” in 2002.

Despite there being only one can­di­date who “won” by “100 per­cent,” as the regime claimed, we were led to a polling sta­tion for a “pho­to-op.” I asked a sym­pa­thet­ic “min­der” why, in spite of the total lack of democ­ra­cy, every­one seemed well-dressed and in good spir­its — a kind of a “day-out” for belea­guered sanc­tions-plagued Iraqis.

“They’re pre­tend­ing every­thing is nor­mal,” he explained, “They need to do this to survive.”

Iraqis have been pre­tend­ing every­thing is nor­mal for quite some time now. But let’s hope that the cur­rent “pre­tense” that Iraq is a democ­ra­cy — where cit­i­zens have the right to basic ser­vices like clean water, elec­tric­i­ty, a free press and a gov­ern­ment that serves them and not them­selves — becomes a reality.

The change must, as always come from with­in, but more vig­or­ous sup­port for pro-democ­ra­cy activists from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty is key to the suc­cess of the grow­ing move­ment that explic­it­ly rejects the post-inva­sion sec­tar­i­an crony­ism and cor­rup­tion that feeds the cycle of vio­lence in Iraq.

As I’ve been say­ing for years, the way to encour­age democ­ra­cy in Iraq is not by sup­port­ing bru­tal dic­ta­tors — pre- or post-inva­sion — bomb­ing and starv­ing a cap­tive civil­ian pop­u­lace for years, or par­tic­i­pat­ing in ille­gal inva­sions and occu­pa­tions. The way for­ward is through sup­port­ing civ­il society.

The cur­rent Iraqi protest move­ment is liv­ing proof of the incred­i­ble resilience of a long-suf­fer­ing peo­ple who, while trapped in cir­cum­stances beyond their con­trol, per­sist in fight­ing for their basic human rights. Let us hope they con­tin­ue to protest and speak out with­out fatal con­se­quences, regard­less of whichev­er cor­rupt crony wins the elections.

Hadani Ditmars has been reporting from the Middle East on culture, society, and politics since the '90s. She is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq and a former editor at New Internationalist. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Sight and Sound, the San Francisco Chronicle, Haaretz, Wallpaper, Vogue, and Ms. Magazine, and broadcast on CBC, BBC, NPR, and RTE. Her book in progress, Between Two Rivers, is a political travelogue of ancient and sacred sites in Iraq.