These popular protests turned Iraq’s political balance upside down, impelling many changes on a political and even cultural level, hoping to swipe away a political elite responsible for corruption and the persistence of violence. The demonstrations continued until the emergence of the Corona epidemic in Iraq. Almost corollary to the surge of number of infections, protest squares such as Tahrir Square in Baghdad (the demonstration’s epicentre in the capital) witnessed a significant decrease of protests.
Political researcher Maan Al-Zubaidi explained that, “the use of violence against protesters contributed to reducing their gathering.” But he also pointed out that “the Corona epidemic had a negative role in the protests due to the major concerns that the epidemic would grow significantly in the gatherings, despite the necessary preventive measures taken.” Initially, despite warnings that the Coronavirus could easily cause mass infections during gatherings, demonstrators preferred to keep going to demonstration squares in Baghdad and other cities of the country, taking the risk to face a deadly virus on one hand, and the use of violence against them on the other.
According to activists, the Human Rights Commission in Iraq discussed the issue of withdrawing from the squares with some demonstrators at that time. The health situation was indeed calling for an end to all gatherings in order to avoid the spread of the virus. Activist Hassan Sami told THE RED LINE that “some of the protesters had the desire to end the sit-in and participate in campaigns to increase awareness about the risks of covid 19.”
Coronavirus numbs demonstrations
The risks from the outbreak did contribute to the decline of the protests in the center and south of the country. The sit-in squares in Dhi Qar, Basra, Najaf, Diwaniyah and Babil provinces disrupted their usual activities, including the usual weekly marches in which students would participate. However, some of the protesters continued to demonstrate during that period. Ahmed Samir, a protester in Tahrir Square, said that he did not leave the sit-in even with the increase in the number of cases and deaths, and stressed that he would continue to do so:
“Repression and fear are more dangerous than the virus.”, he claimed.
As health institutions warned against large gatherings that significantly accelerated the spread of covid-19, Iraqi protesters progressively changed their strategy, relying on the internet to raise slogans against corruption and challenge the system instead. “The demonstrations have made several changes in the political situation in Iraq, as they contributed to the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi which in turn led to the nomination of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. Additionally, an election law was enacted, and a number of government officials embroiled in illegal activities have been changed. Al-Anzi, an activist from Baghdad, criticized “the new government’s failure to fulfill its promise of exposing and trying those involved in the bloodshed.” Al-Anzi also adds that, “the government was unable to solve the financial crisis afflicting Iraq, and did not respond to the demands of the demonstrators for job opportunities that graduates are normally entitled to. This explains why the unemployed are still demonstrating at the gates of the Green Zone in Baghdad.”
The government’s handling of the demonstrations
Last year’s popular demonstrations shook the ruling authority to the point of forcing it to respond to the protesters using live ammunition, rubber bullets, hot water, tear gas, and batons. Heavy weighted tear gas canisters and live ammunition caused hundreds of deaths while tens of thousands were injured.
The government’s handling of the crisis was unacceptable and did not address most of the crowds’ demands. The writer and journalist, Ali al-Nawab, who participated in the protests says that, “the government failed in many aspects, including not revealing those involved in killing protesters.” According to al-Nawab, the government and it’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi “not only failed to expose corrupt politicians, but also to change the senior positions in the government that have responsibility in the current chaotic situation.” Many activists warned that al-Kadhimi’s government came from the same political elite system that has been leading the state to its complete failure. Henceforth it was not expected to achieve any of the promises it had made from the beginning.
While the epidemic impacted the protest movement at one point, the main reason behind the decline of the protest movement is also to be found in the divisions existing between activists themselves, some of which were instrumentalized by the government. An activist, who asked for anonymity, explained how al-Kadhimi’s government used smart tactics to coopt some of October’s revolution activists in order to undermine the protests movement:
“The most devastating tactic it used was the ‘divide and conquer’ by hiring many journalists and activists such as prominent Mushriq Abbas, the head of NRT Arabi, NasNews. Abbas was appointed as al-Khadimi’s advisor. Another example is Raed Joohi, an activist and judge heading the criminal court, who was appointed as the head of al-Kadhimi’s office. Activist and university professor Kadhim al-Sahlani from Basra was himself appointed as al-Kadhmi’s advisor on the provinces’ affairs.”
All the aforementioned and many others have influence on the October revolution networks. they’re related to it one way or the other, all across the country.”, the activist explained. Bader Al-Rikabi, a journalist, told the RED LINE that “the government has dealt with the protest in a way that served its own interests, trying to portray itself as a representative and supporter of the demonstrations; This is an electoral strategy.”, the journalist described. “All in all, the government is not supportive of the demonstrations and has not dealt positively with the protest movement.” he added.
Al-Rikabi also pointed out that the protest movement split into more than one direction due to the internal and external factors. Some political forces tried to undermine the protests that came out to demand more rights for the people: “the demonstration movement became part of the system. It was diverted from its initial aim of changing the system to eventually becoming part of it.”
Activists being kidnapped
With the continuation of the protests during the lockdown, Baghdad and the other governorates witnessed countless cases of activists being kidnapped while authorities did nothing but issue statements of condemnation without revealing the identity of the perpetrators or their political affiliation. Some political parties had an indirect role in suppressing the protest movement in order to avoid facing the consequences of a deep political revolution. In that regard, Mr. Maan Al-Zubaidi added that, “the political factions worked with some security authorities to try to break up the sit-ins in Tahrir Square in Baghdad.”
Despite these attacks against the demonstrators, the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on November 30, 2019 left Iraq with a transitional caretaker government. At that time, the different political factions were busy trying to find an alternative that would satisfy the demonstrators while keeping them in power. At first, Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi was nominated after an agreement with Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr and the head of the Badr militia Hadi al-Amiri. Despite Tawfiq Allawi promising to hold those responsible for violence accountable in his first statement after being sworn in, riot police continued to target peaceful demonstrators.
In response to Allawi’s appointment, protesters raised the slogan “Muhammad Allawi is rejected,” as they saw him as the new face of the political system established in 2003 that they had vowed to topple. Eventually, Allawi failed to form the government in March 2020 due to political pressures and was forced to resign. The door was then opened for new candidates, such as Iraqi parliament member, Adnan Al-Zarfi, also to be immediately rejected by the protesters due to his proximity to the United States. Deadlocked, the elite had to bring in a new figure to fill the gap. This is where Mustafa Al-Kadhimi came in.
Mr. Al Kadhimi was nominated by the president, Barham Saleh, and his government proposal was approved by the parliament. At that time, protesters had mixed opinions about Kadhimi as activist Ali Adnan recalls: “many activists had doubts about the methods through which the new government was being formed. Ali stressed that, “the protesters called for the formation of an independent government that meets the aspirations of all Iraqis.” But these hopes were never really met. Al Kadhimi’s government is the perfect example of the consensus bargain political parties usually go through to share government positions and their portfolios.
A providential COVID-19
Amid this new deception, and after the spread of the Coronavirus, protesters distributed leaflets encouraging social distancing and other sanitary measures. They also distributed free respiratory masks, which at that time, were being sold by private pharmacies for double the original price. The makeshift clinics -which the protesters set up to treat injured activists, especially during violent protests- turned into platforms to raise awareness regarding the epidemic. Suha Qahtan, one of the volunteers in medical clinics, explained that she worked with six other activists to write leaflets showing the danger of the Corona epidemic and describing preventive measures everyone should observe.
Parallel to this, the Iraqi government established the Crisis Response Committee, headed by the prime ministers, in charge of enacting precautionary measures like lockdown periods and to redirect all public facilities’ efforts to cooperate with the health institutions. The committee’s measures were implemented by security forces, such as the curfew which significantly affected the capacity of demonstrators to gather in Tahrir Square. At the same time, some demonstrators launched campaigns to disinfect the protest squares to avoid infections. Other protesters took the streets to spray disinfectants as precautionary measures to counter the spread of the virus.
Despite the decline in the number of protesters in Tahrir, a large percentage of activists continued to enthusiastically call for change on the Internet. Social networks thus played a prominent role in perpetuating the demonstrations. Activists kept sharing posts and tweets condemning corruption and violence against protesters, keeping the spirit of the october revolution alive. Demonstrators and activists found social media platforms as a way to make their voices heard after government media deliberately refused to cover the movement objectively.
Iraqi blogger, Mortada al-Muhammadawi, agrees with this perception, saying that, “the protesters’ withdrawal from the demonstrations naturally incited them to use social media instead. Through it, they organized pacifist campaigns and called for change.” During the spread of the epidemic, the most prominent hashtags launched by activists still revolved around pushing for an end to violence and respect for human rights: “things have reached its limits”, “save the Iraqi people”, “Iraq is bleeding”) after the protesters were targeted in Baghdad and Najaf during the covid-19 epidemic in Iraq.
Political analyst, Mahdi Khazal, pointed out that, “there has been no positive change from the current government; The current administration sees itself as a legitimate representative of the demonstrations, while it failed to serve justice to those involved in the violence against protesters. Khazal explained that protesters are more likely going to reorganise themselves for a political struggle: “there is no point in continuing the demonstration without producing new representatives and actors in the political scene”, he concluded.
The October demonstrations movement or October Revolution brought about many changes in the Iraqi arena, both positive and negative. It forced a government to resign, impulsed a change in the election law while forcing the authorities to accept early elections. But the price to pay was heavy: all of this came after the killing of hundreds of protesters. In a skilful way of preventing further changes, the ruling class used the Coronavirus epidemic to undermine the protest.