October 2019 marked the start of the largest instance of civil unrest in central and southern Iraqi provinces since 2003. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest corruption, widespread unemployment, a severe lack of public services and foreign interference in the country. While these issues affect the entire country, they are particularly pertinent to minority areas, and echo minority concerns around participation, accountability and security. Civil society demanded the dismantling of the entire political establishment for its failure to improve living standards for much of the population while reinforcing the narrow political elite’s hold on power and resources.
The resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in late November 2019 was a significant milestone of the movement, but it was not enough to meet the demands of the protesters. The entrenched political status quo led by the muhasasa system – the quotas established by the United States following its invasion of the country – was being challenged. In response, protesters faced severe crackdowns and attacks with live ammunition, rubber bullets, snipers, tear gas, round-the-clock curfews and internet blackouts, leading to some 669 deaths, 25,000 injuries and 2,800 arrests by January 2021.
Then came the arrival of COVID-19. Iraq recorded its first official case in Najaf on 24 February 2020. Despite the obvious public health dangers posed by the virus, protesters were reluctant to halt the demonstrations. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Initially, protesters denounced the ensuing government-imposed curfews and prohibitions of large gatherings as a pretext to suppress the civil society movement. After all, a supposed government concern for public health was in direct contradiction to its clear disregard for the lives of peaceful demonstrators. It also would not have been the first attempt to supress protester demands.
Censorship of activists, protesters and journalists in Iraq pre-dated the pandemic. A series of kidnappings and assassinations has plagued the protest movement and these continue. It is believed that more than 60 activists have been assassinated by unknown gunmen, including photojournalist Ahmad Muhanna Al-Lami, who was shot in the back while covering the protests on 6 December 2019. Civil society activist Fahem al-Tai was killed on 8 December 2019 in Karbala after returning from the protests. Female activists have also been targeted. Janat Madhi was gunned down as she returned from a day of protesting in Iraq’s southern city of Basra on 21 January 2020 and Reham Yacoub was killed when gunmen opened fire on her vehicle in Basra on 19 August 2020. The emergence of COVID-19 has not stopped these attacks. On 10 March 2021, Jasb Hattab Aboud was killed after being highly vocal and seeking accountability for the disappearance of his son, Ali Jasb, at the height of the anti-government protests in October 2019. Meanwhile rhetoric to delegitimize the protesters has been widely used by political and religious elites, who have accused them of immorality, and thereby posing a threat to social and religious norms in the country.
A series of kidnappings and assassinations has plagued the protest movement: it is believed that more than 60 activists have been assassinated by unknown gunmen.
The Communications and Media Commission (CMC), an institution that is said to be financially and administratively independent from the government, ordered the closure of eight television broadcasters and four radio stations for three months for breaching regulations, with five other broadcasters also being warned over their coverage of the protests. More recently, the CMC invoked the Media Broadcasting Rules to suspend Reuters’ licence on 2 April 2020 for three months and fined them 25 million IQD (US$21,000), after they published a story claiming the number of COVID-19 cases in the country was higher than shown by government figures. Reuters was accused of relying on unsubstantiated claims and sources to fabricate news about the virus in Iraq, endangering public safety and hindering the government’s efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. The suspension was lifted on 19 April 2020.
In the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI), several cases of arbitrary arrests, detention, and prosecution of journalists, bloggers and protesters have also been recorded. In December 2020, protests broke out in the governorate of Sulaymaniyah, despite pandemic-related restrictions. Thousands of public sector workers took to the streets to demand their unpaid wages and, like their fellow demonstrators in central and southern Iraq, they were met with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas, killing 10 and injuring 65.
Hemin Mamand, a journalist in the KRI, was arrested after posting a message on Facebook criticizing the Kurdish Regional Government for withholding public servants’ salaries and the COVID-19-related lockdown restrictions. Hemin was detained the very next day, without a warrant by unidentified authorities, information he would later relay on Facebook, for which he was rearrested. In his 15 days of detention, Hemin was only permitted one call to his lawyer and was denied face-to-face access, under the pretext of COVID-19 protection measures.
Activists were no longer protesting for their livelihoods; they were protesting for their lives. For many, COVID-19 was no greater threat than the economic, social and political reality they would face if the protests were not successful. For others, the invisible threat of a virus was not as severe as the blinding effects of gas canisters used to disperse and attack them. The harsh reality was that the increased number of deaths due to disease did not change the circumstances that led the demonstrators to risk their lives in the first place.
In December 2020, thousands of public sector workers in Sulaymaniyah took to the streets to demand their unpaid wages. They were met with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas, killing 10 and injuring 65.
In minority areas in Iraq, the threat of ISIS has loomed large. Rather than dampening its resolve, the pandemic seems to have afforded the extremist group opportunity to renew its strategy and intensify its attacks while security forces were distracted. The instability inevitably caused by civil unrest and demonstrations was not an outcome that many minority groups could or would risk in their territories, after ISIS had already exploited such conditions to commit mass atrocities and expel them from their historical homelands.
This is not to say that minorities have not been present and part of the civil society movement. Protesters pride themselves on the political, religious, social, ethnic, gender and ideological diversity of demonstrators – particularly in Baghdad – which they believe lends strength and legitimacy to the movement. Overall, the decentralized nature of the protests and its lack of hierarchy had helped it survive months of repression and brutality. Yet with COVID-19, these characteristics placed the movement and those engaging with it at further risk. While some groups continued to occupy public spaces in a number of cities in central and southern Iraq, many others announced a halt to their rallies in line with the new restrictions.
Nevertheless, significant efforts were undertaken by demonstrators to ensure Covid-safe spaces for protests. For a while, to avoid overcrowding, demonstrators in Baghdad implemented a rotational system in an attempt to keep pressure on the government and ensure the movement stays alive amidst dwindling numbers. Those who remained undertook an active civic service role to fill the gaps left by the government in response to the pandemic. The temporary clinics established by demonstrators in Tahrir Square (the epicentre of the mass protest movement) to treat those wounded in the attacks against them were now being used to distribute face masks, plastic gloves and hand sanitizer. Protesters shared health information in pamphlets and speeches. Some initiated campaigns to sterilize areas of demonstrations while others sprayed public streets with disinfectant. Through such measures, protesters challenged notions that it is the protests, rather than the injustices driving them, that are dangerous.
Recent reports indicated that at least 83 governments worldwide have used the pandemic to justify the violation of the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. The irony of these actions is not lost on Iraqi civil society.
Eventually, however, the pandemic led to the dispersal of the majority of protesters in Tahrir Square, and the protests officially ended on 21 March 2020 as concerns regarding the rampant spread of the virus increased. Organizers vowed to revive the protests should the government fail to make any headway in addressing their demands. Iraqis watched from afar as COVID-19 restrictions were used to forcefully dismantle and ban mass protest movements in Lebanon and Algeria. Recent reports indicated that at least 83 governments worldwide have used the pandemic to justify the violation of the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. The irony of these actions is not lost on Iraqi civil society. Any public health justification for violent disruptions of demonstrations and mass detention is undermined by the very nature of these measures that threaten the lives and freedoms of protesters.
Yet while violent crackdowns and the virus have worked together to physically disperse the protesters from public spaces, the same The use of hashtags such as ‘Iraq is bleeding’ helped gain international attention and condemnation of government crackdowns, while online memorialization of those killed in the protests and assassinations has mobilized civil society across Iraq and strengthened calls for investigation and justice. The digital space created throughout the demonstrations remained available and active as the threat shifted from armed killings to global pandemic. cannot necessarily be claimed for the digital movement that occurred in parallel. As a result of state or militia violence against protesters, online activism has always been an option for those who wished to demand their rights without risking their physical safety. Virtual protests have played a pivotal role in both stimulating the movement and voicing demands to wider communities in the absence of state media coverage.
The pandemic has amplified the economic hardships of Iraqi civil society. A year and a half since mass protests broke out, protesters’ demands remain pertinent and relevant. In April 2021, demonstrators once again began to gather in the southern districts of Iraq to demand their rights. Until real significant economic and political change is realized, the movement will likely continue, despite the twin perils of COVID-19 and state repression.
Photo: Iraqi demonstrators gather to mark the first anniversary of the anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq October 25, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani.