Government and clerics disrupt the Day of Dignity

A week after the “Day of Rage” demonstrations on Friday 25 February, protesters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, for what they called the “Day of Dignity”.

They carried a coffin wrapped in the Iraqi flag, denouncing the death of the sixteen protesters who had been killed the previous Friday.

They had a variety of demands and slogans - some political, others focused on services.

A number of unemployed university graduates wore their graduation robes, and carried banners calling on the government to provide them with jobs.

As in previous demonstrations, the protesters were not well-organised and did not have a central leadership.

But, according to one of the organisers, Jalal al-Shahmani, the secretary-general of the "Free Youth Coalition", they had all agreed to denounce sectarianism, only carry Iraqi flags and distance themselves from expressing any partisan or religious affiliations.

The authorities had tried to prevent large numbers from joining the protest, by imposing a tight curfew, roadblocks and security checkpoints.

Because of this, there were only about two-thousand protesters on the ‘Day of Dignity‘, compared to five-thousand the previous week.

Despite their relatively low numbers, they succeeded in stopping all traffic and commercial activities in the city, and for a second week in a row, forced the authorities to impose a curfew on the movement of all vehicles.

At 1pm, the Baghdad Operations Command stepped in and removed the protesters from the Square by force, a decision which Shahmani described as “purely arbitrary”.

“It is an example of the government repressing its people and violating the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution,” he said.

Yanar Muhammad, President of the "Women's Freedom" organisation and another protest organiser, agreed:

“The government has shown that it is suppressing civil liberties, and dishonouring its promises and pledges to respect people’s right to demonstrate”, she said.

As well as blaming the government’s oppressive measures for the low turnout, the protesters also blamed the actions of the spiritual leaders of the political streams.

The Iraqiya channel, the official state television, had aired statements by religious leaders in the holy city of Najaf urging people to calm things down.

Some went as far as issuing fatwas banning people from demonstrating.

In statements to the media, sources close to the highest Shiite religious authority, Ali al-Sistani, relayed his concern that demonstrations would get out control and become infiltrated by people with “special interests and agendas.”

In a joint statement issued by the Shiite, Sunni and Christian endowments, the leaders called upon demonstrators to “give the Iraqi government sufficient time to assess the impact of its approved general budget of 2011 and then judge its performance.”

They too warned of infiltration.

Sheikh Kathem al-Haeri, with a broad base of followers, issued a fatwa banning all kinds of demonstrations "to safeguard the lives of people."

He said there had been warnings of potential risks and dangers threatening demonstrators.

Similar stances were taken by Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite leader and head of the al-Sadr stream, whose parliamentary bloc won 40 seats, and by Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Fadhila Party, with seven seats.

Muqtada al-Sadr, in a surprising move, left Iran and returned to Iraq before the "Day of Anger."

He expressed his support for the demonstrations, as the “reaction of the oppressed people against their oppressors."

But he then changed his view and asked his supporters to give the government a period of six months to improve services and implement the necessary reforms, before joining any protests.

An eye-witnesses in al-Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, the main stronghold of Muqtada al-Sadr’s popular base, said that cars roamed the streets broadcasting his orders over loudspeakers.

Shiite mosques affiliated to the al-Sadr movement were also urging people not to participate in the on-going demonstrations.

Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki himself specified a period of 100 days from February 27 to improve services and meet the demonstrators’ demands.

So al-Sadr’s six month grace period was not welcomed by activists resentful of the government’s performance.

According to Yanar Muhammad, "Shiite clerics and spiritual leaders have played a significant role in preventing protests and curbing the enthusiasm of the masses”.

Umar al-Jumaili, an activist on the Facebook site “Iraq’s rebels", had this assessment: “Iran sent Muqtada al-Sadr in order to calm down his followers from among the poor and ensure that they would not participate in a demonstration that could topple the regime of its ally, Nouri al-Maliki."

This is not to say that the “Day of Dignity” was completely free of turbans. Some clerics were present, including a number of followers of Sheikh Qasim al-Taie, a Shiite authority well-known for his views against the ongoing political process.

Sheikh Hussein al-Jibouri, representing Qasim al-Taie, led the prayers in part of the Square and then read out a statement containing a number of the protesters’ demands. The statement was signed by representatives of civil society organisations.

Demonstrations in the last two weeks have led to the dismissal of a number of officials, including the governors of Basra and Babel, as well as Baghdad’s mayor.

Inside the Iraqi parliament, more than 50 MPs signed a request to discuss a number of issues, including the speeding up of the electoral law reform, restricting the powers of ministries and local councils, and dismissing some governors who have failed to provide services.

Demonstrators in Baghdad and other provinces say they will continue their protests until the government takes practical steps towards creating jobs, improving services, ending corruption and holding negligent people accountable for their acts.

Jalal al-Shahmani goes one step further: “We will not stop until there is a true opposition inside parliament, similar to those democratic mechanisms which exist in the civilised world”.