Tomorrow the city of Sulaymaniyah commemorates the first anniversary of popular protests that rocked the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan last year. During the protests, around ten people were killed and hundreds injured and as the anniversary of the first of the protests on Feb. 17, nears, many are asking whether there will be more violence in the streets, in this, generally the most secure region in Iraq.
Popular protests began in February last year when some of the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan began a march to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Tunisia and Egypt. However when the marchers reached central Sulaymaniyah, they began to formulate other demands with more local relevance, such as governmental reform.
Becoming angry, the demonstrators began throwing rocks at the offices of the political party there. Security forces eventually opened fire on the protestors with live ammunition and the first protestor to be killed was a local teenager called Rizwan Ali. Feb. 17 is also considered a commemoration of his death.
As the anniversary draws near though, the streets of Iraqi Kurdistan seem relatively calm. However where things are not calm, are online. Although there don’t seem to be any real life attempts to spark a protest right now, social media websites like Facebook seem to be doing their best to foment more of a Kurdish youth revolution.
The “Feb. 17” Facebook page is one of the most popular pages among local youth; it gained 45,000 “Likes” within a few short weeks. And if that page is to be believed, then there are demonstrations planned right around the region. The administrators of this Facebook page have remained anonymous but they are asking protestors to gather at all the different Tahrir Squares in Kurdistan on Feb. 17. Tahrir means “freedom” or “liberation” in Arabic and for a variety of reasons, many towns have a square named like this.
Should the protests be halted before they have even begun, the Facebook page administrators suggest that “they will wear black clothes and put red cloth wristbands to commemorate the occasion”. The page has plenty of comments on it, including some from passionate young people who say that, this time they will continue to demonstrate against the local government, which the page claims has lost its legitimacy, until they die if necessary.
Several other Facebook pages are trying to inspire similarly passionate feelings and protests. One page, named “Spontaneous Protestors”, has written slogans like: “Today Facebook, Tomorrow Tahrir Square”.
That page is also urging opposition forces in Iraqi Kurdistan to marshal their supporters to take part in anti-government demonstrations.
Generally power in the semi-autonomous state, which has its own borders, military and separate government, is shared between two major parties in the region - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In practice the region is basically split into two separate zones of influence, with local administrations in Erbil and Dohuk controlled by the KDP and the Sulaymaniyah area mostly administered by the PUK.
Opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan include two main Islamic parties and the Movement for Change party (mostly known as the Change party), which broke away from the main political parties in the region in 2006, demanding an end to corruption and nepotism among the current leaders.
However up until now, the opposition politicians in the region have not declared any intention to demonstrate. That is despite the fact that they do keep calling for reform in the local government.
For example, in January 2011 the Change Movement issued a statement containing seven points, where, among other things, they demanded the dissolution of the Kurdish parliament, new elections and a new constitution. Some see this as continued tacit support for any demonstrations on Feb. 17.
The Kurdistan Islamic Union’s position is not all that different. “The peoples’ patience has limits,” Salahuddin Bahauddin, the secretary-general of the Islamic Union, said on Feb. 6 this year. “If the authorities do not resolve their problems and perform the needed reforms, the people will not have mercy and will not forgive these authorities.”
Meanwhile Dlair Abdul-Khaliqi, who speaks for a collective of Sulaymaniyah university students who were very active in organising protestors early in 2011, says a new wave of demonstrations cannot be ruled out altogether.
“The demands made last February are still the same and nothing has changed,” Abdul-Khaliqi said. “There’s no sign of reform and the killers of the protestors have not been brought to justice. So a new wave of protests could erupt at any time.”
Abdul-Khaliqi added that he would prefer it if demonstrations were peaceful this time but that, “no one could tell how things will develop”.
According to information obtained by NIQASH, the security forces in the region have been placed on a state of general alert. The city of Sulaymaniyah, which was the centre of some of the biggest protests in 2011, is on particularly high alert.
The government of Iraqi Kurdistan will apparently not allow any unauthorized demonstrations to take place. If they do, the authorities will take what government spokesperson Mohammed Khoshnaw describes as “firm action”.
These kinds of statements have been seen by protestors as something of a threat of violence, similar to last year. Which is also why many believe there won’t be any demonstrations; they think the demonstrations will remain confined to the virtual worlds of Facebook and other social media.
This is what Ismail Abdullah, a protestor who is well known for his involvement in demonstrations, expects. Because of what he calls the “authorities’ oppressive actions” he says Facebook is the new Tahrir Square.
However at the same time, Abdullah also points out that “last year’s demonstrations were spontaneous and totally unplanned. So really, nobody can predict exactly what will happen this year.”