The protests that have been taking place in Basra have quietened down somewhat since they begin in early July, at the height of an uncomfortably hot and dry summer. But that doesn’t mean they will end.
Unlike in the past, this summer’s protests in Basra did not start in the centre of the southern province and they were not particularly organized. They were a very real expression of the anger and frustration felt by ordinary people in Basra – people suffering from pollution from oil fields, not having any drinkable water and dealing with rolling black outs, if they got power at all. That is most likely why the protests began in Qarna and Madina, out of the city of Basra, in areas that were previously agricultural in nature but which now suffer badly from poor provision of state services and high unemployment.
This is also most likely why so many young men participated in these demonstrations. Frustrated, often unmarried and unemployed, they needed to express their anger.
Many of those arrested were forced to sign pledges that they wouldn’t take part in another demonstration and 'violate the law' again.
Then again, that is probably also why some of the protests lacked seriousness, central organisation or had unrealistic objectives, making them more or less exercises in futility.
“Young people here feel that the whole country depends on Basra's oil production,” says Najah al-Shammari, a 28-year-old science graduate who works repairing mobile phones and who took part in the protests. “Which is why they wanted to use this card to pressure the government,” he explains, when asked why the protestors decided to encircle some of the major oilfields in Basra. “That is also why the government responded the way it did,” he adds.
The protests at the oil fields led to the closure of Iraqi border crossings and ports, as well as a more violent response.
“Bullets were flying,” says Ahmad al-Malki, a 20-year-old demonstrator from Qarna. “They were coming from the police and from the security guards at the oil facilities. They even started to arrest those they believed were leading the protests.”
This made the demonstrators all the more determined to carry on though, says Abbas al-Jourani, a political activist and member of the local Communist party.
“As soon as one sit-in or protest was dispersed in Huwair, another one would start,” he recounts. “The security forces behaved the worst near the oil fields and we believe that strict orders were given for them to protect the oil facilities.”
Kathem al-Sahlani, a professor at the university of Basra, believes that dozens of demonstrators in the metropolitan centres of Basra were hurt or killed by either militias, military or security guards that were protecting the political party offices or other facilities where protests took place. Drones were used to take pictures of the protestors and many of those arrested were forced to sign pledges that they wouldn’t take part in another demonstration and “violate the law” again, al-Sahlani says.
“This is just an expression of anger because of our miserable reality,” says Muhanned Kareem, a 26-year-old who graduated with a degree in geography from Basra University in 2015 but who has been unemployed ever since. “The government is not helping us find jobs and whenever there are jobs they are given to the families of martyrs [people killed fighting the extremist Islamic State group], or the relatives and friends of officials, or members of political parties. Meanwhile the general public suffers,” he argues.
It is not the first time that Kareem and his friends have taken part in demonstrations and he does not think it will be the last.
Other reactions by the Iraqi government to try and calm the situation were not well received either. The prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, travelled to Basra to meet some community and tribal leaders as well as some protest leaders; he also promised to invest US$3 billion in Basra and find more jobs for local youth. At the same time though, the government was busy cutting off the Internet in southern Iraq and infuriating demonstrators even more.
There was no point in trying to meet the tribal leaders, states Abdulkarim Abdallah, a Basra trade union activist.
“It meant nothing to the demonstrators when the prime minister met pro-government community leaders,” Abdallah told NIQASH. “The protestors feel the same way about that as they do about political parties: They resent it. The people started to protest because of their living conditions,” Abdallah notes, “not because of any tribal or political affiliations.”
The local government needs to accept its share of the blame for Basra’s problems because they haven’t managed to solve anything either.
The Iraqi government needs to address the protestors’ real demands, he suggests.
The list of these is long, as Hassan al-Asadi, one of the protestors, can attest: Water and power, job opportunities, the dismissal of foreign workers at oil companies so that qualified locals can do their jobs, the dismissal of corrupt managers and security staffers as well as arrest warrants for politicians accused of corruption.
It’s clearly a big ask and local councils, and even the federal government, appears unable to solve these problems. The Basra provincial council itself was rumoured to be split between those members who supported the demonstrations and those who did not. This led to a lack of quorum – the number of councillors needed to make any decision official – during the protests. While the head of the council made threats against the protestors, the council also issued statements about turning Basra into a region, something that is suggested from time to time, often to deflect public anger about official incompetence and to put blame on the federal government for Basra’s problems.
The local government did not even try to defend the protestors, university professor al-Sahlani says. “The local government needs to accept its share of the blame for Basra’s problems because they haven’t managed to solve anything either,” he continues.
The strength of the protests have ebbed away somewhat now – perhaps this is hardly surprising given all of the political and military forces aligned against them. But the problems that caused this genuine outpouring of anger from the streets have not gone away. Given this, as well as ongoing unemployment and an ever-increasing drug problem in the area, locals expect to see the demonstrations regain momentum eventually – and, potentially, to even become more violent.