Protesters carry a wounded fellow demonstrator in Baghdad last week. (photo: جيتي)
In Iraq, momentum for anti-government protests of the last few weeks is slowing and it seems likely that this wave of demonstrations will fade away soon – not least because of the violent way the protests were repressed. The young Iraqis who took part are returning to their homes, many of them still angry, fearful and often, with memories of fellow protesters who were injured or killed.
Beyond the political impact, what may eventually become even more important are the social implications. The demonstrations have deepened the divisions between younger and older generations in Iraq. And, given the high percentage of youth in Iraq this decade – over half of the almost 40 million-strong population is under 24 - that division is bound to continue to have an impact, politically, socially and culturally, in coming years.
We, the older generation, are trapped in despair ... exhausted by continuous crises in Iraq.
“Parents, teachers, tribal leaders and clerics – how did you dare to let us down, after you saw our blood flowing in the streets?” Alaa al-Saadi, a 23-year-old who had been protested in Baghdad asked, during a phone interview with NIQASH. “We went out there on your behalf too, to try and improve the current situation here. We got nothing in return but silence.”
The recent protests – now being called the “October protests” – differed from past versions of anti-government actions in many ways, including who led them, the authoritarian reactions of the government and the number of injured and dead, as a result. More than 100 people were killed, over 6,000 were injured and around 900 were detained by security forces.
The main players from previous anti-government protests in Iraq did not take overt part in these demonstrations. Neither left-wing parties (such as Iraq’s Communist party), civil society groups or liberal activists, or followers of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr played a visible role; in past protests, al-Sadr has come to be seen as something of an anti-authority symbol. Instead thousands of young people in Baghdad, Dhi Qar, Diwaniyah, Basra and Maysan found themselves out on the street, angry but without any real plan, experience or support. Many of the younger protestors, some under 16, snuck out of their homes and broke the curfew imposed by security forces, and possibly by their parents as well. The only thing all the demonstrators had in common was a desire for change.
“It was a big shock,” Sadiq al-Rubaie, 19, a Dhi Qar local who had taken part in the protests, told NIQASH. “We heard the buzz of live bullets fired at us and some hit our friends. In the past, the only place we heard bullets and lost friends was playing online games [the game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG, is very popular in Iraq]. Not in reality!”
Al-Rubaie believes that a lack of support from older Iraqis was part of the reason why security forces targeted the protestors – mostly young males, hardly any females took part – so harshly. “They think of us as children,” he argued. “If we had been supported by our parents, relatives or tribal leaders, this would not have happened like it did.”
They think of us as children. If we had been supported by our parents, relatives or tribal leaders, this would not have happened like it did.
And now many of the protestors have returned to their homes. Videos of the protests continue to be shared and to leak out of Iraq, despite the government’s throttling of the Internet. Often they are accompanied by statements from the protestors who insist they will continue to press for change. “We will not accept that we must live this way,” many of them say.
Iraq’s younger generation is often criticised by the older – for everything from the way they cut their hair, the clothes they wear, poor academic performance and the fact that they play video games all day, every day, late into the night. But this is also the generation that has led the largest protests against Iraq’s status-quo since 2003.
“This is the Iraqi generation that has not been polluted by sectarianism,” a politician, who asked not to be named, told NIQASH. “This is the smart, life-loving generation that will make a difference in Iraq.”
“They are the real heroes,” Abdullah al-Rubaie, 53, a freelance university lecturer, suggested. “They have proven that they will lead the next change in this country. We, the older generation, are trapped in despair, having lived through dozens of similar experiences and we just want a little peace, somewhere we can spend the rest of our lives without further pain. My generation is exhausted by continuous crises in Iraq - but I believe that our young people have decided they want a better future. We may consider this generation strange, but they are certainly brave.”
In a speech several days ago, Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, was supportive of the protesters’ demands, saying that it was time for politicians to admit that the protesters had a point. He also called upon Iraq’s youth to unite and for a dialogue to be started with the young protestors.
Then in a later speech, the country’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, also addressed the public. He declared that there should be three days of national mourning, that victims’ families should be compensated and that treatment of the injured would be paid for by the Iraqi government. He also said the authorities would release all those who had been detained during the protesters and that the government would provide half a million new jobs; the lack of jobs is one of the protesters’ main problems.
Just a few hours later, thousands of young men rushed to ministry buildings. But this time, they were going there in the hopes that they might get a job - and they were carrying their personal paperwork instead of the banners and flags they had with them last week.