Baghdad’s protest movement: despondent and divided

by Prashant Rao

Note: This article was originally published by AFP on January 31, 2012. It can be found in full here.

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Nearly a year after national rallies rocked the government, Iraq’s protest movement is a shadow of its former self, after the authorities cracked down and demonstrators themselves became divided.

While thousands of people took to the streets on February 25, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square — flooded last year by protesters calling for reforms on the heels of regional revolts — now sees barely 100 people at Friday rallies.

And many of these now shout pro-government slogans or are plainclothes security officers.

Organisers of last year’s protests paint a picture of a movement suspicious of its own members, unwilling to risk what rights groups have condemned as unnecessary restrictions instigated by a “budding police state.”

“The momentum we had in February 2011 is not there any more,” said Kamal, a rally organiser who asked that he be identified only by his first name.

“We are weaker than a year ago, and we are more divided.”

“When we did what we did in February, we had more faith and hope. I don’t want to say we were wrong,” he said. “We were unrealistic.”

Last year’s protests, held in more than a dozen cities, were sparked by massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt that led to the overthrow of those countries’ strongmen.

Protesters in Iraq, however, rallied over basic issues such as water and electricity services, which remain sporadic and unreliable almost nine years after the US-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein.

They also demanded an end to endemic state corruption and the provision of much-needed jobs.

Fifteen demonstrators were killed in clashes with police.

In response, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gave his cabinet 100 days to shape up or face the sack.

The authorities diverted funds earmarked for warplanes to food for the poor and upped allocations for generator fuel for Iraq’s boiling summer, when electricity shortfalls are substantial.

In the end, no ministers were fired even though no significant legislation was passed, and little tangible progress was made towards meeting protesters’ demands.

June 10 protests that followed the expiry of Maliki’s 100-day deadline were a key moment in the evolution of the demonstrations, protesters and rights groups say.

Whereas previous weekly rallies, though dwindling in number, had criticised the government, the Tahrir Square demonstration in June saw critics outnumbered by its supporters.

Anti-government protesters dispersed after rival demonstrators assaulted several people.

“The turning point, really, in the demonstrations, was the June 10 demonstration,” said Samer Muscati, a Middle East and North Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Most of the people we speak to, after that day, they realised they have to take their security seriously.

“That was the turning point, that’s when the authorities realised they were on to something, that this is a more effective way of dealing with the protesters, and what they did was successful.”

Muscati and Kamal both said government supporters had co-opted demonstrators using a combination of financial incentives and threats, in an attempt to lessen their numbers and breed internal suspicion.

New York-based HRW sharply criticised Baghdad over its response to the demonstrations, arguing in a report this month that Iraq was “a budding police state” and “slipping back into authoritarianism.”

Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, has said journalists were targeted by security forces during the Tahrir Square demonstrations.

Journalists and protesters point to the unsolved September 2011 murder of Hadi al-Mehdi, a radio reporter who had criticised the government, as a sign of a wider crackdown.

Many blame the authorities for Mehdi’s death, a charge officials vehemently deny.

The government insists it has not ordered any crackdown, and says instances of violence against protesters are one-off incidents which it condemns.

“The protests began with logical demands which were possible to achieve,” said Maliki spokesman Ali Mussawi.

“I won’t say we achieved all of them, but now in the streets the people believe that the government is serious.”

He added: “The figure for people who protest has decreased. Those who protest now are from political blocs, and do not represent Iraqis.”

At a recent Friday rally in Tahrir Square, around 150 protesters crowded the area, many calling for the execution of Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who is charged with running a death squad, accusations he and his supporters say are politically motivated.

Others said Turkey, with which Iraq is in a diplomatic dispute, should mind its own business. Only a minority called for improved services and jobs for the unemployed.

All were corralled inside a military cordon with protesters and journalists frisked before entering.

A blogger and activist, who asked to be identified as Hayder Hamzoz, remains hopeful, despite avoiding Tahrir Square for months after being attacked for a second time in July by people in civilian clothes he says were security men.

“I am not depressed — I believe the people can change things because of what has happened in other countries in the Arab world,” the 23-year-old said. “I believe the people can choose what they want.”

“But time — they need time.”

Hamzoz noted that young activists had jokingly coined a new word to express the current state of governance in Iraq — “demotatoria,” a combination of democracy and dictatorship.

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