Iraqis wanted to topple the system but taboos fell instead

Slogans such as "Forget outdated traditions," "End classism" and "No more differences" are trending on Twitter in Iraq.
Monday 24/02/2020
Iraqi students take part in an anti-government protest in Basra, Iraq, February 18. (AFP)
Fallen totems. Iraqi students take part in an anti-government protest in Basra, Iraq, February 18. (AFP)

BAGHDAD - Mocking clerics, falling in love at rallies and mending a broken society: even if Iraq's young protesters failed to overthrow entrenched politicians, they scored by shattering decades-old taboos.

Since October, the country has been rocked by a historically large grass-roots movement with big goals: ending corruption, unaccountable sectarian parties and overreach from neighbouring Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned in December, only to be replaced by ex-minister Mohammed Allawi, slammed by protesters as too close to the ruling elite.

However, what they have been unable to win politically, demonstrators have made up for with social change.

"We scored one goal by bringing down the government but socially we achieved much more," said Ali Khraybit, 28.

His best friend proposed to a girl he met while marching in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the anti-government movement's epicentre.

Like other squares across Iraq's mainly Shia south, Tahrir has become a social experiment, a free space where conservative norms have been toppled.

Youth chants against a once-untouchable cluster of politicians and paramilitary commanders and women spend nights in tents next to adult men. Students defy orders to return to class and neighbourhoods once seen as dangerous are buzzing with people heading to demonstrations.

Slogans such as "Forget outdated traditions," "End classism" and "No more differences" are trending on Twitter in Iraq.

"Tahrir lets us dream," wrote one activist whose friend, who ekes out a living driving a rickshaw, fell in love with a medic from a prestigious family.

Since the 1970s, Iraq has endured Saddam Hussein's authoritarian regime, back-to-back wars and devastating sanctions that isolated it from the world.

There were few cellular phones and barely any internet access until the 2003 US-led invasion that collapsed Saddam's nominally secular regime. Sectarian fighting gave rise to hard-line Shia and Sunni militias as society became more divided and religious.

When Iraq defeated the Islamic State in 2017 after years of fighting and displacement, many anticipated long-overdue peace and prosperity.

"The young generation was in a coma for many years but stability opened their eyes to the truth: there is more to life than just surviving," said protester Ahmad Haddad, 32. "There's living in dignity in a civil society, breaking conservative norms and loosening the grip of religious parties."

Instead of easing into normality, it was a sudden uprising that transformed Iraq.

Hiyyam Shayea, a 50-year-old teacher in protest-hit Diwaniyah province, can testify to that.

"There were some huge, surprising changes to a lot of social affairs," said Shayea, wearing a traditional black robe at a recent rally in her hometown.

Such a stance had long been unimaginable in the south, where tribal customs trump federal law and restrict women's public role. It has come at a high price, however. Approximately 550 people have been killed and 30,000 wounded in protest-related violence.

"That was all for a homeland, one that's civilised and civil, not backwards and outdated," said Shayea.

Some are resisting the changes, describing rallies as hotbeds of promiscuity, alcohol and drugs, fuelled by the West. Leading Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr has tried to discredit the movement with such claims, insisting men and women stay separate and protests be "cleaned."

Women swiftly organised a rally mocking al-Sadr, long untouchable because of his violent past as a militiaman and his diehard followers.

In the protests' early days, crowds slapped shoes against portraits of paramilitary leaders and Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who held tremendous sway in Baghdad and was never publicly criticised. Soleimani was killed in a US strike in January.

Demonstrators also railed against "muhassassa," the sectarian power-sharing system governing Iraq after Saddam.

Few protesters are old enough to remember Saddam -- 60% of the population is under 25 -- and blame their elders for Iraq's slide into broken politics. The rallies exposed "a huge rift" between the two generations, Iraqi researcher Khaled Hamza said.

"We're in the middle of a spontaneous movement by a group of youth who weren't expected to be responsible for achieving what our generation couldn't," said Hamza, who is in his 60s.

Protesters recognise it, too. In Baghdad, a woman in a pink headscarf carried a sign: "In the end, I made a revolution. What did you do?"

In oil-rich Basra, Heba, a protester in her 20s, said the rallies have changed her. "They strengthened our personalities, made us distinguish between right and wrong and demand our rights," she said.

The movement is at a crossroads: numbers have dwindled as activists face an intimidation campaign and parties seek to recapture momentum with a new cabinet.

"Now, it's time to unite under a new vision, a plan that addresses Iraqis' needs," said protester Mohammad al-Ajeel, a businessman who splits time between Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. "What's happening is huge but it's new for us. We can't expect everything to happen overnight. It may need years."