Is now a redefining moment for Iraq’s civil society?
The release of seven anti-graft activists by unidentified captors marked civil society’s fledgling attempts at rebirth in Iraq. The freeing of the male university students held for two days in April by militiamen was a welcome victory for Iraq’s grass-roots community.
Jubilant crowds greeted the men as heroes on their arrival at Al-Andalus Square in Baghdad at 2.30am April 10.
Civil society movements have not been entirely dormant after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Manpower had been mobilised and civil activism had been revived but largely co-opted in service of Islamist parties.
In a statement signed by Interior Ministry adviser Wahab al-Taei, the activists were said to have been released “unharmed” — words belied by signs of physical abuse that marked some of the returning men.
They are known players in the domestic civil rights scene. They are involved in student politics and have an unforgiving stance on corrupt officials.
Their release operation was executed with the help of official sides, a member of the Students’ Union said in a conversation over Viber. “Not anyone can pass through official checkpoints unchallenged. You must obtain official access. The operation was no doubt linked to agents of political parties,” the person said.
The government, in typical fashion, promised further investigations into the matter but failed to divulge information regarding the men’s disappearance or their kidnappers’ identities.
More than ever before, civil society is refusing to cower, while kidnappings and raids remain a cost of testing the promise of free speech in Iraq.
The release of the activists — though a minor victory — signals an important shift in the balance of local power. Militias and political parties have been resorting to violence to intimidate opponents into silence.
Religion no longer holds the same sway it did under the schematic reign of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Dissenting voices are growing louder but civil society has struggled to shift the power to its side.
In a recent news conference, Iraqi Member of Parliament Faiq al-Sheikh Ali denounced the kidnappings, stating that “this will not be the first or the last time civil society dissenters will be kidnapped for demonstrating and protesting against Iraqi government corruption.”
In today’s Iraq, to question the actions of political figureheads or militia formations is almost tantamount to blasphemy. This line of thinking was recently reflected in a draft law involving freedom of speech. One of its clauses advocated the imprisonment of any person who debases religious symbols, figures or rhetoric. A parliamentary vote on the measure was postponed.
The postponement comes as an extension to delay a decision to dissolve the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission — a postponement reportedly sealed by a secret handshake between Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and members of the National Iraqi Alliance.
Months of tireless protests in Iraq’s Tahrir Square have amounted to very little as Sadr backpedals on the promise to change Iraq’s electoral law. This has led sceptics to question the purpose of the protests, with some describing them as decoys to distract from bigger issues.
This would not be the first time in which unrealistic promises voiced by political figureheads have gone unmet. Sadr’s efforts to purge the Independent High Electoral Commission of Dawa Party elements who effectively pull the governmental body’s strings are a mere reflection of his political ambitions.
Following the agreement to postpone the commission’s fate, new hands — most likely of Sadrist ilk — could take charge.
The limitations civil society faces remain but continuing initiatives are a testimony to the existence of Iraqi civil society.