On 19 October this year I witnessed the Shia pilgrimage of the Arba’een, in which up to 20 million Shia Muslims converge on the city of Karbala in central Iraq. Each year, people come from across the country and beyond to honour the life and teaching of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Husayn ibn Ali, who was killed by the caliph Yazid in 680.
Although Husayn died more than 1,300 years ago, for the pilgrims I spoke to, not much has changed in Iraq. Husayn stood against corruption, violence, hypocrisy and tyranny, and as far as my interlocutors were concerned that is still the way of the world.
I made the same pilgrimage in 2018 and the mood then was more upbeat; parliamentary elections had been held in May that year and anti-corruption reforms had been promised by the coalition government formed by the bloc of populist Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Communist Party, and others. This year, however, the mood was different. On 1 October, mass protests consisting mostly of young Shia men began in the Iraqi capital Baghdad against corporate and state corruption, frequent power cuts, dirty water supplies and unemployment.
The authorities’ response has been bloody and brutal – more so than in Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong. Since 3 October, more than 300 people have been shot dead and more than 6,000 injured. The government has denied responsibility for the violent crackdown and so the citizens of Baghdad have instead blamed Iran for the violence.
This idea seemed more credible after Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, visited Baghdad in early October. In a meeting that he chaired instead of the Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, he was reported to have said that “in Iran we know how to deal with these situations”. The next day, the shootings began. “Iran! Iran! Out! Out! Baghdad will be free!” was the chant I heard from people on their pilgrimage to Karbala.
As with the ongoing uprisings around the world, the protests in Iraq, which have spread to all the major towns and cities of the Shia south, have no formal organisation and no identifiable leaders. They have called for the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi’s government, an independent commission into the shootings and an official investigations into where all of Iraq’s oil money has gone (for the sixth-largest oil producer in the world to be unable to maintain electricity supplies and clean water is a source of national shame.) There have also been calls for a new constitution that rejects the confessional system – in which Shias, Sunnis and Kurds divide up the nation’s resources between them – and ensures free and equal citizenship. So far, the demands have been met with silence from the government.
After the pilgrimage to Arba’een, on 25 October the protestors returned to the streets of Baghdad in the most extraordinary display of citizen power that I have ever seen. The protests, which numbered around half a million in Baghdad alone, were four times the size of what they had been previously, while people also demonstrated peacefully in Najaf, Basra, Karbala and Nasiriya. In Baghdad, people occupied the tallest building overlooking Tahrir Square and draped large portraits of various victims of the military violence down its facade.
The protestors were initially and overwhelmingly Shia, but Christians, Sunnis and Kurds have enthusiastically joined in; “Baby Shark”, a popular children’s song around the world, is blasted out from sound systems as people dance and wave the national flag. Volunteer medics turn up each night to care for the wounded and families bring home-cooked meals for the protestors who have also produced a four-page magazine called Tuk Tuk.
The common language of the protestors centres on the idea of democratic sovereignty; of political rights, dignity, freedom and democracy. Each night, when the internet is cut and the power goes out, the threat of reprisals from government forces is palpable. Yet the protestors remain.
Fear and hope exist in equal measure, but Iraqis are defining a new political reality based on justice and honesty; one that looks completely different from a corrupt, sclerotic order that they think is governed by “thieves” and serves no one but the rich and well-connected.
Tahrir Square has become a self-governing enclave in central Baghdad, a space in which sectarian politics is emphatically rejected and where people find solidarity in shared grief and revolutionary hopes. It is an amazing thing to have witnessed.