Iraqis who decide to express their political views through nonviolent protest place themselves at risk of injury, detention, or worse.
A sit-in began in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square this week to demand government accountability and reform after a series of terrorist bombings in the city. The protest seemed largely spontaneous: it began as a small gathering including families of terrorism victims, then it grew, tents and blankets were brought in, and then came the launch of a hot air balloon carrying a simple message: “Peace for Iraq”. Today the security forces forcibly dismantled the protest site using tear gas to disperse the protesters.
Tear gas was used just last week when a small group of protesters gathered to draw attention to the disappearance of Afrah Shawqi, a female journalist who had been kidnapped and missing for days. There were rumours that an armed group with connections to politicians had carried out the abduction and the protesters demanded urgent government action. Security forces reportedly threatened and injured journalists who were present at the protest. Ms Shawqi has since been released.
Tear gas is a symbol of violent repression. For a period during 2015 and early 2016, though, it seemed that the government of President Haider al-Abadi may be curtailing its use. Weekly protests that grew in size and visibility during 2015 – demanding government services and anti-corruption measures – were tolerated by the government. This marked a change from previous governments that had used deadly repression against demonstrations.
The security forces continued to behave with restraint and respect for people’s right to protest even as the Sadrist Line’s mobilisation caused weekly protests to escalate dramatically into mass demonstrations in early 2016. During the Green Zone infiltration, protesters shared photos of security forces standing by as Iraqis symbolically occupied their own parliament.
Things soon changed. A subsequent attempt to enter the Green Zone was repressed with violence. Several protesters were killed. A tragic image shared by protesters showed a young man who had been killed when a tear gas canister (or part of one) struck him in the head. Some of the protesters responded by acquiring personal protective equipment.
Today, my Iraqi contacts – who identify with the Sadrist Line and supported this week’s protest – believe that the breaking up of the Tahrir Square sit-in, and road blocks reportedly established yesterday, are designed to prevent the small gathering of frustrated, mourning Baghdad residents from forming a larger group that might decide to once again threaten the Green Zone and its occupants. While Iraqis demand that their government provide them security against terrorism, their political elite is providing itself security against the people.
It seems that tear gas is back on Iraq’s streets and it’s here to stay.