Shiites and Sunnis unite against corruption in Iraq


Protesters on Baghdad's Tahrir Square on August 7. Source.

For the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have spilled into the streets of Baghdad and of southern cities every Friday to protest corruption and demand an improvement in basic public services. This unprecedented protest movement is even more extraordinary because it is bridging the divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

"Sectarianism is dead " and "They are stealing from us in the name of religion!" These are just a few examples of the slogans chanted by protestors gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to express their anger at the politics of Haidar al-Abadi’s government.

"Sectarianism is dead". Source.

This movement, which was launched on social media three weeks ago by a group of young activists, hasn’t stopped growing since. Many people worn out by the current political system and the decrepit state of public services braved Iraq's highly insecure streets to respond to their call. The demonstrations first began in mid-July in Basra, where the death of the young protestor Muntather Al-Halfi, who was killed by the police, served a catalyst for the movement. After Basra, the protests spread to Nasiriya, then Diwaniya and finally to Baghdad.

A photo of Munthather Al-Halfi, the teenager who was killed by police in Basra. Source.


Radhia Oudjani is the former director of the French Institute in Baghdad, the only international cultural institute located in the red zone of the capital (the red zone designates neighbourhoods considered dangerous in comparison to the highly protected "green" zone). She underlined the importance of this movement:

Iraqi civil society is taking back its rights. Before, people were shut up in their homes. They were afraid of speaking or venturing out into the streets, where so many attacks have taken place. In the past, most political protests had a religious base—for example, there was a movement centred around the Jahaari bill, which would have changed the status of Shiite women [Editor’s note: This bill was criticised by NGOs and human rights groups, especially because it would have authorised marriage for girls as young as nine years old. Today, people are fed up with religion overshadowing politics. They want politicians to come up with political responses to what are, essentially, social issues.

"They are stealing from us in the name of religion!" Source.

"Politicians have no understanding of the daily struggles we face"

Nibras Hashim, an Iraqi artist, has been participating in the protests held in Baghdad.

We are tired of the conditions that we are forced to endure in Iraq. Politicians have no understanding of the daily struggles people face. Some high-ranking officials didn’t live in Iraq during the American occupation. Others made a lot of money during this period. They are protected by their privileged status and they don’t care about our situation. Just imagine: today, children as young as three years old are forced to beg in the streets to survive. Our fundamental rights to essentials such as education, health, housing, work, food, access to potable water and electricity have been compromised since Saddam Hussein’s regime fell 12 years ago.

Protests in Baghdad on August 7. Source. 

Politicians made them believe that all this was due to religious divisions. These protests are a political awakening, a revival of people’s consciousness. It’s also a symbol of unity: during the demonstrations, we march together, both those who are secular and religious, Sunni or Shiite. Together, we form one body with no particular group coming out on top.

"Free yourself from fear, demand your rights." Source.

During these demonstrations, many people call for rule of law or chant slogans that accuse the government and MPs of being thieves and liars. Others demand the resignation of Vice President Nouri Al-Maliki. As he was formerly the prime minister and is now one of the country’s three vice presidents, he is held responsible for much of the chaos that has engulfed Iraq — including the presence of the Islamic State jihadist group within our country’s borders.

Personally, I went out in the streets to demand my rights as a woman and an Iraqi citizen. I am thrilled to see more and more women coming to Tahrir square. I think that the young secular activists have helped create an environment of respect and fraternity.

On Sunday, the prime minister announced several new measures, which are good first steps. [Editor’s note: the proposed measures include the immediate removal of the posts of vice prime ministers and vice presidents, of which there are three each; replacing current quotas for specific parties and specific denominations with a system based on experience and competence; and a reduction of the number of bodyguards employed for each politician]. However, we must wait for these measures to be approved by the parliament and applied. Words aren’t enough. We need to see them turned into reality.

"To see thousands of citizens spilling into the streets gave me fresh hope"

Albaqer Jafeer also participated in the demonstrations in Baghdad.

This is the first time in my life that I’ve participated in a protest. At first, I wasn’t sure about participating. In recent years, protests that were held in Tahrir square were quite small, and usually ended up with protestors completely surrounded by security forces. I believed, like many others, that change would come through the ballot box: but our options were to vote for bad or for worse. But to see thousands of citizens spilling into the streets gave me fresh hope.

Protests in Baghdad on August 7. Source.

People of all sorts, secular and religious – like me – have joined the protests. During the protest that I attended, secular activists were calling for the rule of law in terms that were difficult for common people to understand. But, for the most part, the secular activists and religious people came together on the most important demands—an end to corruption and basic services for everyone.

"I want a bigger sign". Our Observer's humourous sign, which he said was motivated by his desire for greater freedom of expression.

We thought that Al-Abadi would come out in a stronger way—that he’d at least make a televised announcement about his reforms. However, we were mistaken : all he did was to publish a press release from his office. The proposals are certainly a step in the right direction, but they aren’t enough. We also need an investigation to hold those people who embezzled money from the state accountable as well as to identify those who let the Islamic State group occupy parts of Iraq. This jihadist group’s occupation has displaced two million people, who live in squalid conditions, while Iraqi political officials live in luxurious homes and palaces. Iraq needs more serious reforms in order to make sure that the interests of the people come before those of the government.

Un billet écrit par Dorothée Myriam KELLOU, journaliste à France 24.