‘System needs to change’: What do the Iraqi protesters want?

Protests over lack of jobs, services, and government corruption erupt in Baghdad and quickly spread to other Iraqi cities, killing dozens.

A demonstrator holds the Iraqi flag near burning objects at a protest during a curfew, three days after the nationwide anti-government protests turned violent, in Baghdad
Death toll from protests in Baghdad and cities across southern Iraq rose to 93 on Saturday [Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]

Baghdad, Iraq – It was just after 5am local time on Saturday morning in Iraq when I climbed out of bed.

Our office in the capital Baghdad has some basic rooms that in the event of emergency or war you can sleep in.

During the worst of the war with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group, I spent months sleeping in those rooms. I did not think it would happen again.

But there I was, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived at 5am to go see for myself if the Iraqi government had lifted the curfew as promised. It had.

The curfew came into place 48 hours earlier. It was eerie.

During the first few hours, I walked on to what should have been one of Baghdad’s busiest streets.

It was empty. Not a single car revved its engine. Not a single soul stirred.

The birds seemed to love the silence and flew down the street in formation, reminding me of those aircraft that fly with coloured smoke behind them in military parades so loved by dictators.

I took out my phone to take a shot of the urban emptiness. Behind me, a military patrol vehicle screeched to a halt and a soldier got out, shouting at me in Arabic to stop shooting.

I patiently explained I was a journalist. After a show of ID and much gesticulating of hands, they left me alone.

The incident was a measure of how seriously Iraq took the Baghdad shutdown. Nothing was allowed to move without permission.

That did not deter the protesters though. They defied curfew and faced a barrage of bullets fired by the Iraqi security forces, not just in Baghdad but across the south and centre of the country.

I heard those bullets from my office. I heard the thud of tear gas canisters hitting the ground. At the time of writing this piece, the death toll since the protests began on Tuesday was 73. Over 3,500 people were injured.

Across the country, the hospitals are struggling to cope with medicines and blood supplies are running low.

At 5am, overlooking Baghdad watching the sun come up, I saw signs of life returning back to normal as early morning traders brought food supplies into the city. But it was a facade.

Things are far from normal. The protesters are more determined than ever.

One of them told Al Jazeera that the more people died, the more they would come out into the streets.

What began as a demand for jobs and opportunities mutated into anger at Iraq’s security forces.

The same security forces that defeated ISIL have turned their guns on unarmed protesters.

That has spurred the protesters to ask why they are being targeted. They are not ISIL. They are Iraqis.

The government said tactical measures were needed to prevent civil unrest. Yet, unrest continues in the form of determination to continue to protests.

Politically speaking, the government seems paralysed. Appeals for calm haven’t worked and opposition politicians are publicly showing support for the protest movement, perhaps sensing that the mood of the people is changing.

That will not matter to the protesters. It is not this government that they are angry at. Past governments are also at fault. The protesters do not want a change of government.

They want a change of governance. As one Iraqi friend put it to me: “Same attitudes but different faces in our government are the problem. The system needs to change. Our politicians need to build a country, not build their own profile.”

Build a country. It is a big ask but that is exactly what these young men are protesting for. This generation does not remember Saddam Hussein.

It barely remembers the US-led invasion and the occupation of Iraq. What it does remember is unemployment, lack of opportunity, religious discrimination and government corruption.

They want a country with opportunity, security and prosperity. It is a big ask.

But when you have so little, why not ask big?

Source: Al Jazeera