Baghdad, Iraq – Protesters have once again gathered in the Iraqi capital to demand better services, jobs and an end to government corruption – this time, however, numbering only in the dozens, a visible decrease compared with the previous four weeks.
Demonstrators have been staging rallies and sit-ins in various parts of Iraq since July 8, but tightened security measures and recent government moves to appease them appear to have succeeded in keeping many people away.
In Baghdad, security forces on Friday lined the roads leading to Tahrir Square, preventing cars and other vehicles from crossing. The Republic’s Bridge, which connects Tahrir Square to the Green Zone – where government buildings and embassies are based – was completely cut off hours before the demonstration.
Outside of the capital, the number of protesters – which had previously been in the thousands across Iraq’s southern provinces of Basra, Muthana, Nasiriyya, Diwaniya, Najaf and Karbala – was also down.
Despite an expression of solidarity from Ahmed al-Safi – the spokesman of Iraq’s top Shia Muslim scholar Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – who said during Friday’s sermon that “people’s rights cannot be given, but rather taken”, the sit-ins this week were smaller. Sources in several southern provinces told Al Jazeera that only dozens to hundreds of people went out to demonstrate in those areas.
In an attempt to quell previous protests, security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and water cannon against protesters, according to demonstrators. The government has denied using violence. At least 14 people have died since July 8, according to police and medical sources.
Internet connectivity in Iraq has also been reduced, with users reporting being unable earlier this month to access sites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for several days.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seeking a second term, has responded by saying he supports peaceful protests and promising to fund electricity and water projects.
He has also met tribal leaders and delegations from several southern provinces, including Najaf and Wasit, and gave orders to complete projects that would generate jobs and improve services.
Despite these moves, the remaining protesters in Baghad’s Tahrir Square, like others across Iraq’s public squares, said they are adamant to keep rallying until they see more change.
At the square, a ring of security forces surrounded the demonstrators who chanted slogans in favour of change and held banners calling for the provision of services and the elimination of corruption.
Mushriq Fariji, 38, who has been protesting against the lack of government services and corruption since 2015, said the government’s heavy-hand tactics were responsible for the small numbers on Friday.
“Many people want to come out, but what happened on July 20 has scared so many,” he said, referring to a demonstration in Tahrir Square last month in which clashes erupted and tear gas was used against the demonstrators.
Mostafa Sadoun, an Iraqi journalist and founder and director of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, said the government’s reaction the protests is a sign of intolerance to freedom of expression.
“Suppressing demonstrators this way has proven that the government sees the threat of protests as more dangerous than that of ISIL.
“Baghdad has shown that it will not tolerate any protests or other forms of freedom of expression,” he added.
According to Fariji, who is also a member of al-Harak al-Madani, a civic group that calls for freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate, several people are also afraid to attend protests after being threatened by security forces.
“A couple of guys who were arrested are planning to leave the country,” he said in between chants. “I, myself, am being followed and know I might be arrested at any time.”
Suppressing demonstrators this way has proven that the government sees the threat of protests as more dangerous than that of ISIL
‘Until death or change’
Still, Fariji said he will keep taking to the streets to demand a better quality of life.
“They [government officials] are living in the Green Zone, a beautiful and secure place where they have all the services they need, while we here only get five hours of electricity and can’t find jobs.”
Chronic electricity shortages across Iraq have continued for several years, spiking in the summer months and causing protests like the recent ones to erupt.
“We will continue to protest until our demands are met,” said Fariji.
Similarly, Yahia Diab, a 52-year-old researcher from Baghdad who has been partaking in protests since 2011, says he will only stop demonstrating when he sees real change.
“We have a clear objective and the violence and tear gas won’t stop us from coming out onto the streets,” he said.
“I have been coming for years, and I will keep coming until I see change or die.”
Follow Arwa Ibrahim on Twitter: @arwaib