Students are the ‘backbone’ of Iraq anti-government protests

Iraqi students in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square say they will remain at the sit-in until their demands have been answered.

Iraqi students [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]
Mustafa Falah, Abbas al-Darraj and Sajjad Muyed say students have an important role to play in Iraq's anti-government rallies [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

Baghdad, Iraq – Inside one of a sea of tents in Tahrir Square, Sajjad Muyed and a group of his friends are sitting in a circle on thin mattresses, singing anti-government songs.

“We told you time and again, this square is ours,” they chanted, as they whooped and cheered.

Muyed, who has spent more than 120 days in Tahrir, the focal point of anti-government protests in Baghdad, filmed the scene with his phone, a large grin on his face.

“Look how high our morale is,” the second-year accounting student at al-Esraa University College told Al Jazeera. “This protest movement is going strong and as long as our demands haven’t been answered, we will remain here.”

For four months, Iraq has been rocked by leaderless anti-government protests in the capital and across much of the Shia-majority south of the country. Demonstrators have demanded more job opportunities, better public services, an end to corruption and the overhaul of the political system imposed after the 2003 US invasion.

The protests forced the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on December 1, although he remained in post in a caretaker capacity before Mohammed Allawi was appointed as prime minister-designate in early February.

The selection of Allawi, a former communications minister, has been rejected by the protest movement, which sees him as part of the ruling elite which they want to remove from power. Following his nomination, hundreds of students from different universities marched against Allawi’s appointment in Baghdad and several cities in the southern provinces.

“We have given the government a list of five candidates to choose from throughout the provinces who we want to see as the next prime minister,” Muyed said. “They are not listening to us, and want to impose someone from the political parties on us, which is unacceptable.”

Iraqi students  [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]
A group of Iraqi university students sing popular chants against the government [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera] 

Backbone of the protests

According to the United Nations, nearly half of the Iraqi population is aged under 21.

High school and university students have staged several strikes, some prolonged and others short-lived. According to Muyed, public universities such as Baghdad University and Mustansiriya University went on strike for as long as 14 weeks.

Muyed’s friend and fellow protester Mustafa Falah called the student strikes “the backbone of the protest movement”.

“This movement derives its support from the presence, activism and volunteerism of students,” he said. “Look around Tahrir: there are hundreds of tents representing different departments of universities.”

Dameer Muhannad, 13, told Al Jazeera that the role of students was essential. She regularly goes to Tahrir Square with her mother and siblings, but she said some schools have spoken out against the demonstrations.

Iraqi students  [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]
Dameer Muhannad, 13, regularly attends the Tahrir Square protest site with her family and fellow students [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

“Principals and teachers who are affiliated with certain political groups within the government have banned students from holding demonstrations within school grounds,” the seventh-grader said. “They also don’t accept students going to Tahrir Square as representatives of their schools.”

But Dameer has been undeterred by such decisions.

“For me and my peers, we will continue to stand with our brothers and sisters at the protest sites until the demands have been met,” she said. “The blood of our martyrs will not go in vain.”

Falah said there have been initiatives and workshops given by university students to those in high school.

“We hold workshops to raise their awareness about their rights, and the importance of having a high sense of security, such as who to trust and who to keep an eye out on,” he explained.

“We have a duty to them from one generation to another because they are the ones that will carry the torch forward.”

Strikes, co-option and stagnation

In the early days of the protest movement, student strikes were common and lasted for consecutive weeks, with public universities being affected the most. This led to the circulation of rumours that authorities would cancel the academic year, but an adviser to the education ministry told Al Jazeera there was no truth to such claims.

“Most universities are now running back to normal,” Dr Salah al-Naeemi said. “Classes have resumed in a stable manner, with students sitting their midterm exams.

According to Ali al-Nashmi, a history professor at Mustansiriya University, the only drastic step the government has taken has been the cancellation of the spring and summer holidays for public universities to make up for missed classes.

The strikes, he continued, have occurred mostly in the central and southern Shia-dominated provinces – but not all have come at the initiative of the students, suggesting that supporters of political movements had instigated some walkouts.

These “saboteurs”, al-Nashmi said, were supporters of political parties who have a stake in the protests – namely, the Sadrists.

The supporters of popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Sairoon bloc holds the biggest share of seats in parliament, joined the protest movement relatively early on, much to the scepticism of the politically independent protesters, who wanted to keep the movement separate from established political parties.

Some protesters warily welcomed the Sadrists, or “Blue Hats” – members of al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam militia who are known for their signature headgear, as they provided a degree of protection from pro-Iranian militias, but were clear in distinguishing their tents from theirs at the sit-ins.

Al-Sadr’s position towards the protest movement has oscillated recently. In late January he ordered his supporters to leave major protest sites, only to back the movement again a week later, in what analysts described as an attempt to build political momentum.

This fluctuation has played out on the campuses of some universities in the southern provinces, where Sadrists had a role in operating the gates.

At the beginning of February, after endorsing Allawi as the next prime minister, al-Sadr emphasised the need to reopen schools in the southern and central provinces and called on his followers to work with security forces to clear protest sites.

This led to a deadly confrontation between his supporters and the non-aligned protesters last week at the main protest site in the southern holy city of Najaf, where at least seven people were killed in clashes between anti-government protesters and Sadrists.

Iraqi students  [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]
The anti-government protesters want basic jobs and services and an overhaul of the ruling political elite [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera] 

‘Breaking point’

The protests have been characterised as a leaderless movement, but Abbas al-Darraj, who dropped out of university and drives a tuk-tuk, said the protesters believed a leader would be a weakness.

“If we had a leader, then this movement would have been over a long time ago,” he said. “It’s easy for a leader to be compromised or co-opted by the forces he’s fighting against.”

He said that the protesters would continue to demand their “rights”. 

“The political parties and the outside interference of Iran and the US have ruined this country,” he said. “A municipality worker survives on 2000 Iraqi dinars (less than $2) a day, while the member of parliament get paid in the tens of thousands of dollars. How can such injustice be so extreme?”

“We want people to have jobs and basic services,” Mustafa Falah chimed in. “We’ve reached the breaking point.”

Source: Al Jazeera