The revolution is not over. Three years on from Iraq’s Tishreen – or October – uprising, which saw more than 600 protesters assassinated by security forces and Iran-backed militias, many of the movement’s young protesters are broken but far from unbowed.
Change, they believe, is inevitable.
“There will be a bigger revolution because the system is still the same,” says Hatem Tome, a 34-year-old cameraman who documented the protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which lasted several months from October 2019. A veteran activist, his surname is a nickname used by friends in the movement.
“Tishreen opened things up. The new generation are not afraid of anyone. They say what they want now,” says Tome. “They are all opening up to the world. They compare their lives to other countries and they don’t want to see religion mixed up in politics any more.”
Young Iraqis of all creeds had united to express their anger at endemic corruption, dire public services and foreign interference in Iraqi affairs. Ultimately, these grievances converged into one aim, that of overturning the post-2003 political order, in which the country’s ethnic and religious groupings – mainly Shia, Sunni and Kurdish – share power and resources.
Critics believe the system, known as muhasasa, has destroyed national unity, fuelling sectarian rivalries and enabling corruption among venal elites who enrich themselves while leaving the rest of the population to rot. Despite bumper oil revenues – $115 billion in 2022 (€106.2bn) –, the state has been unable to provide Iraqis with proper access to basics like water and electricity.
Tome believed that protesters might actually succeed in toppling the system. Even as the death toll mounted, with official security forces hitting protesters with tear gas grenades and live ammunition, and snipers linked to Iran-backed militias taking aim from the rooftops, his resolve remained strong.
But he believes things took an even darker turn after the US assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside Baghdad airport at the beginning of 2020, which sowed mayhem among the militias. Within days, a nephew of one of the country’s militia leaders warned him he would be killed. After two attempted knife attacks, he fled the country for a while.
Now, he is left with conflicting feelings. “First, I feel guilty over what happened because we encouraged people to go out and protest against the government. But in another way, I feel these people who died will inspire people to go out again.”
The martyrs’ names are still painted on the walls of the Saadoun tunnel beneath Tahrir Square amid fading graffiti echoing the vibrant spirit of Tishreen.
As a concession to the movement, cosmetic changes were made to the political system, with ex-intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi, viewed as sympathetic to the protesters, charged with leading a caretaker government. But, while compensation was offered to the families of slain protesters during al-Kadhimi’s two years in office, he failed to deliver on a key promise to hold the killers to account.
Shams Talaat, a 24-year-old women’s rights advocate, was sceptical from the get-go about al-Kadhimi, who lacked a political base, placing him at the mercy of more powerful forces. “Kadhimi was a false dawn,” she says. “He wasn’t our choice. We didn’t want a person who’d already been in the system. Though we had some hopes he could do something, our hopes died day after day.”
For her, as for many young people, the experience of Tishreen was life-changing. She skipped lessons at the University of Technology, heading instead to Tahrir Square, where she ran a stall educating people about the importance of buying local products to support Iraqi businesses and reduce the country’s dependence on imports. It was all part the movement’s vision to forge a new, united Iraq. “It was the most important thing in the world to me,” she says.
She was reluctant to leave the protests when Covid-19 hit in 2020. “We told ourselves it was a break,” she says. “But inside, we started to feel very hopeless.” At home, she fell into a “big and hard depression”, telling herself that the protests had accomplished nothing. Worst of all, she blamed herself for the death of her friend, Mohamed al-Mokhtar, who had been killed by riot police, his skull smashed by a tear gas grenade.
Three years on, Talaat believes that Tishreen has opened the way for younger generations to rise again, though she worries that Iraqis will lose their appetite for change, particularly if the status quo remains unchallenged. Al-Kadhimi’s electoral reforms allowed smaller grassroots parties linked to Tishreen to win seats in early elections held in October 2021. But many protesters had decided to boycott the poll, turnout slumping to a record low of 41 per cent. Now, after a year of political deadlock, Iran-backed Shia parties have the upper hand in parliament.
Ismael (24) couldn’t bring himself to vote. He joined the Tishreen protests after seeing a Facebook post about access to clean water. “As human beings we are 80 per cent water. How can it be that we don’t have clean water to drink?” he says.
He never believed that Tishreen would topple the system, claiming he went on to Tahrir Square to help protect his friends. “Even if we had won, the militias would never have given us what we want,” he says. “They will always make sure they have all the money.”
“They broke our spirit,” he says. “When they started shooting at us, that’s when I knew it was over. It was like we were in an open field.”
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“It will take lots of blood to change things,” says Tome. “Right now, changing society is more important. We need to bring people together again,” he says. Sectarian conflict drove different ethnic and religious groups to live separately in their communities, but he believes Tishreen changed this for good. His fondest memory of the protests was when thousands congregated on Tahrir Square to watch Iraq win against Iran in a World Cup qualifier. The mood was euphoric, he remembers. “You just felt everyone had united as Iraqis.”
“Give it one or two years,” he says. “The revolution is not over. It will happen again and again and again.”