Lack of change, fear of violence and arrest among the issues that keep demonstrators home
The coronavirus is taking a toll on the anti-government protests in Iraq but the number of protesters is decreasing for additional reasons, as well.
Mariam al-Ashbal, a protester in the capital, Baghdad, said the coronavirus is affecting the protests as it is other public events in Iraq. However, she said, this is not the reason she has stayed away in recent weeks.
“Because of the many arrests of my friends, I’m afraid to go,” Ashbal told The Media Line.
Asked whether fear of contracting COVID-19 was another reason that she and other protesters were now staying away from crowded demonstrations, she said some people were staying away due to the virus, as they were avoiding other public places, but that it was not a primary deterrent.
“The protests are a big meeting place, so of course there’s been a corona effect,” she said. However, “I don’t have this fear,” Ashbal said. “The corona threat at the protests is the same as everywhere.”
Other Iraqis also say the protest numbers are decreasing and that little political change and the security crackdown are among the reasons, alongside the spreading coronavirus.
More than 70 people in Iraq have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the latest UN report. Many of the cases have been of people who recently traveled to Iran, which has the third-highest number of confirmed cases in the world after China and Italy.
As the virus spreads seemingly uncontrollably in neighboring Iran, Iraqi authorities have closed border entry points with the Islamic Republic, restricted travel within Iraq, closed public spaces and schools and taken several other measures to contain the deadly microbe. Iraq is also subject to travel bans from other countries. Turkey suspended flights to and from Iraq and travelers from Iraq are banned from entering Qatar. Saudi Arabia also banned travel to Iraq.
Protests began in Baghdad and the south last October against corruption, sectarianism, poor employment opportunities and Iranian influence. More than 500 people have been killed, mostly protesters at the hands of security forces.
Other demonstrators agree that fewer people are protesting and the coronavirus is not what is keeping them away.
“The protests aren’t like they were at the beginning,” Ali Rasim told The Media Line. “They’re ruined.”
Rasim pointed to “infiltrators” as a reason for the decreased numbers, referring to government supporters who attend protests and instigate violence.
“People go for an hour or a bit in the morning now,” he said. “Before, it was a national Iraqi revolution.”
One of the slogans at the protests now is “the snipers didn’t deter us, so how will corona deter us?” referencing security forces’ use of live ammunition against protesters.
Dr. Ghaith Ghaffari is one of the medical doctors who has volunteered to care for the wounded at medical tents in Tahrir Square, one of the main protest areas in Baghdad. He said the number of protesters was declining before coronavirus became a factor.
“The number decreased even before the corona outbreak,” he told The Media Line.
Ghaffari said protesters are frustrated with a lack of change.
“Lately, after the government ignored what the protesters asked for, people started to feel a kind of disappointment,” he said. “They don’t want to waste any more time.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigned in November to placate the protesters but agreed to stay on until a new government was formed. His nominated successor, Mohammed Allawi, was rejected by the protesters and failed to form a government by a March deadline. The president has yet to nominate a second candidate but many protesters are not hopeful. Allawi was rejected because he served in a past Iraqi government, was supported by pro-Iran parties and due to his relatively advanced age. (Allawi is 65 years old.)
Protests are continuing, though. The popular #Save_The_Iraqi_People channel on the messaging service Telegram continues to post videos from southern cities and Baghdad showing hundreds of people demonstrating.
And not all protesters are defeated. Karam, a teenage protester who declined to give his full name, said that the protests are still big. He blamed Iran for the spread of the virus.
“The reason for the virus is that the border wasn’t closed and because of delays in getting travelers out of Iran,” Karam told The Media Line. “The protests are continuing until we are victorious over this shadow government loyal to Iran.”
The spread of the coronavirus comes at a difficult time for Iraq, not only because of the protests and the political stalemate. The global drop in oil prices threatens Iraq’s budget, most of which comes from oil revenues. ISIS remains active in the country and two US troops died in an anti-ISIS operation alongside Iraqi forces this week near the Kurdistan Region’s capital, Erbil.
Three members of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition also died on March 11 when the Iraqi base they were stationed at came under rocket fire by a yet-to-be-determined actor. Pro-Iran Hashd armed groups have repeatedly threatened US forces in the country, especially after the US killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January.