Protests in Tahrir Square Baghdad on August 9. Photo taken by Hayder Al-Shakeri.

Just over 12-years ago the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein forced all his people to once again (it would turn out to be the very last time) vote for him in a characteristically depraved attempt at masquerading as a popularly-elected leader. One of the many ways he sought to degrade and humiliate his beggared and brutally oppressed subjects.

That really was a whole other era in Iraqi history. Yet one was still struck by how different a time it was considering it was, after all, little over a decade ago. Especially in light of the recent protests against corruption in government in Iraq which has seen many Iraqis gathering together in the streets of their cities to demand reform and representation in their government.

“After 12 tough years transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, these protests are a sign that Iraqis are moving beyond the nascent democratic stage and beginning to mature. They did not seek a revolution similar to what we have become accustomed to elsewhere in the region. Iraqis understand these are people they have empowered and these protests were Iraqis letting them know they will hold them accountable. The peaceful and civil dynamic between protestors and security forces is a source of great pride for Iraq. Iraqis are proving that they are committed to democracy despite all the hardships,” Hamzeh Hadad, a contributor to 1001 Iraqi Thoughts, told Baghdad Invest.

Iraqis are protesting daily against the corruption which has affected the most basic of services in their country. Most of these protests have come from the country’s Shia south. There Iraq’s preeminent Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani recently voiced his support to these grassroots protests and called upon Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to name, and in turn shame, corrupt officials protesters believe to be responsible for the shortcomings in the most basic of public services. Demonstrators in the southern city of Basra even, quite cleverly, compared their city to a bony milking cow since they receive so little public services yet are seeing so much oil being extracted from the ground around them and sent elsewhere.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Sistani called on the Iraqi premier to be more vigilant in his pursuit of these goals, pointing out that the Iraqi people will support such efforts. Sistani has long been a promulgator of democracy in Iraq following the dismantlement of the Saddam Hussein regime. He has intervened quite a bit in Iraqi affairs and politics in the course of the last year solely due to the severity of the threat to Iraq posed by Daesh — he usually makes a point of staying out of politics and not using his influence to endorse any particular during an election. His consistent preaching of concordance between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis has stopped Iraq from further fracturing and will likely prove instrumental when it comes to reestablishing Iraqi government sovereignty and control over those territories presently occupied by Daesh.

These protesting Iraqis have expressed their disappointment and disillusionment with the record to date of their premier who, upon succeeding Nouri al-Maliki last year, promised more openness, reform and less corruption in government. Widespread corruption of the system can effectively paralyze it and render it wholly inept and inefficient. Something which Iraqis are not going to stand for. Abadi has in turn promised to introduce sweeping reforms which will address the grievances of the demonstrators. While that is easier said than done it does show that the demonstrations cannot be feasibly ignored or disregarded by the authorities and that steps will have to be taken to rectify what they deem to be a wholly untenable status quo.

Pilgrims at Husayn Mosque in Karbala in 2005.
Pilgrims at Husayn Mosque in Karbala in 2005.

It’s encouraging, even inspiring, to see so many Iraqis refusing to let fear of terror attacks – and they have every reason to fear that their gatherings (like any major gathering of civilians in Iraq) may be attacked by the likes of Daesh – discourage them from demanding their rights and adequate representation from their government. As was the case with Shia pilgrimages last year who turned out in record numbers despite the Daesh threat. Iraqis are showing Daesh, and anyone else who cares to notice, that they are not a people who will be intimidated by terrorism or simply remain idle while the institutions which are supposed to represent them and their interests fail to do so. By actively demonstrating and voicing their grievances in a civil manner Iraqis are doing their parts as responsible citizens in a democratic nation. Not subjects of a tyrannical regime as they were in the not so distant past.

“I just got back from a protest we were having today to pressure the Parliament to vote for the reforms Abadi issued today [August 9],” citizen-journalist and demonstrator Hayder Al-Shakeri told us.

“These protests have proven that Iraqis can unite and act together if they want something. They have had enough and now they are saying their word and telling politicians to stop the corruption. Democracy here plays a major role since finally Iraqis were able to practice it without force being used against them. Protesting and holding officials accountable for their actions are important pillars of democracy and now we can see the start of what will hopefully become a new era in Iraq free of corruption, or at least one which isn’t stifled by corruption,” he added.

Shakeri is one of many who is participating in this grassroots movement campaigning for a better and more representative Iraqi state. They still doubtlessly have a long road ahead of them and where this will all go from here is certainly not clear.

The one thing that is crystal clear however is this: Iraqis are speaking out and standing up and demonstrating unequivocally that they are citizens of their nation and not mere subjects of whoever is in power in Baghdad.