Last year, anti-government protests in Basra got violent fast. This year, a lack of leadership, militia kidnappings, a more vocal political opposition and, most worryingly, a tougher stance from security agencies has made for a quieter scene.
Waheed Khanim, Basra
Basra’s summer demonstrations got off to a slow start at the end of June this year. Popular protests have become an annual event in the southern province, driven by locals’ discontent at the lack of state services, such as potable water and power as summer temperatures go over 50 degrees Celsius.
They first started in 2010 and occurred on and off between then and 2015. From 2015 onwards, summer protests became a regular thing, with demonstrations in 2018 particularly furious and violent – and also politically impactful.
The council buildings in Basra are still smoke damaged from last year’s fire and the councilors have moved to new premises – but that doesn’t mean the demonstrators won’t eventually find them, locals say. For now though, this year’s round of protests in the southern city of Basra mostly feel like a quiet extension of last year’s.
The same names are cropping up for protest leaders and spokespeople. Yet somehow the momentum has slowed.
One of the leading activists, Kadhim al-Sahlani, a doctor who also teaches at the University of Basra, believes this is due to a slight improvement in the political situation and the provision of state services. But he thinks it is probably also because there hasn’t yet been any kind of provocation – for example, he says, the death of a protestor at the hands of government security forces would be the kind of thing that would raise tensions quickly.
Al-Sahlani says that although the movement did not achieve their objectives in 2018, they certainly raised awareness and, he suspects, political reform now feels inevitable.
The more relaxed aspect of this year’s protests is due, he believes to some structural features too: “The protests are usually fairly spontaneous,” he explains, “so often there is no real leadership. This can make meeting protesters’ demands difficult. And if there is some kind of political opposition to voice popular opinions and anger, then there’s a non-violent alternative.”
However, he added, “ it also means that the authorities can delay and procrastinate. They don’t deliver what they have promised and this raises the ire of the demonstrators again.”
Basra’s demonstrators can be roughly divided into two groups. The first includes local activists, many of whom prefer to have peaceful demonstrations and who are also often engaged in other civil society activities and organizations. They tend to be more organized and to coordinate the protests.
The second group involves ordinary locals who want only to vent their anger at their living conditions.
Another reason for the relative quiet around protests in Basra is a crackdown by authorities. The latter have said that only formally approved protests may take place.
A female activist, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said she had attended several of the demonstrations last year, including a sit-in. She had put up posters and been tear-gassed three times.
“I wanted to bring a feminist element to the demonstrations,” she explains. “We succeeded in motivating many others and our work continues. But now we are often threatened or intimidated by the security forces.”
She had shared several videos of the 2018 protests online and as a result, her home was raided by security forces while she and her husband were out.
Lawyer and activist Laith al-Qatrani confirms that 30 people were arrested during the June 25 demonstration and 25 of them were eventually released. The other five are being held on various charges including theft and vandalism.
Al-Qatrani says he has also been arrested on suspicion of inciting a riot and then released – but not before being beaten. He believes he was only released because he is a lawyer and thanks to the intervention of local politicians.
Al-Sahlani wasn’t arrested but was kidnapped by a still-unknown group of armed men. He believes there is what he calls an “overlap” between the armed militias, who represent some of Iraq’s political parties, and the professional military and security forces.
“Things get so messy and sometimes there are extrajudicial arrests,” he suggests. “In many of these cases, the official security forces end up negotiating with the militias to secure the release of the kidnapped person,” he notes. “Other times, the members of the militias are also members of the armed offices.”
Head of the local office of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, Mahdi al-Tamimi, says his organization has documented ten cases of torture and that unfortunately the practice is becoming more common in Basra.