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Why Iraq's protest movement fears being co-opted by political elites

Thursday, 18 February 2021 21:54
Huddled over his coffee, Ihsan al-Shammeri stares ahead sullenly from his spot on a rooftop above Baghdad. In Iraq, the last days are approaching to negotiate lists and alliances before the next elections, now postponed until 10 October. 

But the activist leader and political analyst doesn't care. "Several of them contacted me but I refused: two big Shiite parties [which he does not want to name], asked me to create and lead a new formation with other activists from Tishreen [the popular protest movement which shook Iraq between October 2019 and 2020]. They even offered me money".

When traditional Iraqi parties began to approach activists last year, many were suspicious. "Under the pretext of giving a voice to the youth and taking into account the demands of the demonstrators, they seek to build shadow parties, which depend directly on this same corrupt hierarchy which has always managed Iraq," al-Shammeri, once an adviser to former prime minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi, said.

"He fired me right after the beginning of Tishreen demonstrations, when I told him he was killing the protesters." But for many young activists who lack the experience and charisma of Ihsan al-Shammari, these proposals remain appealing. Since the end of the protests a wave of threats, persecution and assassinations has swept over the activist community.

"They are so extremely vulnerable," says Lahib Higel, senior researcher for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Iraq, currently investigating violence linked to the 2019 and 2020 protests. "The co-optation of political parties can have many faces: a way to silence them, while guaranteeing them protection". In Iraq, the entire political system is going through a deep crisis of legitimacy, undermined by corruption and nepotism. 

"They tried in every way possible to silence the protesters, but some parties understood that the demographic trend cannot be ignored: 70% of the population is under 30 years old. Some traditional politicians came to the conclusion that they need to have a more strategic approach and include youth on board," explains Lahib Higel.

Towering in his armchair, his pug dog snoring loudly at his feet, Saad al-Muttalibi proudly recounts the new political movement he has been leading for the past few months with a few dozen activists.

"I am training them. We hope to win one or two seats in October, it would be a huge start," he explains, in-between taking puffs from his gold-decorated pipe. In politics since 1981, al-Muttalibi was part of the Shia Dawa party for more than 17 years, until the start of the demonstrations in October 2019. 

"I took note of 17 years of failure in civil society and left my coalition," he confesses, before specifying. "The activists came to see me after seeing me speak on television, and not the opposite". He categorically denies acting on the request of his previous coalition. "I am an independent now!", he exclaims offended. And Dawa? "You see…" he says, "it's like the relationship with an ex-lover. If you meet him, you exchange a few words, in memory of what has happened between you. But that doesn't mean there's something left between you."

Yet al-Muttalibi admits to still being in regular contact with Nouri Al Maliki, and even discussing political collaboration with the ex-president and the group of activists he chaperones. "The last time I saw him was last week. Two months ago, he asked me to meet these activists with whom I work. I arranged a meeting between Maliki and 36 of them."

n his office on the first floor of a mosque in Sadr city, Sheikh Ibrahim al Jabari is visibly annoyed. "We don't do that. It is the other parties, who go to the activists, and who put them against us. Us, we don't need it," says the follower of controversial Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

"After the elections? Yes, we could welcome into our ranks those of them who are independent," he concedes. Initially a sympathiser of the demonstrators, al-Sadr turned against the protests in February 2020. Since then, his militias have attacked the demonstrators on several occasions, in Nasiriya and Najaf in particular, killing dozens.

The one party which has never hidden its interest, utilitarian or not, for the youth, is al-Hikma, formed in 2017 by the leaders of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. "We have been in contact with activists since the beginning of 2020 and our lists have always been mostly independent," said Fadi al-Shomeri. "It's not a mistake to want to improve your image," admits the politician. 

"They, too, contacted me a few days ago. No thanks," Ihsan al-Shammeri shrugs. "These elections will not change anything and all those who participate will be the losers. For that, I advised the activists I know not to take part." 

So will the activist movement be absorbed into the ranks of political groups or not? Each Iraqi party has its own strategy. It remains to be seen which one will prove successful in October.

n January 2016, 14-year-old Mohamed was staying up late studying for midterm exams. One night, unidentified security forces burst into his family's apartment, stormed his bedroom and upended his desk, driving him away in an unmarked microbus. 

His sister, who witnessed the arrest, said that they'd promised their father he'd be returned in two hours.

But the family waited for 35 days - frantically calling every police station they could for information - while Mohamed sat blindfolded in a secret cell belonging to Egypt's National Security Agency, the rebranded police intelligence service that replaced the infamous State Security Intelligence Services in 2011. 

When the teenager's family was eventually informed of his whereabouts and allowed a short visit, "he had white marks on his shoulders and back from electric shocks," his sister Hoda - who requested that the family's real name not be disclosed - said. 

"Because he couldn't answer the interrogators' questions, he was hung by his hands, which had been tied together, until his shoulder eventually dislocated." In the icy, concrete room he was thrown into, his one stroke of luck was to find a doctor among his cellmates, who helped him reset it.

Before being charged with acts of terrorism, Mohamed's outdoor activities were confined to his neighborhood school and local sports club. "The first thing he asked me was, 'Where is this hotel they're accusing me of attacking?' He hadn't even heard about the attack, which happened at the same time he was in a private math class," recalls his sister, who learned later that Mohamed's swimming partner was forcibly disappeared days before he was. 

Her brother was among the last people called by this friend, who used to be part of the Ultras, a football fanclub at the frontlines of the 2011 uprising and outlawed since 2015. In the eyes of the National Security Agency, phone interactions can be used as solid evidence of a terror cell to be dismantled.

In total, twelve boys, all of whom were under 18, were arrested and accused of belonging to a banned group, according to a lawyer on their case. After four years on remand detention - two years over the legal limit - Mohamed worked to pass his exams and begin university behind bars, before being handed a 10-year prison sentence.

Now, his family is only allowed to see him for 10 minutes a month, in a packed room and separated by a metal barrier. This last measure is said to be in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, although detainees are often denied access to hygiene products, according to a 2021 Amnesty International report

With real conversation barely possible, these visits become a rare opportunity for families to assess their loved ones' wellbeing. But for thousands of families whose loved ones have been disappeared, these difficult prison interactions sound like a privilege.

Om Ibrahim has not heard from her 14-year-old son in over three years. She was arrested on 26 July, 2018, along with her son, Ibrahim, and her husband, in North Sinai, where the Egyptian military has launched a "comprehensive" operation against the Islamic State local affiliate, Wilayat Sinai. Less than two months later, in the local paper, she read that her husband was among a group of "terrorists killed by the army." She was released after five days of questioning and psychological torture.

"They wanted to know where one of my brother's, who joined Da'esh [The Islamic State] was, but I had no news from him - he was even said to have died," explains Om Ibrahim. "They said my son was being tortured because I wasn't cooperating." As a widow with Palestinian nationality, her pension has been denied by the Egyptian state, and despite scouring detention centers to find her son, she has only reached dead ends.

"I'd just like to bring him clothes and books, but I don't even know if he's alive - nobody will give me an answer," says Om Ibrahim, who survives off of irregular work as a tailor. "They've destroyed me."

Source: The New Arab