In February 2011, a protest movement built in Iraq but it was not until the October 2019 protests that the country marked a turning point, writes Ahmed Saadawi. In his essay, he examines the interaction/interplay between progressive and populist forces, starting with the protests against Saddam Hussein in Southern Iraq in 1991 until the recent uprisings.
In January 2011, as I was watching the Egyptian revolution unfold day by day on television and on the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Egyptian friends, a picture appeared on one of the newsfeeds. It was a photo of a disabled man in a wheelchair, seemingly one of the protestors, arguing with a policeman to allow him to enter Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, where the demonstrations were taking place.
I have had many interactions with people with physical disabilities throughout my life, and even wrote a long text on the subject for an anthology of Iraqi writers that was commissioned by the International Red Cross and published by Saqi Books in 2010. Yet that image of the Egyptian protestor in his wheelchair took me back to one specific memory that made a deep impression on me, a memory I regularly recall to this day. I need only close my eyes and I am taken back to a cloudy afternoon in Baghdad in the winter of 1991, in February to be precise, at the close of the Gulf War. The coalition armies’ military operations had come to an end, as had the terrifying bombing of Baghdad, and the Iraqi army had withdrawn from Kuwait. We had not yet grasped the magnitude of the calamity that this war had left behind. Still, despite the blackout in communications, news reached us from the south of Iraq that an uprising had broken out.
I was a young man at the time, in my second-last year of high school. Like my peers, I was filled with rage and resentment at Saddam Hussein’s regime, which had driven the country to this disaster for no good reason. We responded to the news of the uprising with great enthusiasm and mobilized ourselves (or so we imagined) in Baghdad, without knowing how to most effectively participate in what was happening. Then the uprising arrived at the city’s doorstep.
Later on, when recalling that time we lived through, I would realize with some certainty that we - those young men brimming with enthusiasm - had acted suicidally. We laid ourselves at the guillotines of the Baath regime and its security agents, and our contribution to the movement - had we actually done anything - would be remembered by no one, because the overall circumstances at the time were too complex for us to comprehend.
With a transistor radio in the background delivering news from international networks in spite of extremely choppy reception, we exchanged similar opinions, safe behind the walls of our own homes, on how our dignity had been doubly trampled on, both individually and collectively. Even the lowest-ranking agent in any one of the Saddam regime’s numerous security apparatuses had the power to drag an individual through the street and grind him or her into the dust for the most petty of reasons, such as cracking a joke about Saddam or the regime, or even just for questioning something to do with him.
As for our collective dignity as a country, Iraq had been treated with contempt by the whole world in a horrific manner that was unprecedented and unparalleled. Not a single bridge or water treatment plant or electrical power station had been spared by the coalition forces. Then there was this withdrawal from Kuwait, which resembled its invasion in that neither had any objective to do with the interests of our country, but rather came down to the personal desires of a single individual who happened by coincidence to be at the head of the ruling regime.
This feeling of our dignity being trampled twice over was present in the older generation as well, but the sense of responsibility they felt for their families restrained their impulses to act. But for us, the young generation of that time, there was nothing that could contain the rage seething inside our chests.
On that particular day in my memory, that cloudy afternoon in February 1991, demonstrations broke out suddenly in Souk Mridi, the largest bazaar in the Hayy Al-Thawra district of Baghdad - “Revolution City,” it was originally called, and later renamed Saddam City during Saddam’s era. Since 2003, it bears its third naming: Sadr City.
By coincidence, I happened to be right in the center of Souk Mridi that afternoon. I was exchanging copies of a book with photocopied pages at the stall of a bookseller who displayed his wares on the ground. We had no time to absorb what was happening. All the plans that my friends and I had made to participate in the revolution when it arrived at Revolution City were forgotten because of this sudden outbreak of demonstrations in Souk Mridi.
It didn’t take long before the Special Guards, a vicious elite squad of Saddam’s agents, arrived to spray the place with a hail of bullets. By some miracle, I managed to flee. I made a wide loop through residential neighborhoods so as to return home from the opposite direction to where the demonstrations were taking place. This way, my parents would be reassured that I had not been at the bazaar.
I saw my father standing in the street, looking towards the far end of the main road. He was used to seeing me come from there every time I returned home, emerging first as a microscopic body and growing in size as I got closer. This time I surprised him from behind. He sighed with relief, and upon questioning, I swore I had not been at Souk Mridi.
We went inside. My father bolted the outer door firmly shut, as many people did; they locked their families and children in, anticipating with trepidation and a stifled sense of terror the regime’s reprisals against Saddam City for having the audacity to challenge the authority of the man who had “honored” it with his name. Still, my close circle of friends and I were full of hope that the uprising would win. We were ignorant and inexperienced, driven by our dreams and fantasies. And who could resist clinging to them at that age?
Once locked in, I tried to look out the window but could not see anything in the street. I went up to the roof, and from there, I saw something unfamiliar in the faint light of the setting sun. In this crowded, working-class neighborhood, the street in front of our house always buzzed with movement even late into the night. But that afternoon, I saw that the streets and public squares were completely empty. There were no cars, no salesmen with carts, nor people walking. Even the stray cats and dogs had disappeared. It was a bizarre and eerie scene, as if the entire city had gone into hiding like snakes retreating into their holes, waiting for the regime’s divine will to be done.
On that bare stage, as darkness enveloped the cloudy sky, I looked over the metal fencing of our rooftop and saw a small body approaching from the far end of our side street. It was a disabled man in a wheelchair, which he propelled over the sidewalk with his muscular hands. I recognized the man’s face: he worked as a vendor in Souk Mridi. He would take a two- or three-hour break during the afternoon heat, then return to the souk an hour or so after sunset. He was a familiar sight, coming and going on the sidewalk of the main road near my family’s house. He was probably an army veteran, injured during the war with Iran in the 1980s. I pictured him deeply scarred on the inside, and imagined how the pity in people’s eyes would strike blows against his sense of personal dignity. I imagined his thirst for freedom. I had a pair of strong young legs and feet with which I could escape the bullets of the Special Guard and return home safely to my family, or move far away as many friends of mine did in the years to come, crossing the border to Syria on foot. None of these possibilities were available to this market seller.
But today, he had returned much earlier than his usual time. He was shouting something I could not yet make out, though it was clear he was filled with a tremendous rage that had to be let out. As he came closer, I understood what he was shouting:
“Come out! Come out of your houses, what are you waiting for? Come out!”
I could feel the anger and pain in his voice as his wheels passed over the pavement in front of my house. His words and his cries affected me very deeply and his voice kept ringing in my head even after he disappeared into the depths at the opposite end of the street.
The regime viewed that uprising as a Shiite rebellion with sectarian demands, while the rebels saw Saddam as the leader of a Sunni dictatorship that had oppressed them, barred them from practicing their religious rituals, discriminated against them in employment and benefits, and did not trust them to hold senior positions. This regime not only punished anyone whose religious inclinations it found suspect - anyone who showed religiosity could be accused of being an Iranian agent or belonging to the Islamic Dawa Party, the most well-known Shiite party at that time. Thousands were executed in the early 1980s on the charge of being members of this party.
The uprising in the south did not take long to affirm its actual sectarian character. The old slogan that had been shouted ever since the founding of the present-day state of Iraq - mako wali illa ali, Nriid hakim jaafari - was heard once more. In Iraqi dialect it means, “There is no guardian (i.e. leader) except Ali, we want a Jaafarite ruler.” This slogan summed up the suffering endured by Shia in the south of Iraq at the hands of sectarian regimes that discriminated against them in one way or another. In addition to clearly expressing a sense of persecution, the phrase carried within it a touch of reverse sectarianism, as if those chanting it wanted to fight sectarianism with sectarianism, without considering the possibility of rising above it. It was a slogan that paid no heed to the diversity of Iraqi society, as well as the idea of the nation-state itself. As far as this slogan was concerned, the most important thing was for the Shia to be ruled by a Jaafari Shiite.
In any case, this was the ceiling of the demands set by the rebels, and the options available to them were few in any case. Turning to religion was the only outlet available to the young to express their rejection of the tyrannical regime, and so, as young men, we found ourselves grouped under this heading. We would go out with long beards and black prayer beads, our faces tinged with the melancholic mood of recitations from Shiite religious texts about the tribulations of the next life. We went like this into a world itself descending into similar horrors, as the regime had already committed heinous massacres in the south, with more than 20,000 people buried in mass graves whose existence would only be revealed after 2003.
I cannot remember if I ever saw that disabled market seller again, but he continued to cry out in my head for many long years, his voice the only one ringing out in the deathly silent street, not caring about the dangerous consequences from the forces of Saddam’s regime. In that moment, this man was able to achieve the highest stage of revolution, akin to those who reach the summit of a mountain and plant their flag in it. There was no need for a large audience once he had conquered this summit, for the barrier of fear had been breached once and forever.
Years later, I wrote a piece of fiction featuring that man. Then, in 2008, I made him a character in a thirty-episode television series I wrote called Lost between the Inner Cracks, which aired during Ramadan season in 2009 on the state-owned al-Iraqiyya channel. In this series, he appears as the character Raad, a disabled young man in the city of Basra during the 1991 uprising. A scene in one episode depicts exactly what I witnessed from the rooftop of my house that winter afternoon in Baghdad. When I saw the photo of the young Cairo man during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the wheelchair man came back to me. I think he will continue to stay with me, and continue to appear in different forms throughout my work.
The 1991 uprising in southern Iraq created a new state of affairs both domestically and internationally that made it easier for the U.S.-led military coalition to topple the Saddam regime during the 2003 invasion. In the wake of that regime change, we witnessed how quickly the two driving forces at the core of that earlier, traumatizing uprising now became stronger and more farreaching: the sense of persecution, and the rising tide of reverse (Shiite) sectarianism.
Through the growth and spread of this feeling of persecution, Iraq’s Shiite community revealed its diversity, and just how broad and unspecific the term “Shiite” was. Such a label might have been appropriate for a silent, suppressed community denied the right to express its own voice, but it no longer worked in a country that was now intended to be democratic, based on human rights and the freedom of expression and belief. After all those years of Saddam’s repression, wasn’t it now time for us to make our voices heard?
The other force, the tide of reverse sectarianism that became charged with the desire to establish a Shiite regime on the ruins of a (supposedly) Sunni one, also began to express itself, so strongly in fact that it quickly came to dominate public affairs and color politics and society as a whole.
There is nothing more facile than to titillate the collective fantasies of the majority community by leading them to believe that they now hold power, and that they must rule by the force of majority—here a sectarian majority, not a political one—and that they can bypass the requirements of constructing a stable political system. Regrettably, many sectarian commentators still employ this trope to this day on social media platforms.
Furthermore, in reality, both sects (Sunni and Shiite) have contributed to this atmosphere of sectarian suffocation, whether deliberately, out of miscalculation, or by taking ill-considered risks. All of this has led to a state of ruin and horrors that none of us, on the eve of the downfall of the Saddam regime, could have expected the future to hold. Still, holding the sectarian politicians that have ruled the country since then collectively responsible does not mean that they bear the responsibility equally. Rather, it is the leaders who represent those who had to swallow the bitter pill of Saddam’s anti-Shia retribution in the wake of the 1991 uprising who hold the greatest share of responsibility for the state of ruin Iraq has reached in the post-Saddam era.
This takes us back to the two driving forces at the heart of that uprising: the sense of being victims of persecution, and the force of (counter-) sectarianism. It seems that sectarian sentiment has taken control of redefining history, whether the history of the uprising itself or of anything else, while also refusing to admit that there is a multiplicity of grievances over injustices from the Saddam era, some of which are necessarily shared between large sectors of the Shiite population and with other, non-Shiite segments of Iraqi society.
We have already seen how the new Shia rulers, as part of their battle for power and wealth, have tried to stamp out any diversity in Iraqi society, and they have implicitly done so within the Shiite community itself. And it is secular, educated individuals from poor Shiite neighborhoods that have been at the forefront of responding to these attempts by the Islamist currents holding most of the power in Baghdad to corral and subjugate the Shia. Nothing is more indicative of this than the campaigns launched by activists to repeal the Jaafari personal status law, which effectively strikes at Iraq’s (secular) personal status law, as well as reactions to the draft bill to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol.
The other major indicator of pushback is the mass demonstrations that have continued to break out since 2010, all of them protesting against dictatorial policies that the Shia Islamists have tried to impose on Iraqi society. More broadly, the protests are against these Islamists’ imposition of a narrow version of Shiism, and the ensuing imposition of a narrow version of being Sunni that this engenders. Not to mention the other constituent groups in Iraqi society, all of which are seen as homogenous, sealed containers of identity, with traditional elites to control decision-making for adherents of each one. These traditional elites - religious leaders and the politicians linked to them - are intended as the natural product of each of these identities. This conflict was ongoing until October 2019, when an uprising began that would reveal itself to be a decisive moment, unlike any of the protest movements that preceded it.
During the first week of that uprising, I happened to be abroad in Iasi, Romania, where I was attending a culture festival and taking part in an event for the Romanian translation of my novel Frankenstein in Baghdad. The Iraqi government had cut all internet services except in the province of Kurdistan. Still, footage of the uprising continued to be steadily circulated on social media platforms through complicated methods. These included taking advantage of the broadcasting vans of satellite news channels covering the demonstrations and which had not (yet) been attacked by the pro-regime militias, or by transferring footage onto portable hard drives, travelling to Kurdistan, and uploading them to the internet from there.
As I was getting ready to have breakfast at the hotel, I watched on my mobile phone what my mind automatically processed as nightmarish scenes from distant memories. There were security officers, or perhaps they were armed militiamen wearing the uniforms of the official security forces, carrying out summary executions. In one of the videos I saw, a young man who was one of the protestors tried to speak with a masked security agent, but this gunman raised his rifle and pointed it at the protestor’s head. I thought he was merely to frighten him. Instead, I saw him pull the trigger and shoot the young man dead in broad daylight, then continue on his way, amidst the wailing and screaming of those who had witnessed this ghastly scene. I wept profusely as I watched these clips, the likes of which I had seen in videos circulated after the fall of Saddam’s regime, which captured the crimes committed by his security forces against the Shia southerners as punishment for rebelling.
And so sectarian power trumped any sense of injustice. Here was that power, killing people from its own sect for no reason other than them not submitting willingly to its version of the sect. The ruling leaders from the Shiite Islamist parties have killed nearly 700 unarmed young people in cold blood, the majority of whom came from impoverished Shiite neighborhoods, because in their eyes, these youth were not really Shia but rather agents of the United States, or of Israel’s Mossad, or the apostate West in general, or India or wherever else, or maybe they were Freemasons or perhaps even green monsters!
Later, when I returned to Baghdad from Romania, I wrote in support of this uprising of the youth. Even though I was plagued by threats and accusations due to this support, I could not stop myself from going to Tahrir Square, ground zero of the demonstrations in Baghdad, as well to other squares in the provinces of the south. I felt ashamed of letting fear for my personal safety prevent me from joining with these courageous young people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of freedom, to take a stand against the tyranny of the rulers and their crimes.
The slogan that became the central motto of that October 2019 uprising was nriid watan: “we want a country.” There has been a general feeling among people of a trampling of their personal dignity, a debasement of their self-respect when faced with the humiliation of looking for work and begging for government jobs, as well terror of the militias and the control they exercise over every domain of life. Perhaps what is even greater and more significant is the feeling of their collective dignity - of Iraq as a country - being trampled by regional and global powers that effectively control Iraq’s decisions and have legitimized the violation of its sovereignty and autonomy. Foremost among these is the “Islamic Republic” of Iran.
The scenario that led to the uprising was the same as in 1991, just before the Iraqi army withdrew from Kuwait under the barrage of terrifying airstrikes by the coalition forces, with the sense that our individual dignity and the dignity of the country were being trampled together. As I stood there in Tahrir Square, breathing in tear gas along with the others, I could see myself for the impetuous, gullible boy I was in 1991. I must say that as I roamed around the square overflowing with young people, I was amazed to see several disabled people in wheelchairs, the Iraqi flag draped around their torsos.
The ghost of that brave disabled man I saw in the setting winter sun of 1991 kept appearing before my eyes. I saw the power in his hands as they propelled the wheels of his chair. Yet there was a fundamental difference between this remembered image and the new one before me: now, in Tahrir Square and all the other squares of the uprising, that man was no longer alone. Dozens, even hundreds of other voices joined his, all crying out for freedom and dignity. And in spite of the wave of protests and demonstrations tapering off since then, those voices have become an essential force in Iraqi politics. Just as the barrier of fear of Saddam’s regime and its depravity was toppled in the winter of 1991 by a group of young men who had no party affiliations, the youth of the October uprising did exactly the same thing in the winter of 2019. And in doing so, they stripped the aura of sanctity from around the heads of the (sectarian) political bosses, which is unlikely to ever be regained.
Author: Ahmed Saadawi (*1973) is an Iraqi novelist, poet, screenwriter, documentary film maker and journalist. Amongst other awards, he won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for Frankenstein in Baghdad and it’s English translation by Jonathan Wright was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018. He lives and works in Baghdad.
Translation from Arabic: Suneela Mubayi earned her Ph.D. in Arabic literature at NYU where she completed a thesis on the vagabond and marginal poets between classical and modern Arabic poetry. She also taught Arabic literature at Cambridge University. She has translated prose and verse between Arabic, English, and Urdu, which have been published in Banipal, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Jadaliyya, and elsewhere. She wishes to re-establish the position of Arabic as a vehicular language of the global South.
Kuration: Sandra Hetzl (* 1980 in Munich) translates literary texts from Arabic, among others by Rasha Abbas, Mohammad Al Attar, Kadhem Khanjar, Bushra al-Maktari, Aref Hamza, Aboud Saeed, Assaf Alassaf and Raif Badawi, and sometimes she writes too. She holds a Masters in Visual Culture Studies from the University of the Arts in Berlin, is the founder of the literary collective 10/11 for contemporary Arabic literature and the mini literature festival Downtown Spandau Medina .
This essay is part of our series "Reminiscence of the future". To commemorate ten years of revolution in North Africa and West Asia, the authors share their hopes, dreams, questions and doubts. The essays indicate how important such personal engagement is in developing political alternatives and what has been achieved despite the violent setbacks.
In addition to the series we also address the ongoing struggle against authoritarian regimes, for human dignity and political reforms in various multimedia projects: For example, our digital scroll story "Giving up has no future" presents three activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria who show that the revolutions are going on.
 Someone from the Jaafari or Twelver Shi’i school of jurisprudence