Broken spirits: why Basra remained silent

October 17, 2019

In the wake of the first anniversary of the Basra protests in the Summer of 2018, Iraqis throughout the Southern parts of federal Iraq took to the streets, demanding equal job opportunities, better public services, and an end to corruption. Over one year ago, a massive number of protesters in Basra, led by civil society activists, demonstrated for weeks against extremely poor conditions with regards to basic services and unemployment. The protests were met with violence and excessive force on behalf of Basrawi authorities, resulting in many casualties and deep frustration within the Basra population. Why, then, were there no more than around a dozen Basrawi citizens visible in the most recent rounds of protests in Iraq?

Many political analysts and Iraq-followers turned their eyes to Basra when popular protests sprung up in around nine southern Iraqi governorates in October 2019. Basra is quintessential in terms of its economic relevance and its population, which is almost exclusively Shia and instrumental in participation in the Popular Mobilization Forces. Despite the federal government’s promise to address at least 40% of last year’s demands, our contacts in Basra confirm that unemployment rates seem unchanged, while public services (such as the provision of water and electricity) have only slightly improved. It seems some of the more the optimistic analyses pointing towards the ‘improvements’ in the governorate and/or a perceived lack of a clear strategy do not sufficiently explain the Basrawi silence, especially because the monthly marches, organized to commemorate those who lost their lives last year, signal that the people have all but forgotten.

Activists murdered

Being the most significant source of human resources to the PMU militias, the influence of Iran is potentially most considerable in Basra. The protests of 2018 were followed by repression of civil unrest by militias dominating the area. In the first days of this year’s protests, our sources in Basra and other cities have reported the murder of three activists – including a couple expecting a child – who took part in the organisation of last year’s uprisings. The perpetrators formally remain unknown, while the Iraqi government has negated its implication in the horrid assassinations. These assassinations may have taken place to set an example to the rest of activists in Basra, threatening to execute those who could have guided and led the demonstrations in the city – feeding the anger and subsequently the scale of the protests in other areas across the country. While on the one hand sources suggest that Basrawis did participate in demonstrations in Baghdad and just not in their own city, on the other hand it appears that mourning, frustration, and desperation have settled in the atmosphere of Basra and the spirits of the activists.

‘We win or we die’

What happened in Basra exacerbates the government’s somewhat successful efforts to extinguish civil uprisings, dangerously harming the principles of democracy, freedom of expression and association, which the country’s leaders have been promising to protect since regime change in 2005. Instead, it may seem that the Iraqi government might go to any length in order to strengthen its grip on power and national resources. As the end of Arba’een approaches, activists and young people around the country are preparing for large scale demonstrations, this time to express their anger and frustration towards the government’s excessive and unconstitutional use of violence and terror against its population’s most basic rights. An event on Facebook, planned for the 25th of October on Tahrir Square in Baghdad, mentions ‘We win or we die’. A fatalistic message that might resonate very well with the disillusioned Basrawis.

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