September 24, 2022

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Young Iraqi activists despair as political crisis continues

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Clashes in August brought rival armed factions to the streets of Baghdad, leaving Iraq’s young activists stuck in the middle.

Baghdad, Iraq – “The government doesn’t care, they are useless, and political parties are fighting for power for themselves,” said Nada, aged 27, over a coffee in Baghdad’s Karrada district, reflecting on the past few tumultuous weeks – and years – of Iraq’s political crisis. “We have nothing to lose any more,” she added, referring to youth-led demonstrations. “We need to be braver … we need to wake up, no one speaks for us anyway.”

A part-time volunteer for autistic children, Nada’s view was shared by the other young activists around the table on the top floor of a smoke-filled cafe.

The group is discussing plans to mark the second anniversary of Iraq’s Tishreen protest movement, and how best to fix Iraq’s deep-seated political malaise after some of the deadliest clashes Iraq has seen in years took place in Baghdad at the end of August.

“Tishreen will be back even bigger soon, I promise you,” Nada said confidently. On the opposite end of the table, two men in their early thirties shake their heads at plans to demonstrate on the same scale. “We have lost too many friends to try again,” one of them, Rami, said. “Maybe in a few years.”

“I feel lost – like all Iraqi people – we don’t know what our future will be, not even the coming days,” 26-year-old Muser chips in. “Everything is on the edge,” he says as he describes a conversation on his way to our meeting place. “Even the taxi drivers are tense, asking if there will be a solution or a civil war… Iraqis are worried and tired.”

Many young Iraqis feel they have no say in the direction of their country’s future.

Exhausted by Iraq’s ongoing political drama, and raised alongside a series of deeply traumatic events, they are caught in the middle of vying political groups and militias that they say do not represent them.

Memories of Tishreen

The activist scene is, perhaps, warier of renewed demonstrations, scarred by the suppression of the 2019 Tishreen protests, which resulted in the death of at least 600 young people.

Staged more than 11 months ago, Iraq’s most recent elections saw protest-based parties drawn from Tishreen secure a sizable number of seats, encouraging tentative hope in alternatives to what many regard as corrupt and sectarian political parties.

Progress has, however, been hindered by the ongoing conflict between the Sadrist Movement, supporters of the Shia religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Iran-backed Coordination Framework Alliance.

An initial political disagreement over the formation of Iraq’s government resulted in bloody clashes in August after al-Sadr announced his departure from politics.

But a lack of government means little or no public spending – even as Iraqis grow more desperate.

“It has been almost 20 years since the United States’s invasion of Iraq and we still don’t have power, electricity, or fresh water,” Kerrar, 32, a water resources engineer from Karbala, told Al Jazeera. “Iraq had all the necessary resources but everything has been stolen. There is nothing left, just ignorance and stupidity.”

New politics needed

It is a sentiment shared by many young activists.

According to Dr Ameer al-Haboubi, 29, a well-known activist and medic who stood in last year’s elections as an independent candidate under the Tishreen banner, the problem is systemic.

“We want parliament to be dissolved, and the constitution to be amended,” al-Haboubi told Al Jazeera, adding to calls by some young activists for a secular approach to politics, rather than the current system of Muhasasa.

The ethno-sectarian power-sharing formula sees the division of key positions among the country’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish politicians – “without a connection to the people on the street” – ensure that much of the country’s resources is divided up along sectarian lines. “I was just 13 when our constitution was written, and this next generation did not vote for the constitution,” al-Haboubi continued. “It doesn’t express my ambitions.”

Sitting in a Baghdad co-working space, he said: “The chaos is ruining everything, our leaders are not serious about change and only concerned about their own pockets.”

Many now say they feel new elections are the only way out of the impasse, but should new elections be called – doubtful- as they face significant constitutional hurdles – turnout is expected to reach even lower levels than last year’s figure of approximately 40 percent.

The solution to the country’s crisis is therefore unclear, and hope is depleting.

Iraq’s youth are particularly badly affected. Sixty percent of the population is under the age of 25, and the United Nations estimates that about 35 percent of young people are unemployed.

Al-Haboubi founded the Union of Baghdad Students in late 2019. “Many of my friends have become depressed and anxious,” he said. After the Tishreen protests of 2019 and 2020 ended, he added, “some of them committed suicide, others have left the country.”

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