The final days of January saw chaos unfold in the capital city of Iraq. Protests that began in October 2019 continue to escalate. Protesters used burning tires and Molotov cocktails to keep the police at bay, and Iraqi security forces countered with live ammunition and teargas. Unidentified gunmen killed two protesters and set fire to their tents; protesters responded by setting fire to several police vehicles. Baghdad was burning.
Sixteen ambassadors from the international community decried the violent response from Iraqi security forces, demanding an investigation into the 500 lives lost since the protests began last October.
The Bottom Line spoke with Associate Professor Sherene Seikaly, a specialist in Middle Eastern history and editor of the Arab Studies Journal, to understand the unrest that has plagued the Middle East.
Bread, Freedom and Social Justice
The “Arab Spring” of 2010, a series of revolutionary uprisings that began in Tunisia, ignited a wildfire that spread across the Middle East, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Seikaly explained.
“The basic demands were for ‘bread, freedom and social justice.’ In many ways, the uprisings were about dislodging the authoritarian regimes,” she said.
She cited Egypt as an example, where the entrenched regime was able to exert its repression because it conformed to the interests of Western nations such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France, at the expense of the Egyptian people. She explains that there is a “new hegemony” that has arisen throughout the Middle East held in place by institutions like the World Bank.
“These institutions are saying you have to cut down on subsidies, you have to increase economic growth … even if it looks like there has been a great deal of economic growth … the large majority of people are suffering, and in poverty.”
The end of January was marked by a rocket barrage on “The Green Zone,” a ten square kilometer zone in the center of Baghdad where personnel of Iraqi security forces and the international community reside. A state department spokesperson accused “Iran and its proxies” of carrying out the attack. Seikaly explored the relationship between global power brokers and their interaction with one another. Pointing to geopolitical conflicts like Yemen as a case of powerful nations fighting one another indirectly, Seikaly noted that “in the Middle East, some of these struggles sadly, have turned into really brutal proxy wars … the track record has not been good.”
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Seikaly believes the anguish caused by economic pressure and government repression has coalesced into a single sentiment across the Middle East.
“People are so fed up of being robbed and being told that this is the good life,” Seikaly said. “That’s what I feel brings all of these things together … it’s the first time that I see a detailed articulation of an anti-sectarian future, and that’s really historic.”
Despite the lurking shadow of defeat that haunts revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East, Seikaly retains hope for a better future. Instead of seeing these uprisings as failures, Seikaly believes they can be better understood as experiments in collectivization.
“How do we experiment with being inclusive groups?” she questioned. Seikaly has an exercise for her students in an attempt for them to understand these struggles.
She asks them to imagine that they were born in Iraq in the 1970’s, living under the totalitarian regime of Sadaam Hussein: the brutal war between Iraq and Iran, the 1991 Gulf War, Bill Clinton’s devastating economic sanctions, the second invasion of Iraq by the U.S. under George W. Bush, as well as the terror and destruction caused by ISIS.
Seikaly feels awestruck when considering the life she would have lived if she had been born in Iraq.
“To have that kind of will and commitment to life … that ongoing will to go out on the street and make demands. I think that’s what we have to learn from this.”