Revisiting Baghdad’s Tahrir Square

The site of the Iraqi rising means a great deal to Iraqis of all generations, reflects Haifa Zangana, on the tenth anniversary of the “Arab Spring”

I don’t think the Iraqi painter and sculptor Jawad Salim (1920-1961) could have imagined the fate of his Freedom Monument of 1959, in Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) half a century later. The monument, and copies of it in other squares in centres of other Iraqi cities, have become the symbol of the Iraqi youth risings of the 21st century.  From 2011 onwards the monument is invariably in the background of angry Iraqis’ participation in what has been labelled an “Arab Spring”, to reclaim their Watan (homeland, country), after over a decade of invasion, occupation and kleptocratic local governments. Or did the artist foresee this?

 Did he see beyond telling the story of where we came from and our struggle to gain independence from British colonial rule as portrayed in the monument, or is it the relentless Iraqi struggle to end the occupation by the US and its stooges that brought back to his work a sense of national pride?

 It could be both. It is a well known fact that symbols of inherited culture, engraved in people’s collective memory, acquire extreme importance at times when national identity is threatened, particularly during occupation. Tahrir Square in the centre of Baghdad, with its iconic landmark, is no exception.

It was the spirit of unity, hope and dreams enriching revolutionary visual language in the immediate aftermath of the 1958 revolution, that produced the commemorative liberation monument and made Tahrir Square the very heart of Baghdad, thus transcending coup d’états and  political upheaval. It also survived the US bombing of Baghdad and the resistance’s mortars targeting the Green Zone, which houses the sprawling US embassy, only one mile away, across the adjoining Jumhuriyya Bridge. Furthermore, it escaped the systematic destruction of collective memory and history in museums and national libraries that took place under the occupation. 

 Like London’s Trafalgar Square, Tahrir Square has been a place of celebrations, demonstrations, festivals and peace parades. However, unlike Trafalgar Square, which is bordered by roads carrying names that are irrelevant to its significance as a place for community gatherings, the names of the places surrounding Tahrir Square contribute to embodying its significance and homogenization of national identity.  Tahrir Square links Jumhuriyya (Republic) Bridge, Kifah (Struggle) Street and Nasr (Victory) Square. The monument itself overlooks Umma (Nation) Gardens. The area is also the heart of cultural life with cinemas and theatres and has been a setting for many novels and poems.

The monument which is six metres in height, consists of fourteen bronze reliefs depicting the historical continuity (and discontinuity) of Iraq as a country emerging from Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian roots into the Islamic era. Perhaps what makes the monument memorable is its representation of ordinary people: a woman hugging a martyr, a political prisoner, workers and soldiers, a child pointing to the future. Freed from British colonialism, writers and artists strove to prove the “Iraqi-ness” of the country. The monument is a long-lasting example.  Its “Iraqi-ness” defies attempts by successive regimes to redefine national symbols according to their own ideologies.

Political changes and deterioration in the economy have touched the square as much as the people. During the sanctions years (1990 – 2003), described by Dennis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, as “genocide,” the square was crowded with vendors selling second-hand clothes, furniture, rugs and bric-a-brac and was where poverty-stricken Iraqis sold everything they had. After the US invasion, the square was the place to buy pornographic videos and magazines, Viagra, drugs, weapons, stolen goods, US soldiers’ combat meals, uniforms and, by contrast, resistance songs CDs.

This continued until 2011, when, influenced by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, which extended to Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, around six thousand Iraqis of all ages and backgrounds gathered in Tahrir Square on February 25, 2011. The atmosphere was one of defiance and unity.  They chanted “Whoever is not visiting the square is wasting their life” and “Iraq for Iraqis”.

The demands of the protesters included opposition to the US occupation. Banners conveyed feelings of anger at the lack of basic services such as electricity, clean water, health care, and unemployment in a country that has the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves.  They denounced the corrupt regime based on dividing the country in quotas to militias and sectarian parties. Women and children carried photos of their detained or missing relatives.

Protestors were accused of being “Baathist – terrorists – al Qaida.”  A curfew was imposed across Baghdad, preventing thousands from reaching the square. Security forces, police, and US-trained Special Forces surrounded the square while snipers were located on top of buildings overlooking the square. Water hoses, truncheons, tear gas and live ammunition were used to disperse the demonstrators. Helicopters hovered a few metres above the protestors in an attempt to intimidate. Live broadcast was prohibited and broadcasting and recording equipment was confiscated from journalists at security checkpoints. There was no Arab or Iraqi media coverage of the protest events of 2011.

 This is in marked contrast to what we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia. In Cairo, al Jazeera turned Tahrir Square into a virtual 24 hour studio which provided the demonstrators with support and protection. In the Baghdad protests, a number of journalists were physically attacked and five journalists were arrested. Twenty-nine protesters were killed across Iraq.

 At a press conference, one of those journalists, Hadi al-Mahdi, said that the arrested reporters had been blindfolded and made to sign papers without reading what was written on them. On September 8th, al-Mahdi was killed by two bullets in the head at his home in Baghdad. No one has been held responsible. Three days later, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held a press conference to announce that he would enact reforms within a hundred days, adding, “Is there any country in the region, or the world, which enjoys such levels of freedoms as Iraq?” He added in wonderment. “I doubt it.”

Despite these obstacles, protests continued for the entire year of 2011, and into 2012. On June 6th, coaches full of al-Maliki’s Da’wa party members arrived in Tahrir Square. Armed with sticks and clubs, they attacked peaceful protesters as the security forces stood by. Women protestors were beaten up. Similar attacks took place on Friday, 17th June. Women protestors of the Organization of Women’s Freedom were molested, beaten and called “prostitutes” and “communists” by regime-sponsored thugs.  

The number of protestors dwindled when Maliki set up the hundred days’ deadline for reforms and was backed up by Muqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the Shia Sadrist Movement, and consolidated by the high religious authority calling for reforms. 

The square itself had become a unifying space to develop, unite and organise. Social networks had been set up to exchange information, photos, videos and statements. Web sites and blogs were established.

If the political and social prospect of 2011 protests in Tahrir Square was not clear enough, the eruption of the October 2019 uprising, has proven that the demands of the protestors, most of them young graduates, are much more comprehensive than just employment and the improvement of daily services. Leaderless youth went back to Tahrir Square chanting, “We want a homeland” – an enigmatic slogan which means “We want our country back” or “We want a sovereign state!”, and implicitly in later years which have been marked by mass world-wide migrations, “We do not want to leave this homeland”.  

Years of anger and despair, blatant corruption and sectarianism have boiled over. Protestors called for the entire political system of sectarianism to be overthrown. Teachers, engineers, lawyers and academics’ unions joined the protests and called for civil disobedience. Thousands of striking students from universities and secondary schools marched to Tahrir Square in Baghdad and other cities. Women and government workers joined them.

 The peaceful protesters were met with lethal force by security forces. Live bullets, tear gas, stun grenades and sound bombs were used to disperse them. Amnesty International said security forces were using “previously unseen” tear gas canisters modelled on military grenades that are ten times as heavy as standard ones. Activists and female medical volunteers have been savagely beaten, kidnapped and killed.

 The human cost has been very high: 511 peaceful demonstrators were killed, 24,311 injured and 2,777 arrested. And these are the official figures. The authorities failed to carry out investigations and hold perpetrators accountable, thus perpetuating and further entrenching decades of impunity.  The UN top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaer, called for an end to the government’s violent response, saying, “Iraq’s troubles can’t be resolved by pursuing partisan interests, muddling through or brutally cracking down on peaceful protesters.”

The fast spread of Covid-19, combined with the barbaric brutality of the regime, forced the protestors to leave the square but only temporarily, as many of them vowed.  For over a year, they turned Tahrir Square into the Iraq they dream of. During that year, Jawad Salim’s “ordinary people” stepped down from their monument to share singing, dancing, reciting poetry, and painting. Together they have been writing the future, and they will continue to do so until they embrace the not impossible dream. For, as our great late poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, wrote:

 “In every drop of rain

There is a red or yellow bud of a flower.

And every tear of the hungry and the naked,

And every drop shed from the blood of slaves

Is a smile waiting for new lips

Or a roseate nipple in the mouth of a babe

In the young world of tomorrow; giver of life.”

Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi activist, writer and artist. Her most recent books are Party for Thaera: Palestinian women writing life, published in 2017 in Arabic, Journals of Salt:  Tunisian Women’s Writings on Experiences of Political Imprisonment (2019) and Packaged Lives: Ten Stories and a Novella (Syracuse University Press, forthcoming in 2021).

Image: Tahrir Square, Baghdad. Author: Hussein A.Al-mukhtar,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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