Inside Iraq's Tuk-Tuk Revolution
What began as a slogan shared among Facebook users has since morphed into a full-blown, youth-led movement for deep structural changes in the war-torn country.
BAGHDAD — "I'm going out to claim my rights." This was the phrase posted by Iraqis on Facebook in the final days of September. Then on Oct. 1, mass demonstrations were mobilized against corruption, unemployment, political quotas, and the interference of neighboring states — particularly Iran — in Iraq's government and policies. Protesters sought to make these demands heard in all of Iraq's provinces. Nearly six weeks later, the protests continue.
The demonstrations did not come out of nowhere. Recent years have seen regular demonstrations in the summer months, as climbing temperatures bring the electrical grid to a halt everywhere in the country but in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Continual power cuts drove Iraqis to turn out every summer to decry poor services and the general political situation. After a few weeks on the streets, the protests would eventually subside after the government purchased electricity from Iran and announced a set of reforms, which would be viewed as superficial. Other demonstrations have been periodically mobilized at the behest of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia political and religious leader of the Sadrist movement, the most popular grassroots movement in Baghdad and the southern provinces. But something is different about the October protests, which in a matter of days turned into a full-fledged revolution.
It's a revolution not called for by any political or religious leader.
The tuk-tuk generation or the PUBG generation — that's what Iraqis call the generation that came of age after 2003. The label is not without a certain dismissiveness. Working-class areas of Baghdad like Sadr City are teeming with tuk-tuks, which are used to move both people and goods. PUBG is multiplayer combat video game that was recently banned in Iraq for what the Iraqi parliament called its "adverse influence" on youth.
Mohammed Jassem, a 21-year-old Baghdad resident who is taking part in the October revolution, says the protests stand out because they encapsulate the outlook of the post-2003 generation, a generation whose awareness of politics, security issues and social services were forged by the experience of the U.S. invasion, the post-occupation government and the war against the Islamic State.
"This generation is being driven by this consciousness," Jassem says. "It's a revolution not called for by any political or religious leader. It wasn't mobilized by any party current or communal or ethnic group like we've seen with past protests."
Nour Mansour, 22, a young Baghdadi woman who is taking part in the October revolution, says the dismissal of Abdul Wahab al-Saadi from the Iraqi Counter-terrorism Service and his transfer to the Defense Ministry was a primary reason she and others were driven to the streets. Saadi was extremely popular for leading battles against the Islamic State and his removal from his post reportedly only came after interference from Iran.
Mansour also cites the dispersal of protests by unemployed university graduates in front of the Cabinet building in Baghdad's Alawi neighborhood as well as the demolition of informal housing areas in poor neighborhoods in Baghdad, Basra and Karbala.
In the span of just two days, 107 civilians were killed and 2,458 injured in Baghdad alone.
"These are the most important reasons I considered joining our demonstrations against this corrupt government," she says.
In Baghdad, the mobilization began in poor, Shia-majority areas like Sadr City, which is also the grassroots base for Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr has long adopted demands for political reform while himself wielding substantial political clout, and opinions about him vary. What is clear is that the October uprising began independent of any calls for protest from Sadr.
Tuk-tuks in Tahrir Square during an anti-government protest on Oct. 31 — Photo: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/DPA/ZUMA
At first, the demonstrations were relatively small. On the morning of Oct. 1, young people assembled in Baghdad's Tahrir Square and chanted against corruption and Iranian interference in Iraqi government policy. "Out with Iran, and out with the corrupt" was a common refrain.
From the outset, security forces responded to the protests with violence. Security forces dispersed the protesting youth using hot water cannons, tear gas, and live ammunition. The next day, reports emerged of snipers targeting protesters from the roof of Sadir Restaurant, near Tahrir Square. Security forces and anti-riot forces also fired on demonstrators with live rounds, and the death toll climbed. In the span of just two days, 107 civilians were killed and 2,458 injured in Baghdad alone.
On Oct. 24, the Iraqi government announced the findings of an investigation that was launched after the marjaiya, politically influential Shia religious authorities in the city of Najaf, gave the government two weeks to determine who had killed demonstrators.
The final toll throughout the country was 149 people killed and 4,207 injured, according to the investigating committee formed by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The committee was chaired by Planning Minister Nouri al-Dulaimi and National Security Advisor Falih Alfayyadh, who in a press conference described protesters as subversives who would be prosecuted.
The violence did nothing to quell the protests and a mass sit-in in Baghdad has continued for over 40 days.
The Iraqi government sentenced officers with the interior and defense ministries to prison and cleared local police commanders in provinces that had seen demonstrations. But it did not reveal the body responsible for positioning snipers around Tahrir Square and the Freedom Monument, a sculpture by artist Jawad Saleem that incorporates Iraq's ancient and modern history.
Meanwhile, protesters held the Popular Mobilization Forces militias responsible. The Popular Mobilization Forces is a state-sponsored umbrella paramilitary group created in 2014 at the behest of Shia religious authority Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to fight the Islamic State. The forces are known for their loyalty to Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Iran's Supreme Leader.
The violence did nothing to quell the protests and a mass sit-in in Baghdad has continued for over 40 days. The demonstrators have concentrated in and around the abandoned highrise known as the ‘Turkish Restaurant" that overlooks the Tigris River and across it, the Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and the center of the Iraqi government. Now a landmark of the revolution, the protesters dubbed the building "Jabal Uhud" (Mount Uhud, a strategic battle site in Islamic history) in recognition of its importance in their struggle against corruption. They also took over the concrete barrier in the middle of the Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads to the Green Zone.
Those who wish to reach Jabal Uhud must take a tuk-tuk, or a "people's ambulance" as Iraqis now call it, in recognition of their central role in evacuating the wounded. The tuk-tuk drivers, typically aged 16 to 22, have performed many life-saving feats rescuing people from the front lines. Transport to the sit-in is free, as is food and drink and everything else.
The door to the Turkish Restaurant building, which now bears the sign "Heroes' Gate," leads to a set of stairs crammed with young men and women, mothers and fathers, and children. The stairway is so crowded that it takes 20 minutes to reach the tenth floor. The steps are slippery and without a banister so a young man is positioned at every floor to direct the passing crowds. The line snaking up comes to a halt when fresh supplies of food and drink, or a volunteer medical team, arrive. The building, which has been turned into a kind of revolutionary museum, is sought out by visitors who want to lend moral support to the protests and sneak a peek at the riot police barrier on the Jumhuriya Bridge.
The tuk-tuk, also called the Tahrir tank, — is the the official transport of the October revolution.
"This is the first time we've taken this strategic location from the government," says Omar Walid, 29, an engineer who graduated from Al-Mustansiriya University. "At all the demonstrations I've been to, the riot police would use this tall building overlooking the square to fire tear gas and live ammunition at us. So we're ready to die here before we give up this place. If it weren't for our presence here, families in the square wouldn't be able to come and celebrate and dance every night."
On every floor, young volunteers regulate visiting hours. If a visitor lingers for longer than a half hour, volunteers will instruct them they can stay on the condition he takes a shift standing guard with the other men. Afterwards, he can then spend the night in the building or go home after his shift is over.
Tuk-tuks ride past Iraqi protesters at Liberation Square on Oct. 30 — Photo: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/DPA/ZUMA
"Why would I go home?" says Hussein Hashem, 17, who lost his father in the notorious 2016 Karrada bombing in Baghdad, carried out by the Islamic State. "The food's better here. There's drink and nargila water pipe and even the internet, which is not always available in the rental apartment where I live with my mother in the Shaab neighborhood in Baghdad."
The tuk-tuk — which has a second nickname, the Tahrir tank — is the the official transport of the October revolution. Dozens of tuk-tuks are lined up along the Jumhuriya and Sanak bridges, their drivers all vying to evacuate the wounded or those choked by the ever-present tear gas. Each driver claims that he's next in line for transport and evacuation and that it's his turn to come to the rescue.
Young graffiti artists have painted portraits of the victims and revolutionary slogans.
"A young woman gave me 50,000 Iraqi dinars (about $39) as a fare or to cover the fuel I use on duty, but I refused to take it because this is a duty for Iraq," said Ghayth Ali, a 16-year-old tuk-tuk driver. "But she insisted on giving me something. I suggested she use the money to buy a blood pressure gauge for my father, who has high blood pressure. And in fact she did and I gave it to my father."
People continue to flock to Jabal Uhud and Tahrir Square despite the interruption of internet service, the disappearance of some activists, and the constant volley of tear gas canisters. Security forces have fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters, resulting in horrific injuries and death.
Donations of helmets and gas masks have poured in to the sit-in in response. Anyone who enters Tahrir Square is given a helmet and a gas mask, to protect against the canisters and asphyxiation. Amnesty International identified the types of tear gas grenades being used as "two variants from Iran and Serbia that are modeled on military grenades and are up to 10 times as heavy as standard tear gas canisters, resulting in horrific injuries and death when fired directly at protesters."
Meanwhile, a cut in internet service can often signal that security forces are preparing to attack the sit-in. This was the case in Hamza Square in Baghdad on Oct. 2. After the internet was shut down, security forces moved in, killing some 20 demonstrators and wounding dozens.
The cleaning crews in Tahrir Square start early in the morning and continue to work late into the night. Other groups of young men are stationed at the tunnel that runs under the square. Protesters pass them the live tear gas grenades fired by security forces. The youths cover the canisters with thick fabric drenched in water and a solution of yeast and Pepsi, which snuffs out most of the gas emitted by the canister.
It's a generation eager to build and correct mistakes.
"We're the goalkeepers of Tahrir. We grab the canisters with thick construction worker gloves and put them out with yeast and Pepsi," says Karar Uqail, 19. Karar lost his brother, who was part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, in the battle to liberate Baiji from the Islamic State.
Young graffiti artists have painted portraits of the victims and revolutionary slogans along the Tahrir tunnel and on the façade of the Turkish Restaurant, along with murals that immortalize the exploits and bravery of tuk-tuk drivers.
"There are many forms of resistance," says Nabil Ali, 20, a fine arts student. "Paints and my brushes are one of them."
Entire families have set up in tents and pavilions in the square to prepare food for the protesters. Wealthy Baghdad families have donated funds to support the purchase of blankets and bedding, helmets and other items. Donations have also come from Iraqi expatriates abroad.
"I cook and make food for the best generation Iraq has seen in its modern history, a courageous generation that reveres only Iraq," says Umm Daniel, a 51-year-old Christian woman who lives near Tahrir. "This is the duty of any Iraqi who is sick of the rule of political parties since 2003. My food is very little compared to the blood of the young people who are now standing on the Jumhuriya Bridge and in the Turkish Restaurant."
Safiya Ahmed, a 49-year-old Iraqi who lives in the Netherlands, traveled to Baghdad a few days after the protests began. In anticipation of the coming winter, she donated funds for rugs to be placed inside the Turkish Restaurant and for underclothes for the young people who sleep there.
"It's Iraq's time, the time of young people who have showed the whole world in just a few days that they are masters of the biggest peaceful revolution," Ahmed says. "It's a generation eager to build and correct mistakes. The proof is what they've done in Jabal Uhud. After it had been abandoned for years, they set up water and electricity and brought it back to life, just like they did with the Tahrir tunnel."
The government has not met any of protestants' demands and has chosen instead to respond with continued violence.
Volunteer medical teams, both stationary and mobile, are deployed around the square. Most of the volunteers are medical students, although they also include Iraqi military medics along with local police, who had their weapons revoked by the government, sending a message that these forces would not participate in the crackdown. It is the anti-riot forces standing in the middle of the Jumhuriya Bridge who confront protesters, and even military and police personnel.
"My colleague was killed yesterday as he was on duty on the Sanak Bridge," says 23-year-old S. K. She asked to remain anonymous for fear of expulsion from her medical college, since her department director banned student doctors from going to the square. "But we're still here offering medical services to the wounded and those choking from tear gas. We didn't even attend our friend's funeral."
The demands of the overwhelming majority of protesters include the dissolution of Parliament, the resignation of the prime minister and the formation of a caretaker government, UN-supervised early elections that bar any politician who has served in any post-2003 government from candidacy, and a secular government that separates religion from politics and bans participation by political Islamist parties, particularly those with military wings.
This is a generation that is not afraid to lose its life because it hasn't yet tasted it.
The government has not met any of these demands and has chosen instead to respond with continued violence. On Saturday, security forces moved in to clear demonstrations from several bridges and streets near Tahrir Square. At least six protesters were killed and dozens more wounded, according to Amnesty International. Media reported that up to 12 protesters were also killed in Basra in recent days. The current casualty toll stands at over 300 killed and more than 15,000 wounded, according to the Independent High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq.
Mohamed Shayaa, a political activist and professor of anthropology, says that the current government is clueless about what lies at the heart of the protests. "It's a new generation that isn't even of legal age to vote in elections, but possesses a serious political consciousness," Shayaa says. "If it turns out that this revolution fades or achieves less than what it turned out for, this does not mean it will have failed. On the contrary, expect much from it in the next two years. These young people have upended the entire sectarian political equation in these past days."
And the revolutionaries may go on to shift electoral politics too, Shayaa says. "Although most protesters in the southern provinces are Shia, they torched the headquarters of all the Shia political parties. This is a clear sign that they haven't yet been taken in by the sectarian game and religious bigotry. They will tip the scales to change the political reality in early elections or in provincial council elections and the next parliament if they choose to calm down, take a breath, and get organized. This is a generation that is not afraid to lose its life because it hasn't yet tasted it."