Tahrir Square in Baghdad, and similar squares all over the country, such as al-Habubi square in Nasriyah, developed creative modes of sociability that transgressed social and political hierarchies. The protestors refused any form of alignment and instrumentalization from a group or party and, as a result, refused to designate a leadership. Tahrir Square was organized according to the principle of direct democracy: all decisions were made by consulting all of the tents in the square, and were then made public by displaying the agreed initiative or statement on the walls of ‘Uhud Mountain’ and posting it on social media. The centrality of digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in the launch, organizing and development of the protests in Iraq show that the uprising happened in the virtual world as much as it happened in the squares. Many youngsters interviewed in Baghdad, especially young women whose families did not allow them to go to Tahrir Square, experienced Tahrir on social media – following and contributing to it through their posts on a daily basis. One such example is Maha, who was 20 years old at the time:
‘I cannot always come here to Tahrir Square, I am only allowed to come when my mother, who is fully supportive of the revolution, accompanies me. When I can’t come, I am active on social media, I post on Face and on Insta. This revolution is a revolution of values. It is our future.’10
The squares produced a material space in which protestors put forward their approach of the ‘public common’. They provided various services, from free food and medical care to educational and cultural services, and they established ‘new state forms’ by organizing public services, such as street cleaning and re-painting of the environment, as well as the restoration of public monuments and the beautification of public spaces through original art and design. The protestors insisted on providing these services for free, emphasizing that such services should be provided by the state. ‘Made in Iraq’ was also a common slogan: through it, the protestors sought to promote a national economy not dominated by foreign goods and an overreliance on the oil economy. All around Tahrir Square, markets were set up, some selling ‘Made in Iraq’ products, such as yoghurt from Abu Ghraib, fruits and nuts, as well as copperware and decorative arts and crafts.
Husayn, a young protestor in his mid-twenties, lived in the tents in Tahrir Square for almost three months; as a result, he lost his job (and his salary). He did all of this for the sake of the revolution. He talked about the ideal society he sought to build in Tahrir Square:
‘Leaving my job is not a big challenge for me, I have seen corruption, I have experienced poverty. And I am here for a bigger goal. […] I am here for a watan (country), the revolution will give me a watan. Everything is provided for us here: people with money donate to us, even bosses of companies. People give us clothes, food, cigarettes, everything we need to live here in Tahrir. People are cooking all the time, you see many kitchens inside the tents. We obtained things and a lifestyle in Tahrir that we didn’t have in our life before the revolution. Before, we had no money, it was expensive to buy clothes, to circulate from an area to another. Here, we can go anywhere in the square freely.’11
After this interview was conducted, Husayn was shot in his neck during a peaceful protest in central Baghdad that was repressed by the Iraqi security forces, in January 2020. As a result of his injury, he had to leave Tahrir Square but he carried on his activism through his posts on social media.
The October 2019 uprising challenged the forces of death (or necropolitics) in its celebration of life: the squares became a space for joyful parties, dancing, joking and playing games. Another recurrent slogan among the youth was Inryd In‘ysh – meaning ‘we want to live a good life away from armed violence and political conflicts’. These forms of ‘life blossoming’ involved a politics of emotion as much as they were provoked by them. Protestors set up a public beach along the Tigris river, where youngsters came to relax and play. Theatres and cinemas were also established in Tahrir Square, presenting various types of dramas (often related to social and societal problems). Common activities in the square included sitting and reading in the various free libraries available, listening to public lectures offered by writers, intellectuals and culture-lovers, and participating in debates and discussions. Painting and drawing workshops were organized and the streets, Uhud Mountain, and the tunnel around the square were covered in diverse forms of art, some showing scenes of national unity, others denouncing oppression and the killing of protestors, and celebrating women, youth and the martyrs of the protest, such as Safaa al-Sarai (see Picture 1).
Picture 1 – Taken by Zahra Ali in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, December 2019
The uprising produced a discursive space that challenged militarization and armed violence. Despite the bloody repression they experienced, the protestors remained committed to non-violent civil disobedience. This is remarkable as many of the young men I interviewed in Tahrir Square were former members of the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF), a paramilitary force created during the war against Da‘esh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL). Many of them expressed their disappointment with the PMF for turning the war against Da‘esh into a battle for the consolidation of their repressive and bloody power. Salmiyya (peaceful) and madaniyya (civicness) were terms that were used over and over again by the youth living in Tahrir Square.
The uprising also produced an imaginary space, where protestors’ determination to honour the ‘martyrs of the revolution’ quickly became the uprising’s raison d’être. The uprising was described by many protestors as a ‘sacred battle’ (as sacred as the battle of Uhud, involving the Prophet Muhammad), for which they were willing to offer their lives as sacrifice. The protestors’ martyrdom imaginary was used alongside the religious story of Imam Husayn at Karbala:12 they viewed their struggle as a continuation of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. Moreover, the protestors used Tahrir Square as a shrine around which they performed death rituals, circling the martyrs’ coffins around the Freedom monument often before heading to Wadi al-Salam in Najaf to conduct the religious funeral rites.