Iraqi students have become a focus of the government’s efforts to snuff out the protests that have largely paralyzed that country since the end of October.
In Basra, an oil-rich city by the banks of the Shatt al-Arab River in southern Iraq, thousands of students flock to the University of Basra every morning. But the university’s classrooms are mostly empty.
“We gather in the university’s courtyards and start our daily marches against the government,” said Hussein al-Shammari, a mechanical engineering student at the university. “Our slogans vary and follow the country’s political developments.”
The Basra students’ protests against corruption and high unemployment are part of a widespread anti-government uprising in cities across Iraq’s southern governorates, including Baghdad, the capital. Six hundred people have been killed and nearly 22,000 have been wounded in the protests, the most widespread since the U.S-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. (See the following related articles: “Inside Iraq’s Protests: Students are Defiant in Their Demands” and “In Iraq, Hunger for Jobs Collides With a Government That Can’t Provide Them.”)
Government vs. Students
The government and university administrations are now pressuring students to stop the long-running protests. But ending student participation might end the protests themselves, many protest organizers fear.
On January 9, Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research issued a new academic calendar that called for ending university strikes and resuming all study by January 12.
The calendar, the ministry said in a statement, would be a new “starting point for our students and Iraqi public and private universities in a way that guarantees the completion of the current academic year’s requirements, preserves students’ interests and their futures, and avoids losing the current academic year.”
“Three weeks ago, the vast majority of Baghdad’s universities and students were on strike. But the new [academic] calendar changed this.”Ameer Ahmed
A 27-year-old medical student at Al Iraqia University in Baghdad
Students’ reactions to the proposal have been mixed, with some returning to campuses to study and others insisting on staying on the streets.
“Three weeks ago, the vast majority of Baghdad’s universities and students were on strike,” said Ameer Ahmed, a 27-year-old medical student at Al Iraqia University in Baghdad. “But the new calendar changed this.”
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Ahmed, who helps coordinate student protesters from several universities, says that students went on strike to fight the government’s policies and support other protesters, providing them with medical and logistic support.
Students in their final year of study “were concerned with many rumors circulating about talk of canceling the entire academic year,” added Ahmed. “A few academic departments issued non-authorized calendars to manipulate students and urge them to resume their studies.”
Ministry Becomes Protest Target
In response to the ministry’s new policy, students organized a sit-in on January 12 in front of the ministry building. The government considered that protest an escalation of the existing conflict and tried to stop protesters from setting up tents.
“We called on the ministry to cancel the partial resumption of studies, to ban any disciplinary committees against students who had participated in or helped organize the protests, and to cancel the new academic calendar,” said Ahmed, who attended that sit-in.
After negotiations with ministry officials, students removed the tents and reopened the nearby road to avoid possible attacks by the informal militias that have terrorized protesters. Some 20 students who stayed at the ministry sit-in were attacked anyway.
“A nursing student … was left with a complete fracture of the femur,” said Ahmed. “Four students were arrested while the others sought refuge in nearby houses. Hundreds of protesters from Tahrir Square [the main protest site in Baghdad] came to support the students and managed to get the detainees released.”
The day after the attack, the minister of higher education, Qusay al-Suhail, met with some of the students from the sit-in. Despite the students’ arguments, the minister decided to move forward with the new academic calendar.
In a statement from the ministry, al-Suhail stressed that public and private universities cannot punish the demonstrating students for their political views and refused to restrict freedom of speech. He emphasized that students are free to express their views off campus.
The ministry also denied issuing instructions to universities for punishing students not attending classes.
Students Vote on Social Media
“The confirmed calendar is tragic,” said Ahmed, who attended the student meeting with the ministry, as it gave protest organizers no time to prepare students mentally for ending the strike. The calendar, he said, “ignores that we have not chosen an accepted prime minister yet,” an action which was part of the protesters’ demands.
Protesting students vote about their actions in encrypted communications on apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp. “We conducted a poll on resuming studies for 36 of Baghdad’s faculties on January 19,” said Ahmed. Some 29,000 students, “including the minister’s daughter, took the poll,” he said. “Fifty-two percent wanted to go back to their studies.”
But in Kufa, about 110 miles south of Baghdad, students were in favor of the strike. Ninety-one percent of students polled in Kufa supported the strike, said Dina Jaafar, a dentistry student at the University of Kufa.
“Most of us know we will be unemployed and humiliated after graduation.”Hussein al-Shammari
A mechanical engineering student at the University of Basra
“In every poll,” said al-Shammari, the mechanical engineering student at the University of Basra, “the vast majority of engineering students vote in favor of the strike. Most of us know we will be unemployed and humiliated after graduation.”
In order to get more opportunity for jobs, al-Shammari thinks students need to keep protesting. “We call on forming new parties with an economic view rather than ideological loyalties,” he added, “We are pushing towards liberal parties that might activate the role of the private sector.”
While some professors support the protests, others are critical.
“Iraq cannot be reformed through such strikes with all the accompanying threats and severe societal divisions,” said a 41-year-old literature professor in the southern city of Najaf, who asked to remain anonymous. “The solution is to create and support a secular party. It can start its political path in a professional way to gain people’s trust even if takes years.”
The professor lamented the closing of Najaf’s public and private universities and a large number of schools and government departments. He accused some protesters—known as anti-school regiments—of using sticks and burning tires to intimidate students, teachers and civil servants from going to work.
Private universities have used money as leverage to try to force protesters to return to campus. Some institutions have started paying employees half of their usual salary. Others have said they will make students pay tuition twice if they continue to strike.
“Colleagues at private universities have been deprived from their salaries,” said Sanad al-Fadhel, an assistant lecturer at the University of Alkafeel’s Faculty of Pharmacy, in Najaf, who still gets his salary. “Others imposed a compulsory, open and unpaid leave, in contradiction to the ministry’s instructions.”
One of the anti-school regiments has posted social media messages calling for certain schools to be closed or verbally harassing some headmasters for keeping their schools open.
“Iraq cannot be reformed through such strikes with all the accompanying threats and severe societal divisions.”A literature professor in Najaf who asked to remain anonymous
Last week, protesters set fire to the entrance of the University of Wasit, in the city of Al-Kut, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, in clashes that injured 50 people.
Similarly, protesters set up tents and called for a sit-in in front of the University of Basra’s main entrance to reject the university president’s decision to resume studies.
Ahmed says nobody was threatened to stop studying in Baghdad.
“We were just highlighting the importance of the strike,” he said. “Our target is to elect an accepted prime minister.”
But politically active students say they are being harassed. They report having their mobile phones checked by one university’s dean. One student said he was forced to suggest on social media that students should to go back to class. A science student who used to chant slogans against political Islamic parties and corruption in Basra was shot in the legs, said al-Shammari. “Fortunately, he survived.”
This crackdown has dampened some students’ spirits and left them desperate. “We have to be realistic. I am not ready to sacrifice an academic year for a lost cause,” said Jaafar, the dentistry student at the University of Kufa. “We never expected such an uprising, but we have to set limits for our demands. They all know that the new generation is a free one and cannot be silenced.”