Iraqi Protesters Call For Better Jobs, Benefits

Scattered protests have continued in Iraq this week. Iraqis claim that even though their dictator was overthrown more than seven years ago, the events in Egypt have given them a big push.

The sporadic demonstrations probably won't add up to a mass uprising. But there is one thing that could unite Iraqis in anger.

This is what the Iraqi revolution looks like right now: about a hundred guys, standing around in a well-guarded parking lot, throwing their fists into the air and saying no to one thing and yes to something else.

In this case, it's no to contract work and yes to full-time employment. The protesters are Facilities Protection Service workers.

These are the guys who man government-owned gas stations and guard public buildings around the capital.

Their main complaint is that for years they've had no benefits and no paid leave. And they only make about $200 a month.

Ali Abdul Sahib says he graduated law school, but this was the best job he could get. He points at one of his eyes and tells us what happened at his fuel station a few years back.

"One day, a car bomb got in the fuel station, then it went off. Because of the explosion — I was very close to it — I lost my eye. Right now i can't see. I'm blind with my left eye," he says.

These days in Iraq, every protester has his own story, his own grievance. At the same time that Sahib was shouting, in a different neighborhood, the Baghdad Bar Association took to the streets in black robes, decrying corruption and unemployment.

In southern Iraq, more lawyers and municipal workers protested. Future protests are being planned by trade unions, squatters, and even orphans.
Some newspapers and Facebook groups are now calling for a mass demonstration on Feb. 25 to emulate Egypt, where protests started on Jan. 25.

At a small concert near one of Baghdad's main universities, a group of students said they hadn't heard about the Feb. 25 plan.

The youth in Iraq are simply not as connected as they are in Egypt. Twitter and Facebook are not as widespread. And even though Iraqi is safer these days, the thought of mass protests is still pretty terrifying, says Fatimah Thamer.

"So, I'm sure that good people will be on the streets, so a car bomb would be in the middle of people, killing all the good people, and the bad people would remain," she said.
Iraqi politicians are sensing the people's anger.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has made a spate of TV appearances this week, promising to cut his salary, explore the idea of term limits, and give each Iraqi family about twelve dollars a month to make up for dwindling food rations.
Maliki even televised a routine meeting with officials at the electricity ministry. He made promises to fix Iraq's glaring lack of electricity, but also tried to pass the blame to the private sector.
The electricity shortage in Iraq is the one thing that everyone agrees could unite protesters here. Last summer, as temperatures reached a hundred and twenty, thousands of people took to the streets in the southern city of Basra.
Omar al Mashhadani is a political analyst. He says if the government fails to fix the problem by the coming summer, the sporadic protests here could coalesce into something like Egypt.
"Maybe in July ... it's gonna be hot ... we could find something like this."
Until then, small and local protests are likely to continue here, where people believe that a country rich in oil should do better by its people.
As one group of demonstrators put it this week, we are like camels. We carry the gold, but we only get to eat the grass.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.