Tuk-tuks of Tahrir: The unlikely symbol of a revolution in Iraq

Tuk-tuks of Tahrir: The unlikely symbol of a revolution in Iraq
Comment: A month after Iraq erupted in protest, we should celebrate the new informed, resourceful and creative generation that is now emerging, writes Taif Alkhudary.
6 min read
04 Nov, 2019
Tuk-tuks in Tahrir Square have taken on the role of the 'peoples' ambulances' [Getty]

In the month since the start of the mass demonstrations that continue to grip Iraq, the authorities and associated militias have deployed snipers and used fatal military-grade tear gas grenades at point blank range against protesters.

As a result, at least 250 individuals have been killed and thousands of others injured. This violence has been coupled with persistent attempts to stop news about the government's excessive use of force from reaching the wider world, including through internet blackouts, attacks on media outlets and gag orders on hospitals. Faced with violent repression, Iraqis have responded with resolve, creativity and a strong sense of community.

One outcome of this is that the tuk-tuk has emerged as the unlikely symbol of the Iraq revolution.

Drivers of the three-wheeled vehicles - which usually provide an alternative to yellow cabs in poorer areas of Baghdad - have flocked to Tahrir Square, where they have taken on the role of the "peoples' ambulances". They navigate through the crowds in order to ferry the injured to areas where they can seek medical assistance.

Despite having abandoned their day jobs, and the relative poverty of many of the drivers, they have refused to take money from their passengers. This generosity has not gone unnoticed. In fact, stories of demonstrators banding together to pay for fuel and to replace a tuk-tuk that was set on fire after being hit by a tear gas canister, are common among protesters.

In another act of ingenuity, young demonstrators have repurposed the "Turkish Restaurant" - a building that was bombed during the 2003 invasion and that has been deserted ever since - as the headquarters of the protests.

Faced with violent repression, Iraqis have responded with resolve, creativity and a strong sense of community

Perhaps having learned from the countless wars that Baghdadis have already seen in their lifetimes, they recognise the strategic advantage that height gives them over the authorities. Not only does it allow them to track the movements of the Iraqi forces, but it also means that they can ensure it's not used by snipers, as it was at the beginning of demonstrations, to shoot into the crowds.

Protesters guard the Turkish Restaurant day and night and have developed a pulley system that allows them to get supplies in and out of the building without having to leave. What's more, they have illuminated it with lights and lasers to prevent attacks and encouraged artists to fill it with banners and revolutionary murals.

If the tuk-tuks and the Turkish Restaurant are the very visible icons of the revolution, then the Iraqi lawyers, medics and journalists camped out among protesters are its unsung heroes.

In an unprecedented move, on 30 October, the Iraqi Bar Association set up a tent in Tahrir Square with the express purpose of supporting protesters whose rights have been violated, as well as promoting a culture of law and rights.

This is remarkable in a country where the judicial system is marred by dysfunction, with lawyers routinely arrested for carrying out their work. 

Makeshift medical stations, run by volunteers and medical students, have also appeared in Tahrir Square to fill the gap left by the overwhelmed and under resourced medical services. They administer treatment to protesters for tear gas induced injuries without charge.

In turn, this allows demonstrators to avoid having to go to hospitals or to get into ambulances, where security forces are rumoured to be  collecting identifying information on patients, unless absolutely necessary.

In defiance of the government's attempts to control the dissemination of information on the protests, numerous social media accounts have emerged to provide first-hand reports on the events unfolding across Iraq, as well as to advise demonstrators on how to stay safe on social media.

Stories of demonstrators banding together to pay for fuel and to replace a tuk-tuk that was set on fire after being hit by a tear gas canister, are common

In the typical tongue in cheek style that has been characteristic of the protests, other demonstrators have taken to social media to poke fun at state sponsored TV channels.

In one video, a young protester holding a microphone, and clad in goggles and a backwards baseball cap with the Iraqi flag draped around him, is pictured pointing at Tahrir Square. He announces, "as you can see it is empty… there aren't any protests here. We, the Iraqi media, bring you the truth."

A friend enters the scene and asks, "why are you wearing goggles then?". Something is thrown at them, the image of Tahrir behind him falls away, revealing that it is in fact a backdrop, and a crowd of raucous protesters enters the scene.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the protests however, is the overwhelming sense of community among demonstrators.

That is, the fact that the protests seem to have galvanised all sections of society, including Shias, Sunnis, women, girls, school and university students, and unions, among others.

The food that has been shared between demonstrators, the impromptu barbershops, bookshops and shisha cafes that have appeared among the crowds and the sense of hope, joy and euphoria that can be heard in protesters' chants and late-night parties and fireworks over Tahrir Square, are unprecedented.

the Iraqi lawyers, medics and journalists camped out among protesters are the revolution's unsung heroes

The sense of unity among demonstrators is a symbolic and literal rejection of the political system that was imposed on Iraqis in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. The Muhasasa Ta'ifia or ethno-sectarian apportionment system, which distributes power and state resources among three main sects - Shias, Sunnis and Kurds - has encouraged rampant state corruption and was largely responsible for fuelling sectarian rivalries that resulted in the post-invasion civil war.

In addition, the centralisation of sectarian identity within Iraqi politics has resulted in endless interference from the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, leaving Iraqis to bear the brunt of their proxy struggles for regional domination.

A critique of the political system that continues to plague Iraq 16 years after the US-led invasion and two years after the defeat of IS, is also visible in protesters' signs and stunts.

One young demonstrator, for example, has been photographed holding a sign which reads "the best solution for Iraq is to appoint a Shia prime minster with a Sunni father and a Christian mother. He should be married to a Kurd, born in Iran, studied in Saudi Arabia, with American nationality. He drinks at night and prays in the morning".

Read more: Iraq forces cause further bloodshed in Baghdad following Karbala killings

Another group of protesters in Basra - home of Iraq's oil wealth, but where residents live in abject poverty without access to clean water - held elections to find the most corrupt Iraqi politician. Unsurprisingly, former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose government stole $500 billion over the course of eight years, came out on top.

One month on from the start of demonstrations, we have witnessed the emergence of a new informed, resourceful and creative generation of Iraqis.

In the face of violent repression, they have shown resilience and a refusal to be silenced until there is genuine reform. The significance of the scenes of hope, kindness and community unfolding in Iraq, cannot be overstated in a society that has been ripped apart by sectarian violence in recent years. 

Taif Alkhudary is an Iraqi-British journalist and research assistant at the LSE Middle East Centre, where she works on the post-2003 political system in Iraq.

Follow her on Twitter:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.