The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Iraq and Hong Kong, defiant protesters take on the system

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There are many things that separate the dramatic scenes of unrest in Hong Kong and those in cities across Iraq, but there’s at least one thing that binds them: The sheer bravery of protesters in both places incensed with an entrenched establishment and the violence it’s deploying to defend its interests.

In Iraq, daily protests since Tuesday in Baghdad and cities in the country’s south have led to more than 100 deaths and left some 6,000 people wounded, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry. Activists fear the death toll may be far higher.

The demonstrations are leaderless, a popular manifestation of widespread frustration over corruption, poor public services, and unemployment in the country. But they were met with live fire from security forces, including members of influential paramilitary organizations backed by Iran. Authorities sought to tamp down the situation with rolling curfews and an Internet blackout, but that has hardly dimmed protester rage, which is also in part directed at Tehran’s outsize influence in Iraqi affairs. Dozens of public buildings and the offices of a number of political parties were torched in the unrest.

On Saturday night, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi held an emergency cabinet meeting, expressed sorrow for the casualties and issued a 17-point plan that included measures to increase subsidized housing and public stipends for the unemployed. The information blackout, though, meant that the government’s attempts to appease the protesters fell largely on deaf ears. Meanwhile, there were numerous reports of security forces or armed men — likely affiliated with pro-Iran militias — raiding the offices of various media outlets.

In Hong Kong, the local government invoked a colonial-era emergency law to ban the wearing of face masks, but it only spurred greater defiance. For the 18th consecutive weekend, protesters took to the streets and clashed with police, who in some instances used water cannons, charged pockets of protesters with truncheons, and fired rounds of tear gas in their attempts to disperse the marchers. Pockets of demonstrators vandalized storefronts of businesses perceived to be pro-Beijing. Many wore masks to show their contempt for the government’s actions; scores were arrested by police for doing so.

Major parts of Asia’s financial hub, including shops, businesses and sections of its metro system, were shut down. Though casualties are nothing on the scale seen in Iraq — three people were hospitalized over the weekend in relation to the disturbances, two in critical condition — a deeper radicalization is setting in, provoked by the Hong Kong government’s unsatisfactory response to protester demands and outrage at the heavy-handedness of the police.

What began as resistance to a controversial extradition bill has now turned into a sustained popular movement that’s challenging the legitimacy of local authorities and, by extension, that of Beijing rule. It reflects the deep-seated fear among many Hong Kongers that the former British colony’s civil liberties and democratic aspirations are in grave peril. And it channels the angst of a younger generation that sees their futures constrained by Hong Kong’s soaring house prices and widening inequality.

“To me, banning the masks is an erosion of our basic rights,” 60-year-old Fred Wong told my colleagues in Hong Kong on Sunday as he marched wearing a green surgical mask. “We, as the older ones, should be ashamed of ourselves for not protecting our rights a long time ago, and we should be embarrassed if we don’t come out to fight for the future of the young.”

On Sunday, protesters gathered and shined lasers over the walls of a facility manned by China’s People’s Liberation Army. In what was one of the first direct confrontations between Hong Kong dissidents and troops from the mainland, a Chinese soldier warned on a loudspeaker that Hong Kongers would “bear the consequences” of their actions. But the PLA troops have so far remained in the barracks, standing aside as Hong Kong’s local police forces baton-charge and pursue the demonstrators every week.

The protesters in Iraq face an altogether deadlier threat. Videos proliferated on social media, despite the blackout, of armed men and snipers firing into crowds of demonstrators, though Iraqi military officials claimed they didn’t know who was doing the shooting. Reports also surfaced of anonymous threats sent to journalists and activists, warning them against attending rallies in various Iraqi cities.

The carnage could possibly spell the end of Abdul Mahdi’s brief tenure, compelling his resignation and paving the way for new elections. The prime minister came to power a year ago as a consensus candidate after many months of political deadlock in Baghdad.

“In Baghdad, the protesters are mostly young men who say they’ve grown up without a future. Born around the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, their childhoods battered by war, in adulthood, they have been shut out of a job market that favors those with political connections,” wrote my colleagues Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim. “Two years after the Islamic State was officially defeated in Iraq, many of the country’s nearly 14 million people live in worsening conditions, despite record oil output."

Few believe a change in government is likely to stanch the anger now on the streets. “There seems to be a calculation by those who are trying to protect the political system that there’s a level of violence that is acceptable,” Renad Mansour, a research fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank, told my colleagues. “If you listen to what the protesters are calling for, it’s not about getting rid of Abdul Mahdi. It’s about calling for an end to the whole system. They’re fed up with the government’s inability to reform, and bringing in new faces won’t help.”

In Hong Kong, too, there’s a vast chasm between what local authorities are willing to concede and what the protesters want. Instead, the Hong Kong government has only succeeded in stoking public discontent and radicalizing a growing hardcore of protesters who have violently clashed with police.

“The anti-mask law just fuels our anger and more will people come on to the street,” a Hong Kong university student wearing a blue mask told Reuters. “We are not afraid of the new law, we will continue fighting. We will fight for righteousness. I put on the mask to tell the government that I’m not afraid of tyranny.”

That’s a rallying cry also heard in Iraq. “It has been 16 years of corruption and injustice,” Abbas Najm, a 43-year-old unemployed engineer, who was part of a Baghdad rally on Saturday, said to the Guardian. “We are not afraid of bullets or the death of martyrs. We will keep going and we won’t back down.”

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