Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Changing Face of Tahrir Square

The square has witnessed much of the country’s turbulent history.
By Hazim al-Sharaa
  • Tahrir Square has been the site of demonstrations by various groups for months. (Photo: IWPR)
    Tahrir Square has been the site of demonstrations by various groups for months. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Tahrir Square has been the site of demonstrations by various groups for months. (Photo: IWPR)
    Tahrir Square has been the site of demonstrations by various groups for months. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Tahrir Square has been the site of demonstrations by various groups for months. (Photo: IWPR)
    Tahrir Square has been the site of demonstrations by various groups for months. (Photo: IWPR)

“This is a piece of London” my father told me during my first visit to Tahrir Square in 1980, as we looked at a line of red double-decker buses carrying commuters to other parts of Baghdad.

Tens of pastry and juice shops served traditional sweets and refreshments, and hundreds of people, Iraqis and foreigners, were strolling on the tidy pavements, enjoying all that central Baghdad could offer.

I never saw the square like that again.

My second visit to the square was in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. It was an entirely different place. It had become a site for selling used goods, as well as looted supplies and the spoils of war.

When I was a teenager, I used to go hang out in the square. This was the period during the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Iraq from 1990 to 2003. There, we could get brand new or second-hand clothes and teen magazines that were banned by the government.

For the world outside, Firdaws Square, where Saddam’s statue was toppled in 2003, might be one of the most memorable images of Iraq due to the fact that foreign journalists were housed in surrounding high-rise buildings and shot live footage as the regime fell.

But for us, Tahrir Square has always been at the heart of all changes, a place which has witnessed all the coups, revolutions and regime changes that have taken place in Iraq. Probably the most notorious event that it has seen was the 1969 public hanging of 14 Iraqis, nine of them Jewish, on charges of spying for Israel, just months after the Baath regime came to power in a coup.

And with every change of regime, something also changed in the square, whether it was as small as a shift in fashion or as major as the deployment of troops.

Located in the heart of Baghdad, this used to be called Queen Alia Square until the 1958 coup that toppled the monarchy. Its Statue of Freedom, built in 1961 – consisting of 14 bronze sculptures that show the history of Iraq from the Babylonian, Assyrian and Samarian eras, all the way to the 1958 revolution - is among the best-known landmarks in Iraq.

The square also leads to the famous Jumhuriya bridge which connects to the Green Zone, housing the Iraqi government and most of the foreign embassies.

Like most parts of the public places in Baghdad, hundreds of concrete walls have been erected in the square for security reasons, and many of the surrounding buildings have been shattered by war.

And in recent months, Tahrir has once again become a magnet for action.

Since the start of demonstrations for better services, job opportunities, and an end to corruption on February 25, I have been going to the square almost every Friday to either cover the events or to look for story ideas.

It was nearly impossible to get to the square on February 25; the Iraqi government had imposed a ban on vehicles and even bicycles. It took me a few hours to walk there and the protests that day turned violent, with many people wounded.

But since then, the Friday rallies have been safer as government forces have stopped their attempts to forcibly disperse demonstrators. I believe that the local and international outcry against the government’s crackdown on protesters led to that.

Every Friday after noon prayer, you can see several demonstrations going on at the same time. Everything seems normal at street-level, but when you look up at the rooftops you can see members of the security forces watching the situation. In the alleyways near the square, there are police and army vehicles ready to move into action.

In the square, there’s a diverse range of demonstrators.

One group of mostly men, clearly Islamists, call for the release of prisoners who have been held on terrorism charges.

Just metres away, another group chants, “Yes, yes to execution”, in reference to those arrested on terror-related charges.

There’s also a group protesting against the United States occupation, while another one nearby expresses opposition to Iran’s interfere in Iraqi affairs.

Here, whatever your ideology and politics, you can find a group to join and an issue to protest over.

An old man, who stands next to a group of women carrying pictures of loved ones killed or arrested during the sectarian violence, attracts my attention.

He is wearing the traditional Arabic dishdasha robe and agal, a black cord fastened around a headdress, and is not protesting like the others. He carries a rose in his left hand and tells me that it represents peace.

“I don’t want violence,” he continued, adding that he has not brought his children to the demonstration because of security concerns. “I just need a better future for them.”

As the day ends, so do the demonstrations. After several hours, the protesters disperse. During the course of the afternoon, I have just one wish – for the events here to always end peacefully.

Hazim al-Sharaa is an editor in Baghdad.

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