Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

What Baghdad’s Liberation Square doesn’t mean

Baghdad’s Tahrir Square symbolises the Iraqi version of a botched quest for freedom, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

When thousands of Iraqi protesters defied the sweltering summer heat and gathered in the very heart of their capital one Friday afternoon in August railing against politicians and demanding accountability and reform, many people thought that the crowd would trigger a popular uprising that would challenge Iraq’s embattled government.

The protests, which were based in Tahrir Square, the sprawling, usually traffic-choked plaza at the heart of Baghdad, continued for the rest of the summer, but there was no real question that Iraq’s status quo of never-ending stagnation, created by the US-led invasion in 2003 and the inefficiency and corruption of the country’s new rulers, would not remain the order of the day.

At first the protesters’ demands were modest. They wanted the government to improve electricity supplies amid the summer heat wave. But the list grew longer and more complex: to curb rampant corruption, reform the judiciary and end poor governance. Some demonstrators later demanded changes in the political system, including loosening the grip of the ruling parties over the state and the separation of politics from religion.

But real change did not come to Iraq. Incumbent prime minister Haider Al-Abadi announced a set of measures to placate the protesters. He called for the elimination of several senior government positions, promised to cut waste and pledged a drive to eliminate corruption.

 Several weeks later, few of the measures, aside from the firing of three vice-presidents, three deputy prime ministers and a few ministers, had been carried out, and many protesters were accusing Al-Abadi of procrastination and of surrendering to influential parties involved in corruption.

The Tahrir Square pro-reform protests started nearly five years ago. In February 2011 the Square was the hub of rallies modelled on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and later in other Arab countries that had brought together a chorus of deep-seated resentment at the ageing Arab dictatorships.

The protests were the largest public outpourings in Iraq for decades. On one Day of Rage 20 protesters were killed in clashes with security forces and dozens more were wounded.

Though former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki ruthlessly cracked down on the protests, the square periodically became a rallying point for peaceful protesters who gathered mainly to express their dissatisfaction with his government which had made no efforts to accede to the protesters’ demands.

Like Tahrir Square in Cairo and Bourguiba Avenue in Tunisia and other public squares in Syrian and Yemeni cities that saw demonstrations in the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square assumed centrality in the narrative of anti-government protests in Iraq.

The square has been a practical and symbolic platform for the crowd, and it is large enough to accommodate thousands of protesters raising Iraqi flags and chanting political slogans. They came to the square and to the roads surrounding it to make their voices reverberate around Baghdad.

Lying in the bed of the now-shrunken Tigris River, the site of Tahrir Square has been an integral part of Baghdad for centuries. The square and its surrounding areas are ordinarily called Al-Bab Al-Sharqi, or the Eastern Gate, because this was the site of one of the four gates of the ancient walled city of Baghdad under the Ottoman occupation of Iraq that ended in 1917.

The square did not assume its current shape until early in the 20th century when Iraq fell under British colonial rule and later became an independent monarchy. A master plan for Baghdad, remodelling Iraq’s rapidly growing capital as a modern city, was then adopted that designated the square as a gateway to the city centre and to the western expansion of Baghdad across the Tigris.

The square (sahat in Arabic) was known as Sahat Al-Malika Alya after queen Alya, the mother of Iraq’s last monarch Faisal II, until 1958 when the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup. It was renamed Sahat Al-Tahrir, or Liberation Square, and on the orders of the leader of the coup, Abdel-Karim Qassim, major renovations were carried out, including the building of an auditorium where Qassim could preside over parades and public celebrations and making the square a national place of gathering.   

The square, straddling several major roads including Baghdad’s two main boulevards of Al-Jumhouriyah Street and Al-Sadoun Street, became the centre of the capital and its main public space. It was used for set-piece gatherings speaking of the power of the new regime and its modernisation efforts.

On the eastern flank of the square stands a monumental piece of Iraqi art in the shape of the Al-Hurriya (Liberty) Monument that commemorates Iraqi history back to the ancient Sumerians and the Iraqi people’s struggle to achieve liberty. It was made by the famous Iraqi painter and sculptor Jawad Saleem.

The Liberty Monument today is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, and it has overlooked many dramatic scenes during Iraq’s recent turbulent history. Its magnificent marble structure features 25 figures symbolising human beings together with a horse and a bull cast in bronze and welded together against a frieze. The bronze statues are placed against the backdrop of a marble wall in a neo-classical design based on Sumerian concepts and employing modernist flair.

The centrepiece of the monument is a sculpture of an Iraqi soldier breaking prison bars to let the people go free. The symbolism is that Iraq has started a new era of freedom, peace and prosperity.

This statue, a monument to popular power and national rebirth, has become a common motif for many Iraqi and Arab artists and many poets and authors have immortalised it in their writings.

Other notable features in the vicinity of the square include the iconic Revolution Mural designed by Fayik Hassan, a famous Iraqi painter, celebrating the victories of the Iraqi people. The mural, made of thousands of carefully made ceramic tiles in vivid colours, is another masterpiece of art associated with the 1958 coup that many Iraqis considered to be a revolution because it toppled the Western-backed monarchy.  

The mural shows people from all walks of life and represents those deemed to have done outstanding work for the revolution and emancipation. It is situated at the eastern end of the Al-Umma Garden, a park connected with the Liberty Monument at its western entrance through lanes of trees, grassy courts, flowerbeds and water spaces.

As the square started to emerge as the centre of the downtown area of Baghdad, the Al-Umma Garden became the home to concerts, exhibitions and similar artistic events. The surrounding streets, such as Al-Sadoun Street and the Abu Nawas Corniche, became busy hubs for entertainment at night with their many cafés, bars, night clubs and cinemas.

Unsurprisingly, the square has had its own fair share of Iraq’s turbulent and violent history. In January 1969, the square was the site of a dramatic event when the new Baath Party government hanged 14 men in a public execution – nine Jews, three Muslims and two Christians.

The authorities alleged the men, who were tried by a special tribunal, were spies and part of an Israeli and American espionage network in Iraq. Thousands of Baghdadis gathered for the executions after the official Baghdad Radio station invited citizens to Tahrir Square to celebrate the hangings.

The square was later gradually neglected as the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein used rising revenues from the oil boom to embark on urban development projects and dozens of monuments promoting Baath Party ideology and Saddam’s adventures such as the Iraq-Iran War.

During the 1980-1988 War, several giant statues were built in the city, among them the Martyrs Monument and the Unknown Soldier Monument, to glorify Iraqi sacrifices in the war. A Celebration Square was built with an arch of triumph later used to host military parades and celebrations of victory in the war with Iran. Many Iraqis feared that the Baath Party regime would even demolish the Liberty Monument to obliterate Qassim’s legacy.

 All these monuments and buildings overshadowed Tahrir Square, which was cut by the development projects into two halves by a tunnel connecting Al-Sadoun Street with Al-Jumhouriya Street and almost turning the square into a traffic roundabout.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the area around Tahrir Square was home to a mass-transit system and large open-air markets where consumers could find secondhand clothes and appliances, along with fish, vegetables and typical flea market items.

After the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 and as Iraq plunged into bloody violence and bombings, the once-vibrant square became a shoddy, uninviting place with no public activity in the surrounding areas. Both the Liberty Monument and the Revolution Mural were becoming lost in the chaos and lack of concern sweeping the country. Homeless people and thugs inhabited the surrounding streets, which became the scenes of assaults and murders.

The neglect of Tahrir Square and its surrounding area, representing the heart of the Iraqi capital and its urban political landscape, highlighted the failure of the US occupation not only in infrastructure building but also, and most importantly, in nation-building in the war-devastated country.

The Liberty Monument stands in high regard in the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Some of Tahrir Square’s neighbourhoods were also the setting for the award-winning novel Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi which portrays a city where people live in fear of the unknown.

In a eulogy to the post-invasion square, Iraqi poet Mowafaq Mohamed wrote that “there is no liberty under the Monument of Liberty”.

But because of its centrality and its historical and political meaning, the square was still a natural place for anti-government demonstrations. The massive weekly crowd in Tahrir Square invested new energy into long-stagnating Iraqi politics, and soon the protests spread across Iraq. For a while many Iraqis believed the square had finally lived up to its name.

As freedom deteriorated under Saddam’s dictatorship so did the Liberty Monument. The US-led invasion of 2003 that rid the country of Saddam was code-named Operation Iraqi Freedom, but liberated Iraq had little use for Iraqis.

Today, Iraq’s predicament under the corrupt, incompetent and undemocratic political oligarchy installed by the United States goes far beyond the cracks, ruptures and breakages that threaten the existence of Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and the two statues it hosts and what these symbolise for the existence of Iraq itself.

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