In 2019, he joined thousands of Iraqis in Tahrir Square in Baghdad to demand the “fall of the regime”. Today, he sells coffee there: the heart of the struggle has turned to traffic jams and a place for strollers.
Liters of coffee in a thermos slung over his shoulders, 21-year-old Fatal Abbas offers passers-by a cup for less than a euro. Everyone notices the dashing scar on his left arm, commemorating the violent crackdown on anti-authority protests that began in October 2019 across Iraq.
More than 600 people were killed and thousands injured during this unprecedented social movement, where demonstrators denounced corruption, the leaders’ “carelessness” and “Iran’s grip” on Iraqi affairs.
Fatal was in the front row at Tahrir Square (liberation, in Arabic), an iconic roundabout built in 1937 where the great boulevards of the east bank of the Tigris still converge today.
It was here that tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in 2019, chanting slogans inspired by the Arab Spring, such as “the people want the fall of the regime”. “Here, young men, young women, doctors, many were wounded and killed,” recalls Fadel. “We demand our rights.”
29-year-old Ali Riyad also participated in this movement. He points to the Tigris flowing through Tahrir. “Even the bridges have seen bloodshed,” he says.
Three years later, there is nothing to see in the panorama. The wave of protests gradually subsided in early 2020 as restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic came into effect. And authorities have decided to renovate Tahrir Square.
After titanic work under the supervision of former Prime Minister Moustafa al-Kazimi and the Baghdad Municipality, the Photographic Freedom Monument celebrating the 1958 Iraqi Revolution has been visible again on a sidewalk in Tahrir Square since mid-October.
Behind the monument, which opened in 1961, a long, previously abandoned promenade has been planted with flowers, walkways and palm trees. Abdel Monim Al-Isaoui, vice president of media relations at City Hall, explains, “The municipality wants to organize youth activities in these gardens. And list the planned exhibitions, bazaars and concerts. Writer Saud Al-Kohari and his mixed group of cyclists take pictures under the Freedom Monument “because This place where the martyrs fell must become a place of joy”.
Anastasia, a 32-year-old Russian tourist, strolls along the esplanade behind the monument. “The garden is beautiful, the space, the flowers. You can walk there. It’s a bit European,” he says. After all, it is one of the only green spaces in Baghdad, which is suffocated by concrete and traffic. Its eight million people have only one large public park at their disposal, Javra Park… where entry is charged.
In the center of Tahrir Square, under the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras and police, vehicles circle the roundabout with a noise that is only quiet after dark. Because, if they are far from resembling the human tide of late 2019, there are still demonstrations there.
Sometimes a few young graduates demand jobs, sometimes sympathizers of Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr hit the pavements. But for everyone, a building reminds us of the protest of 2019.
With the appearance of a ghost ship, the largest building in Tahrir Square, the “Turkish Restaurant”, stands as a symbol of the uprising, when demonstrators made it their headquarters.
Since it has not been renovated yet, the police are keeping a watchful eye to prevent anyone from entering. On its walls, graffiti calling for “taura” (revolution) faces the slow destruction of time.