Behind the student protests that have rocked Iraqi Kurdistan
Thousands of university students took to the streets in the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi region last week demanding that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) resume issuing their monthly stipends, which have fallen into arrears.
Small protests initially kicked off at the University of Sulaimani, in Sulaymaniyah province, on 21 November calling for the reinstatement of student allowances which have been suspended since 2014. They quickly grew in size and spread to other cities and towns across the region, reaching Erbil, Kalar, Rania, Koya and Halabja.
The mass protests were unprecedented and spontaneous, without an organised leadership or a political force behind them.
The peaceful rallies soon turned violent, however, when security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and water cannons to disperse the crowds, beating protesters and reporters with electric shock batons, and detaining hundreds of students in several cities.
"The mass protests were unprecedented and spontaneous, without an organised leadership or a political force behind them"
“Violence of Kurdistan region’s Asayish police, and party-aligned armed actors against protesters, teachers, students, health workers, journalists and activists is not a reaction. It is a long observed policy that must be addressed and halted,” Iraq researcher Raz Salayi at Amnesty International tweeted.
Before 2014, the government was paying an allowance of 60,000 to 100,000 Iraqi dinars (roughly $40-70) a month to students for living expenses.
The KRG stopped the financial support seven years ago when it introduced austerity measures, such as salary cuts, to cope with the financial crisis brought on by the fight against the Islamic State (IS), an oil price crash, as well as budget disputes with the federal government in Baghdad. The cash-strapped government has struggled to pay public sector salaries for several years.
But with the Islamic State now largely defeated and oil prices recovering, students believe these factors no longer obstruct the disbursement of stipends.
Without these monthly payments, some students struggle to buy food or pay for accommodation and travel.
“There are students who can't afford to pay to travel home to the provinces, others who haven't got enough for three meals a day," one student told the AFP news agency.
“I have a friend who hasn’t travelled back to his hometown, just two hours away, in three months because he can’t afford the bus fare,” Hazhir, an engineering student at the University of Sulaimani, told The New Arab.
The 21-year-old, who’s been involved in the demonstrations, explained that as the protests grew and were confronted by violent repression from security forces, their demands increased.
Students are calling for better services and a better education system, including the restoration of higher education scholarship programmes that had been established for the benefit of Kurdish students selected on a meritocratic basis. They are also demanding the removal of political influence from university affairs.
Student representatives on university councils are typically picked based on their affiliation with political parties since councils are commanded by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union Kurdistan (PUK), both parties holding the most power in the region.
On Saturday, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani met with representatives from 14 public universities to listen to their concerns. However, as Hazhir noted, “these so-called student representatives are all members of the student union which is controlled by these two ruling parties, they aren’t the true voices of the students, none of them were attending the protests”.
The activist added that students have been very careful in making sure the protests remain peaceful and without any political affiliation, fearing that political parties may exploit the protests for their own agenda. He also pointed out that the demonstrators have been challenging attempts by the KRG to delegitimise the student protest movement.
“We’re only protesting peacefully, and the government in return is cracking down and spreading propaganda, which is unfortunate,” he said.
Early last week, speaking about the student protests, Barzani said that no country provides free education and monthly payments to students. His comments further angered Kurdish students.
At a conference on education held in September, government officials acknowledged that the quality of education needs to be improved, and the whole system needs an overhaul.
"We're only protesting peacefully, and the government in return is cracking down and spreading propaganda"
The KRG has overspent on public sector wages by hiring too many staff, which has cut vital spending on services, including education. Students suffer from routine issues such as the poor maintenance of university buildings, and the limited provision of basic services like heating, cooling systems, or drinking water on campuses.
“Problems in the educational sector have been building up for years. Students are really struggling,” Rudaw reporter Dilan Sirwan told The New Arab, pointing to some of the long-running grievances. Teachers whose payments have been at times slashed or delayed would often go on strike, leaving students out of class for long periods of time.
Dormitories are not up to standard. There are students who are forced to quit university because they cannot afford it, while others suspend their education to work in underpaid jobs just to raise enough money to go back to studying.
The journalist, who covers the Kurdistan region, said that 80% of the KRG’s public budget goes towards paying salaries, which he deemed “unreasonable” given that the remainder is expected to finance all other expenditure.
For the last four years, the federal Iraqi government has not provided the Kurdish region with its full share of the national budget, due to a long-standing dispute over the right to develop and export oil resources. This financial situation has forced the region to take out loans.
Following a deal between PM Barzani and Iraqi premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi in June, federal budgetary payments have been partially restored to the Kurdistan region.
“Until today, Iraqi Kurdistan’s share has not been fully reintroduced. What is being received from Baghdad is hardly enough to cover all the public expenses,” Sirwan underlined.
Despite its relative economic prosperity compared with its neighbours, the Kurdish region has seen widespread dissatisfaction across the population with the government’s unreliable provision of public services and basic infrastructure.
The region also has a long track record of corruption and financial mismanagement.
“While the KRG’s budget has somewhat improved, services are going down,” Hazhir said, voicing his frustration. “We students are just asking for our basic rights”.
The student-led protests stopped on Wednesday last week. ‘Shano’, a medical student at the University of Sulaimani and one of the participants in the protests, indicated that the halt was motivated by two reasons.
"The Kurdish region has seen widespread dissatisfaction across the population with the government's unreliable provision of public services and basic infrastructure"
Firstly, all universities in Sulaymaniyah suspended classes for six days due to the unrest. Secondly, students did not want to return to the streets in the midst of an ongoing political struggle between Pavel Talabani and Lahur Sheikh Jangi, co-leaders of the PUK - which controls Sulaymaniyah - to avoid the student-owned movement being sabotaged.
“The PUK is always using demonstrations and movements in this area to settle their own scores. We don’t want them to misdirect us and take advantage of our voices,” ‘Shano’ said firmly, while suggesting that the protesting students would now wait to see if their demands are met.
In a cabinet meeting that was held following the events, the KRG approved the allocation of funds for the ministry of higher education to solve the students’ problems, although it is unclear how much money the government will provide.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec