It was the sort of public outrage that only three months or so ago probably would have been all but unthinkable in Iraq.
Masses of young people joined by elderly men and women and families poured into Baghdad’s main square and the streets of many southern cities for the biggest protests since the ouster of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Amid the debris, tear gas canisters, smoke grenades and fast-moving tuk-tuks turned into ambulances the protesters gathered for weeks to voice their grievances and the swelling public anger at the widespread corruption and mismanagement that have helped to push the country towards collapse.
What started as a protest over government dysfunction and economic discontent in central Baghdad turned into a nationwide street movement that the authorities have met with systematic repression that has left nearly 500 people dead and thousands more injured.
Many Iraqis, stupefied and embittered by the corruption of the country’s political elite and its alignment with Iran, have directed their hostility at the Islamic Republic and the ruling class that many Iraqis see as the main culprits for the rise of sectarianism in their country.
The demonstrations began on 1 October to protest against the lack of jobs and basic public services in Iraq. Within days, outraged demonstrators in Baghdad and other cities were calling for the ousting of Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and an end to the Islamic Republic’s influence in the country.
In many places, security forces joined by men in plain clothes and masks responded with maximum force, including by opening fire and firing tear gas at unarmed protesters trying to breach the security barricades around government buildings and city intersections and bridges.
As more Iraqis have taken to the streets in the mass protests, the uprising has been seen as a direct challenge to the gains made by the Shia ruling class since Saddam’s fall and a threat to its agenda and the powerful influence of neighbouring Iran.
The protests finally forced Abdul-Mahdi to quit and opened up an opportunity for ending the country’s impasse, removing the omnipresent patronage networks and bringing change to Iraq by overhauling the post-Saddam political order and starting to rebuild the Iraqi state and society.
Seen against this backdrop, the protest movement has triumphed and may usher in a new chapter for Iraq. Forcing Abdul-Mahdi, merely a figurehead for a government run by the Shia political elite, out of power could be only part of it.
One reason for hope is that the protests have proved an effective strategy against the entrenched ruling class that has refused to heed all calls for reform. The protesters have succeeded in exposing and exploiting the weaknesses of the ruling elite in order to extract concessions from it.
The protesters have been able to mobilise immense public support, and this has denied the ruling class of much of its legitimacy and become an instrument to leverage resources and create political change.
In a way, the protests have become a mass grassroots movement that has been drawing the support of millions of people using their potential to whip up demonstrations against the government.
Moreover, the protests have succeeded in transcending communal divides and the sectarian politics in Iraq that have been rooted in division, corruption and government failure. They have succeeded in appealing to all Iraqis who feel defrauded by the political class.
By voicing stanch opposition to Iran’s influence, which many Iraqis see as a main culprit for the rise of sectarianism in their country, the protests have also spurred patriotism that could prove to be an inspiring and a strategic imperative for national rebuilding.
Therefore, the most significant achievement of the protesters is that they managed to shake up a rotten system and bring hope for real change in Iraq that could be felt for generations. That has meant that the consequences of the uprising have not only been limited to its impact on the ruling class, but also on the future of Iraq over the years and decades to come.
But for now, the Iraqi uprising faces both short and long-term challenges, not least because the fall of Abdul-Mahdi will likely remain a symbolic victory. His resignation is unlikely to end Iraq’s national deadlock, and the protesters now face the daunting task of forcing the oligarchs to make concrete concessions.
While the immediate threat to the uprising includes increasing pressure from the security forces and violence by the mob, there are serious questions about whether the protesters will be able to sustain the movement until their demands are met.
For many sceptics, the protest movement is too weak and will be unable to carry out the role of a political counterweight to fight an entrenched elite that has militias and far more resources to use against the protesters.
They believe that while the movement may be able to remove some of the elite from power, it has little chance of toppling the system. A key problem is that the protesters have no clear leadership that can steer it away from confusion and disarray.
The critics say the movement has no reliable political allies among independent seasoned politicians or powerful political factions in the system itself. It also has no clear agenda to explain its objectives beyond ousting the ruling oligarchy.
They also argue that the protests are largely restricted to Shia-majority neighbourhoods in Baghdad and the southern provinces of Iraq, while the Kurds in the north and the Sunnis Arabs have remained aloof to efforts to reform the central government because of their own agendas.
Nevertheless, it could be too soon to assess the outcome of Iraq’s October uprising and its impact on Iraq’s future in terms of the end goal of the protesters: to bring the entire political system down and build a new socio-economic order.
How the consequences of the protests are going to play out is hard to say. But one thing is clear — Iraq will never be the same again.
The protests have proved to be an effective strategy against the ruling oligarchs and their entrenched parties and militias. They have also succeeded in shaking up the sectarian political system, which is deeply associated with the state’s failure and government dysfunction.
The protest movement has also evolved into an effective instrument to revive the Iraqi nationalism that the post-Saddam order tried to suppress for the sake of its declared objective of accommodating Iraq’s ethnic and religious diversity.
As a result of the patriotic discourse the uprising has revived, Iraqis now feel that they have a unifying national identity and that they constitute a nation in spite of the communal divisions created by the post-US invasion system.
This is particularly important given the increasing influence of Iran in Iraq and the regional power struggle this has triggered, undermining Iraq’s independence and sovereignty.
Although the way the uprising will evolve remains unclear, it is highly unlikely that a new political system or government in Iraq will be able to outmanoeuvre the protesters’ demands and take Iraq back to the status quo.
Despite the chaos and the bloodshed, Iraqi youth today feel that the uprising has restored their pride in their country and given them real cause for optimism that they can live a different life and hope for a better future.
One of the major consequences of the uprising has been how it has changed the way their country is perceived around the world and provided the international community with a better understanding of Iraqi society.
The voices of the Iraqi youth and their passionate chants of “we need a homeland” during the fiery protests that took place in autumn 2019 reached a world that used to know nothing about Iraq except that the country was a mosaic of various sects and ethnicities.
All this does not mean that the protesters who lost hundreds of their friends and fellow citizens in this “war” for dignity, freedom and justice have won. But it does mean that the uprising has ushered Iraq into a new phase of national awakening whose political potential is promising and will be far-reaching.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.