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What’s at stake in the Iraq protests?

With Iraq in turmoil, questions grow over the future of the protests which have seized most of the country for months

Salah Nasrawi , Saturday 1 Feb 2020
What’s at stake in the Iraq protests?
Iraqi demonstrators walk among tear gas during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad (photo: Reuters)
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Since the beginning of October, most of Iraq has been gripped by massive and disaffected crowds filling the streets of Baghdad and major cities in the south  protesting against the misrule of the country’s self-serving elite, together with its profiteering and dependency on Iran.

The protesters have been demanding jobs, better public services, security and an end to widespread corruption. But as the ruling class foundered in its response, the crowds have gone on to call for the ouster of the government and a halt to Iran’s overweening influence in Iraq.

For more than four months, the country’s ruling factions have continued to delay, alternating vague promises of reform with brutal crackdowns on the protesters by the security forces.

More than 650 protesters have been killed and tens of thousands wounded as the security forces have increased their use of tear gas, live bullets and beatings in confronting the peaceful protesters.

Nevertheless, Iraq’s “October Revolution,” as is has come to be known, has been resilient and has succeeded in attaining one of its main demands – the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

But a key question that has confronted the uprising remains: can the protesters, most of whom are disgruntled young people, succeed in challenging Iraq’s entrenched political class and achieve their goals?

An answer to this question is by necessity contextual and depends largely, as the classic literature on revolutions explains, on how far factors coincide and major conditions are fulfilled.

A guide to the protests in Iraq will show how the strategies and tactics adopted by the protesters have shaped the policies and skills that have been exercised during the process and determined the uprising’s outcome.

The ongoing Iraqi uprising stretches back to the protests against the corruption and mismanagement of then prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions that rocked several Arab countries.

The protests have been periodically renewed, and though they were forcibly crushed by the security forces at the time and later their effects have shaken up the dysfunctional sect-based political system which was created after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003.

The latest wave of protests, which started in October, have targeted the government of Abdul-Mahdi, who failed to deliver on promises he had made to reform the government and tackle the dismal state of Iraq’s essential infrastructure and lack of basic services.

The protests started as peaceful sit-ins and marches as the demonstrators tried to make their demands heard. Then came the crackdown and a government that refused to back down.

In the days that followed, Baghdad and other southern cities in Iraq were roiled by protests and the violence of the security forces as the demonstrations mushroomed into a broader call for government reform.

While this brief account gives the reasons behind the current standoff, a broader view of the timeline and major events of the uprising can help us to understand why the protesters have so far failed to achieve their goals despite their heroic sacrifices.

The first phase of the uprising started on 1 October, when the demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and a few towns in southern Iraq in response to calls on social media by civil activists to voice socioeconomic grievances against the government.

The lack of government response to their demands and the security forces’ brutal crackdown pushed the protesters to move to a second phase and call for political and economic reforms and a curb on the Iranian influence in the country.

When the Iraqi ruling elite turned a deaf ear to the protesters, a third phase of the uprising was triggered, pushing for Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation and the installation of a government not affiliated to the political factions.

In the fourth phase when the uprising reached a moment of reckoning after it had turned into a mass movement, the protesters began calling for the end of the current political system in Iraq, emphasising their longing for an end to sectarianism and for the rebuilding of the nation as indicated by the widely used slogan “we want a homeland.”

Two main trends or currents of thinking among the activists have emerged, with one side wanting to give the establishment a chance to reform itself through a new government and the other continuing to press for an overhaul of the entire system.

Both camps are made up of activists who are not officially organised but work through what they call provincial “coordination committees” that help to bring together the nationwide protests.

While the organisers have discouraged the political factions from joining the protests, some groups have been attending the sit-ins either to show support and solidarity or in an attempt to influence the protests.

Not unexpectedly, some loyalists to the former ruling Baath Party in Iraq have been seen in the protests, even though they have tried to keep a low profile. The Baathists are active on social media in mobilising against the government, however. 

Behind the scenes, the protests are backed by a vast network of people who cook meals, drive cars, provide funding, food or logistics, or give medical attention to the injured and legal counsel to those arrested.

Among those who oppose the protests are defenders of the status quo who want to see order restored along with hardliners eager to intervene to end them.

The protests have been largely restricted to Shia-majority neighbourhoods in Baghdad and the southern provinces. Those in the Kurdish and Sunni-populated provinces of Iraq have remain largely uninterested in what they probably see as simply Shia-Shia infighting.

These are generally the faces of the uprising, which indicates that it is a spontaneous and leaderless movement without a clear project, socio-political framework or strategy.

As the scale of the government response has intensified, it has raised the question of how long such a disorganised movement can last and whether it could precipitate regime change in Iraq.

The question about the future of the Iraqi uprising follows in the footsteps of intellectual debates about grassroots movements without clear organisers at the helm, or what are commonly known as “revolutions without revolutionaries,” and whether change can be brought about through such an unorganised people’s movement.

For many on both sides of the debate, re-triggered by a new wave of worldwide protests, the question is whether an “active citizenry” can create “alternate visions of social change through lived experience.”

In the case of the Iraqi uprising, the problem that the protests have no centralised leadership that can carry the role of a political counterweight to the ruling factions and their paramilitary affiliates has been self-evident.

To many critics, in addition to lacking leadership, the Iraqi protests have had no “revolutionary” programme, or even clear political agenda, that would spell out its objectives and provide an alternative to the ruling cliques.

As the uprising nears its fifth month, activists in Baghdad and other provinces of Iraq have failed to unify their fragmented networks into a coordinated national movement that can act with a collective voice and leadership and steer the uprising away from spontaneity and confusion.

Among the criticisms of the uprising is that the protesters have not tried to nurture reliable political allies from among independent politicians, lawmakers, tribal leaders, celebrities, political activists and others who could help in bringing local support and global attention to its cause.

Judged on its merits, however, the uprising has sometimes succeeded. It has forced the Iraqi prime minister to resign, pushed the political elite to rewrite the election law and forced amendments to the constitution.

It is true that none of these things has so far brought about real change, but they could be a good start to the protesters’ demands.

One of the most significant achievements of the uprising has been the creation of a massive grassroots movement of a type unseen before in Iraq which has suffered for decades first from Saddam’s totalitarian regime and then from his successors’ kleptocracy.

This movement has acted as a catalyst to overthrow sectarianism and stir up patriotism by injecting new hope that the various components of Iraqi society can be brought together under the umbrella of broader Iraqi nationalism.

The other important outcome of the protests thus far has been the huge gap it has highlighted between the ruling Shia elite and its communal powerbase that forms the backbone of the protests.  

This schism has been dismantling the political power of the Shia elite to control Iraq’s government and rendering its ability to sustain itself and expand impossible.

The Iraqi uprising seems to be special in the sense that it faces very complex conditions and has to deal with difficult circumstances related to the nature of the country’s political system, unique state apparatus and social and communal composition.

Even with the authorities and their allied militias brutally trying to quell the uprising, the demonstrations are still strong, and the protesters’ demands have only grown and with them their expectations.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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