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Can Iraq's protest movement still make a difference?

Can Iraq's protest movement still make a difference?
5 min read
11 October, 2022
Analysis: Three years after Iraq's 'October Revolution', activists and demonstrators say they will continue to protest until Iraq has a new political system.
``The cowards will not make freedom’, a motto of Iraq’s 2019 October protests can still be read on a building near the capital’s Tahrir Square, Dana Taib Menmy for TNA.

'Cowards will not create freedom', a slogan from Iraq’s 2019 October protests, can still be seen on a building near the capital’s Tahrir Square.

Three years later, however, those responsible for the killing of Iraqi youths during the nationwide anti-government demonstrations have yet to be held accountable.

On 1 October 2019, thousands of angry Iraqis held large demonstrations in Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriyah, and several other provinces in the western and southern parts of the country.  

Demonstrators were calling for an end to corruption among Iraq’s ruling elites and the hegemony of Iran and its affiliated political parties and militias in the country.

Soon, the peaceful demonstrations turned violent, with more than 800 protestors killed as Iraq’s security forces and militias used lethal force to silence them. Thousands of others were injured.

Earlier this month, Iraqis commemorated the third anniversary of the protests in two different squares in Baghdad. One group read a statement at al-Nusur Square, while others gathered in Tahrir Square. New protests are scheduled for 25 October.  

Zaid al-Asaad, an activist from the October protests, admitted that there is a division inside the protest movement, however, he stressed that the revolution’s goals are still mobilising the different groups.   

“Since 2019, the demands of the protestors did not change, including prosecuting the killers and those who were behind the bloodshed, the corrupt people who wasted Iraqi public money, the legislation of a fair election law, and passing a law regulating Iraqi political parties,” al-Asaad told The New Arab.

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Demonstrators, mostly the younger generation, had camped out in the capital's Tahrir Square and other public squares from October 2019 until early 2020, decrying endemic corruption, poor services, and unemployment under the former Iraqi government led by Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was forced to resign and was replaced by Mustafa al-Kadhimi. 

Another key demand of the protests was holding a snap election, which was held on 10 October 2021. However, after more than a year, Iraq still lacks an elected government due to disagreements among political parties. 

Iraq’s firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc won a majority with 73 seats. He tried to form a 'national majority' government with several Sunni and Kurdish parties and aimed to sideline pro-Iran Shia blocs organised under the Coordination Framework (CF).

However, Sadr could not form such a government and consequently ordered lawmakers from his bloc to resign, which all of his MPs did on 12 June. The CF replaced Sadr's MPs with their own, becoming the biggest bloc in the Iraqi parliament. They vowed to form a consensus government that would include all Sunni and Kurdish blocs.

An Iraqi protester wearing a face bandana and waving a national flag poses near burning tires blocking a road during a demonstration in the southern city of Basra on 17 November 2019. [Getty]

Sadr, nevertheless, did not let the CF form a cabinet, ordering his followers to raid the Iraqi parliament. The disagreements led to heavy clashes between Sadr’s militia, known as Saraya al-Salam, and militias of the CF in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

As a result, dozens of people from both sides were killed and injured. Sadr finally ordered his militants to withdraw, vowing he would eventually quit politics. 

“What is crucial for us is that we do not want a consensus government for Iraq, because political blocs that form such a cabinet would not carry out whatever they promise, as we saw in both Abdul-Mahdi and Kadhimi’s governments. The biggest bloc should form a majority government,” Asaad added. 

The activist indicated that although the October protests had begun as a peaceful and civilian movement, a group of youths now believes that protestors should raid the Green Zone and topple the current political system to form a ‘national salvation government’.  

“I personally believe that conditions in Iraq are not ripe for such a scenario and the protesting youths of [the] October [movement] are not effective in terms of changing the armed equation in the country.” 

He also clarified that there is no coordination with the Sadrist Movement in organising the demonstrations.

“We do not think the Sadrists are trying to make real reforms, but they are working to achieve their own political gains similar to the CF. The protest movement is not interested in coordination with the Sadrists because they are part of the problem, thus they cannot be part of the solution.” 

Several political parties emerged from the 2019 Iraqi protests, winning seats in the Iraqi parliament.  The activist said it is too early to judge the performance of those parties in the Iraqi political process. 

Abbas Mohammed Abbas, a Kurdish political observer, said that there are no divisions among the October protest movement, and protests will return vigorously by the end of this month.

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“A million-person protest is being scheduled for later this month as there are good preparations for it. Protests earlier this month were just a message for the political sides that in case they fail to form a government, they would return with larger protests,” Abbas told The New Arab

He said the October protests don't require an official leadership, since there is large support for them from those who consider themselves organisers of the movement.

Responding to the question of whether the civilian-led October movement can achieve its objectives of saving Iraq from the current political stalemate and removing the country from sectarian circles and subordination to neighbouring countries, Abbas said such ambitious goals would be difficult even for most Iraqi political parties and leaders.

“But the October movement is different somehow by being patient and having strategic agendas and support from the Iraqi security and governance institutions. All those might be helpful in changing the political realities in their favour.” 

Dana Taib Menmy is The New Arab's Iraq Correspondent, writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy