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The emergence of Iraq's new protest movement parties

October revolution: How Iraq's protest movement parties are shaping the political debate
6 min read
07 July, 2021
Analysis: The 2019 October revolution was a mass protest movement that rocked the ruling elites and reset political debate in Iraq, giving rise to a host of new political parties.

After years of sectarian violence and civil war in Iraq, a new political class is emerging, pioneering anti-sectarian sentiments and applauding Iraqi nationalism. 

The 2019 October Revolution, or Thawrat Tishreen, was a mass protest movement that rocked the ruling elites and reset political debate in Iraq.

The protest movement's origins trace back a decade to when early protests mobilised sporadically and inconsistently, growing in intensity and scale until the 2019 protests forced then-prime minister Adel Abdul al-Mahdi to submit his government's resignation on 30 November 2019.

This was a historic accomplishment for Iraqi protesters, demonstrating their ability to galvanise tangible change - though protesters' demands are far from being satisfied. 

Protesters have, for years, echoed the same grievances, with the government failing to meet basic needs or provide key services.

While Iraq is the second-largest crude oil producer in OPEC and holds the world's fifth-largest oil reserves, its poverty rate has accelerated to more than 30% and is set to double for children, with 37.9% projected to live below the poverty line.

Iraq also suffers from far-reaching foreign political and economic interference, mainly from Iran, and the central economic and political systems are viewed as chronically corrupt.

According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Iraq is ranked 160 out of 180 countries above Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

An Iraqi protester waves the national flag during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 5 October 2019. [Getty]

Finally, many Iraqi citizens oppose the ethnic and sectarian power-sharing and quota system, al-Muhasasa al-Taifiya, which was imposed after the US invasion in 2003.

These grievances, along with low election turnouts in recent years, high unemployment, and rapid population growth, herald a ticking bomb for the status quo. 

The protest movement has given rise to several political parties, called "Tishreen parties", headed by key figures from the demonstrations.

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Protesters and activists have organised around different principles and created various political platforms. Broadly, there are two categories of the new parties: anti-establishment parties and those with ties to power within the system.

Tishreen's anti-establishment political parties

The first category is largely independent of the ruling elites.

The October 25 Movement led by Tallal al-Hariri, a young businessman, announced its formal establishment in January 2021. 

This movement advocates secularist principles, liberal ideas, accountability in government and elections, and seeks to address economic and unemployment challenges as well as to reform the Iraqi constitution.

Hariri openly criticises sectarian political parties and their involvement with Iran. His movement controversially states that it is open to normalising diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Imtidad Movement, led by the activist Dr A'laa al-Rikabi, was founded in January 2021. Rikabi met the UN representative in Iraq to express the protest movement's demands, including the prosecution of officials and armed groups for the killing of protesters. 

Rikabi announced the party's willingness to work with other groups which are not part of the political establishment.

The party seeks to tackle corruption and rejects the current ruling political factions. Principally, the movement endorses peaceful approaches to change, including non-violent demonstrations and electoral politics.

Al-Bayt al-Watani (The National Home) is led by Hussein al-Ghorabi, an Iraqi lawyer from Nasiriyah and, like the 25 October and Imtidad Movements, it opposes ethnic sectarian power-sharing and endorses an inclusive Iraqi nationalist identity. Politically, it is closely aligned with the Imtidad Movement. 

Anti-government protesters draped in Iraqi national flags walk into clouds of smoke from burning tires during a demonstration in the southern city of Basra on 17 November 2019. [Getty]

Itihad al-Iraqi lil A'mal wa al-Huquq (Iraqi Union for Labour and Rights) is led by Hussein Mahmoud. The party claims to not adhere to any ideology other than peacefully seeking to tackle corruption and bring justice for those who have been killed during protests. 

Other Tishreen parties, such as Harakat Nazl Akhuth Haqi and Jabhat Tishreen, also reject the political establishment. Many of the parties have been targeted and received death threats from Iran-backed militias.

Tishreen's parties that work within the system

The second category includes opposition parties that claim that they are part of the protest movement and are associated with the ruling elites and political factions or individuals who were previously in ruling parties.

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Tayyar al-Marhala is a liberal political party, led by Secretary-General Rhman Sabri, that asserts Iraqi citizenry and includes a number of activists, academics, and judges. Despite Sabri's denial, it is reported that this movement is closely linked to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

The Injaz Movement is led by Baqir Jabr al-Zubaidi. Zubaidi is a Shia politician and former member of the Badr Organisation, an Iraqi Shia Islamist political party, and former Iraqi Interior Minister during the Iraqi civil war. Zubaidi reportedly supports the demands of the protesters. 

Additional parties with ties to the establishment include the Wa'y Movement and the Furatayn Party. Observers refer to the last three parties as defectors from established political parties, whereas al-Marhala is labelled as an extension of the ruling elite.

Established politicians and parties that have aligned themselves with the protest movement include the National Wisdom Movement led by Ammar al-Hakim, who is a moderate Shia cleric and was the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Recently, Hakim has presented himself as an opposition figure, and the party as a civic movement.

In July 2019 he called for mass demonstrations against Mahdi's government. Hakim calls for a modified social contract to address the protesters' demands. Influential Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has also, on occasion, expressed solidarity with protesters.

Boycotting the upcoming elections

While the protest movement demanded early elections, many of the Tishreen parties are set to boycott Iraq's upcoming October 2021 elections, demanding clear electoral legislation and protection of the freedom of expression.

There are older parties that have taken an opposition stance, such as the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), which formed an alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr's Sadrist movement during the 2018 elections. The ICP has joined many of the new parties in calling for a boycott of the upcoming elections.

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Triggered by the killing of the activist Ihab Jawad al-Wazni, these parties declared their election boycott on 9 May, 2021. The parties' statement stressed the federal government's failure to control security forces and pro-Iran armed groups who were responsible for killing protesters.

However, not all new protest parties are unified behind the boycott of the forthcoming elections - some are still considering participating. 

Although the new political parties are not representative of all protesters, unified opposition to the elections would deliver more tangible outcomes.

Tishreen parties are considering the pros and cons of a boycott of the elections. While some activists argue for their boycott, some observers advocate for the opposition factions' participation, stating that it can be easier to make changes from within the system rather than as an outsider.    

The Covid-19 pandemic, paired with punitive attacks against the protesters by Iran-backed militias and government security forces, have scaled down the protests in Iraq.

However, the protest movement is still alive and active, and it is prone to widely re-engage at any moment, as the underlying factors necessitating the movement's rise have yet to be addressed. 

Dr Zana Gulmohamad has a PhD in International Politics from the University of Sheffield. Zana is an associate lecturer, and his recent publications include a book: The making of foreign policy in Iraq: Political factions and the ruling elite (2021) I.B. Tauris.

Follow him on Twitter: @ZanaGul1