The Future of the Protest Movement in Iraq

EPC | 05 Dec 2019

The popular movement in Iraq continues to maintain momentum and engage various segments of society, despite a campaign of violent repression and widespread intimidation involving the assassination, kidnapping and arrest of activists, a media crackdown and internet blackouts, culminating in the Nasiriyah massacre and the outbreak of conflict in Najaf which tipped the country onto the brink. This paper will shed a light on the developments on the ground in Iraq and their political repercussions, as well as the Government’s remaining options for tackling the stubborn anger on the country’s streets.

Dead-end tactics


    The protesters have managed to anchor the popular movement by establishing a permanent sit-in in Baghdad and in the capitals of the southern governorates. The trade unions’ announcement of support helped the general strike by bringing other sectors of society into the movement, in particular high school and university students, whose mass sit-ins in public squares have played a key role in sustaining the movement and have compensated for the fluctuations in the number of protesters. Nonetheless, the only real impact has been felt by the education and justice sectors, for a number of reasons, most importantly:


1. The country lacks any real productive economy that would make it vulnerable to strikes by public employees, many of whom are long-term unemployed and pose an obstacle to economic growth. The majority are employed by the Government.


2. Only a small proportion of the public budget comes from non-oil revenues. The Government has control over how oil profits are spent and uses them to support itself, even at the expense of the national economy, which has suffered heavy losses after a nearly two-week internet blackout.
3. The popular movement has thus far been limited to the southern provincial capitals and the eastern areas of Baghdad, which has given the impression that it is simply a Shia–Shia conflict and has relieved the pressure on law enforcement and riot police, enabling them to concentrate their resources on the limited points of engagement.
4. Normal life has continued in most cities, towns and rural areas. Basic services have not been interrupted, and prices have remained steady. The cash flow has also been maintained, as government employees have continued to receive their salaries and social support payment have continued to be made.
    As a result, the political class has not only been slow to respond to protesters’ demands, but has also taken the opportunity to appoint more officials to “special grades”. During the height of the crisis, the Government appointed a number of new public managers, members of independent bodies and ambassadors, and influential businessman Khamis al-Khanjar was nominated as the Arab Project Party’s candidate for Minister of Education. The former Minister of Health, Dr Alaa al-Din al-Alwan, was replaced following his resignation, and a committee to review the constitution was appointed, whose members — chosen according to the quota system — lack the qualifications required for such a crucial task. The Government has also drafted a new election law that disregards protesters’ demands for individual elections to be held in each constituency for each Parliament seat.
    There is concern that the victims of the protests will become mere statistics in the media, and the sit-ins will be remembered as nothing more than “street parties”, as Prime Minister Adel Abdelmahdi described them when he appealed to protesters to support efforts to return to normality. In response, a declaration of civil disobedience was published on 3 November, and numerous main roads and bridges in east Baghdad, Nasiriyah, and Basra were blocked. However, for same reasons that have limited the impact of the strikes, the effects of such disobedience have been confined to Umm Qasr Port, through which most of Iraq’s food and medical imports enter the country. Oil production facilities in the south remained untouched, thanks to the shared interests of local leaders and the foreign oil companies operating in those areas. In governorates where the protests are more active, such as Dhi Qar, protesters have repeatedly confronted symbols of power and attacked the homes of local officials, representatives and politicians, including that of the Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers Hameed al-Ghazi of the Sadrist Movement, which has become one of the main focuses of the protests since they started up again in late November. This has further fueled the desire of some protesters to expand the geographical scope of the protest movement — despite the risk of clashes with riot police and masked armed groups, who are increasingly favoring military-style tear gas canisters over live ammunition, despite the horrific injuries caused as a direct result of their use — as this is seen as the only way of undermining the Government’s plan to allow the protests to fizzle out over time.


A battle of bridges


    In the light of slow response from the international community and the United Nations to the excessive violence used against demonstrators, hundreds of whom have been killed and thousands more wounded, and the mixed messages issued by religious leaders in Najaf, which have prompted strong criticism and indignation from protesters and their supporters, the revolutionary wing of the protest movement has shifted its attention to efforts to control the bridges surrounding Tahrir Square in order to increase the pressure on the Government and obstruct the work of the State institutions. These factions are armed with the experience that they gained when they clashed with riot police on Al-Jumhuriya Bridge to prevent tear gas being used on Tahrir Square and on the “Turkish Restaurant”, the building seen as the symbol of the ”revolution”.
    The level of organization behind the hit-and-run operations against riot police, the storming of roadblocks placed by the authorities across the bridges and nearby roads, and the building of wooden and metal barricades suggests that there are those within the movement capable of setting goals in line with a clear vision and of motivating willing protesters to achieve those goals by forcing the masses to join them in staging new sit-ins at sites such as Al-Sinak Bridge, at the far end of which sits the Iranian embassy. On 16 November, protesters took control of the embassy and converted the multi-story building into a sit-in site similar to that in the Turkish Restaurant on Tahrir Square. They then proceeded to retake Al-Ahrar and Al-Shuhada bridges, the latter of which is located next to the former National Council building, the western side of which contains the Prime Minister’s office and the eastern side of which overlooks Al-Khilani Square in Shorja Market, Iraq’s commercial hub. The headquarters of the Central Bank of Iraq are also located in this area, which hosts the daily hard currency auction, known for being one of the key sources of corruption through which the ruling parties finance themselves.
    The areas around the three bridges continue to experience daily clashes, which have resulted in the injury and death of dozens of protesters, the partial paralysis of commercial activities and damage to buildings and commercial premises, as protesters and riot police have exchanged Molotov cocktails. Riot police are also accused of intentionally using stun grenades to set fire to buildings.
Playing with fire
    The difference in the way in which local authorities in the southern governorates have dealt with protesters has had a clear impact on how events have progressed. While the authorities in Wasit, Babil, Najaf, Muthanna, and Maysan complied to a certain degree with the declared general strike and civil disobedience and managed to coexist peacefully alongside the sit-ins, the situation remains tense in Basra, Dhi Qar, and Karbala, where clashes between protesters and riot police have continued in response to the arrest, kidnapping, and torture of activists, the crackdown on protesters, and the unmotivated attacks on their camps. This culminated in the detonation of an explosive device at the sit-in on Nasiriyah’s Al-Hiboubi Square, in response to which protesters escalated their activities. In Basra, protesters reblocked the road to Umm Qasr Port and, in Karbala, they attempted to set fire to the Iranian embassy. In Dhi Qar, protesters blocked two central bridges; the attempt to unblock the bridges on the evening of 28 November led to the Nasiriyah massacre, in which hundreds of protesters were killed and injured. This happened mere hours after the sudden outbreak of violence in Najaf, in which “protesters” set fire to the Iranian embassy in suspicious circumstances. The waters were further muddied by the appearance of unknown groups protesting against the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, which pushed the city onto high alert. The situation was made all the more tense by the warnings issued by the leaders of some State factions, most notably Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Qis al-Ghazali, Abu Alaa al-Walai and Ahmed al-Asadi, that there was a threat to the life of the Grand Ayatollah and that they remained committed to protecting him against all plots, as well as the rumors that units of the Popular Mobilization Forces were coming to the city, which many opponents of the Government saw as veiled threat to the Ayatollah.
    Although the protesters achieved their primary aim — the resignation of the Prime Minister — the euphoria of victory was dimmed by the news that hundreds of “demonstrators” had been killed and injured during an attempt to occupy the shrine of Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim and his brother Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. The killings have also continued in Najaf, where families have attacked police stations as an act of retaliation. Rumors have spread that suspicious elements have been encouraging teenagers to undermine the efforts of local leaders to calm the situation, in order to distract public attention from the continued bloody protests in the capital and to make preventing the collapse of security a top priority among the civil and cultural elites who support the protest movement. This is a classic tactic used by the political powers to derail “uprisings” and distract protesters from their key demands, the realization of even just a fraction of which would threaten the entire political system, which is based on a mix of political patronage and the involvement of armed groups.
A crisis of leadership
    The lack of clearly identifiable leadership among the protest movement — a response to concerns regarding the risk of arrest by the security services or of kidnap or assassination by Shia militias — has been one of its greatest strengths. During media appearances, activists have honored a tacit agreement to state that all protesters are leaders, that their demands are clear and that there is no need for the coordination committee that the Government is seeking to establish. Demonstrators have also rejected individuals or groups claiming to speak on their behalf as attempts to hijack the protests for their own political interests.
    This lack of leadership has started to become a serious weakness, however, particularly as the Sadrist Movement — one of the pillars of the regime that the protesters are trying to pull down — has taken control of Tahrir Square and imposed politically-motivated laws to ban protest chants against Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran and religiously-motivated laws to limit the public and personal freedoms of protesters. Protesters have been repeatedly assaulted and served with death threats, and the encampments of demonstrators who have proposed initiatives to form steering committees and coordinate their demands have been attacked. At the same time, the Sadrists and their civilian and communist allies have set up a shadow leadership within the protest movement, which has spread rumors that the movement has recently been negotiating with the main political parties. The Sadrists’ aim is to strengthen their influence over the selection of the new Prime Minister and the formation of the government, in exchange for promising to blow the cover off the Tahrir Square sit-in and, ultimately, bring it to an end.
Possible scenarios
1. The protests continue at the same pace, or possibly escalate. A number of indicators support this scenario, of which the following are the most important:
The large number of deaths has fostered ideal conditions for protests, in particular given the reluctance of the ruling political class to respond to protesters demands, especially the demand that a transitional government be formed to oversee the development of a new election law to assign an electoral district to each parliamentary seat and that a new Electoral Commission be appointed from among independent figures, without the use of quotas, in preparation for early parliamentary elections. These demands were presented to Parliament two months’ ago and have been bandied around the usual corridors of consensus and bargaining that have dominated the political scene since 2003.
The protesters, particularly those who have become well known in recent weeks, are aware that, if they return home without achieving any real change in the structure of the system or the political process, they stand a high chance of being morally bulldozed by the law, particularly as most are being monitored by the national security forces, under the leadership of Faleh al-Fayad, and arrest warrants have been issued against them for attacking members of law enforcement and damaging public and private property.
The Government has used all available tools to suppress the protests to no avail. It is hampered in its ability to use more severe methods by the intensifying criticism and pressure from human rights organizations and the international media. Scrutiny on the Iraqi Government is growing to the point where Western governments will no longer be able to ignore the humanitarian crisis caused by the bloody repression of the protest movement in Iraq.
Street protests have become a major factor in the struggle to shape the future political stage. This poses a considerable stumbling block to Al-Sadr’s attempt to seal a deal at the expense of the popular movement, as happened during the July 2015 protests in which Al-Sadr clinched a deal in exchange for urging his supporters to withdraw from sit-ins and protests. This is all the more relevant given the cracks in his apparent control that have recently begun to appear.
All other political forces lost popular support after attempting to use the popular protests to achieve political gains, having given Prime Minister Abdelmahdi an additional 45 days to respond to the protesters’ demands while at the same time granting senior officers exceptional powers to disperse sit-ins, which ultimately led to the Nasiriyah massacre.

2. The protests enter a period of gradual decline. A number of indicators support this scenario, of which the following are the most important:
The popular protests and the sit-ins have failed to achieve memorable results, as they have been limited to Shia governorates and certain areas of Baghdad. Their impact has also been limited to areas such as schools, universities and real estate registration offices, and has failed to affect the oil sector. The continued flow of oil into global markets is the Iraqi Government’s trump card in the eyes of the international community. This was demonstrated by the speed with which UN Special Envoy Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert hastened to comment on protesters’ attempts to storm the oil fields in early November, a commentary that was entirely missing during the bloody days of protests at the start of October.
There is no organized national movement that is separate from the ruling parties, in particular the Sadrist Movement, which has insisted on placing the sit-ins and demonstrations under its guardianship and, through its media machines and its allies, has pushed the idea that the protest movement is leaderless and that the demonstrators have no representatives. This is part of the Sadrists’ strategy of portraying themselves as the opposition, despite being a major partner in the Government and one of the actors that, together with the Al-Fatah Coalition, formed Abdelmahdi’s government. It appears as though this will also be the case with the replacement government.
It is highly likely that the protest movement will lose the support and sympathy of the majority of the population in wealthier governorates, owing to the disruption of the major markets in Baghdad and in provincial capitals. The Government will also attempt to use reconstruction resources to buy itself time by providing grants for the unemployed and by offering soft loans. There is growing concern among families regarding the impact that school and university closures may have on their children’s futures, and there is a fear of insecurity and the outbreak of Shia–Shia conflict, which peaked after the Nasiriyah massacre and the events in Najaf. Those fears were further compounded by the rumors that the movement had been infiltrated and that it planned to occupy Al-Hout prison in Dhi Qar Governorate, where some 5,000 terrorists are being held.
It is challenging to sustain momentum within a protest indefinitely, especially given the security pressure placed on protesters, the exhaustion and fatigue that they must surely be feeling after weeks of clashes with riot police, and the scale of the casualties experienced, with more than 500 dead and nearly 20,000 injured, more than 3,000 of whom have sustained life-changing injuries. Thousands more have been arrested, dozens kidnapped, and an unknown number assassinated in broad daylight.
Prime Minister Abdelmahdi was presented as a scapegoat for the regime, which seems determined to continue distracting the public with the same old record and diluting protesters’ demands.

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