Protest Movements in Iraq

Zahra Ali, Rutgers University- Newark

Published on: April 17, 2021

Photo by Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters:

A demonstrator carries an Iraqi flag during an anti-government protest in Najaf.

In my recently published article From Recognition to Redistribution? Protest Movements in Iraq in the Age of ‘New Civil Society’ I reflect on the classic debate that Nancy Fraser analyzed through the dilemma between politics of ‘redistribution’ and politics of ‘recognition’ in today’s post-socialist age. Based on in-depth research within Iraqi civil society networks and groups, including women and youth, I show that Iraq’s recent protest movements represent a rejection of the ‘recognition’ politics imposed by the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003. The US administration along with the new political elite that it brought to power have institutionalized identity politics in establishing a political system based on communal quota -Sunni, Shi‘a, Kurds, Muslim, Christians etc.- This system is commonly called the muhasasa system in Iraq. The muhasasa system, along with the deba‘thification, the nature of the US invasion and the new political elite formed of Iraqi exiles, plunged the country into a sectarian war. It also fostered a very militarize, and corrupt political establishment with a system of mafia-like patronage that monopolizes Iraq’s rich oil resources, leaving the everyday Iraqi out of the equation.

Iraqis are rising against the collapse of vital infrastructures, state institutions, and basic services such as water, electricity, health, and education. While many aspects of Iraq’s protest movements can be compared with other protests in the Arab region, Europe or the US (which tackle neoliberal politics), Iraq’s trajectory differs. Instead of neoliberalization, the country has experienced ‘shock doctrines’ with aggressive privatization and militarization with the collapse of a strong authoritarian welfare centralized state, a process that started in the 1990s and was accelerated by the 2003 US invasion. Thus, the polarization between the elite and the people in Iraq needs to be analyzed by looking at (1) ‘shock doctrine’ politics (privatization, job crisis, etc), (2) the political economy of war (militia-zation, militarization etc.), and (3) the ‘toxicity of everyday life’ -defined as the structural conditions of everyday life and livelihood like health, sanitary infrastructures, and environmental conditions.

The 2015 protest movements could be deemed as characteristic of a ‘new civil society’, and its actors as ‘revolutionaries’, but the terms are too limiting. The specificities of the Iraqi context structured by political and sectarian violence make the rejection of identity politics, especially sectarian identity and religion, central. For Iraqi protestors, individual freedom--especially the freedom not to belong to a religious and sectarian group--is considered as essential as economic equality. The madaniyya (civicness) claimed by Iraqi youth is not only the ‘post-Islamist’ moment spreading throughout the region since a decade; it is characterized by the traumatic experience of sectarian violence that the invasion of the Islamic State has only further strengthened. Thus, for Iraqi youth, being free to not believe in religion or sect is as important as being free from poverty: both are perceived as matters of life and death.

Moreover, the Iraqi protests go beyond the redistribution-recognition dilemma, as young protesters relate mobilizations for jobs, functioning services, and welfare to demands for individual freedom and societal equity. Young protesters do not only tackle electoral politics and legal rights issues, but they also challenge conservative and hierarchical societal norms, including religious and gender norms. Thus, movement of protests are happening at the societal level as much as at the political level (strictly defined), and its development seems to announce wider and stronger mobilizations that would take the shape of a societal and political phenomenon among the youth. The Iraqi October 2019 uprising can be described as a rise against ‘urbicide’ as well as against ‘necropolitics’. It is also a celebration of life against the power of death. As protests are spreading all over the country, lethal and brutal repression is also intensifying. Since October 2019, at least 540 peaceful protestors have been killed, 20,000 injured, and many have disappeared. The repression is conducted by various forces: from the state security forces using stun grenades, anti-riot tanks and military-grade tear gas used as bullets, to paramilitary groups, militias, and mercenaries using live ammunition and machine guns. Protestors, journalists, and scholars are threatened, intimidated, arrested, beaten up, kidnapped and even assassinated.

Zahra Ali is a sociologist and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of Women and Gender in Iraq published by Cambridge University Press in 2018.