What to Know About Iraq’s Protest Movement

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr demonstrate in Baghdad on 8 February to demand political reform. Photo: Getty Images.

What does Iraq’s protest movement want?

The protest movement in Iraq, demanding reforms of the political system to better address issues around corruption and the provision of services, started in July 2015 when anti-government demonstrations broke out against the decline in living conditions for many Iraqis.

The demands of the protest movement can be summarised broadly into three demands. First, the reform of the political system in Iraq and getting rid of the sectarian quota-based system (Muhassasa) that allows for government institutions and ministries to be dominated by political factions that have been assigned them as part of an agreement. The second demand is that more should be done to stamp out state corruption (of which the Muhassasa system is one of the key drivers) and bring those accused in government and the parliament to justice. This would require fundamental reforms of the judiciary in helping free it from the political influences of the executive branch of government and ensure its independence. The third demand seeks a commitment towards a boost in living conditions and a better provision of essential public services to all citizens; for example, ensuring universal access to electricity and clean water.

Who makes up the movement?

Protests across the country in the past two years have attracted individuals and groups from across the social and political spectrum in Iraq. They began with predominantly leftist and secular groups leading the protests, with civic groups such as Mustamerroun forming and taking a leading role in the movement. These groups were later joined by the Sadrist movement – a Shia Islamist trend that is led by the controversial Shia clear Muqtada al-Sadr.

The nature of the collaboration between these three groupings – the leftist and secular groups, and the Sadrists – has been a point of contention for the protest movement. The principal issue is the reluctance of members amongst the leftist and secular groups to cooperate with religious leaders such as Sadr, despite his large following and the fact that his involvement has bolstered the impact of the movement’s demands. Disagreements over Sadr led to the initial split of one of the main coalition groups to emerge out of the protest movement, Mustamerroun. Leaders and activists who went on to form another group, Madaniyoon, disagreed with the rapprochement that Mustamerroun adopted, which their leadership justified on the grounds that they had mutual interests in pursuing the demands of the protest movement.

How are the movement’s participants pursuing their goals?

At a recent Chatham House workshop which discussed the protest movement in Iraq, participants discussed how they can make an impact in elections which are scheduled for 2018. As one participant outlined, the principal challenge they currently face is how they translate the support gathered in the street and on social media into electoral results and tangible achievements.

Working with existing political parties to achieve reforms may seem a logical progression, but this could risk the credibility of the movement. There is low confidence in existing political parties, which are seen as corrupt, self-serving and part of a political sphere that is dominated by religious parties. Additionally, accepting political reform would in many cases require a party to reduce the influence that it is given in the current Muhassasa system, which is unlikely to happen.

Joining coalition blocs for the elections is another option that would require concessions from the secular-leaning members of the protest movement. This would potentially require an acceptance of electoral coordination with the Sadrist movement to be fully effective.

Another potential option is the emergence of a political party from within the protest movement. While this would arguably be a compelling option for the Iraqi electorate, leaders within the protest movement have yet to discuss this option in great detail.Additionally, the localized nature of the protest movement factors into the broader organizational dynamics. Finding an effective way to represent local demands on a national political stage will be difficult and is still left unaddressed.

What does the future look like for the movement?

Groups within the protest movement have managed to build enough momentum to be a significant opposition voice within Iraq politics. However, it is not clear where the movement is headed – if it is to fulfil its objectives of achieving major political reform, rooting out corruption and improving the provision of services and living conditions, it must evolve to fully utilize the leverage it has gained.

Saad Aldouri Research Assistant, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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