Will a new political party emerge out of Iraqi popular protests?

The Iraqi protest movement, calling for eliminating the sectarian quota system and forming a government of technocrats, held a massive protest in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad July 15 to revitalize the protest movement that seemed to have lost some of its momentum over the past two months. 

On July 7, Ahmed Abdul Hussein, a member of the coordination committee of the Mustamerroun movement (We Will Not Back Down) stated on his Facebook page that a meeting was held between the leaders of the coordination committee — formed of liberals and leftists — on the one hand, and Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric and head of the Sadrist movement, on the other hand. 

Hussein explained that the meeting assessed the situation of the social movement and discussed new and peaceful ways to pressure the government to implement the protesters' demands. The protests started in Iraq on July 31, 2015, under the leadership of young men calling for a secular state. However, at its onset, this movement formed alliances with militant groups such as the League of the Righteous and the Imam Ali Battalions. 

But these two factions soon withdrew from the protest movement and were replaced by masses supporting the Sadrist movement. In fact, one cannot say that the protest experience in Iraq was perfect. The secular participants had withdrawn from the protests following the accusation of some of the leaders of the coordinating committee of the Mustamerroun movement of identifying itself with the Sadrist movement and its leader. 

The protest movement in Baghdad and in some provinces is led by the coordinating committee of the Mustamerroun movement, which formed a coalition with the Sadrist movement. Yet, it seems that some activists and intellectuals were annoyed by this rapprochement with Sadr’s supporters; they announced July 2 a new protest group calling itself Madaniyoun (Arabic for advocators of civil movement), which includes prominent Iraqi intellectuals. 

The group said in a statement that same day that it was formed to prevent the suspension of laws preserving the Iraqi people’s interests, and that the civil movement for reform deviated from its originally set objectives. It is true that the protest movement committed several mistakes, yet it managed to pressure Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to introduce some reforms, including reducing the number of ministers and dismissing the vice presidents of the republic. 

However, the rift among seculars within the protest movement prevented this movement from forming a political entity that can represent it in the government or the parliament. Athir al-Jassour, a political science professor at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “Protesters need to form a unified [political movement] that represents them and raises their demands, since the demands raised by the protest movement ongoing for a year now are falling on deaf ears.” 

He said, “We have been repeatedly calling for forming a political movement, which may take part in the political decision-making process and represent the masses in the parliament. Since the outbreak of the protest movement on July 31, 2015, [and to this date] there is no political party representing the protesters who took to the streets to call for reforming the government.” 

But so far, it seems that the protest movement led by the young leftist and liberal Iraqis has yet to establish a political party or movement. This is still an idea under consideration. Yasser al-Salem, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and a member of the coordinating committee of the Mustamerroun movement, told Al-Monitor, 

“So far, the idea of an electoral alliance for objective considerations is not being discussed. Elections will require the complete liberation of the Iraqi territory from the Islamic State and the conditions required for holding elections must be met, including electing a new board of the Independent High Electoral Commission and amending the electoral law that favors influential forces.” 

He said, “The forces and figures taking part in the protest movement must be well aware that it is very necessary and crucial for the forces calling for reform to take part in the [parliamentary] elections and achieve good results. I expect — or I am rather sure — that we will witness the formation of an important civil electoral bloc that will have an acceptable impact in the next parliamentary elections.” 

But can a civil bloc participate in the elections by forming a coalition with the Sadrist movement, especially since this is disputed among the secular members of this bloc? In this regard, Salem said, “The alliance between the civilians and the Sadrists is not on the table yet, despite the convergence of the demands raised in the protests. I think it is too early to answer this question, especially since there is a clear difference between the civil movement and the Sadrist movement.”  

Journalist Ammar al-Sawad, who had attended the meetings for the formation of the Madaniyoun group, told Al-Monitor, “Members of the protest movements — including the Madaniyoun group — may in the medium term take part in political action.” He added, “The protest movements include figures that have criticized the authority and who have a clean slate,” questioning the Iraqi street’s capacity to elect new figures other than those affiliated with the current political parties. 

“But this situation may change in the medium or long term.” However, Jassour said, “If the protest movement remains limited to actions on the streets and keeps storming fortified areas such as the Green Zone, it will face a fierce opposition by the authority and its demands will be delayed. The protest movement must arrange its ranks to produce a political project that represents it and expresses its demands.” 

Omar al-Jaffal is an Iraqi writer and poet. He is an editor of Bayt and Nathr, two intellectual magazines that are published in Iraq.

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