The organizers of the 2019 October protests in Baghdad and the southern governorates commemorated the one-year anniversary with new calls for demonstrations on October 25. Unlike the 2019 protests, which were mobilized via social media under the Arabic hashtag #WeW-antAHomeland, this new round of protests are be-ing mobilized with scheduled Arabic hashtags and in secrecy—to an extent—to prevent the penetration of Shia militias. Though some of the demands remain the same—basic services, job creation, an end to foreign interference and corruption—it might not have the same popular support due to the coronavirus pandemic and violence against dem-onstrators, which resulted in the deaths of at least six hundred protesters, thousands injured, and dozens kidnapped.
Where the protesters stand: In recent months, protest organizers have been utilizing new approaches to organizing demonstrations for October 25. Some see the need to mobilize protesters from the southern governorates, which have a Shia majority, so that they can join the swells of dissidents in Baghdad against the Shia government. They are also calling on moving protest tents from the sit-in squares to the gates of the Green Zone—the international zone that houses the US Embassy.
Other organizers believe that mobilizing crowds to cripple and disrupt economic areas in Basra, Iraq’s primary port in the southeast, would send a larger message. Ho-wever, to date, there is no central leadership committee leading the protest mo-vement, let alone the existence of clearly identified demands beyond the original list. An activist from M-aysan in southern Iraq rec-ently told me, “until this m-oment, the squares have not crystallized behind a unified political discourse that represents them all. There are demands that resemble general agreed upon lines, but the details and mechanisms are disputed.”
Nevertheless, there is a moral responsibility linking demonstration coordinators in various cities. This time around, organizers are using their experiences from last year to mobilize a new round of protests by coordinating with Iraqi security forces and presenting more clearly defined political demands. This includes: finalizing the new election law, holding early elections, full implementation of the political party’s law by preventing militias from being involved in the political process and exposing the funding sources of politicians, combating corruption and exposing those involved, accountability for killing demonstrators, imposing a state monopoly over weapons, and ending the targeting of activists by masked attackers.
On July 31, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced early elections for June 6, 2021. Parliament has yet to finalize the electoral law due to disagreements over the content of the additions, such as the number of seats for constituencies. Kadhimi has also repeatedly vowed to hold perpetrators of violence against protestors to account, but with no tangible results to show. On the contrary, kidnappings and assassinations of activists have only escalated of late, such as the August 19 murder of prominent activist R-eham Yacoub in the southern city of Basra. This raises doubts about the prime minister’s seriousness in pursuing justice. Instead, Kadhimi has attempted to appoint prominent figures of the protest movement by offering them jobs in his cabinet, employing activists on the defense payroll, and promising compensation to martyrs’ families. Yet, the economic crisis, prompted by low oil prices and COVID-19, has limited Kadhimi’s ability to retreat to this traditional method of placation.
Given that the October 2019 protests were spontaneous, the protesters lacked an organized framework, which in turn gave political parties an upper hand and the opportunity to influence the protest movement. With that in mind, prominent activists of the movement revealed their aim to demonstrate peacefully come October 25 and organize through the formation of new political parties in an effort to enter the political process. They’ve also announced an initiative to conduct a public awareness campaign to encourage citizens to participate in the upcoming elections to carve out their own constituency.
Violence and security forces: As mentioned before, there is no high-level coordination between the protesters and Iraq’s security forces. It’s worth noting that demonstrators describe very different experiences with security forces under the government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi versus under Kadhimi’s leadership. An activist from Basra recently told me that “there are some simple indications that the hostility of security forces after Abdul-Mahdi has diminished. The security forces have become less repressive and there may be significant cooperation between the security forces and the demonstrators.” This may be because of concerns that an escalation would force Kadhimi to clash with protestors, thereby causing his supporters to lose faith in him.
Still, one of the larger concerns that protesters have is the continued cycle of violence against them. Last year, demonstrations in the capital and southern governorates witnessed various levels of violence. Casualties at demonstration sites occurred in eleven provinces in southern and central Iraq and the use of unnecessary and excessive force—live ammunition rather than tear gas—was committed against protesters in several governorates, though mainly in Baghdad, Dhi Qar, Karbala and Basra.
Interestingly, the city of Najaf, in central Iraq, did not witness severe violence compared to Dhi Qar in the south, which had been described as “bloody.” The reasons for less casualties in Najaf is partly due to the presence of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual authority for many Shias, but also because of an organized civil society and a very limited Shia militia presence. The Najaf governorate witnessed only two incidents of escalated violence: one near the shrine of al-Hakim and an incident in Sadr Square, both which involved Shia militias.
Najaf, through its set of influential civil society and religious elites, was able to create a road map for the demonstrations by organizing gatherings and introducing a set of demands. This road map, which has been shared with other governorates, has allowed the movement to develop a more harmonious identity in line with the Iraqi political reality.
Protests will happen: The Iraqi government is under severe pressure as it faces a multitude of challenges from the COVID-19-induced health and economic crises, low oil prices, and the unprecedented up-rising by peaceful protesters that began in October 2019. The last challenge will have far reaching consequences, as the demonstrations have evolved from a focus on socioeconomic issues to political demands, calling for the approval of the election law and the holding of early elections.
Over the course of the coming weeks, protests will break out with calls for reform. This mass mobilization may witness higher incidents of violence than in October of last year. Iraqi officials and activists must be wary of spoilers who may thwart or hijack the demonstrations in an effort to influence events in their favor. The government may be able to control the situation if it is committed to protecting the protesters, maintaining the peacefulness of the demonstrations, and taking bold steps to expose those involved in any escalation of violence.