Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Baghdad's Tahrir Square in October 2019. They were chanting: “we want our country back”. What does that mean in post-conflict Iraq that 2018 had restored control over its territories and what are the driving factors for this uprising?
In 2018, the government of Iraq restored control over all of its territories that were previously controlled by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; militant group). A newly elected government led the country's transition in the post-conflict period. According to analysts, the new leaders were widely supported by the Iraqi population, and it was promising when they came to power in May 2018. However, around a year later, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in Iraq's major cities demanding better economic conditions and the end of sectarian politics.
Tishreen revolution: young Iraqis demanding change
In Tishreen (the Arabic word for the month of October, later became the name of the movement) 2019, demonstrations spread across the Capitol Baghdad and other major cities in Iraq demanding the end of sectarianism, fighting corruption and providing better public services and employment opportunities to the population. It was one of the largest anti-government demonstrations in decades and eventually it forced the prime minister to resign. The Iraqi security forces responded brutally by using tear gas and violently trying to stop the protesters. It was reported that 600 protesters have been killed and that between 9000 and 25000 have been injured by either Iraqi forces or paramilitary groups believed to be associated with Iran.
The demonstrations transformed into a grassroots movement that successfully mobilized young people regardless of their socioeconomic class and religious sect. The movement demanded overthrowing the government because they believed it was a continuation of the post-2003 political order installed by the West. The movement is described in media outlets and among Iraqi activists on social media as leaderless, decentralized and non-partisan. The demands of the protesters are part of the larger scheme of challenges facing post-ISIS Iraq.
Causes of the uprising
The protesters outlined two main demands: ending sectarianism in the country and fighting corruption. Iraq is a diverse country with a majority of Sunni Muslim Arab population, but it has a big Shite Muslim Arab population, in addition to a Kurdish population predominantly in the North and also other communities such as Christians. Sectarian politics became part of Iraqi politics after the 2006 bombing of a prominent Shiite Mosque that sparked a sectarian civil war. 35,000 people were reported to be killed in 2006 as a result of this conflict. The political system of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussien and the Baath regime in 2003 is based on ethno-sectarian power sharing that ensures the representation of communities based on sect and ethnic background. This sectarian political division has created an elite ruling class and a patronage system where the ruling elite serves their own networks and this system has been a fertile ground for corruption. This regime continued until today, and politicians are backed by regional or global powers. The country is witnessing continuous foreign intervention in its internal politics. Three months after the start of the uprising, the US targeted and killed Qassem Soleiman, a prominent Iranian leader and military commander. The incident took place in Iraq, thus raising questions about the foreign influence on Iraqi politics. According to demonstrators, they would like to have a new government that represents their interests, rather than having the US and Iran fighting their battles in Iraq.
One and a half years later, the situation in Iraq is no different than that of pre- Tishreen revolution. The heavily divided political elite continues to rule the country, while young people are aspiring to a better future. Sectarianism and corrupt politicians, in addition to foreign interventions in Iraq, does not provide a path for better living conditions and a supportive environment to rebuild the country after a series of conflicts. However, the end of sectarian politics is still on the agenda of the grassroots movements formed after the Tishreen revolution. Zahra Ali, professor of sociology, argues that since 2015 Iraq has witnessed waves of uprisings and demonstrations led by youth who consider the political elite as corrupt and do not represent them. Those uprisings - especially the latest one in October 2019 - could potentially inspire the creation of a new civil society in Iraq according to Ali.
- For Iraqi youth, the demands for social justice and economic redistribution cannot be separated from the claim for sectarian equality and religious freedom: both demands are experienced as matters of life and death, said Professor Ali.
The demonstrations transcended the ethno-sectarian division among the participants. The young Iraqis who were in the front lines of the demonstrations come from various backgrounds and they were united on common goals. This - according to Ali - could potentially translate into a stronger and more organized political movement in the near future.