Resuming after a break for the religious festival of Ashura, Iraq’s pro-reform protest movement is back in the squares and streets each Friday to articulate its demands. The protesters, a coalition comprising civil society groups and participants in the social-religious-political movement known as the Sadrist Line, are focusing their action on Iraq’s electoral system, and especially the electoral commission which they see as corrupt. In their analysis, the electoral system protects the political blocs of the ruling elite and prevents the introduction of new voices into formal politics.
Just as it did when announcing broad political and legal reforms in late 2015, the government has agreed that electoral reform is necessary but is proceeding slowly. And just as they did in late 2015, the protesters are becoming frustrated and threatening to return to their escalation strategy, shala’ qala’. Earlier this week a member of the joint civil-Sadrist organising committee for the protests, Ms Ikhlas al-Obeidi, held a press conference in Baghdad to clearly express the protesters’ position.
The [protest organising] committee postponed earlier protests to give the parliament an opportunity to choose a new election commission. But, apparently, this did not work. We reject any extension of the current Election Commission term for any reason, and if the commission’s term is extended, the people will withdraw their mandate from the parliament members.
As you’ll see in that article – one of the first in English on this topic – while the committee consistently refers to itself as a joint civil society organisation reflecting the views of a range of groups, the media tends to characterise it as Sadrist. To be certain, the Sadrist Line is the largest participant in the protests and its ability to mobilise large numbers of Iraqis is unrivalled. Still, it’s important to note that the Sadrists are keen to position themselves – without much success, so far – as a legitimate civil society actor working in concert with partners. (This is something I have written about at length in a forthcoming publication.)
There are clear allusions here to the escalation of protest activity in late 2015 and early 2016, when reforms centred on the judiciary and the cabinet were delayed. Weekly protests escalated in size, became a sit-in outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, and culminated in the symbolic infiltration of that secure walled district by protesters who proceeded to occupy their own parliament. That event can be thought of as a “contentious performance”, a dramatic and very public act that a social movement uses as it makes claims on the state – in this case, for political reform and accountability.
If a hashtag that Sadrist Line participants began using this week – “the anticipated Iraqi rally of millions” – is any indication, Sadrists are looking back on the April 2016 infiltration of the Green Zone as they anticipate a renewed mass mobilisation to place pressure on the government to act. These two tweets feature images of the Green Zone’s walls being scaled by protesters last year.
…and this tweet is from a brand new user account, seemingly set up for the purpose of disseminating the message of the protesters.
It will be interesting to see how this develops over the coming weeks.