Public sector employees across Iraq this week staged a two day strike under the slogan, “The corrupt do not represent me”. On Sunday and Monday, the striking workers staged sit-ins and pickets outside their workplaces, ensuring they were available should urgent matters arise, despite official warnings they could be penalised. The call to strike came from Muqtada al-Sadr. Some strikers displayed posters of al-Sadr or his father, Sadeq al-Sadr. This weekend a hunger strike is taking place in designated mosques, Hussainiyas, and churches, in order to symbolically demonstrate the commitment and honesty of the pro-reform protestors.
Since early this year – as regular Friday protests morphed into mass rallies, sit-ins, and then the momentous Green Zone infiltration – activists within the Sadrist Trend have talked about the need to escalate their protest activities – shala’ qala’ – until the government is compelled to take action on reform. The infiltration of the Green Zone was a remarkable means of escalation. However, after a second attempt was met with repression reminiscent of past government responses, activists changed tack. Sit-ins occurred outside political offices and other sites, notably in Najaf, but this approach was abandoned as counterproductive when it seemed likely to provoke violence.
Activists said that the escalation would culminate if necessary in a general strike. Indeed, Iraq has a history of strike action, particularly in the oil and transport sectors. The current action is far short of a general strike, yet it serves to demonstrate a commitment to nonviolent escalation. This commitment was clearly articulated in the “peaceful, peaceful” chants of the Green Zone action in April 2016. It also represents a clear statement that the Sadrist Trend’s repertoire of contention – that is, the set of protest tactics and actions that it is capable of and prepared to use – is resolutely nonviolent. This is important for the Sadrists’ legitimacy, its relationship with other civil society groups, and al-Sadr’s continuing effort to transform the image of his movement.
The strike actions have coincided with the hijra al-Sadreen ala tweeter or migration of Sadrists to Twitter (presumably from the preferred platform, Facebook). The government workers’ strike was supported by the hashtags “Strike up reform” and “The corrupt government does not represent me”. Photos and messages about the hunger strike are being shared using the hashtag “Iraqi hunger strike”. Churches were included in the list of designated hunger strike locations and activists have distributed photos of Christian Iraqis taking part, an important indicator that they wish their movement to be considered inclusive and pluralist.
This messaging demonstrates how the movement continues to foster its nonviolent image. Similar messaging is evident in the activities of the Saraya al-Salam, the Sadrist Trend’s armed wing. The continued operation of an armed group in parallel with a resolutely nonviolent street protest movement requires careful management, real and perceived. At present at least, the distinction between the two entities is made clear by their purposes: pressuring the government for political reform, and defending holy sites against attack by the Islamic State terrorist group. There are challenges and contradictions, of course, and I’ll discuss some of these in a subsequent post.
The current strike actions, while symbolically important and gaining traction on social media, don’t seem to have had an effect on the government. What these multi-day activities allow for, however, is increasing social media interaction, including on a new platform, between protest participants and observers. Messaging is consistent, clear, and well coordinated. The audience seems to be other Iraqis, moreso than the government. Perhaps more importantly, these actions bring people together in places where they can discuss politics (and, no doubt, football) and perhaps engage in networking and protest organising. After all, the principle of shala’ qala’ means increasing the pressure on the corrupt political elite. There’s a good chance that the primary purpose of the current action is to prepare for the next step in the movement’s escalation.