This weekend the escalating, nonviolent street politics of Iraq’s pro-reform protest movement, comprising the Sadrist Line and its coalition of civil society actors, was met with violence. This again demonstrates that protests in Iraq are tolerated only when they are not deemed a threat to the political class – or the symbol of its prestige and power, Baghdad’s Green Zone. This week’s events and the narratives surrounding them also remind us that nothing in Iraqi (street) politics is black and white.
Over the past few months two important developments have occurred in the pro-reform protest movement, in which the Sadrist Line is the largest and most powerful participant. First, there was renewed discussion between the various groups that make up the movement regarding shala’ qala’, or “pulling and gouging”, the escalation strategy designed to place increasing pressure on the government. Key figures within the movement met and agreed to their next steps.
Second, the broad pro-reform message – an end to corruption, a cabinet of meritoriously appointed technocrats, effective government services, and a civil state – were distilled into more specific and immediate demands regarding the electoral system. In short, the Sadrists and their collaborators perceive the electoral commission as corrupt and an impediment to genuine reform. In their view, fixing the electoral commission is a first step toward allowing new voices to enter the political process.
These two developments underpin the events of the past week. In addition to the usual Friday protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, two mass demonstrations occurred on Tuesday and Saturday. The first was incident free and closely monitored by security forces. The second was a very large demonstration on Saturday morning. Iraqis travelled from other cities to take part. After gathering at Tahrir Square for speeches, the protesters marched toward the Green Zone so that their political leaders could hear their demands. Streets and bridges were closed. Security personnel in riot gear watched events from across razor wire.
There are several competing narratives about what happened next. One suggests that the protesters provoked violence by forcing their way onto streets that were cordoned off by the security forces. Another suggests that the security forces attacked the protesters who, having passed through Baghdad’s numerous checkpoints, were unarmed. Then there is a theory – plausible, in my view – that a third party, probably an armed group affiliated with a political actor, provoked violence by attacking both the security forces and the protesters.
The violence involved tear gas, rubber bullets, and live fire. It left a police officer dead, killed between five and ten protesters, and hundreds with injuries. The protesters withdrew, the government called for an investigation, media narratives proliferated, and bloody images and videos were shared on Iraqi social media. The organising committee for the protests – which comprises a broadly representative membership – held a press conference on Sunday to condemn the government for committing violence against citizens exercising their democratic rights.
The movement, leveraging the mobilising capability and resources of the Sadrist Line, reorganised itself rapidly to hold a symbolic funeral for those killed, the “reform martyrs”, on Tuesday afternoon. Again, security forces sought to contain the event by closing streets. The organising committee issued guidance to those participating: cooperate with security, avoid provocations, carry only the national flag, and honour the memories of those who were killed. Not only did the funeral proceed without further violence, members of the security forces took part – photos circulating on social media today show security personnel paying their respects to the deceased. There were ten caskets.
Competing narratives of this week’s events will persist. International analysts will view the violence through the lens of political rivalries between the Sadrists and other groups, ignoring or downplaying the involvement of other civil society actors and the agency of the thousands of protest participants. The government has ordered an investigation although it’s likely to be slow process with a contested outcome. The organising committee is using formal channels to seek justice and the protection of human rights. As it has done in the past, the committee will call for international support. The Sadrist Line’s figurehead, Muqtada al-Sadr, has stated that protesters’ blood was not spilt in vain, suggesting further action soon, although it’s likely that some activists will begin to doubt the wisdom of escalation.
This is the dilemma facing the pro-reform protest movement: stick to Friday protests, workshops at universities, and political debates at cafés and online, or continue to exert pressure on the government through an escalating campaign of nonviolent political action – at the risk of injury or death.
A note on images: The photos included in this post are from the Facebook page of the organising committee for the pro-reform protests and they have all been distributed widely via social media. I suspect these will become defining images of the February 2017 escalation: the mass demonstration demanding electoral reform; blood on the Iraqi flag; the symbolic funeral for the reform martyrs; and security forces personnel paying their respects to those killed.