In the first issue of the revolutionary Iraqi newspaper Tuk Tuk, published in November 2019, journalist and long-time activist Ahmed Abd al-Hussein argued that, since 2003, the Iraqi people had been expected to endure all manner of indignities in support of a corrupt bargain. Poverty, the collapse of essential services, violent coercion, foreign interference—everything had to be tolerated simply to prop up the political system. The supposed alternative to that system was chaos, bloodshed, and, ultimately, the loss of democracy.
Abd al-Hussein compared this bargain to the concept of a “foolishness contract” in Islamic jurisprudence: an agreement that is so plainly indecent that it is invalid. The weeks preceding the first issue of Tuk Tuk had made this indecency clearer than ever. State security forces, under the watch of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, had killed more than a hundred peaceful protesters.1 And the Iraqi revolutionaries in the street were, at last, rejecting the poisonous and deceptive trade-off. “The youth revolution came in October 2019 to try this foolish contract and to hold those who benefit from it and who implemented it to account,” Abdul-Hussein wrote.2
In this report, I argue that the revolution that began in Iraq on October 1, 2019 represents an indigenous democratization movement that has deeply criticized the type of putative democracy that arose in Iraq after 2003. This revolution ruptured the political status quo and suggested an alternative way of doing politics based on a unitary Iraqi national identity. However, fragmentation and ideological immaturity have prevented protest parties that emerged in the aftermath of the revolution from engaging in effective opposition politics.
I begin by examining the problematic development of Iraq’s system of ethno-sectarian apportionment, known as muhassasa, as a project for a post-Saddam democratic Iraq. Next, I turn to the Tishreen movement, arguing that the violence used by the dominant Shia parties against predominantly Shia demonstrators shattered what had been, until then, a common-sense belief perpetuated by the sectarian political elite that loyalty to sect- or ethnicity-based community was the only way to ensure protection in Iraq. In place of this social contract based on ethno-sectarian division, protesters called for a civil state based on a unitary Iraqi national identity. However, the political parties that emerged out of the Tishreen movement have been unable, so far, to propose a strong alternative vision for Iraq—a symptom of their splintering and ideological infancy.
I end my analysis by briefly drawing on Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic democracy to argue that the Tishreen movement can be seen as a counter-hegemonic movement, which—contrary to popular interpretations—does not totally reject institutions. Instead, it has engaged directly with institutions, with the aim of profoundly altering the power relations at the heart of Iraqi politics and creating a more egalitarian state.
This report’s analysis is based on interviews with fifteen protesters and members of protest parties carried out between February 2020 and May 2022. Most interviewees are middle class, with eleven based in Baghdad, two in Nasiriyah, one in Diyala, and one in Najaf. (Unless otherwise noted, I have kept interviewees’ identities anonymous to protect their security and enable the most forthright responses.) I supplemented these interviews with informal conversations and several research workshops held during the same period, as well as several visits to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square—the central public space of the Tishreen movement—in December 2019. This report also draws heavily on the writing of journalists and protesters published in Tuk Tuk in November 2019—the newspaper forms one of the most cohesive and comprehensive records of the thoughts and aims of protesters.
Outsiders Design Iraq’s “Democracy”
Long before the U.S.-led invasion of 2023, the vision for a democratic post-Saddam Hussein Iraq began to take shape through a series of conferences in Europe and the Middle East, convened by exiled Iraqi politicians and their Western allies in Europe and the Middle East. Among the most important of these conferences was one held in Salahaddin in October 1992 and attended by 234 exiled politicians.3 It is there that the idea of “sectarian apportionment” (al-muhassasa al-ta’ifia) began to be developed. The meeting formed an executive committee, composed of twenty-five members of the opposition, and an advisory council. These positions were allocated according to meeting participants’ perception of the proportion of each sect in the country.4 In addition, the conference formed a tripartite presidential council composed of a Sunni, a Shia, and a Kurd.5 Taken together, this collection of councils and committees was supposed to represent a provisional government-in-waiting.6
After March 2003, all the occupying forces needed to give their vision of democracy a veneer of legitimacy was the right group of political elites to act as representatives of the different ethnic groups and sects.
Later, in the run up to the 2003 invasion, a series of additional conferences were held in London. In July 2002, a conference held at the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation in New York produced a document titled “Declaration of the Shia of Iraq” with the stated aim to “elucidate a Shia perspective on the future of Iraq.”7 The document, which was signed by exiled Iraqi politicians who would later go on to hold various senior government positions, presented Iraqi society as being divided between Shia and Sunnis and saw Shia Islamist movements as the principal vehicle through which equality for the Shia population would be achieved. In December 2002, some 350 exiled politicians attended a conference called “To Save Iraq and Achieve Democracy” in the Hilton Metropole Hotel on Edgware Road in London.8 While continuing to view Iraqi society as divided along ethno-sectarian lines, they reverted to the original principles agreed on in Salahaddin.
During the December 2002 conference, the political elite deployed several key narratives around democracy, rights, and victimhood to justify the imposition of ethno-sectarian apportionment. The conference’s closing statement asserted that the opposition aimed “to save Iraq from dictatorship and to create a pluralist democratic regime, where rule is decided through the ballot box.”9 In this way, it emphasized the importance of elections for installing democracy in Iraq and giving Iraqis control over their political representatives. In addition, throughout the conference the political elite emphasized the non-sectarian nature of this proposed new regime—but while constantly falling back on the language of ethno-sectarian division. For example, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, then head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (the precursor to today’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq), wrote in a statement read out during the conference that the “new Iraq” would be built “in the interest of the Iraqi people, not the interests of factions, sectarianism or groups and on the basis of respect for national, religious and ethnic specificities.”10 Crucially, by giving representatives of all of Iraq’s ethnic groups and sects a say in governance, the exiled politicians presented the new system as the only one that could right the wrongs of the previous regime—which had persecuted the majority-Shia population and the Kurds—and provide reparations for the harm that had been done to those groups.11
After March 2003, all the occupying forces needed to implement this vision of democracy and to give it a veneer of legitimacy was the right group of political elites to act as representatives of the different ethnic groups and sects. To this end, the U.S.-led occupation created the Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003, a body of twenty-five opposition politicians and tribal leaders—selected according to their ethno-sectarian identities—which was supposed to give voice to Iraqis during the occupation. The system of ethno-sectarian division was then used to form the Iraqi Interim Government in June 2004 and in the five elections that followed. In the first of these elections, in January 2005, the politicians who had been empowered through international intervention leveraged their visibility from involvement in the first two post-2003 governing bodies to present themselves as the only viable political actors.12 These elections marked the beginnings of the dominance of Iraqi politics by Shia Islamist parties.
Ethno-Sectarian Metrics for Legitimacy
In the new politics of Iraq, the concept of “representativeness” became a shorthand for legitimacy. For the exiled politicians and their allies, representativeness was equated with having so-called representatives of different sects and ethnic groups within the new government mechanisms they had set up. Moreover, the occupying forces defined representativeness, without any cross-country discussion about political identity.13 The system of ethno-sectarian apportionment, then, worked to entrench ethnic and sectarian identities by making them the core organizing factors of politics. It took for granted that, as long as members of the elite from each group were included in government, then they would represent the interests of the ethnic group or sect to which they belonged. These developments marked the beginnings of the new status quo—a set of power relations on which politics in Iraq would be based after 2003. This status quo naturalized identity-based divisions as the only way that politics could be done. The alternative, according to those who endorsed the new system, was a return to dictatorship and the kind of oppression that the Shia and Kurds were subjected to under Saddam Hussein.
However, as some at the time already recognized, Iraq’s sectarian power-sharing system could only lead to further instability and periodic outbursts of conflict.14 Power-sharing systems such Iraq’s habituate warring parties to violence by guaranteeing them a place at the governance table.15 The new status quo of ethno-sectarian apportionment was directly responsible for the civil war that gripped Iraq from 2006 to 2008 and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.16 The war was largely sparked by competition between rival elites who either wanted to increase their stake in, or to overthrow, the post-2003 political settlement.17 Six years later, the rise of Islamic State was largely fueled by sectarian politics pursued by Nouri al-Maliki, which left a substantial number of Iraqis alienated and disenfranchised.18 The fight against the Islamic State led to the rise of a network of rivaling paramilitary groups (known as the Popular Mobilization Units), which entered formal politics in 2018. These groups used their weapons, resources, and political influence to violently suppress any opposition to the system of ethno-sectarian apportionment and their place within it.
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Further, the system of ethno-sectarian division introduced in 2003 has allowed establishment parties to capture the state and systematically rob Iraqis of public goods. After each election, political leaders engage in protracted negotiations using an informal set of rules to divide the country’s ministries between themselves in governments of “national unity.” This practice has allowed the dominant post-2003 parties to place civil servants loyal to them in key positions within ministries, to siphon off state resources to fund party activities.19 This practice is so widespread that some estimates put the amount of money lost to corruption since 2003 at $150–300 billion.20
The system of ethno-sectarian division introduced in 2003 has allowed establishment parties to capture the state and systematically rob Iraqis of public goods.
This corrupt system has deprived ordinary Iraqis of a functioning state, and denied even their most basic rights and service provisions. Thus, despite having the fifth-largest oil reserves in the world and making more than $60 billion in oil revenues in the first half of 2022 alone, the poverty rate in some areas of southern Iraq is over 50 percent.21 What is more, government electricity provisions are practically nonexistent, with households sometimes subjected to total power outages at the peak of summer, when temperatures frequently exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit in much of Iraq.22 In addition, the youth unemployment rate is over 27 percent, a figure that continues to rise as thousands of young people enter the labor market every year. Yet young people have few opportunities for employment unless they are affiliated with one of the dominant post-2003 parties.23
This all adds up to massive discontent, especially among the youth. And all aspects of this discontent have their roots in the ethno-sectarian system that the 2003 occupation and its allies imposed.
The Revolution Reclaims Democracy
When protests first started on October 1, 2019, they were primarily demonstrations against the lack of services and unemployment. However, when the political elite responded to the protests with violent suppression, the protesters began to undertake a systematic critique of the post-2003 political system. In an article published in the first issue of Tuk Tuk, activist and journalist Ahmed al-Sheikh Majid wrote that part of the reason the protesters changed their focus was that it was dominant Shia parties who were attacking Shia protesters. As such, the notion that only loyalty to a sect could provide security—so crucial to the maintenance and legitimacy of the post-2003 political system—was revealed to be untrue. He wrote:
A lot of the protesters also think that “the snipers were Iranian and not Iraqi.”. . . This is a new change in awareness that goes beyond the story of similarities in sect that in the past resulted in total political surrender. The narrative of terrorism and fear of the ghost of the Ba’athists no longer affects the youth. This generation has entered into the battle of rights . . . in the face of the crisis faced by the Shia parties—both those close to, and those not affiliated, with Iran. This is the issue that is always justified through the narrative of the continued threat to the “sect’s fortress.”24
In previous protest movements in 2011 and 2015, Maliki had accused demonstrators of being Ba’athists and later of being affiliated with Islamic State, as a means of stoking sectarian fears, inciting violence against demonstrators, and ensuring that mass gatherings subsided. But Sheikh Majid wrote that attempts to resurrect this type of accusation against the 2019 protesters now rang especially hollow, since they were, themselves, largely from Shia areas.25 Instead, the indiscriminate violence unleashed against the protesters made it crystal clear that sect and ethnicity didn’t matter when someone mounted a direct challenge to the political system—the political elite were prepared to attack to protect their stakes in it. In this way, what had been made to seem like a common-sense justification for the current political order and the place of the political elite within it was ruptured. In turn, this allowed protesters to see that there could be other ways of doing politics and convinced them of the compelling need to transform the political system.
As the Tishreen protests continued, its critique of the political system developed into a broader grappling with the type of democracy installed in Iraq after 2003. Activists argued that, although elections had been held every four years, Iraqis were not granted the rights they had been promised when the new system was ushered in. As another protester explained, writing in Tuk Tuk under the pseudonym Abu al-Tuk Tuk, these deficiencies also became abundantly clear through the authorities’ use of violence against demonstrators:
Since 2003, the ruling authorities have impressed onto themselves all the accessories of . . . democracy. This began when they made the ballot box the iconic evidence of democracy, leading to limited freedom of expression [and the empowerment] of the bayonets of militias, which have covertly taken control of the streets and the media in most cases. The storm of [the Tishreen protests] blew away the authorities’ makeup and their mask of democracy, the source of which is America. And here is the regime in its naked truth, just a domineering dictatorial regime, that borrows the worst of Saddam Hussein—oppression, torture and mass executions—and from their Iranian master, the worst of its characteristics—snipers, treachery, and a devilish edict.26
The writer seems to suggest that democracy in Iraq after 2003 has been little more than a facade maintained through the holding of elections. This facade was imposed through foreign interference and has seen the reemergence of oppression in new forms—as the use of violence to suppress the demonstrations showed. In this “democracy,” Iraqis had only limited rights to freely express themselves.
A State of Parties
For the Tishreen protesters, another example of this facade of democracy is the way that the dominance of Islamic parties since 2003 has led to the creation of a “state of parties” that represents the interests of the ruling elite, as opposed to those of its citizens.27 This idea was developed in another 2019 article in Tuk Tuk written by Mohammed al-Mahmoudi. Iraqi elections, he wrote, are simply a chance for Iraqis “to choose the face who rides in on the horse of sectarianism,” in a farce ordained by the election law and sectarian elites. “What the youth are doing now is an attempt to return life to . . . democracy, which is clinically dead because of quotas, sectarianism, and corruption.”28
Mahmoudi seems to suggest that all the key organs of a functioning democracy in Iraq have stopped working, but the system of ethno-sectarian apportionment is kept alive because it serves the interests of the political elite. The electoral commission and elections laws enable this status quo while sectarian elites rally for votes through convincing people that it is sectarianism that will protect them and their interests.
The dominance of Islamic parties since 2003 has led to the creation of a “state of parties” that represents the interests of the ruling elite, as opposed to those of its citizens.
Demonstrators attempted to restore some form of functioning democracy to Iraq through their critique of sectarianism, the ethno-sectarian quota system, and corruption. Moreover, protesters argued that the political system implemented after 2003 has only allowed the development of a procedural form of democracy, which gives power to a variation of the same political elite and does not allow for substantive change. Thus, in another article by Abu al-Tuk Tuk, the author argued that “opiates like elections no longer have any effects on the body of the young Iraqi citizen.”29 In other words, elections are no longer tools through which the public can be numbed and made to accept that the established political system is the forum through which political change will come about.
A prominent activist from Nasiriyah provided a more detailed account of why he thought that the electoral system did not provide a real opportunity for Iraqis to influence decision making.
Democracy is not a piece of paper and a ballot box. This is not correct at all. . . . In democracy there are basic conditions so that it can be called democracy—there needs to be electoral equality. It is not possible for an emerging party to compete with a party that carries arms outside of the confines of the state and has access to the resources of the state and even uses public funds [to fund itself]. . . . This is a sham, not democracy. What we see in Iraq is not a democracy. . . . These are cosmetic and not democratic elections.30
In this activist’s view, Iraqi elections do not allow for real competition because nontraditional actors, lacking access to the coercive and material resources that the dominant post-2003 parties control, cannot compete.
The Need for Institutions
In different contexts all over the world, academics have criticized consociationalism for promoting a limited form of democracy, as it guarantees positions in government to elites and undermines the ability of citizens to use elections to hold their leaders accountable.31 As a result, consociationalism promotes a form of “sectarian authoritarianism” that limits the competitiveness of elections by allowing a variation of the same politicians and parties to stay in power, and provides no real alternatives to the political status quo.32
The possibility of violence influences both who is willing to run for election and the outcome of elections.
The protesters recognized that in the context of Iraqi consociationalism, democracy was at best limited, and at worst, clinically dead. They expanded their key demands to include the government stepping down in favor of a temporary caretaker government made of independent actors who had never held political positions and had no political aspirations; a new elections law; and the implementation of the 2015 Political Parties Law, which has never been enforced.33 Activists saw these measures as the only way to ensure that new and independent faces could enter parliament. They also insisted that, as the Political Parties Law requires, the establishment parties reveal their sources of funding and wanted to ban them from having armed wings. As another protester from Nasiriyah explained:
The Political Parties Law is still ink on paper today, and is not implemented. Today, the factions that are around are the same factions that have arms and are registered with the Popular Mobilization Units as armed wings. The same factions run in elections. . . . One of the demands that we have [is] that any armed wing or militia should not have any role in the political process. Why? Because arms affect the safety of elections and [prevent] elections from being held in the correct way. Since 2018, big parties have entered in the name of Popular Mobilization Units, and . . . we rejected this process. We knew that [these parties’ entrance] would take the country to . . . revolution, because they are one of the reasons for the destruction of this country. . . . [The Tishreen movement is] pushing with great force for a country of institutions, so that the Ministries of Defense and Interior are the only ones that have weapons.34
According to this view, the Popular Mobilization Units’ involvement in elections has skewed the playing field, and opened the political arena to the possibility of heighted violence, like what occurred during the 2019 protests. The possibility of violence influences both who is willing to run for election and the outcome of elections. The protesters’ call for a “country of institutions” is a bid to bring arms under the control of the state.
The desire to reconfigure institutions is also evident in protesters’ demand for a presidential system in Iraq, which they argued would give them more control over politics by allowing citizens to directly vote for the president. (Currently, the Iraqi president is elected by parliament, and has limited powers.)
The interest in making politics channel popular opinion was also evident in the way that the demonstrators organized in protest squares. Protesters organized themselves into teams that undertook specific tasks, with logistics tents that would give out food to those sleeping in the squares, groups to clean protest spaces, and tents for the provision of legal services and medical assistance, among other initiatives.
But political decisions in the squares took a more horizontal form. A young protester from Baghdad explained how he organized both within Tahrir Square and with activists in protest squares in the south of the country:
A long time after the protests began—maybe two or three months [into them]—the youth in my tent and I were able to put in place a mechanism where we brought together 650–850 tents. . . . We said, Don’t worry, guys, we’re not going to have a leader. We’ll issue statements that represent this collective, and the statements will not be issued without a gathering of the representatives of the different tents. . . . A statement would only be issued with the agreement of everyone.35
This protester went on to explain that ensuring that everyone was involved in decision-making was necessary because in 2015 Sadrists co-opted the protest movement and protesters no longer trusted the idea of having leaders. This form of horizontal organizing allowed protesters to consider how social relations could be made more emancipatory, including through refashioning them in a way that gave individuals more control over decision-making.
“We Want a Country”
The desire to change institutions so that they better serve the Iraqi people is perhaps best exemplified by the key slogan of the 2019 protests: “We want a country.” The slogan implicitly condemned the status quo—a state of parties and sects, in which a citizen’s rights are only protected if they are affiliated with one of the dominant post-2003 parties and abide by those parties’ sectarian vision of Iraq. Sheikh Majid articulated this critique clearly:
The youth came out of the Shia areas and were faced with bullets against their bare chests, without any symbol apart from the Iraqi flag and the slogans “Here to take my rights” or “We want a country.”. . . The protests were totally Iraqi, and they used nationalist slogans in the face of a non-nationalist government. . . . The authorities did nothing but respond to the dreams of the youth with bullets in their chests or heads.36
Sheikh Majid seems to suggest that protesters were not making demands based on their sect or ethnic group—even though most hailed from Shia areas. Rather, they made their claims as Iraqi citizens, who were then attacked by a government that did not believe in a unitary Iraqi identity. This shift away from sectarian politics and toward a “state of citizens” is further exemplified by protesters’ rejection of foreign interference, and in particular of the United States as the source of “sham democracy” in Iraq, and of Iran as the state whose interests are being served by the post-2003 political parties.
“The authorities did nothing but respond to the dreams of the youth with bullets in their chests or heads.”
But despite the use of the slogans emphasizing a unitary national identity, protesters did not necessarily try to erase all differences. Indeed, those brandishing nationalist symbols such as the Iraqi flag were accompanied by others painting murals with references to Western pop culture—in other words, the kind of iconography that many young protesters had grown up with since 2003, following the opening of Iraq after the sanctions period. At the same time, there were protesters who carried religious symbols such as images of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Shia imams.37 And while some saw, in acts of charity in the protest squares, the spirit of the Shia rituals of Ashura and Arbaeen, others interpreted them as demonstrating that “civic duty” was not dead in Iraq.38 Protesters used all these varied symbols as part of a critique of Islamist parties in Iraq and to call for a civil state (dawla madaniya).
This openness to difference worked to dispel the idea of homogenous ethno-sectarian communities on which the post-2003 political system was built. It demonstrated that there were different currents and beliefs within any ethnic- or sect-based community. In this way, protesters demanded that the social contract that had been imposed on them from the outside be rewritten on their terms and refashioned it in their image using cultural references relevant to them.
The Aftermath of Tishreen
The aftermath of the Tishreen movement saw the emergence of several new political parties affiliated with the demonstrations. Among the most significant of these parties was Emtidad, which emerged from the south of the country to win nine seats in the October 2021 elections. The name Emtidad means “extension” and is meant to signal the continuation of protests in a new and more institutionalized form. The other key party to emerge, also from the south, was the National House (al-Bayt al-Watani), a name meant to confront the divisive rhetoric of the “Shia House,” a term that Iraqi politicians have long used to urge Shia solidarity. Both parties have tried to devise strategies to challenge the current political order. However, I argue that their vision for an alternative Iraq beyond the system of ethno-sectarian apportionment remains underdeveloped.
Both Emtidad and the National House have suggested that the alternative political framework they are developing is one based on unitary Iraqi nationalism. A member of Emtidad from Baghdad asserted that the party’s ideology is underpinned by “loyalty to Iraq, not loyalty to muhassasa,” as well as the notion that “we are Iraqis, and we belong to Iraq regardless of where we come from.”39 In speeches delivered by the party since entering parliament, it has also called for the creation of a “state of citizens.”40 This call has been echoed by the National House, as a party member from Nasiriyah explained:
The National House emerged from Tishreen. During [those protests], we wanted to get rid of the political class and the muhassasa system, which destroyed Iraq. We believe that Iraqis should be one, and we believe in a united national identity. We reject the ethno-sectarian apportionment and suggested citizenship [mawatana]—the regime of citizenship—as an alternative to it. We think that the democratic process in Iraq is disfigured, and in order to fix this disfiguration, a political party with a national identity needs to emerge. This party should include all components of Iraq, from the north to the south. No party has done this before us.41
The party member seemed to suggest that the National House wanted to create an Iraqi state where citizens are represented as “Iraqis”—and not by their sect or ethnicity. Or, as several National House members have repeatedly said, they want to be represented based on their belonging to the “Iraqi ummah,” or nation (using a term often associated with the expansive notion of an Islamic nation) as opposed to their membership in a particular sect or ethnic group.42 These party members envisage the needs of citizens being placed before the narrow interests of party, sect, or individual politicians. The National House is attempting to implement this vision, in part, by having a presence outside of Shia-majority areas in the south, and has branches in Mosul and Salahaddin.43
An Ideology Still in Its Infancy
However, the notion of a unitary Iraqi national identity remains underdeveloped. For example, when speaking about the party’s success during the October 2021 elections, the same member of Emtidad suggested that those who voted for his party were looking to punish other parties. “We were not elected on the basis of a program; we don’t know what our vision is,” he said. “We don’t know who we are.”44 As a consequence, the only vision for an alternative to the system of sectarian apportionment that Emtidad has so far been able to propose is a promise to stay out of the customary division of public resources between the dominant post-2003 parties, and act as an opposition. Thus, Emtidad has not necessarily been able to produce an alternative way of doing politics. Its strategy seems to be limited to an act of negation.
“We were not elected on the basis of a programme; we don’t know what our vision is,” the Imtidad member said. “We don’t know who we are.”
Similarly, several members of the National House have stated that the ideology that underpins their vision of a politics based on unitary Iraqi nationalism is “liberal democracy.”45 They were unable to elaborate on what this would mean in practice, apart from respecting the rights of others and implementing liberal economic policies. On the one hand, this demonstrates that the protesters’ call to really transform power relations has been blunted by the realities of party politics. On the other, it shows how, by trying to move away from political language that described Iraq has comprising ethno-sectarian “components”—language that has been so vital to sustaining Iraq’s post-2003 political system—these parties have gone to the other extreme, utilizing the language of liberal individualism. This shift attests to how the imaginations of this once radical movement have been neutralized and limited by Iraq’s consociational regime, where the only type of citizen they can imagine in the state is a liberal individual. However, these limitations are perhaps unsurprising given that many of the demands that protesters made at the height of demonstrations were also based on individual rights claims.46
Furthermore, because the notion of unitary Iraqi national identity is in its infancy, it has become difficult for the new protest parties to come up with a common ideological basis on which to build alliances both among themselves and with other entities, such as trade unions and civil society. This lack of alliances has weakened their attempts to challenge or alter the political system. The lack of a clear ideological underpinning also means that party members and supporters are not loyal to the party itself and the ideas that it stands for, but rather to key figures within these parties. Protesters and party members interviewed for this report attributed these problems to the way that the dominant post-2003 parties—the Sadrists chief among them—have conditioned the electorate to vote for individual leaders as opposed to ideas or programs. This lack of a clear ideology underpinning the vision of a form of Iraqi politics based on unitary nationalism and civic principles has led to the rapid fracturing of the new protest parties, with many prominent members publicly resigning very soon after their formation.47
The fragmentation of protest parties is also the result of accusations that they have been co-opted by the dominant post-2003 parties. For example, some five hundred members left the National House, and its offices in Babil and Najaf closed, after the party’s general secretary supported Mohammed al-Hadi—who ran as an independent alongside Sa’iroun in 2018—for the position of governor in Dhi Qar.48 Hadi’s initial promises that he would support the party’s calls for reform have not materialized, and instead the party’s general secretary, Hussein al-Ghorabi, was accused of corruption, leading to his temporary suspension.49 Emtidad has experienced similar public resignations, with seventeen prominent members leaving the party in protest over the decision to vote for Mohammed al-Halbousi as speaker of parliament.50 The divisions intensified when, months later, five sitting members of parliament left Emtidad, accusing its general secretary, Alaa al-Rikabi, of having sided with the Tripartite Alliance (a short-lived alliance between the Sadrists, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Progress Party, and a faction from Khamis al-Khanjar’s party, Azm) and betraying the principles of the Tishreen movement.51 At the time of writing, Rikabi had also been suspended.
The rapid disintegration of the protest parties demonstrates that, because power is so fractured within Iraq’s power sharing system, it becomes difficult to take concrete political steps, such as forming allegiances or developing policy programs, as there is always a possibility of being accused of supporting a particular side. This has worked to prevent protest parties from developing broad-based alliances that might be capable of mounting a fatal challenge to the political status quo.
The broader significance of the history and arguments traced in this report can be illuminated by considering the analyses of political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s work on what she calls “agonistic democracy.”
Agonistic democracy, for Mouffe, includes movements that seek to overturn “hegemonic practices.” She defines these as practices through which any particular order is given meaning.52 These practices are always necessarily temporary and susceptible to change, and predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities. In this way, they always articulate a particular configuration of power relations. What is taken to be a natural order is in fact the result of “sedimented hegemonic practices.”53 The order does not represent a deeper external objectivity apart or removed from the practices that brought it into being. As a result, every order is susceptible to being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices.
According to Mouffe, then, radical politics consists of creating a different form of hegemony. Radical politics is a “‘war of position” whose objective is not to create a society beyond hegemony, but is rather a process of radicalizing democracy—the construction of more democratic, more egalitarian institutions.”54 Mouffe argues that democratic politics does not consist of overcoming the “we/they” opposition, but rather changing the way that this opposition is configured.55 In other words, democratic politics is not just an attempt to replace those in power, not merely a competition between elites, but also an attempt to question the dominant hegemony and to profoundly transform the relations of power with a view toward creating a different kind of politics. In addition, she suggests that maintaining difference is important because it allows for an assessment of power relations within a given group, as well as a “political analysis of the complex configuration of power forces that need to be challenged to create a more just and democratic society.”56
Mouffe argues that, while activists who call for a total withdrawal from institutions might lead to calls for alternative ways of doing politics, this can only be the beginning of the struggle. It is important to engage with institutions to transform existing political hegemony. By doing so, leftist projects are able to provide real alternatives to citizens and to make institutions “vehicle[s] for the expression of popular demands.”57 If protest movements refuse to engage with traditional institutions, then the radical potential of such movements will be substantially weakened.
The post-2003 political system in Iraq attempts to erase difference through creating an overly consensus-based model of democracy.
Mouffe’s work is concerned with Western liberal democracies facing the rise of right-wing populist movements. While she does not consider consociational power-sharing regimes like the one implemented in Iraq after 2003, I find that her work is nevertheless useful in the Iraqi context. It sheds light on the way that the post-2003 political system in Iraq attempts to erase difference through creating an overly consensus-based model of democracy, which erases power relations by positing ethnic- and sect-based communities as externally bounded and homogenous entities. In addition, it allows for a reading of the Tishreen movement as a counter-hegemonic movement that refuses to accept the system of ethno-sectarian apportionment as the only way that politics can be done in Iraq. As one political activist put it, the revolution “saw a breaking of the divinity of certain parties and political figures. People were no longer scared to criticize politicians.”58 In other words, for the first time, the revolution allowed people to see that there was no natural order and that the politics and politicians that had been in place since 2003 could be challenged.
In addition, Mouffe’s theory allows us to think about how, contrary to what some commentators have suggested, the Tishreen movement was not nihilistic or marked by a total rejection of institutions.59 Rather, as this report has shown, the Tishreen movement has encompassed both a street struggle and organized political opposition, which has not only sought to replace those in power, but also to profoundly transform the power relations on which the system of ethno-sectarian apportionment is built and sustained. The Tishreen activists have done this through a direct engagement with institutions. This engagement is captured in the famous slogan “We want a country,” which does not call for a withdrawal from institutions, but rather seeks to create a state that works for ordinary Iraqis. The engagement is also evident in calls to implement the Political Parties Law, rewrite the Elections Law, and shift to a presidential system, among other demands. The engagement with institutions is perhaps most profoundly evidenced by the creation of protest parties that have sought to provide real political alternatives to Iraqis and to channel their demands through and against traditional institutions, as a means of creating a more egalitarian and democratic state.
Tishreen’s Ideals May Yet Prevail
Iraq’s Tishreen movement represents an indigenous democratization movement. In its attempt to alter the power relations at the core of Iraq’s system of ethno-sectarian apportionment, it engaged with Iraqi politics, in Mouffe’s terminology, agonistically. Both the protesters and the new protest parties that emerged out of the Tishreen movement have sought to make a shift from a political system dominated by Islamist parties to one based on a form of unitary Iraqi national identity. Under this new system, constituents would be represented on the basis of their “Iraqiness”—in other words, simply by virtue of their citizenship—as opposed to their belonging to a particular sect or ethnicity. The revolution worked to rupture the notion that the system of ethno-sectarian apportionment is the only way that politics could be done in Iraq. However, the new protest parties have been unable to fully articulate their alternative vision for Iraq, beyond vague assertions of the Iraqi nation.
Nevertheless, the extent to which the Tishreen movement and the protest parties that came in its aftermath have threatened the dominant post-2003 status quo should not be underestimated. The threat to the system was evident in the unprecedented use of indiscriminate and excessive violence against protesters. More recently, the influence of the Tishreen movement could be seen in the way dominant Shia parties positioned themselves as championing substantive political reform during the government formation negotiations following the October 2021 elections. Three examples of this are worth mentioning at length.
One, Muqtada al-Sadr insisted on the formation of a “national majority” government and the breaking of the parliamentary norm of consensus, resulting in political stalemate and the breaking up of the “Shia House” due to Sadr’s refusal, up until the new government was formed in October 2022, to include Maliki in the new government.
Two, the Victory Alliance, a grouping within the Coordination Framework (a coalition of pro-Iran political parties) attempted to create a rhetorical difference between “agreement” and “consensus,” in an apparent attempt to appease Tishreen protesters. The Victory Alliance has argued that it does not want to participate in the division of public goods between parties according to the norms of a “consensus” government, but does want to be included in decision-making. But the new vocabulary hasn’t translated into any meaningful changes to the system of ethno-sectarian apportionment.60
Three, and finally, both the Coordination Framework and its rival Tripartite Alliance sought to position, at least rhetorically, independent members of parliament and protest parties as the key groups for ending Iraq’s ongoing political deadlock.61
These brief examples of the way that Shia parties have positioned themselves following the elections attest to their understanding that, in order to maintain relevance and draw legitimacy from the Tishreen movement, they need to appear to be pushing for the substantive institutional change that protests called for. They are indicating a willingness to move beyond identity-based politics through demands for a “majority government,” as opposed to ethno-sectarian apportionment; “agreement” but not “consensus”; and appearing to endorse independent candidates. Ironically, while these gambits point to the influence of the Tishreen movement, they are also clear attempts to exploit the political moment created by the protests—exploitation that is made possible because protest parties’ conception of what an alternative political system might look like remains underdeveloped.
Of course, it will not be the post-2003 parties who mount a decisive challenge to the power relations at the heart of Iraq’s system of ethno-sectarian apportionment, or who create a more egalitarian order. These parties have captured and gutted the state, reducing it to a fiefdom for the promotion of their own interests.
To succeed in their challenge, the new protest parties need to be supported in strengthening their institutionalization. This might include working on developing the content of a unitary Iraqi identity so that these parties can cultivate loyalty, among their members, to the principles they stand for, as opposed to charismatic leaders. Such an ideological development will prove crucial to ensuring the parties’ longevity. The new parties also need to work on building coalitions—with other parties, civil society, and unions. These coalitions are needed to be able to better decipher the complex power relations at play, and to explore all the different ways that these relations need to be challenged.
In addition, the parties must continue to create a foundation for themselves beyond those areas dominated by Shia parties, in order to put the notion of the “Iraqi ummah” into practice with nation-wide party membership. This, along with alliance-building, will also allow the parties to further incorporate different segments of Iraqi society, and ensure that voters’ loyalty is to the party as opposed to individuals within it.
The ultimate test of the Tishreen movement’s ideals, however, will be whether these parties survive the gravity and power of Iraq’s system of ethno-sectarian apportionment, and overcome resistance to it over the current electoral cycle. If the parties are able to do this and can show that they are trustworthy vehicles through which change can be enacted, then perhaps they can—in the long term—profoundly alter the power relations on which the post-2003 political system is built. Then, finally, they might build a system that serves the interests of the Iraqi people, as Iraqis, and that can create the country that the people have long demanded.
This report is part of “Faith and Fracture,” a TCF project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Header Image: A flag waves over Tahrir Square on November 21, 2019, in Baghdad, Iraq. Thousands of demonstrators occupied Baghdad’s center Tahrir Square on October 1 of that year, calling for government and policy reform. Source: Erin Trieb/Getty Images
- “Iraq: Teargas Cartridges Killing Protesters,” Human Rights Watch, November 8, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/08/iraq-teargas-cartridges-killing-protesters.
- Ahmed Abd al-Hussein, “The Dissolution of the Political Process and the End of the ‘Foolish’ Decade” (in Arabic), Tuk Tuk iss. 1 (November 2019): 3.
- Toby Dodge, “Beyond Structure and Agency: Rethinking Political Identities in Iraq after 2003,” Nations and Nationalism 26, no. 1 (January 2020): 114.
- “The Closing Statement of the Iraqi Opposition Conference in London,” Al Jazeera, December 17, 2002, https://www.aljazeera.net/news/arabic/2002/12/17/نص-البيان-الختامي-لمؤتمر-المعارضة.
- Toby Dodge, “Iraq and Muhasasa Ta’ifia; The External Imposition of Sectarian Politics,” November 12, 2018, https://fpc.org.uk/iraq-and-muhasasa-taifia-the-external-imposition-of-sectarian-politics/.
- Dodge, “Beyond Structure and Agency,” 114.
- Al Jazeera, “The Closing Statement of the Iraqi Opposition Conference in London.”
- Mouyad Fayyad, “The Iraqi Opposition Conference in London Opens in the Midst of Very Tight Security” (in Arabic), Asharq Al-Awsat, December 15, 2002.
- Al Jazeera, “The Closing Statement of the Iraqi Opposition Conference in London.”
- Carrie Manning, “Political Elite and Democratic State-Building Efforts in Bosnia and Iraq,” Democratization 13, no. 5 (December 2006): 731.
- Ibid., 729.
- Taif Alkhudary, “How Iraq’s Sectarian System Came To Be… and How It Will Be Undone,” Al Jazeera, March 29, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/3/29/how-iraqs-sectarian-system-came-to-be.
- Denis M. Tull and Andreas Mehler, “The Hidden Costs of Power-Sharing: Reproducing Insurgent Violence in Africa,” African Affairs 104, no. 416 (July 2005): 375–98.
- There is no official figure for how many civilians were killed during this period.
- Toby Dodge, From War to New Authoritarianism (Abingdon: Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2012). 54.
- Renad Mansour, “The Sunni Predicament in Iraq,” Carnegie Endowment for National Peace, March 3, 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/CMEC_59_Mansour_Sunni_Final.pdf.
- Toby Dodge and Renad Mansour, “Politically Sanctioned Corruption and Barriers to Reform in Iraq,” Chatham House, 2021, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/06/politically-sanctioned-corruption-and-barriers-reform-iraq.
- Sajad Jiyad, “Corruption Is Strangling Iraq,” The Century Foundation, https://tcf.org/content/report/corruption-is-strangling-iraq/. Some estimates have ranged even higher; see Renad Mansour, “The Deadly Greed of Iraq’s Elites,” World Today, September 29, 2022, https://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/the-world-today/2022-10/deadly-greed-iraqs-elite.
- “Iraq’s Oil Revenues During the First Half of 2022 Exceed $60 Bln,” Reuters, July 6, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/article/iraq-oil-idUSC6N2W6059; and Ahmad Hassan, “Poverty in Southern Iraq: The ‘Protectors of the Doctrine’ Are Starving,” Daraj, July 12, 2020, https://daraj.com/en/51234/.
- Idris Okuduci, “Oil-Rich Iraq Grapples with Power Outages for 30 Years,” AA, July 8, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/oil-rich-iraq-grapples-with-power-outages-for-30-years/2297835#.
- “Unemployment, Youth Total (% of Total Labour Force Ages 15-24) (Modelled ILO Estimate)—Iraq,” World Bank, December 2021 (latest available), https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.ZS?locations=IQ.
- Ahmed Al Sheikh Majid, “Iran’s View toward the Tishreen Protests…Enemies of Iraq’s Shia” (in Arabic), Tuk Tuk iss. 1 (2019): 2.
- Abu al-Tuk Tuk, “Newspapers are back”, Tuk Tuk iss. 4 (November 12, 2019): 1.
- Ghofran Younes, “Crimes That Amount to Genocide. Who Is the Invisible Side That Is Killing Iraq’s Youth?” (in Arabic), Tuk Tuk iss. 6 (November 19, 2019): 1.
- Mohammed al-Mahmoudi, “The Turmoil before October 25, the Moment of No Return” (in Arabic), Tuk Tuk iss. 6 (November 19, 2019): 7.
- Abu al-Tuk Tuk, “There Is No Such Thing as Impossible for Iraqi. All of Iraq Is in Tahrir Square Right Now” (in Arabic), Tuk Tuk iss. 4 (November 12, 2019): 1.
- Interview with the author, June 2021.
- Caroline A Hartzell and Mathew Hoddie, “The Art of the Possible: Power Sharing and Post-Civil War Democracy,” World Politics 67, no. 1 (2015): 37–71; Taif Alkhudary, “Organised Opposition After Tishreen: The Role of Iraq’s Movement Parties in Consolidating Democracy,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series, forthcoming.
- Paul Dixon, “Power‐Sharing in Deeply Divided Societies: Consociationalism and Sectarian Authoritarianism,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 20, no. 2 (2020): 117–27.
- “The Road Map to Saving Iraq” (in Arabic), Tuk Tuk iss. 1 (November 2019): 1.
- Interview with the author, June 2021.
- Interview with the author, June 2021.
- Majid, “Iran’s View toward the Tishreen Protests,” 2.
- Fanar Haddad, “Hip Hop, Poetry and Shia Iconography: How Tahrir Square Gave Birth to a New Iraq,” Middle East Eye, December 9, 2019, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/iraq-new-political-awareness-and-culture-have-been-formed.
- Protester from Najaf, interview with the author, May 2022. The protester used the word mawatania, literally “citizenship,” which, in this context, I interpret as meaning civic duty.
- Member of Emtidad, interview with the author, May 2022.
- “For the People” (in Arabic), news video posted to Facebook by Emtidad, December 15, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/emtidadiraq/videos/1238016896689989/.
- Member of the National House, interview with the author, June 2021.
- Several members of the National House, interview with the author, May 2022.
- Member of the National House, interview with the author, May 2022.
- Member of Emtidad, interview with the author, May 2022.
- Several members of the National House, interview with the author, May 2022.
- Rima Majed, “Lebanon and Iraq in 2019: Revolutionary Uprisings against ‘Sectarian Neoliberalism,’” February 1, 2021, https://longreads.tni.org/lebanon-and-iraq-in-2019.
- Abdullah Salam, “The Curse of Halbousi Is Afflicting Emtidad…Will the Iraqi Protesters Lose Their Parliamentary Bloc?” (in Arabic), 7al, March 8, 2022, https://7al.net/2022/03/08/لعنة-الحلبوسي-تعصف-بـامتداد-هل-يفقد-ا/abdullah/news/.
- Protester from Baghdad, interview with the author, May 2022.
- Rami Latif, “One of the Most Prominent Powers of ‘Tishreen’: How Did the ‘National House’ Project Collapse?” (in Arabic), 7al, 14 April 2022, https://7al.net/2022/04/14/البيت-الوطني/rami-l/news/.
- Salam, “The curse of Halbousi.”
- “We Were Accused of Corruption… Five Emtidad Representatives Announce a Final Decision after Announcing Their Resignation” (in Arabic), Baghdad Today, May 23, 2022, https://baghdadtoday.news/189813–.html.
- Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, (London: Verso, 2013), 2.
- Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 75.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 116–17.
- Ibid., 120.
- Activist from Diyala, interview with the author, May 2022.
- “The Assassination of Qasim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis: National and Regional Consequences,” a closed workshop with LSE Middle East Centre, January 10, 2020; Zahra Ali, “From Recognition to Redistribution? Protest Movements in the Age of ‘New Civil Society,’” Journal of Intervention and State Building 15, no. 4 (March 2021): 6.
- Member of Nasser Alliance, interview with the author, May 2022.
- “The Coordination Framework Presents Nine-Point Imitative to Break Political Deadlock” (in Arabic), Nas News, 4 May 2022, https://www.nasnews.com/view.php?cat=85137; ‘Al Sadr Invites Independent MPs to Form the Iraqi Government within 15 Days” (in Arabic), Al-Ain, May 4, 2022, https://al-ain.com/article/1651674687.