‘Al-Sadr has totally ignored the content of the protesters’ demands’ writes Alkhudary [Getty]
Date of publication: 13 February, 2020
Comment: Al-Sadr‘s attack on Iraqi protesters has brought his deeply conservative and pro-establishment values into sharp relief, writes Taif Alkhudary.
For over four months, Iraqis have taken to the streets en masse to demand basic rights, a sovereign state, the overhaul of the post-2003 political system and an end to endemic state corruption.
The demonstrations mark a continuation of the shift from identity politics to issue politics, first seen during the protests that gripped Baghdad and the southern provinces in 2015.
For Shia cleric and political figure Moqtada Al-Sadr, the 2015 protests were the perfect opportunity to gain legitimacy among a broad electoral base. In an act of shrewd political maneuvering, he forged allegiances with secular leftist groups, positioned himself and his followers as anti-Iranian and declared support for anti-government demonstrations.
Al-Sadr would later go on to build on this base during the 2018 elections, when his coalition Sairoon ran a populist campaign aimed predominantly at those very citizens who had participated in the 2015 protests and called for systemic political change.
In an effort to prove their progressive credentials, Sairoon ran the highest number of new candidates and used anti-elite messaging. As a consequence, they were able to convince voters that they could bring about political reforms and won the highest number of seats in the Council of Representatives.
As in 2015, since the start of Iraq’s October Revolution, Al-Sadr has tried to control and manipulate protestors in order to prop up his own power base. However, when this did not work, he turned to coercion, openly encouraging violence against demonstrators and attempting to hijack the protest movement. This has at once brought his deeply conservative and pro-establishment values into sharp relief, while at the same time emboldening the protest movement.
Al-Sadr initially came out in support of demonstrators, calling on his followers to join protests. They promptly set up tents, brought mattresses and provided food for protestors, marking their territory with images of the blue hats from which they get their name.
Since the start of Iraq’s October Revolution, Al-Sadr has tried to control and manipulate protesters in order to prop up his own power base
This was despite the fact that demonstrators, calling for secular nationalism and an equal society, outwardly rejected any cooperation with Al-Sadr and his followers on the basis of his reputation as an opportunistic and deeply sectarian figure.
Indeed, since 2003 Al-Sadr has repeatedly shifted allegiances in order to ensure a strong position for his political bloc within the Iraqi government. In addition, during the sectarian civil war that gripped Iraq following the US-led invasion, Al-Sadr‘s Mahdi army was notorious for targeting members of the Sunni community.
If this was not enough, protesters were also acutely aware of the fact that at the same time as professing support for their movement, Al-Sadr also maintained close links with Iran, hiding out in the country since the beginning of protest and reportedly receiving instructions to takeover demonstrations. In addition, he played a central role in a government that has authorised and acquiesced to the killing of over 600 protestors and the wounding of at least 18,000 others in the space of just over four months.
Shifting political priorities
Following the assassinations of Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, deputy head of Iran-backed militias Al-Hashd Al-Shabi, on 3 January by a US drone in Baghdad, Al-Sadr‘s focus moved away from support from the protest movement to explicit anti-US rhetoric.
In mid-January Al-Sadr called for a million-man march to expel US troops. Following a low turnout and criticism from demonstrators who, since the very start of protests, have rejected any and all foreign interference in domestic Iraqi affairs, he instructed his followers to withdraw from protest sites. This left demonstrators in a vulnerable position and allowed security forces to move in and burn their tents, fire live ammunition and resume the use of lethal military tear gas canisters in Baghdad, Basra, Diyala, Dhi Qhar and Karbala.
The attacks caused a splinter within the Sadrist movement itself, with some members abandoning the cleric to permanently join protesters.
Following the designation of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as prime minister – an establishment figure who served as communications minister under Nuri Al Maliki and who has been vehemently rejected by protestors who have called for an independent candidate – Al-Sadr‘s position against demonstrations seemed to harden further still.
In early February, he issued a number of statements calling on his followers to join, what he referred to as the “heroic” security forces, in restoring demonstrations to their peaceful state and “weeding out the saboteurs and intruders” from the protests. This encouraged further violence against demonstrators, resulting in the killings of seven protests and leaving 150 other injured following attacks by Sadrists in Najaf.
In addition, the statement marked a bizarre act of reverse psychology, suggesting that it was protestors and not the Iraqi security forces and associated militias Al-Hashd Al-Shabi who have launched indiscriminate and excessive attacks against peaceful demonstrators all along.
It has heralded a new chapter for Iraq’s revolution, one free of the deeply sectarian and conservative baggage that comes with the uneasy allegiances Al-Sadr forged with protesters
More worrying, perhaps, is an 18-point “manifesto” issued by Al-Sadr on 8 February, in which he calls on protestors to “abandon those controlling protests from the outside”. This echoes the accusations that protestors are foreign supported that have been levied at demonstrators since the beginning of protests by Al-Hashd Al-Shabi.
This not only signals the strengthening of Al-Sadr‘s ties with Iran, but also acts – in his view – as a justification for further violence against protestors.
Al-Sadr and his supporters have not only tried to take over the physical sites of the protest movement, but also tried to claim its intellectual space. This was already apparent in the statements issued by the cleric at the beginning of February, when he declared “the revolution and I are one and the same”.
It is further compounded in the 18-point “manifesto” where he instructs protestors to issue a set of unified demands, nominate an official spokesperson and keep out of “secondary political matters” such as the nomination of ministers.
In the process, he dismisses the fact that demonstrators have issued the most developed and comprehensive set of demands to have emerged out of any Iraqi protest movement since the Arab Uprisings of 2011.
In addition, he totally ignores the very content of those demands. That is, the fact that Iraqis want a say in the political system that was imposed on them by the US and exiled Iraqi politicians post-2003.
What is more, in the very same manifesto, Al-Sadr calls for protest sites to be segregated by gender. This is a direct attack on the cultural revolution that the protests have ushered in, and which has seen women at the front and centre of protests, organising demonstrations, leading chants, providing medical assistance and painting revolutionary murals.
Ultimately, while many feared that the withdrawal of Al-Sadr‘s support would mark the end of demonstrations, what this has in fact done is brought his counter-revolutionary position into sharp relief.
If the thousands of people that flocked to protest sites to fill the gaps left by the “Blue Hats” are anything to go by, it has also heralded a new chapter for Iraq’s October revolution, one free of the deeply sectarian and conservative baggage that comes with the uneasy allegiances that Al-Sadr has forged with protesters over the years.
Taif Alkhudary is an Iraqi-British journalist and research assistant at the LSE Middle East Centre, where she works on the post-2003 political system in Iraq.
Follow her on Twitter: @ALKTaif
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.