Protester in Najaf, Iraq. November 28, 2019. Photo: Sajjad Harsh /

One year on, Iraq’s revolutionary spirit is still alive

  • October 29, 2020

People & Protest

On the anniversary of the 2019 October Revolution, Iraqi protesters show a renewed determination to create their own history and shape their own future.

This past Sunday, one year after Iraq’s October Revolution started gaining momentum, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square once again. Last year’s uprising was commemorated with mixed emotions of pride and grief, and with many thousands of protesters joining different marches that all culminated in Tahrir it also gave the impression of a re-enactment that carried within it the revolutionary potential to breathe new life into the uprising. People traveled all the way from southern Iraq following calls from activists in Habubi square in the city of Nasiriya, another stronghold of last year’s uprising, to march to Baghdad and join the protests there.

The widespread social unrest set in motion a political process that quickly forced former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign, with a promise of new elections to be held in 2021. Different candidates were suggested to replace him, but none of them could secure enough support due to continued pressure from the streets.

But in May, the self-declared “reform-minded” Mustafa Al-Kazemi was confirmed as prime minister with the promise that his government would be a “solution-based, not a crisis government” — until the elections next year, that is. There are rumors that Al-Kazemi invited around 300 hundred influential activists to discuss the establishment of a new political party. Opinions among protesters on Tahrir about this are divided, with some seeing them as traitors while others agree that this is the only option if they want to change the political system.

All this occurred against a backdrop of increased animosity between the US and Iran, who were effectively fighting a proxy war on Iraqi soil, and the spread of the coronavirus which severely weakened the protest movement and its ability to mobilize large numbers of people in the streets. On top of that, the protesters have not only had to deal with the wrath of the Iraqi state, but also with the extremely violent counterrevolutionary militias, who operate as Iranian state proxies and have been responsible for many extrajudicial killings.

Despite the fact that last year’s uprising has brought little economic and political improvements, the October Revolution has nonetheless become a historic day on the Iraqi calendar. It is viewed and experienced as a liberation from the sectarian ideologies that have dominated the post-2003 Iraqi political system.

“Let them go. We do this ourselves.”

Last year’s uprising followed years of protest and civil society activism; however, it was novel in its scope and capacity to pressure the governing elites and impact wider society. This included a radical break with traditional social norms, from gender norms to sectarian ideals. Instead, the movement embodied a new unifying Iraqi identity, represented by ancient Assyrian and Sumerian symbols. These came to play an important role in the visual and artistic representations of the uprising, as did images of women and tuk-tuk drivers who, as part of an impoverished lower class, became symbols of the revolution.

Another important development was the emergence of the idea of a civil state that provides basic services to its citizens and is free from any interference by religious authorities. The awareness about this idea had been raised and refined through countless discussions among protesters and ordinary Iraqis on the occupied squares throughout Iraq. On the ground, the uprising was characterized by a high degree of self-organization, endurance and the participation of many youths who were passionate in their struggle to bring down the sectarian and corrupt political system established after the US invasion of 2003 that made it impossible for them to life a dignified life.

During the protests, a protester summed up the situation as follows: “Within just a few days, we cleaned-up Tahrir square, we refurbished the Turkish restaurant, installed electricity and internet here, painted the streets, kept it secure and provided people with food. This governing elite has been in power for 16 years and they have provided us with nothing. I say let them go. We do this ourselves.”

The protesters are denouncing decades of mismanagement, run-down basic services and corruption, or rather, as the protesters call it, the looting of Iraq’s resources. All the while, there are few job opportunities for the impoverished youths while political elites amass wealth through their control over the country’s oil resources. Iraq’s oil contributes 60 percent of the country’s GDP and makes up for 99 percent of exports, making it heavily dependent on global oil markets. While Iraqi lives are thus closely tied to the whims of the global oil economy, the oil revenue continues to be distributed through an apparatus of sectarian and party networks.

Power, fearlessness and visibility

The economic situation remains dire, but the uprising did have a profound impact on politics, social life and popular culture. “We forced prime-minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign,” reflects Ahmed, founder of the union of tuk-tuk drivers, explaining the newly-found confidence of the protesters. “His resignation was not the primary aim of the protest, but it has shown us that we have enough power to change things.”

Not only confidence, but also different forms of freedom have been gained. Women rights activist Samia (not her real name) explains: “Before the October uprising, the protests had been dominated by men and at times small groups of women would protest along. Political religious authorities remained respected and intact. Now, we are struggling against the political system as women; we have been as visible and vocal as men.”

She adds that the aura of sanctity surrounding traditional authorities was broken. When the protests started last year, women were part of all aspects of the revolution: they would be part of the security teams of the square, writing reports and articles, fighting on the front lines against the brutal crackdown of the security forces, giving medical support and much more.

Another protester, Qassim, who works as a day laborer on construction sites, experienced the newly-gained freedom in a different way. He explained that even though the Sadr-movement now controls the Turkish restaurant on Tahrir square, he is less fearful of them: “Before the revolution, who would have been able to joke about Al-Sadr [religious-political authority and leader of the Saray al-Salam milita]? Today we have propagated dozens of political slogans that make clear that we are not impressed by his ideology anymore.”

At the same time, today, militias are trying to keep a strong presence in the squares, provoking the police to attack peaceful protesters and turn the peaceful protests into a violent uprising. While some protesters have left the square as a result, others have stayed behind. The role of the militia’s remains volatile and difficult to assess.

Thus, even though Qassim’s economic situation has not improved, he describes a newfound freedom that is not limited to Tahrir square: “Previously I took one way into my neighborhood and another way out. Today I walk in normally. Some of the people who are part of the militias look at me differently today because they know that their power is dwindling. So even though the economic situation did not improve yet, I have hope into this revolution since I am not afraid anymore.”

Grieving the Lives Lost

But these achievements have come at a great cost. During Sunday’s protest, next to the masses of jubilant, protesting and singing protesters there were tents and shrines built for the martyrs of the revolution. Many protesters were carrying pictures of their loved ones that were killed during the uprising. With heavy clashes between protesters and security forces continuing, the list of names of martyrs written on the walls of a tunnel in Tahrir square is expected to grow longer still.

So far, around 600 protesters have been killed and tens of thousands more wounded. The dead also include many women activists, in whose memory a women’s march was organized on October 1. One of the activists remembered during the march was Sara Talib from Basra, who was one of the first women on the front line of the protests working as a medic treating wounded protesters.

The security forces that accompanied this protest remained friendly and supportive. One of them carried a camera and took pictures of both demonstrators and security forces. Zahra, one of the women at the march explained that this is part of their new media strategy that is supposed to improve their public image. They want to be portrayed as close to the people, but Zahra remains skeptical: “How can we accept this after they have been responsible for all the deaths at Tahrir?”

The start of a long process

October has become a historic month in Iraq, bookended by two days of remembrance and protests: October 1 as the start of the 2019 uprising and October 25 as its acceleration. While some activists seem to want to form a political party, others stand by their initial and central demand that the entire post-US invasion system should fall, calling for a homeland in which their basic needs are taken care of.

Within Iraq’s contemporary history that is filled with war and suffering, activists are creating their own history. Due to the diversity of the movement; the importance of women in upholding the struggle; as well as its support among Iraq’s impoverished and unemployed, this is a history from below that ordinary Iraqis can be proud of. But this history is still incomplete.

Last weekend saw protesters turn out in massive numbers, even more than during the protests on October 1. It seems that the spirit of the revolution remains strong and that a prospect for the renewal and continuation of the revolution is there. Many protesters are in it for the long run, like Samia, the women’s rights activist: “What we have started today is a long process. We are doing this for our children in the hope that they will be able to lead a dignified life.”

Schluwa Sama

Schluwa Sama is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on the political economy of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan based on an in-depth ethnography of peasant lives. She has written for Jacobin, OpenDemocracy and the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

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