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Everything You Need to Know About the Protests in Iraq

The protest movement convulsing Iraq is a heroic revolt powered by unemployed, precarious, and informal workers. Their aim is to overturn the entire political system, which has produced nothing but violence and poverty for the vast majority of Iraqis.

A building is set ablaze near Ahrar Bridge, where there have been recent clashes between demonstrators and Iraq security forces, on November 24, 2019 in Baghdad, Iraq. Erin Trieb / Getty

On September 22, a small group of civil activists in Iraq called for a protest on October 1. They had no idea the kind of rebellion they would spark.

The call echoed through various social media platforms, in part inspired by Egyptian businessman Mohamed Ali’s plea for an uprising against Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s corrupt dictatorship. The activists’ call was seconded by the Al-Hikma Islamic Current, an Islamic Shia political organization, which insisted on the need for protests against “the government’s bad performance.”

The established parties responded discordantly. The Ba’athists announced they would return to power by seizing the opportunity of the impending protest. Maverick cleric Muqtada al-Sadr commented that the end of the current government was near. The Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI) warned the masses against participating in what it saw as protests organized by the Islamic parties.

On the eve of October 1, confusion abounded as to who exactly was behind the call.

The protest was to occur on a Tuesday at 10 a.m. — a deliberate choice to both differentiate the action from Friday gatherings organized by the Sadrist current and to disrupt a working day (Friday is closing day in Iraq). The first hours of the demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square were quiet, with a few hundred protesters assembling. Most were members of the tribe of the popular ex-commander of the counterterrorism forces, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who were angered by the government’s decision to demote him.

Soon, however, other protesters filled the square. By midday, the government had started using violence against the demonstrators, first in the form of water cannons and tear gas, later with live ammunition. The same day, demonstrations burst out in other parts of Southern Iraq. Thousands of people, appalled by the unprecedented use of violence against demonstrators, took to the streets in a raft of cities: Nasiriyah, Misan, Diwaniyah, Babel, Karbala, and Najaf.

Iran-sponsored Arab Shia militias joined government security forces in shooting indiscriminately at protesters. Death squads faced down unarmed demonstrators, killing scores day after day. The government imposed a blackout on social media and internet services and announced curfews in several cities. Undeterred, protesters moved the demonstrations to the popular districts, setting barricades and burning tires in order to prevent the militias and government forces from entering their neighborhoods.  The battle continued. One Iran-sponsored militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, controlled the main access to Tahrir Square, the central plaza in Baghdad, and fired on protesters attempting to reach the square. A new militia supported by Iran, Saraya al-Khorasani, attacked the al-Ghazaliya district in Baghdad, bombing a hospital and murdering people in their houses.

On October 6, dozens of women and children were killed in Sadr City, the heavily impoverished district of Baghdad. Other cities were also turned into battlefields. Protesters torched Islamic Shia party offices in Nasiriyah and Misan, and proclaimed Nasiriyah a city free of ruling parties.   Rather than deterring the protesters, the government’s violent repression — along with its accusations of foreign influence — brought more people into the streets. Protestors decided that a new wave of demonstrations would begin on October 25, to vindicate the victims.

The Political Economy of Iraq

Iraq is a rentier capitalist state ruled by a “consociational democracy” based on power sharing between religious and national affiliations. Each group is internally fractured and competes over economic resources, beginning with those related to the country’s oil production. Militia leaders who belong to these groups created clientelist circles that prospered through sitting on managerial boards and controlling the ports, borders, oil fields, trade, and so on.

The city of Basra is a good example. There, the Shiite Islamic Al-Dawa party controls the following: Al-Burjisiya oil field, Sheeba and Al-Muthanna gas fields, Basra International Airport, and Umm Qasr port. The pro-Iran Al-Fatih political bloc, consisting of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr militia, has the Abu Flous port and the railway. The Al-Sadr current, helmed by Muqtada al-Sadr, has power over the city’s stadium and the Al-Shalamcheh border crossing with Iran. Al-Hikma, a Shiite Islamic bloc, watches over the North Al-Rumaila oil field, Al-Maqal port, and Safwan border crossing with Kuwait. Other areas like Khor Al-Zubair port and the headquarters of Basra University are overseen by tribes, such as the Al-Battat.

Business contracts only go to those connected to ruling parties and their militias. Corruption is pervasive, law enforcement completely absent. Groups flourish by using state revenue to fund their own businesses in everything from manufacturing and agriculture to tourism, Islamic banking, and private schools. State contracts with foreign private interests are channeled through the parties and militias that control ministries.

State-owned enterprises (SOEs), which remain the country’s largest employer (550,000 workers) even after neoliberal reforms, are dysfunctional. Some have been transformed into self-funded enterprises. The private sector remains relatively small, with workers in the oil sector representing just 1 percent of the labor force. Four million out an estimated labor force of 11 million are stuck in precarious temporary or informal jobs. Public-sector workers are deprived of the right to organize, and their private-sector counterparts have it even worse: most lack social insurance, retirement pensions, and others. They are fragmented and largely unorganized.

While reliable unemployment numbers are elusive, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) estimates that youth joblessness is more than double the government’s number of 20 percent. Unemployment is particularly steep among college graduates, the vast majority of whom seek jobs in the public sector since the private sector is so weak. The social pathologies associated with unemployment are on rise, including suicide, drug addiction, and depression. Joblessness has fed organized crime and pushed many young men to join militias.

On top of the economic malaise, Iraq’s very social fabric has been ripped apart since the 2003 US-led invasion. The occupation exacerbated the damage visited upon Iraq by the 1991 Gulf War, the 1990s bombardment campaigns carried out by the United States and the UK, and the economic embargoes imposed since 1990.

Yet despite this gloomy reality, it is the youth of Iraq who are powering the ongoing protests.

A Youth Worker Uprising

Unemployed, informal, and precarious young workers have been the main drivers of protests in 2011, 2018, and now 2019. Their demands: jobs, services, and an end to the corruption and power-sharing that has plunged millions into poverty. Their calls for protests are usually made on Facebook and other social media.

In the months leading up to October’s mass demonstrations, university graduates organized sit-ins at different ministries in Baghdad, often joined by graduates from other cities. Security forces let loose hot-water cannons on PhD holders, who held a sit-in for jobs from June to September.

Instead of conceding to any of the young people’s demands, the authorities launched a campaign of demolition, knocking down the houses and shops of unemployed and poor workers built on state-owned land in Iraq’s southern cities. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their houses, some of whom had bought their plot from militias or corrupt government officials. Most had used up all their savings, incurred debt, or fallen back on assistance from their social network.

Since the explosion in October, protesters have blocked access to oil fields in the southern cities of Basra, Nasiriyah, and Misan and closed the main roads to ports to paralyze trade. By November 2, the blockade of Umm Qasr port, Iraq’s main entrance for imports, had cost the government close to $6 billion.

On October 25, protesters and government forces faced off on Al-Jumhuriya Bridge in Baghdad and two other bridges on the Tigris River leading to the Green Zone, where government buildings and embassies are clustered behind concrete barriers. Demonstrators attempting to advance from Tahrir Square to the Green Zone were met with extreme violence: government forces are using skull-piercing tear-gas canisters, smoke grenades, and live ammunition. Amnesty International has reported that the tear-gas canisters are up to ten times heavier than standard ones used to disperse crowds.

The bravery and creativity on display has been remarkable. Drivers of tuk-tuks — three-wheeled motorized rickshaws — have transported wounded people from Tahrir Square to nearby hospitals. Civil society organizations, unions, and political groups have set up tents in the square to offer logistical support, medical services, food and water provision, helmet distribution, educational sessions, and more. Doctors, nurses, and medical students provide treatment day and night in lab coats. When protesters requested food, families, restaurant owners, store owners, and others outside the encampment flooded the tents with sustenance. Unemployed people, disabled people, members of tribes from Baghdad and surrounding areas, academics, the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, the Al-Sadr current, women’s organizations, opposition members of Parliament, the Iraqi Communist Party — all are involved in the mass demonstrations.

Even the recent resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an ostensible concession to protesters, hasn’t slowed the movement. It was too little, too late, they insist. Their demand is an entirely new political system, not the removal of a single person.

The Unions’ Role in the Uprising

Trade unions have been present in the protests, but largely in the background.

Months before the uprising broke out, public-sector workers in central and southern Iraq — including textile workers in Diwaniyah, municipal workers in Muthanna, and leather workers in Baghdad — issued demands for better pay and working conditions, secure housing, and permanent jobs. But these demands have taken a back seat since the beginning of the protests emerged.

In a meeting held in Basra on October 28, unions of lawyers, teachers, and workers formed a committee urging unions to support the demands of the uprising rather than their own sectoral aims. The unions’ role, they effectively argued, should be to express solidarity with protesters rather than playing a leading role in the historic uprising.

Most, if not all, workers’ unions issued press releases in support of the movement. The General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU, the only official federation in today’s Iraq, dominated by the Sadrist current) called for “solidarity” with the uprising without asking workers to join the demonstrations. It advised the protesters to “protect the public property and maintain good contact with the security forces.” The General Federation of Workers’ Unions in Iraq (GFWUI) condemned the government’s violent crackdown and organized pickets outside oil companies and refineries in Basra, Nasiriyah, and Misan, as well as demonstrations in Baghdad and Babel. It also set up tents in Nasiriyah, providing food and drinks to the protesters.

In a recent mass meeting at the Basra Oil Company, labor demanded an end to repression. However, the local union pledged to continue production, undercutting the protesters blocking access. Thus, the most militant action is being taken by the unemployed and the poor, not by oil workers, who face severe punishment if they go on strike.

The Main Challenges Confronting Iraq’s Working-Class Movement

The Iraqi uprising — a heroic revolt of unemployed, precarious, and informal workers — nonetheless suffers from a few shortcomings:

  1. An “anti-organization” attitude, i.e., a general rejection of structure and an insistence on spontaneity. The animus is understandable, given protesters’ fear of being co-opted by dominant political parties. The slogan “no to political parties” is a popular refrain. Leftists and Marxists in the movement will have to emphasize the need for workers to organize politically against the bourgeois state, economic elites, and the dominant political parties in order to ensure its independence.
  2. A “patriotic” discourse, encapsulated in the popular mantra “I want a homeland.” Protesters hoist the Iraqi flag, singing the national anthem, and display posters that denounce sectarianism and the ruling class’s subservience to neighboring countries, especially Iran. They stress their affiliation to their homeland rather than to religious sects — a positive step compared to the politics of Islamic parties. But this also tends to blur the struggle’s working-class dimension.
  3. A reliance on international players, which leads some to call for US pressure to win change — even though most Iraqis hold America responsible for their catastrophic conditions. Some activists have met with the UN secretary-general’s special representative, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, to ask for help from the United Nations. Other activists look to the European Union. But although mobilizing international support is not entirely wrongheaded, focusing on the intervention of external powers instead of relying primarily on the force of the movement is a mistake.
  4. The lack of a recognizable political organization that can advance movement demands independently of all bourgeois forces. My experience in Tahrir Square in recent weeks, meeting with unions, political groups, and associations of teachers, academics, artists, and doctors, showed me that an “elite” acts in its own capacity without input from the main forces that started this movement: the unemployed and precarious and informal workers, such as the tuk-tuk drivers’ unions.
  5. Finally, workers and the poor are still divided. Two major tendencies have emerged in Tahrir Square: a patriotic strain, standing against sectarianism and demanding that the UN step in and organize new elections; and a Shia Islamic-nationalist tendency, represented by the Sadrist current, which has four ministers and fifty-four members of parliament yet claims to represent the poor. Many protesters in Baghdad have demanded that the Sadrist current leave the square since people are revolting against the rule of all Islamic parties. Marxists, including the WCPI, emphasize the need for the workers’ movement to act and intervene as an independent political force, and have organized to this end.

So far, the ones who put themselves in the gravest danger are the most precarious. The poor, the unemployed, the people with nothing to lose — these are the ones occupying the front lines, facing down riot police, militias, and even Iranian paramilitary forces. But if history is any guide, the organized working class will have to play a bigger role in the movement if protesters are to win a state that actually addresses their needs.