- Interview by
- Schluwa Sama
Since October 1, mass protests have broken out in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, Basra, and other southern cities. Demonstrators are demanding basic services (such as electricity and clean water), jobs, and an end to corruption. More than that, they’re calling for the overthrow of the entire post-US-invasion political system, which divides the country along sectarian lines and has produced little more than violence and poverty for most Iraqis.
The ongoing protests have been met with enormous repression by the Iraqi state. Already, more than three hundred protesters have been killed, and fifteen thousand have been wounded. Yet demonstrations continue. The epicenter is Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which has been transformed into a miniature world of non-sectarian resistance.
Schluwa Sama, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, spoke with Sami Adnan, founder of the political group Workers Against Sectarianism and an activist in Baghdad for the last decade, about the scene in Tahrir Square, the violence of the sectarian political system, and the prospects for protest alliances across the Middle East.
Tahrir Square has been occupied since last month. Can you tell us about the protest movement in the square? How are things organized?
Tahrir Square in Baghdad today is a revolutionary zone. We have areas with free food, free helmets, and places for washing your clothes and yourself. Many people have not left Tahrir Square for a long time. There are places for reading books in one tent, and a medical tent.
Some tents represent specific regions of Iraq, or retired people, or professional groups, like unions of engineers, etc. These tents meet among themselves and organize themselves. They discuss day-to-day things about what to do, but also questions of leadership, writing a new constitution, or putting on seminars about different political topics.
Within these meetings, they have been able to connect to other groups, like merchants, who have helped greatly. They have provided some of the free food and goods, including free electricity. These merchants have their own interest in getting rid of the rule of the militias: militias take illegal taxes from the merchants in exchange for security. The merchants are fed up with this system and want to get rid of it.
Who exactly is in Tahrir Square?
About 70 percent of the people in Tahrir do not belong to any party, be it Islamist, secular, or communist. Most of these people are unemployed. Also, there are state employees as well as precarious workers, such as the tuk-tuk drivers. The other 30 percent are members of parties, but they do not appear as members of their parties in the square, just as ordinary citizens who share the movement’s general demands.
There are many students from schools and colleges; they know each other well and are able to organize. There are official and unofficial unions of teachers, doctors, and tuk-tuk drivers. These people have experience organizing protests. So you have many segments of society contributing to this ongoing occupation of Tahrir Square.
What are the main demands of the people in Tahrir Square?
The most radical demand is the downfall of the whole sectarian, political Islamist system. This is the first and most important demand in Tahrir Square — they want a separation of religion and politics. This demand includes the government resigning, especially Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the prime minister.
They’re also demanding job opportunities, unemployment insurance, electricity, basic services, an end to the rule of militias, and an end to corruption and foreign rule — especially Iranian rule, but also US rule.
Can you describe the political system that people are fighting against?
The system we live in now is the sectarian Islamist political system. Everyone in Iraq knows that this system was put in place by the United States after the 2003 invasion. It is the bourgeois powers inside and outside of Iraq who support this system.
There are two aspects that are the most important to understand. One is the massive privatization campaign that started after 2003. The second is the enormous violence from 2006 on, especially the rule of militias that started and the war against ISIS.
Privatization had already started under the rule of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. It was a fascist regime based on state capitalism, dependent on the oil economy. After the US military invasion of 2003, the so-called free market was introduced in Iraq. It destroyed the fascist regime but also the Iraqi economy and society. As Iraq’s factories came to halt, industrial production and agriculture were almost destroyed. Part of the public sector was destroyed or sold off.
Under the previous prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who is closely aligned with US interests in Iraq, we realized that we now had to pay for everything: electricity, water, medical care. Basically, everything became commercialized. At the same time, not a single good is produced in Iraq today. Everything is imported and paid for by oil money.
This privatization was also done through international institutions of the global market, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which negotiated loans with the Iraqi government that pressed them into retreating from public services.
With the dissolution of the Iraqi state in 2003, the United States enforced its own sectarian image of Iraqi society as made up of three components: Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Kurds. A quota system was set up to balance power between these three groups, as if these are our only identities in this country. Also, jobs were given according to your loyalty to one sectarian group and its sectarian political parties.
Eventually, the groups had their own militias, which gained strength through the continued violence in Iraq. A sectarian war broke out, and sectarian cleansing took place. Later, during the war on ISIS, militias were crucial in the fight, but they also committed crimes against people. For instance, Shia militias fighting ISIS would also attack majority Sunni areas and loot their houses. For many, this was not liberation from ISIS but rather sectarian cleansing.
The sectarian militias also interfered in economic life. For example, you cannot open a market without establishing contacts with militias to protect you in exchange for a tax, khawa. They control political life within the state as well. They have killed Iraqi politicians in the past. Today and after the ISIS war, for instance, one of the big militias, the Hashd al-Sha’bi, has tried to become an official force within the Iraqi state. Many of the militias have a loyalty to the Iranian regime, ideologically and logistically. It is within this context that we have to understand people’s great rejection of Iranian influence in Iraq.
Because of this system, we have lots of corruption and unemployment. Today we have 13 million unemployed people, according to the official numbers. But I would say it is even more — half of the population, or about 19 million people.
Iraq has seen major political protests in the last ten years. What is different about the current protest movement?
The biggest change is the increased awareness about how the state works and that none of the politicians are to be trusted. Previously, people would still have preferences for certain politicians or parties, but now, with experience, they understand that everyone must go and the whole system must fall.
Also new is the huge participation of women, and from different backgrounds, be it secular or Islamic, middle or lower class. People bring their families to Tahrir to protest. All sectors of Iraqi society are here, and they feel comfortable with each other. People get married in Tahrir Square, they celebrate their birthdays. They work together, clean the square together, stay in the square until very late. It is the first time I have ever seen this kind of atmosphere. It is amazing.
We find no sectarian ideology here. It is done. People have started to accept all the differences in society. For example, you can see many Christian, Sunni, and Shia people, but also Yezidi people, some Kurds as well. But we do not even say that or describe people as “Sunni” or “Christian.” We just see each other as humans, as Iraqis, and that is it.
One important segment of the protests is the tuk-tuk drivers. While marginalized in society, they quickly became very important to the protests. Why? What has been their role?
Tuk-tuk drivers have played a heroic role and made the whole revolution possible. They transported the injured (otherwise, the bodies would still be in Tahrir Square). They confronted the government and police and anti-riot forces. They transported food to the protesters. They helped occupy buildings.
People started to love them, and tuk-tuk drivers started to be proud of their profession. Revolutionary songs were written about the tuk-tuks, and they gained wide acknowledgment from different social classes.
Most of the people who are tuk-tuk drivers bought the tuk-tuk because they needed work. Most want a “real” job other than driving tuk-tuks, one that would provide them with a decent income. But there is no alternative.
What has been the strategy of the government toward the protests, and what do people expect from the state?
I do not think the government has a strategy, and people do not expect anything from the government because they do not want it. For example, the government was offering unemployment insurance. But nobody took this offer, because people do not believe it.
This government has blood on its hands. We lost our friends, neighbors. So it is not about small concessions anymore. In the eyes of the people, they are all criminals. We do not want these criminals to rule us. People have put their hopes elsewhere, namely where they think the actual center of power is. They are asking the United Nations to solve the situation and for the government to resign.
What do you, as a leftist activist, think about appeals to the United Nations to solve the situation?
I think we need a system that is controlled by the people themselves. We cannot rely on any outside power.
I think direct democracy would be the best form of rule. It would be based on committees in neighborhoods and at work. This system would be closer to people’s needs, and so it would be the needs of the people that would decide the shape of the state or the economy.
There are protests also taking place in Lebanon and, more recently, Iran. How do you feel about these protests? What are the parallels, and is there solidarity between the different movements?
Yes, they are all linked to each other. We do not have an Iraqi revolution or an Arab revolution — it is a revolution across the whole Middle East. In Lebanon there are the same demands and in Iran, there are also similar demands. People in the Middle East generally are facing the same system: a very sectarian political system that does not give people decent prospects in life. Therefore, the demands are similar: the end of the sectarian system and corruption in Baghdad, Tehran, and Beirut. Second, an end to the militias’ rule in Lebanon and in Iraq.
Our connections are usually only on social media. However, in the different protest squares people are shouting: “One revolution, from Baghdad to Beirut” or “from Baghdad to Tehran.” Also, in Iran, we have seen graffiti on the wall in solidarity with the protests here in Iraq. They were raising Iraqi flags in Tehran. This has never happened before. It is very urgent that we as people in the Middle East connect with each other more.