Since October of 2019 a massive revolutionary movement has occupied public squares all over Iraq. Rising alongside a wave of explosive international struggles from Chile, to Ecuador and Hong Kong to Algeria, Sudan, and Lebanon. The movement in Iraq–exemplified by the sit-in and occupation of Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square–is one powerful example of these movements that rally against an international order of neoliberalism and its local manifestations. This interview with a member of Workers Against Sectarianism is an updated and English version of an interview originally printed in the German publication Express.
A large part of movement in Iraq seems to be led by women on the one hand, and by informal and precarious workers like tuk tuk drivers on the other. Who are the protesters everywhere on the Iraqi streets? What is their class composition?
The tuk tuk drivers are people who work about 10 hours a day for only a small income. They participate in the demonstrations. They work as ambulances for the revolution. There have been multiple songs made about them. Women’s participation is also high, whether in medical care on the frontlines, or the writing of manifestos and statements, basically in everything. They lead protests and chants. It is an atmosphere of equality in the square. People are really building a civic and secular state. These women come from different religious backgrounds, Christian, Sunni, Shi’a, secular, and communist.
And yes, the revolution is not led by political parties because most of the parties are involved with the government. The people are making a revolution against the system and its parties. However, we should know that in Iraq we do not have strong leftist parties. So generally, when people say that they do not want parties, it usually means they do not want Islamic parties. We only have Islamist parties. The secular parties are either not participating or only have 1 or 2 seats in parliament. People do not mean all types of parties, only those governing parties.
So most people on the squares are independent, they belong to unions, teachers, students and also to the two leftist parties. One of these parties takes part in the government (the Iraqi Communist Party) and the other does not (the Iraqi Worker-communist Party). There are also intellectual groups.
The age range participating is of all ages but it is the youth–between 16-27–that are leading the protests. 80 percent are unemployed. Most of them are working class.
The squares are a new kind of civil society that is very young and very progressive. They want a secular system and to separate religion from state. This movement is not new, it has been here since 2011.
Could you give us an insight into the organization of daily-life in an occupied square. Are there any wealthy supporters (like al-Sadr) who perhaps try to influence the movement by means of infrastructural support? How do you organize political actions? Do you use democratic tools? What kind of political counter-structures that could be an alternative to the ruling system have been created by the movement so far?
Most of the people are unemployed though many don’t identify as such. Many describe themselves as intellectual youth who want to change the system, or call themselves precarious workers or from tribes. It is a revolutionary space. In the squares there is everything that you need for daily life, bathrooms, showers, places to eat, tents for sleeping, internet, and places to wash clothes. People have really organized themselves. People clean and people protest. There is a lost-and-found. There is music to motivate people. There is a hospital with 10 beds. Some nurses and doctors help by teaching people first aid. There is medicine. Tuk tuks work as ambulances.
People find ways to express themselves also. They make graffiti. They play games with each other. Listen and dance to music. There is also a new beach, the Beach of Tahrir where people play volleyball. Also, intellectual events, many libraries. They read, organize reading circles and discuss. There are also political events. There is a radio station. There are daily reports from other squares so that people can know about them. There are large dinner events. So they share food and get close. There are almost 1500 tents. The secular and leftist tents makeup around 200 tents. There are other tents, where for example followers of Muqtada al-Sadr were. There are also neighborhood tents and tribal tents. In each tent, around 4-5 people sleep. There are schools where teachers teach students.
There are some wealthy donors such as some supporters or al-Sadr who give money. And then there are tribes who give money. Some take donations from neighborhoods. The civil society initiatives are from the middle class so they have some money. And sometimes support and money comes from smaller NGOS, doctors, engineers, and the Iraqi diaspora. Muqtada Al-Sadr’s supporters do want to influence and want to make it so that the squares are dependent on him. This is not the case anymore. But I will explain elsewhere how this changed.
We created a union for unemployed people. We as WAS made a tent where we explain the political system, and the economy: Why are we unemployed, what is the international bank ? What is privatization? How corruption works. How sectarianism works. More people are joining every day. We explain Iran’s rule. And we learn how to be closer with each other as workers and not as Sunnis and Shi’as. We work on bringing Kurds and Arabs closer. We do this by explaining that the Kurdish people also have a corrupt government. We try to remember different times and look into our history to learn how things have come to be as they are now.
We have discussed alternative ruling systems. We need more support to think and discuss these alternatives. There are many different ideas about new election laws but also council ideas. But people need to know more and have access to more knowledge. It is dangerous to discuss the alternatives because of the violence of the government.
You talk a lot about al-Sadr. He seems to us to be a good example of a popular religious leader and the denominational system that you criticize and attack. Could you tell us a little more about him and the movement behind him, the relation to its class composition and the demands of your movement. Has a change taken place in his strategy, going from a militant approach to struggle to a parliamentary one.
The story of Muqtada al-Sadr starts with his father, Mohammed al-Sadr. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, after the Iran-Iraq war and the sanctions, his system and his rule of power seemed weak. At that point Hussein used the tribes to strengthen his power. Before this, we did not have a strong tribal system. So, Saddam Hussein used tribes and religion to divide and control the working class and poor people. That is why Saddam Hussein, who built a brutal dictatorship where he could kill anyone he wanted, let Mohammad al-Sadr grow popular mainly among poor people. Al-Sadr was able to instrumentalize religion for himself. At the same time, Saddam also used Wahhabist religious tendencies to control the Sunni population.
At some point, Mohammad al-Sadr stood against Saddam Hussein. To reassert his power, Saddam Hussein had Mohammad al-Sadr killed. Muqtada was still a kid during this time. Then in 2003, when the US invaded, Muqtada made use of the popularity of his father and took over the rule of the Sadrist movement but in a new system. Under the occupation, Muqtada Al-Sadr urged the poor to join him in resistance against the US. That is how he built his militia. However he did not actually fight the US in a serious manner, mostly engaging in rather small battles. But massive propaganda about these small battles. Then later, he made an agreement with the US to be included in the governmental system, to get seats in the parliament and six to seven hundred million dollars. He used this to expand his militia–the Mahdi Army–and carried out a type of sectarian cleansing which was supposed to get rid of the Ba’athist regime but instead was turned against Sunni people in Iraq, killing many. It was not only Ba’athists but also their families and children. That was the start of the sectarian regime. This was useful to the US because at that time both Al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army was fighting the US army. The US fueled sectarianism so these groups would fight each other.
The US imposed a constitution and an electoral system on the country and included Muqtada al-Sadr, which helped bring him to power in the new Iraq. It was the US who let the Mahdi Army grow and from them many other militias emerged. For example, Hadi al-Ameri and his pro-Iran militia [the Badr Brigade] come from the Mahdi Army. Even the al-Hashd al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces), come from the Mahdi; and they also are pro-Iran.
Muqtada al-Sadr changed the name of the Mahdi Army and made it into Sarāyā as-Salām [Peace Companies]. However, Sadr never changed his tactics even when he joined the parliament. He and his militia remained sectarian. So, it is important to understand that he is part of the government and he is part of the militias as well. They are in the parliament and fighting in the streets and killing people.
In each election, al-Sadr secured at least 5 of the main ministries, like health, industry, and communication. But you should know that we have never had a real election. There has always been fraud. What kind of democracy is this? The militias control almost everything so of course they would win. After Soleimani was killed, Al-Sadr tried to find a way to protect and keep intact the system and to be the new Soleimani in the region. He is now supportive of Iran’s strategy in the region. He keeps killing people. In February his followers went to Tahrir, acting as normal civilians but bringing in guns and knives. They came in large numbers, beat people, and threatened them. Open fights occurred in the square.
In the morning, many students came to Tahrir, to call out “no” to the new prime minister, Tawfiq Alawi. Alawi was appointed by the president Barham Salih with Muqtada al-Sadr’s support. This concurred with Al-Sadr making a move to take control of parts of the square and the Green Zone. It was then that the prime minister was chosen and al-Sadr tweeted congratulations to the people that Tawfiq Alawi was their new prime minister. Now, he is tweeting that he would cooperate with the police to clear all roads and open all schools. This is the rule of al-Sadr.
The Sadrist movement presents a large question that we are asking ourselves. The protestors are fighting the government, the riot police, and the army. We don’t want to set ourselves against the followers of Muqtada Al-Sadr. His followers are largely working class, poor people. They also have the right to protest against the system. At the same time they are followers of Sadr. But the people in the squares could not kick them out even if they wanted to. It is not clear who exactly are his followers as it is difficult to recognize them. Also the protestors do not want to have fights amongst themselves because it is bad for the protest movement and might turn into a civil war. We don’t want this to happen. We do not want poor people to fight each other. We want poor people to fight the bourgeoisie.
Iraq is obviously a divided society. Is there also resistance to the movement from other groups in civil society? And if so: why are they against the movement? What divisions do you see among the country’s population?
The most important splits are sectarian splits that directly go back to the imposition of the political system that the US imposed on Iraq after the occupation in 2003. This has divided us as Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds Islamist political parties also emerged around Sunni and Shi’a identities and the Kurdish parties. There is huge resistance from the leftist parties and civil society and secular groups against this sectarian system. We do not feel that we as people are sectarian. The revolution is against this and it is very visible on the squares. Politics from the system is what divides us. This split is not very deep. For example, in my family, we are considered Sunni but many of them are married to Shi’a people. Before the sectarian system, most did not know what Sunni and Shi’a was supposed to mean. Also, many Kurds married Sunni and Shi’a and the other way around. So this means that people are not very much split but the system is imposing it on them. We are united against the system.
Political religious leaders have tried to strengthen sectarian discourse, culture, and ways of talking in society. They have tried to teach people sectarianism. But because of the resistance against this it has almost become ridiculous and somewhat boring to repeat this. We are beyond that point already. We already see each other as citizens. People are now very conscious, and political Islamist parties seem ridiculous when they still try to speak in sectarian ways or even when they try to suddenly appear secular. People do not buy it anymore because they know the history of these parties. Even if the parties tried to be secular, they are still part of the system.
The supporters of the system are the political Islamist parties and also the Kurdish nationalist parties. But not the civil society or even the clans. They are all moving against it. The parties control so much and have money and power and that is how they maintain the system even when people do not want it. The International Bank reported that Iraq has wasted 1.3 trillion dollars from 2003 until 2018. This money was wasted by the political parties. They enriched themselves and that includes Muqtada al-Sadr’s party.
The clans play only a small role within the movement. They have mostly joined but are not central to the protests. It is the civil society activists, the intellectuals, the neighborhoods, and the secular groups but the largest group are independents, like for example the tuk tuk drivers. Many people are part of tribes somehow, but we do not represent the tribes. Most people want civil laws but since these are very weak it is largely tribal law that is controlling us or protecting us when there are social problems. However, people would prefer civil courts and civil law. So the tribes are not important but they do support by giving money and food to the people in the squares.
You are part of a group called “Workers Against Sectarianism”. Can you tell us about the agenda or the character of this group. Which kind of workers? Why are you, as workers, primarily against sectarianism?
We want to highlight workers activities and their perspectives in Iraq. We are a new group of around 25 people who have been organized for a year. We have been participating in the protests but before that we educated ourselves about workers and capitalism. We also held political events. We have connections to other leftists organizations and parties in Iraq (although not the Iraqi Communist Party). Our goal is to connect to other workers globally. We are all young, unemployed, and have a long history of protesting against the Iraqi state.
We have a tent in Tahrir square currently, that is especially for those who are unemployed.
Most of us are unemployed. Unemployment is one of the main problems in Iraq and why the protests started. Some others of us are precarious workers and others are state employed. Even though we are unemployed, we consider ourselves to be working class. The unemployed are a reserve army, mainly for the militias to use us to try to get us to join. So therefore our interest is to end the sectarian system because our class is harmed the most by the sectarian system. We have been used in wars and in fights between the militias. Most of the dead are from our class. We are the ones who suffer most. That’s why we don’t want our friends from our class to join militias just because they lack salaries and money.
To understand the background of the emergence of the movement better could you provide insight into the changes in the economy since the invasion of the US in 2003 to today? What was the role of Iraq in the world market at the beginning of the millennium? What is it today? What is the role of the petroleum industry? How has poverty and unemployment changed since then? How has the composition of the Iraqi working class changed since the invasion of the US and its allies?
Before 2003, and after the sanctions, Iraq–as a member of OPEC–could not produce as much oil as needed. After 2003, US companies took control of our oil fields and oil production. Then Iraq started to produce more and more oil again. When the American oil companies sold oil, the revenue first went to the US Federal Reserve Bank. From there it goes to the Central Bank of Iraq. So, we do not have control over our oil or the revenue generated. The fields and the areas around the fields are out of state control. They are protected by special, foreign security companies. Even the Iraqi army cannot get very close to the fields.
After 2003, the US laid off all workers in all fields. So, then we also did not have any oil workers anymore. This is what happened not only in the oil sector but also elsewhere. Iraq used to have a big agricultural sector and used to be a wealthy country. After 2003 the public sector stopped, and the workers were laid off. We could not build any factories after that anymore. There used to be factories producing glass. We used to have a sector for military production, cement factories, textile factories. There once was an Iraqi production and industry.
I remember that in my grandfather’s house, most things were produced in Iraq. Cars were made in Iraq. Our health sector was public and available to everyone, and of good quality. Now the only thing we do is sell Iraqi oil and from the oil money buy everything from outside. But what if our oil ever runs out? We do not have agriculture or any other sector to sustain ourselves. So because of that we have huge numbers of the unemployed. There is no strong private sector even that would be able to employ people. The protests emerge from this problem. People do not have enough income. Before, it was usual that one member of the family would be employed by the state and the whole family would depend on that person. If you do not have a member of the family employed by the state, then you are in a very precarious situation and there is no prospect for any jobs.
There are different numbers estimated from the World Bank and the Iraqi government but approximately 40 percent of the population is unemployed. And most of them are the youth. At this rate going forward Iraq will produce 1 million more unemployed people every year. So, what we call the working class are largely very poor because they are unemployed. While those who work for the state are usually considered as working class there is no clear working class identity because of the unemployment status of many. Also few Iraqis are employed in the oil sector because the companies bring workers from other countries, like Bangladesh..
Since 2011, almost every year there are large protests against sectarianism, for employment, jobs, social and political rights, and to end the rule of the militias. It is important here to mention again that many of the unemployed join militias who provide them with salaries. The militia can pay this because they are connected to the parties in the state and channel this money to the militias. That is why we have so many militias and a large army. In this situation what else are people supposed to do?
There is a slogan: “let’s finish what we started” that has been heard recently in the squares. What does this mean, what has to be finished? When and why did the occupation of the square in Baghdad start and what are the demands? How is it related to other diverse movements in Iraq?
The slogan is prominent in the student demonstrations. The protestors have been protesting since the first of October and the sit-in and occupation started on October 25th. They have also occupied buildings, amongst them the Turkish restaurant. They have also occupied the bridges. This demonstration is a process on a daily basis, with struggles where the riot police take back some area and then protestors retake it. What has to be finished is this system against which we have been protesting for 6 months. Everything is now clear for us and for all the world to see.
We have a government that killed us when we were peaceful. They are sectarian. They took our wealth. They have destroyed our education system and our agriculture and everything. Let’s finish what we started on the first of October. Let us finish the revolution in a successful way. That is what this means.
The demands of the people are to end corruption, the sectarian system, and to end the milita’s rule. We want basic services, electricity, water, and employment. We want our own local products and good agriculture. We want a secular system and to get rid of political Islamist figures, especially people like al-Sadr, Hadi al-Ameri [leader of the Badr Brigade militia], Khazali etc. We want a sovereign state. We want the criminals and the corrupt to be brought to justice in front of a court. We want a homeland. We want to feel represented and a new system. We want an end to environmental pollution, especially in Basra.
The activists in all the squares in Baghdad have been protesting since 2011 and 2015 and they have good relations with each other. They all know each other and have been building these connections for a long time. They call and check with each other through social media. So there is a lot of coordination that takes place. Within the tents of the squares, there are meetings to discuss things, and so there also they connect with each other. Many protestors visit each other, there are different delegations from Nasiriya to Baghdad, or Baghdad to Basra. I know many of the people. Maybe we are not friends but we know each other and the names of activists. We know each other also through Facebook.
How has the situation of the global COVID-19 pandemic affected the revolutionary movement in Iraq?
Coronovirus saved the government from the people. On April 1st the government initiated a curfew. Militia were deployed in the streets of cities and neighborhoods in order to oppress people, control the streets, and support the curfew. They used the curfew to save them from the revolution. At first the protesters did not believe that we had COVID-19 cases in Iraq. For us we don’t really care about dying from coronavirus because the government is already killing us and we are in a battle, you know? There were some activists who are saying: we did not retreat from your snipers, we will not retreat because of a virus. We have 669 dead, 25,000 injured and 2,800 detainees, but we are still here. That was how people were thinking in the first 10 days of the coronavirus pandemic.
But then, as the cases increased in Iraq and we learned more about it and how it was killing people, protesters began to think differently about it and many decided to leave the squares. Only about 20 percent of the protesters stayed. And this 20 percent who have stayed in the square don’t meet anyone from outside the square, largely stay inside their tents, and every day they sterilize the tents and stay inside the tents. They did not want to spread the virus throughout Baghdad and, as you know, Tahrir Square is in the middle of Baghdad. Our hospital on the square provides medical care and gives courses every day to educate protesters about the virus and the necessary hygiene measures.
While doing this Tahrir Square continues to send political messages to the government, to the parliament, prime minister, militias, and to the political islamic system. For example, when they selected Adnan al-Zurfi as the new prime minister, we had a march in Tahrir Square to show that we refused Zurfi. And five days ago when the government selected another new prime minister–Mustafa al-Kadhimi–even though our numbers we smaller they protested him as well. This is the situation in Tahrir Square. I would also add that the protesters created a recent social media campaign and hashtag that promise that the revolution will come back again after the coronavirus pandemic and the curfew ends.
The economic issues of unemployment, low national production and reliance on imports are also huge problems. We only import vegetables and fruits from Iran, Turkey, China, and Germany, etc. All our food and materials–everything–are imported. All the precarious workers, those who work in the informal private sector–people who work in malls, work in delivery, small traders, people who own small shops, construction work, barbers–because of the curfew all these people cannot work. They are not able to pay rent, or buy food. The government has refused to pay for any of this, no unemployment insurance, no small amount of money for temporary relief like has happened in other countries. We–Workers Against Sectarianism–made a statement explaining this and calling for unemployment insurance and expanding the food ration card.
In Iraq we used to helping each other in crises like we did in the 2003 war, and in the civil war that followed. Socially there is an independent working class movement that works to share food and vegetables between neighbors and support each other. But this is complicated by price gouging carried out by some merchants that have made food very expensive. The government has not acted and only the people have. We don’t have a government, we don’t have a state that cares about people and this is what it looks like in our sectarian, capitalistic system.
Our healthcare system is also destroyed. I did an interview for Maurizzio Coppola where I talked about how the Iraqi healthcare system–which was very good in the 1970s, has been dismantled and privatized. Now many drugs have to be purchased through black market traders and bribes are required for the few remaining doctors in the country. But as we say in our statement: “Whenever a crisis strikes us, we fight it off through our social solidarity, generousness, unity and steadfastness. Just as we have faced great crises such as ISIS, war, sectarianism and corruption, we can face this pandemic with optimism, hope and love for life.”