Iraq’s Tishreen Protest Movement: The Exceptional Domestic Pressure Tool

In October 2019, Iraq witnessed its most significant anti-government protests since the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003. The demonstrations blasted the government’s shortcomings in dealing with public services, electricity shortages, rising unemployment rates, corruption, sectarian politics, and the security crises deriving from activities by paramilitary groups affiliated with certain political parties and regional powers. Although the protests were mainly in Baghdad and the southern provinces, they represented a cross-sectarian and nationwide upheaval. They became known as the Tishreen (October) protest movement. Despite the challenges and obstacles the movement has faced, including delayed governmental reforms, political violence, intimidation by militias, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tishreen is one of the most consequential actors in Iraq’s political landscape today.

Iraq’s Tishreen uprising is the only independent domestic challenge in the post-2003 period that led to a dramatic change in the political status quo.

Iraq’s Tishreen uprising is the only independent domestic challenge in the post-2003 period that led to a dramatic change in the political status quo and behind-the-scenes agreements without employing the usual methods of sectarian discourse, outside help, arms, illegal funding, and coercion. It has a complex and multifarious target, which could be due to the diversity of Iraq’s political dynamics. In the movement’s crosshairs are the government, militias, and Iran’s influence; the attempt is to raise awareness about Iraq’s victimhood as a result of the partnership between the three. Given the evident pressure presented by Tishreen, these three forces have tried to engage with the movement separately while ignoring their alliances with one another—a move that was seen as a major schism within Iraq’s political class, one caused by the protests.

The Tishreen protest movement alone was able to pressure the government of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to resign in late 2019, followed by the formation of a new government led by current premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi in May 2020. It also achieved an extraordinary electoral reform that allows voters to vote for more candidates by breaking down 18 electoral districts into 83 and force early elections in October 2021. Finally, the movement created a vital social opposition against Iran’s lobby in Iraq and particularly, and more interestingly, within Iraq’s southern provinces. Since October 2019, all of Iraq’s political and social groups—the government, political parties, militias, clerics, and tribes—are engaging with Iraqi politics through the discourse of the Tishreen protest movement.

However, these are merely symbolic achievements in the eyes of Tishreen’s various forces, especially if compared with their initial demands. Indeed, they want comprehensive change, whether through the creation of a new technocratic government or an overhaul of the entire political system.

What Is Exceptional about Tishreen?

There were various events in post-2003 Iraq that were considered fundamental and impactful for the country’s future political structure and status quo. These included the American occupation’s insistence on the de-Baathification process and implementation of a “consociational democracy” through an ethnic-sectarian quota-based distribution of power and positions. In addition, there was the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had a role in Sunni extremist groups, and of the Sadrist Mahdi Army, which impacted Shia extremist groups. Other pivotal events were the 2006-2008 sectarian strife, the Anbar protests of 2012-2013, and the 2014 offensive of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS). The latter prompted the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in 2014, which helped to defeat IS in 2017. Finally, the failed referendum on Kurdish independence in 2017 added pressing ethnic considerations to Iraqi politics.

In all these occurrences, there was a common thread: that of a “foreign role” in Iraqi politics. Some view it as interventionist while others understand it as a defensive approach to buttress security. To be sure, foreign powers toppled the former regime of Saddam Hussein and replaced it with a new political class and helped to found al-Qaeda in Iraq; and it was a regional ally (Iran) that supports and administers its proxies to advocate and pressure for its interests. All these events also witnessed a politicized exploitation and mobilization of sectarian discourse.

Tishreen was a fundamental and consequential occurrence in post-2003 Iraq—although there were many other grassroots campaigns and efforts by other civil society actors and groups.

Tishreen was a fundamental and consequential occurrence in post-2003 Iraq—although there were many other grassroots campaigns and efforts by other civil society actors and groups that struggled for political and economic reforms. None of those was as significant, salient, and sustainable as Tishreen. Foreign agendas are certainly keeping Tishreen on their radar screen and, like many other political forces in Iraq, attempting to override the movement’s momentum and find commonalities with it. However, the uprising started from the grassroots level. The political class and its foreign supporters are still struggling to build direct dialogue with the protest movement, due to the wide gap between the two in an increasingly identity-polarized and economically class-divided society.

Early Elections (October 2021) as a Test between “Boycotters” and “Participants”

Prominent members of the protest movement and scholar supporters, such as social activists Ihab al-Wazni, Sajjad al-Iraqi, and Safaa al-Saray and security expert Hisham al-Hashimi, were either assassinated or kidnapped and permanently disappeared with hardly any effective governmental prosecution. Such acts discouraged members of Tishreen to trust any civic or peaceful possibility to participate in any election that fails to protect its citizens against political violence committed by influential groups.

The two major opinions dividing Tishreen’s stance toward early elections were either to participate in them and gradually build a role and influence in future governance, or to boycott them as an act of delegitimization of the political system and aim for further achievements as a social movement.

Amid the political violence that exposes a democratic system limited to its electoral element, there are various motives behind the boycott approach. At the core of Tishreen’s objectives is an overhaul of the political system and an end to the ethnic-sectarian quota-based distribution of powers, known as the muhasasa system. Additionally, protesters constantly highlighted the low chances of winning and challenged the purpose of participating in a democratic process that is threatened by armed non-state actors.

At the core of Tishreen’s objectives is an overhaul of the political system and an end to the ethnic-sectarian quota-based distribution of powers, known as the muhasasa system.

The Imtidad Movement, which was born in Dhi Qar governorate and founded and led by prominent activist Alaa al-Rikabi, stood up to criticism regarding effective electoral performance. Imtidad won nine seats, inching close to many powerful veterans of post-2003 Iraqi politics. The movement’s success proved its claims as to the importance and impact of united and organized party politics.

Other Tishreen forces adopted a more organized opposition-oriented approach. For example, on August 10th, al-Bayt al-Watani announced the establishment of a unified political opposition that would build a democratic state and eliminate the muhasasa system. Independent candidates also gained a significant number of seats, although many are skeptical about traditional political parties that utilize the “independent” mask to gain votes from anti-traditional political voters.

Tishreen’s different stances toward the elections were considered a serious and major schism within the movement. However, it is worth noting that the diversity of opinions within the movement, coupled with the collaboration and solidarity among the boycotters and participants in early elections, reflect the integrity and lack of external agendas driving the movement, an accusation leveled by pro-government or pro-Iran parties.

What Is Tishreen’s Influence Today?

Holding early elections was the result of Tishreen’s uprising. Other events also helped produce this outcome, including the escalations that led to the US-Iran confrontations that culminated with the January 2020 assassination of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The rise of a popular discourse against Iranian intervention, the Iraqi government’s slow attempt to limit the PMF’s role in Iraqi politics, and the groups aligned with Ayatollah Ali Sistani—part of the Shia militias—were all results or achievements of a rebellious youth challenging the various layers of the country’s political structure. The parliamentary defeat of the Fatah Alliance (a pro-Iran group that won only 17 seats in the October 2021 election, in contrast to 48 in the election of 2018) is in itself an indicator of how early elections could change Iraq’s political dynamics.

There is a potential agreement-in-formation between Muqtada al-Sadr, Mohammed al-Halbousi, leader of the Taqaddum Alliance and speaker of parliament, and Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

The supporters and groups affiliated with the Fatah Alliance have been protesting against Kadhimi’s government. There is a potential agreement-in-formation between Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party garnered the largest bloc of seats, Mohammed al-Halbousi, leader of the Taqaddum Alliance and speaker of parliament, and Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The protesters are known for being affiliated with the Iran-backed groups of the PMF and the political parties in parliament, such as Fatah and the State of Law coalition led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Future Prospects

If Imtidad manages to maintain its stance as a minor—yet loud—voice of opposition in parliament, and if it continues to have direct communication with prominent boycotters such as al-Bayt al-Watani, then there could be enough time for them (with other parties and groups from the protest movement) to organize themselves for the upcoming provincial elections. Imtidad’s experience in parliament and al-Bayt al-Watani’s history as an organized political opposition should present a diverse set of approaches to ensure the growth of the protest movement’s maturity and transition—from a rebellious movement to a platform of alternative policy roadmaps, one with clearer monitoring of governance, accountability, and public sector performance.

The international community and bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union, and particularly the ones with significant presence in Iraq such as the United States and UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, must recognize the protest movement’s importance in the new Iraq.

The international community and bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union, and particularly the ones with significant presence in Iraq such as the United States and UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, must recognize the protest movement’s importance in the new Iraq. International stakeholders must engage with the protest movement more actively and take firmer steps regarding human rights violations against activists and protesters. Such an international recognition to support and promote the role of civil society in Iraq’s state- and democratic-building process will further encourage the maturation of Tishreen’s various forces and their political performance.

International awareness of the persecution of protesters cannot ignore the identity of the perpetrators: the Iran-backed groups within and beyond the Popular Mobilization Forces. These groups attacked the protesters, who had threatened the status quo with these demands: limit Iranian-interference, end impunity, disarm paramilitary groups, and change the muhasasa system. The same groups that attacked the protesters from the beginning of the protests in 2019 were also the ones that attacked the house of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad on November 7th. The assault is seen as part of a pressure campaign by Iran-backed forces to guarantee their involvement and role in the forthcoming government, one that—ironically—would claim to prioritize less influence and interference from Iran.

The statement from the Iraqi prime minister’s office, in addition to the press statement by the US Department of State which labeled the attack as an “act of terrorism,” are political steps forward in acknowledging the terror of these groups and the threat they pose to state stability. Such acknowledgment is overdue and should have been voiced earlier, when the same groups attacked the peaceful protesters of Tishreen. This should also encourage a conversation between the Iraqi state and its international partners to recognize the actions of Iran-aligned militias, just like they responded to IS actions through an international coalition that ostensibly defeated IS in 2017. The reasons are due to the PMF’s direct threat to the Iraqi state and security forces, its continuous political violence and intimidation against Tishreen protesters, and its activities that encourage the resurgence of IS itself.

Despite Imtidad’s limited influence in the new parliament, there are various policy actions that are already being announced in an attempt to align with Tishreen’s discourse and interests. This reflects the movement’s potential power and authority in any upcoming government. For instance, the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr already announced the disarmament of most of his paramilitary group known as Saraya al-Salam (or Peace Brigades), following his electoral victory, and called on other armed groups to show restraint and keep weapons only in the hands of the state. If the Sadrists manage to guarantee control over the prime minister’s role and enjoy a consensus cabinet with the Taqaddum Alliance and the Kurdish Democratic Party, then Iraq might witness a major decline in the institutional protection and empowerment of paramilitary groups. This would mean that Tishreen, as a peaceful and civic protest movement, was the first consequential, civic, non-sectarian, non-armed, and non-regionally supported act in post-2003 Iraq to push for a major disarmament or decline in paramilitary militarization.

Zeidon Alkinani

Non-resident Research Fellow in Foreign Policy at the IRAM Center for Iranian Studies; Teaching Fellow & Doctoral Candidate at the University of Aberdeen.