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On the Counter Revolution in Iraq – Part 2

Picture by Ansar Jasim.

“We see the revolution as a revolutionary process, a process that is continuing. We are now in the stage of preparation, we need to mature theoretically, politically, and organizing-wise. It’s important for us that people outside of Iraq understand that this analysis and this position exists inside of Iraq and it needs to spread.”


Neoliberalism and Sadr’s Empty Promises of Reform

Ansar: Given all of what we discussed above (in part 1), why do people still believe in Muqtada al-Sadr?

Jamal Al-Sayigh: He really manages until now to sell himself as a revolutionary to the common people. I saw many people that were actually touched by his speeches, during the recent wave of events and especially when he entered the U.S.-controlled Green Zone – which houses all the main ministries, the parliament, and the U.S. embassy, and had been closed-off to the public until then. I heard this on the streets especially in places like Sadr City where I live, which is a town we usually refer to as the “Revolution City” (Madinat Al-Thawra) per its initial name in 1958. Those are people that are not from Sadr’s traditional constituency, who are not Sadrists at all. They are talking about the hope for change through his proposed reforms. The hope that they could improve their livelihoods. In the end people want an improvement of their conditions, all the people – especially those in populated and precarious quarters, who always find themselves in a hard situation. And any crisis in the world has a direct impact on their daily lives (like the increase in prices of food and goods due to Russia’s war on Ukraine).

I had hoped that the level of awareness and analysis raised through Tashrin would take root and lead to more social awareness. But despite this, Sadr managed to sell himself as a revolutionary and people are buying it, I heard some say: “Who else than him dares to stand up to the system?” and  “He is able to change the status quo” …. Then they mention his reforms as if they are the solution while they actually don’t really understand what these reforms are about.

So I recognized several issues that I want to talk about. The first thing is, people deal with the recent events in an almost sensational way – that finally there is some action again. They deal with it as if there are different teams, and they are supporting one team and this team won. They say: “The Sadrists entered the green zone and they will bring this system to an end!” and “The Coordination Framework should be kicked out of the country!”. People are longing for some victory. Sadr is fueling these sentiments, for example by writing “Happy travelling” on Twitter to the parliamentarians who are now so afraid that they are fleeing the country. So he plays on people’s emotions.

Second, there is a discourse on the streets that compares the situation now to the Tashrin uprising and claims that Tashrin was so weak because it had no leadership or an armed wing. Under this discourse people say: “See, those Tashrinis weren’t able to enter the Green Zone because of their weakness.” So they see Sadr as a revolutionary leader, and his armed Saraya Al-Salam group (which is the predecessor paramilitary group of the Jesh Al-Mahdi) as a power weapon with so much experience having fought the Americans, Daesh, and having taken part in the sectarian war.

Finally, many people say that the Sadrist current has the power and the ability to realize their ambitions, and this is what people are looking for. They manage to sell the idea that “Sadr and the Sadrist current are fighting for those poor people’s rights”.

Ansar: What about Sadr’s fight against corruption?

Jamal Al-Sayigh: So today, Sadr is claiming that he is waging a revolution against corruption. He put forward the idea that the economic crisis in Iraq is caused by state organizations and public institutions. He claims they are the incubators of corruption through practices such as “masked unemployment,” which is when more than one employee is hired for the same exact job but each receives a salary. Sadr also claims that within these organizations, there is regular theft. Indeed, every day we hear of a new document proving that certain organizations in this and that ministry brought in a certain person and this person stole several million dollars. So the Sadrists are blaming the failures of the system on public organizations. The solution they are suggesting is that public organizations have to be dissolved and filled in by the private sector in order to provide better services.

This is the reform the Sadrists want to bring forward while at the same time claiming to represent the class that will suffer the most from such neoliberal reforms.

Neoliberalism in Iraq

Ansar: What is the relation between the neoliberal system and clientelism in Iraq?

Jamal Al-Sayigh: Stagnation in forming the government made the passing and enacting of the state budget impossible. The political parties needed access to their resources, so they invented an emergency law called the law for food security and development.

Usually, the state budget regulates which ministry gets how much money – this really just means how the state money is distributed to the parties and their clientele. But during the political stagnation, distribution wasn’t possible. So, the law was invented to circumvent decision-making on the state budget. The law regulates who gets money and who can get posts in a situation of crisis. This law was passed despite objections from the federal court. It was still presented to the parliament for a vote, where the Sadrist majority passed it, and Sadr started distributing posts. A lot of money was given to ministries under the headline of “development,” for example. So, even without having formed a new government, Sadr had access to state resources. It was at this point that he decided to withdraw from the government formation process.

In addition, the so-called white paper that was proposed after the Tashrin revolution (by the interim government of Al-Kadhimi and supported by Sadr) is a set of economic reforms aiming to liberalize the Iraqi economy. The interesting thing here is that it is framed as an answer to the demands of the Tashrin protesters. But if you dig deeper, you’ll understand that the same reforms were proposed earlier by the Maliki government to deal with the huge surplus Iraq had in its state budget. Now, it was proposed as a way to deal with the huge deficit in the state budget. Of course, these reforms are supported by the International Monetary Fund.

Salam: It’s a big mockery to frame it as an answer to the Tashrin revolution, and to suggest that Al-Kadhmini [Prime Minister of Iraq until October 2022] was brought in by the Tashrin revolution.

Let’s have a further look at neoliberalism in Iraq. I think it’s a really distorted version: can there be neoliberalism while we, at the same time, have the same traditional tribal and religious structures that still rule until today, and are most blatantly visible in the rule of Sadr and the Barzanis [influential Kurdish tribe] and others?

All these political reforms don’t touch the core of the problem. The reforms only give privileges to groups that are loyal, and they are loyal on the basis of receiving even more privileges. Sadr managed then to always appear like he is bringing them those rights. This is of course part of clientelism: we give you this and that, and from the inside you get us the wealth we need. 

Jamal Al-Sayigh: I agree. Usually liberalism and neoliberalism produce a certain mode of production. But here in Iraq we have limited value-added production, but rather a form of feudalism headed by the Sheikh or the clan. The ruling political class kept them in power in order to sustain the system. The Sheikhs get certain privileges for keeping the order. And as long as everything is “in order,” the parties have access to state wealth through the ministries. This is the mutuality in the system and one form how clientelism works here.

Tashrin Revolution and the Left

Ansar: In these last events, where do we find the forces of Tashrin to whom you also belong? There are Tashrinis who participated in the elections, how do they see the situation now? Where do you stand? What is your analysis and what is the strategy of the left in this struggle?

Salam: Let us look at the political map of which this force is part of. If we start with the leftist parties in Iraq, we know that the leftist parties that participated in the system took a submissive position. For us, parties like the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) are not so far away from the system. Of course, the ICP has its audience and is clearly present in society. The other leftist parties, like the Workers Communist Party and others have their difference and similarities, but what brings them together is their refusal of the political process within the current system. But they are isolated parties, they don’t have a strong base within society and are not capable of mass mobilization. There are several reasons for this; some of these parties are too focused on themselves and their work. It’s not enough that you refuse the system and then think you get out in the morning on the street and find the audience around you readymade. This is not how it works and it’s not that easy.

Let’s come back to the map of Tashrin protesters, which included even the Sadrists. We need to add to this map that Tashrin also produced new leftist formations, among them our movement.

Parts of the Tashrin movement went towards electoral politics. Another part, like us, refused and actively boycotted the so-called “early re-elections.” Those who participated and were elected either as parties like the “Imtidad” or as independents, found themselves in front of a system that had clear procedures: be part of the system. There was no horizon for them. The situation reached the level that they became part of the power sharing system (including for example that the deputy speaker of the parliament has to be appointed from their party, etc.). So, the system adapted them to itself as it likes. They have no choice and no chance within this system.

But the stance of the Tashrinis who didn’t participate in the elections was split. One part went with Sadr during his latest mobilization and entered the parliament with him. Of course, it was a mistake because they were not an autonomous force anymore: if they would withdraw, would Sadr withdraw with them?

All of them face the same question: If the Coordination Framework doesn’t attend the parliamentary sessions, would you attend or not? If you attend, you are with Sadr, if you don’t, then you are with the Coordination Framework.

The other part, we call a movement, and many of the Tashrinis went deeper into this direction. This opinion is present in society as well. We put forward these questions: Why is Tashrin a real intifada? People gave their lives. How come Sadr managed to enter the parliament while Tashrin not only didn’t manage, but for months had street fights on the roads and bridges that lead to the Green Zone…? The answer can only be that he is part of the system.

But I am optimistic, even though I drew a dark little picture. Probably another camp will now appear since there are people who refuse them all. Many protesters still remember the violence they endured due to the Sadrists who entered the uprising and hit them as Blue Helmets. They also didn’t forget the targeted assassinations following Tashrin. There is no answer to the system’s crisis from within the system. The next big mobilization will go against the system as a whole.

Jamal Al-Sayigh: Concerning the movement of society, I think the needs of the people lead them to deal with processes through political events like Tashrin Intifada. This is what brought all of the ideas in the heart of this square together. Here started the topic of the development of a new force, and the topic of the reproduction of another force was also present. Sadr felt that it is necessary he be present in the midst of this intifada, although it was clear that he would not be able to play the usual role of representing it. The Sadrist Current was aware that it would lose its audience if it has no presence at all. So, it was present in order to preserve the system. Although he had done this all along, this time it was just very clear. The conflicting lines within society became evident through Tashrin. One part demanding foreign intervention, another national liberation, and another wanting to preserve the system.

Photo by Ansar Jasim. Writings on the wall: “1700 [people], we will not forget you. We want housing, not rent. We want healthcare, not death. We want education, not [illegible]. We want an [independent] military, not [biased] followers. We want factories, not unemployment. We want peace, not terrorism”.

Ansar: Can you take us through some of these developing positions?

Jamal Al-Sayigh: On the one hand, there was a clear bourgeois current that was supporting Tashrin as it felt that the bourgeoisie was harmed by the economic system, and that a regime change would allow a better integration into a market economy and the world market. This force thinks that it can produce a political segment that can represent it and its interests. They propagated Tashrin as a bourgeois revolution. Maybe this was even one of the strongest currents.

And on the other hand, there is also a current that advocated for a radical change of the system. This was the discourse which really represented the needs of the people and which is the main motor for this social movement that developed into protests and a series of political events. All of these currents were struggling in the intifada. And these currents also brought their extensions. During the intifada, organizations like the USAID, NDI, etc. …were working extensively, making conferences and propagating the participation in elections and a change from within the system. You could see their influence, transforming groups that were present in tents on the protest squares into political parties participating in the system in this fast manner. Many of them actually support neoliberal reforms in cooperation with the existing forces within the system, and as Salam said; so that this system can adapt in order to prevail for a longer time.

Tashrin didn’t just produce a true oppositional force that is going to represent the needs of the people, and that’s important to understand. At the same time, many groups developed which really represent the aspirations of the people, and we consider that we grew out of them. And like I said, there are movements and groups that took the radical position towards the system.

“We are a socialist movement that was brought forward by Tashrin. A movement that goes towards a radical change and adopts the speech of system change and we don’t believe in any kind of alliance with the system”


Ansar: So why do you choose to make a revolutionary formation?

Jamal Al-Sayigh: Not all choices are made in sessions and salons. In the end, the needs of the people and of the working class became clear, and we went towards our needs. So, whoever claimed to wave the flag of revolution obviously was not close to the people and their needs and practiced opportunism and made a clientelist relation with the system to reach posts. The need of society is that this social force has a true representative, and that this flag is held up by people that have a message that really mirrors the aspirations of the people. We felt it was necessary that we are present. The movement of society put it on us to be present and produced us (as a movement). In the end it produced several movements.

We are a socialist movement that was brought forward by Tashrin. A movement that goes towards a radical change and adopts the speech of system change and we don’t believe in any kind of alliance with the system or any of the forces participating as we consider them criminals. Our goal is to build some institutional structure to produce an environment that turns our approach into a strong current in society. We are open to cooperate with all the forces that demand a radical change and that we can agree with on a minimum of commonalities. We are very active amongst students and managed to radicalize some demands of workers’ unions. We need to be stronger on the feminist front. We believe that the movement of the society is able to make this change, and we consider ourselves to be part of the society and a product of this society.

Ansar: What is your strategy as part of the Left in Iraq to confront this counter revolution? And we as global Left or internationalist left, what is demanded from us in this struggle?

Salam: To be frank, we talk about a small movement. We would exaggerate if we said we could make the counter-revolution fail. As attempts, we try to underline that this is a struggle between different discourses. It’s struggle between the wings of the system, and this is a counter-regime that wants to reproduce itself. We need to bring this analysis forward among the Tashrinia. It has its roots; we can build on this position. Maybe at some point the people can realize that the contradicting movements within and outside of the system will cause disappointment. As part of our long-term strategy, we come to build a real organization that is able to adopt a politics – maybe in the coming intifada – as we learnt that the last one had no leadership or clear political visions. So if we manage to empower the uprisers, maybe they will face the system in a better and organized way and with more maturity. We see the revolution as a revolutionary process, a process that is continuing. We are now in the stage of preparation, we need to mature theoretically, politically, and organizing-wise. We take the time to put forward many questions, to read, to discuss, to train. In the moment of the coming intifada, and in my opinion, it will come for sure, we need to be prepared from all the dimensions for this challenge. If we want to confront the counter-revolution, we need to point this intifada in the right direction. And in order to be able to do so, we need to build the right structure, right cadres, to deepen our anchoring within society. This is the part we have to realize. It’s important for us that people outside of Iraq understand that this analysis and this position exists inside of Iraq and it needs to spread.

From this starting point, our comrades in the world can support us.

Jamal Al-Sayigh: This is the strategy, we need to anchor this socialist current more, and we need to try to network with all the similar movements to strengthen this current – this means to connect with all the leftist forces within Iraq that have a radical message and the global left and try to find ways to cooperate.

Ansar: Thank you for your time and candid reflections.

Ansar Jasim is a political scientist. She is interested in civil society movements and transnational solidarity from a theoretical and practical perspective with special focus on Syria and Iraq.

Jamal Al-Sayigh and Salam Al-Akhdar are socialist activists of the Harakat Al-Amal (Workers´ movement) formed as a result of the October 2019 uprising in Iraq. Both grew up and are politically active in the area that is commonly understood to be a strong hold of Muqtada Sadr, Sadr City in Baghdad.