Mass gathering in Iraq a potential sign of a summer of protests

Supporters of Shia religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr gathered in Baghdad weeks after he withdrew his bloc from parliament.

Supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather for mass Friday prayer in the Sadr City district of Baghdad
Supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather for mass Friday prayer in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq July 15, 2022 [Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]

Prominent Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr may have announced the withdrawal of his bloc from the Iraqi parliament in mid-June but it was clear that did not mean an end to his outsized presence in the country’s politics.

The mass gathering of al-Sadr’s supporters for a prayer session in Baghdad on Friday, a move that may be the beginning of a summer of protests, may be evidence of that.

Protests have long been a hallmark of Sadrist politics in Iraq. The religious leader’s supporters were a big part of the Tishreen protest movement that began in 2019, which eventually led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who left office in May 2020.

But in parliament itself – and despite emerging as the biggest bloc after last year’s elections – the Sadrists were unable to form a government.

Their mass resignation followed; ostensibly it allowed their opponents to fill the empty seats and form a government, but in Iraq popular protests can be just as powerful as parliamentary politics.

“We are now preparing for large protests soon in all Iraqi cities, we are only awaiting the timing of the protests and orders from al-Sadr,” Mohammed Fayyad, a Sadr support in Basra, told Al Jazeera.

“Since 2003 and until now, we have suffered from repetitive crises caused by successive governments, and the only party that will always be harmed by that failure is the Iraqi citizen,” he added.

The 32-year-old Fayyad is a university graduate but has struggled to find work.

Fayyad is typical of many young Iraqis as the country’s official unemployment rate stands at 16.5 percent.

“Our demands in the upcoming protests will include all the rights that will preserve the dignity of Iraqis, such as improving services and providing job opportunities, drinking water, and the major calls for new elections and take down the corrupt parties in power,” Fayyad said. “This summer will be even hotter with the temperature rising, and the increase in protests from the Sadrists.”

The correct decision?

Al-Sadr’s move to withdraw his supporters from parliament was a gamble after the Sadrists were unable to form a government without the support of their fellow Shia opponents, the Iran-backed Coordination Framework Alliance (CFA).

The CFA is now in pole position to form a government, which some analysts believe will backfire on al-Sadr.

Ali al-Baydar, an Iraqi political analyst, told Al Jazeera that he believes al-Sadr’s decision to be a mistake, and that it will hand power to his opponents. However, he also admitted that it was hard to read al-Sadr’s intentions.

“Perhaps al-Sadr has other objectives we do not know of, maybe he is following a strategy to reach power again, in an indirect way,” said al-Baydar. “If he decides to come back it will be his decision alone – either way, I am afraid that this summer will be more intense than in previous years, Tishreen Movement supporters are preparing for protests, and they will be supported by the Sadrists.”

Protests over the summer could potentially lead to armed clashes, as has happened in the past.

Al-Sadr has shifted politically over the years, both choosing to ally and oppose figures such as Nouri al-Maliki, the Iranian-backed former prime minister. His stance means that Iraqi politics continues to have a major Shia-Shia fracture.

It is also not the first time that al-Sadr has announced a withdrawal from the electoral process – last July he did just that, but later reversed his decision.

Will the same happen this time?

“Al-Sadr will try to break into the political scene and take down the government through the upcoming protests,” said al-Baydar. “I expect that the upcoming government will be led by the CFA, but it will be unable to meet the goals of al-Sadr’s push for reform.”

That reform project still has millions of supporters in Iraq, with many tired of the country’s political elites, with the increasing poverty blamed on government corruption.

Ahmed al-Sharifi, an Iraqi political analyst, said that al-Sadr’s decision to withdraw from parliament was correct, arguing that it was “tactical” and not an out-of-the-blue decision.

“Muqtada al-Sadr has a reform programme that earns the support from the people, the religious leaders, and the nation’s will, but when al-Sadr found himself swaying to the will of others, it was important to show that he would not follow what the CFA wanted,” said al-Sharifi. “In addition, al-Sadr’s withdrawal has forced the CFA to confront several unpleasant choices and a problem they will not be able to see themselves out of.”

“Al-Sadr’s supporters, in their millions, will help him recentre himself politically, thus the upcoming protests will be against the current political elite, demanding a complete retransformation,” al-Sharifi added. “The next phase will present two choices: either a Sadrist come back to power in new elections, or, what is potentially more likely, the announcement of the formation of an internationally-backed emergency or national salvation government or a political rescue that is internationally sponsored.”

Source: Al Jazeera