Recent protests in Iraq were a shocking surprise to all, including Iraqis themselves and outsiders who have followed the events closely. No one could expect such a big movement in a country that has suffered from occupation, sectarianism, and terrorism during close to two decades. What distinguishes this social movement are the people attending the protests, and their push for not only political reform but a shift in national identity.
In the beginning, the protesters were not taken seriously. They were viewed as a bunch of emotional teenagers who did not know what they wanted, except riot and disorder. But gradually, they imposed themselves on the national stage with a new nationalistic discourse that for a long time was thought to have disappeared with no end in sight.
These young people sacrificed more than 500 martyrs and nearly 25,000 injured and disabled to the nation and they are still holding their positions in the squares and streets, urging the government to listen to their demands. They are not only asking for the government to provide services or jobs, but to give them a homeland, dignity, and respect.
A new generation is rising and building a new political and social discourse disconnected from the conventional one adopted by their parents and grandparents.
This indicates that a new generation is rising and building a new political and social discourse disconnected from the conventional one adopted by their parents and grandparents.
A Horizontal and Dynamic Movement
The current youth-led movement is not a conventional, “vertical” protest movement, where a small group of elitist leaders are connected to groups of coordinators who manage and organize the social base, which comprises the demonstrators on the ground. It does not have leaders, and no one is standing on the top managing all the protests.
Instead, it is formed on a horizontal structure, spread out among the people through social media and shared networks.
It is a dynamic, vibrant, and live movement that adapts to new developments rapidly and organically. When a slogan comes up in one city, it spreads quickly over the whole nation. When protesters face attacks, thousands of people quickly move to the affected area to support them. Although there are different groups protesting in various cities, regions, and sectors, the demands and statements they issue are very similar.
Inclusiveness and Dialogue
The current waves of protests in Iraq are very inclusive. There are secular and religious people, men and women, tribal, rural, and urban folks, all protesting together against corruption, foreign interference, and mismanagement of the economy. They simply ask for a homeland that brings them all under one umbrella, called Iraq, and addresses their needs.
They come from different backgrounds, political affiliations, and religious beliefs, but they are building a common base between them that covers all Iraqis’ demands.
This has opened a wide space for dialogue between Iraqis. In protests areas, you see several tents where people are sitting discussing politics and finding solutions for Iraq’s crisis peacefully. They come from different backgrounds, political affiliations, and religious beliefs, but they are building a common base between them that covers all Iraqis’ demands. They desperately want a sovereign country that provides them with a decent life in a diverse and tolerant nation.
They express themselves through arts, music, and poetry and have built a strong platform for dialogue, welcoming all Iraqis to take a seat at the table and contribute in restructuring a national identity.
Iraq has a long history of being imposed a dogmatic, fascist, and false homogeneous identity. The country has suffered a lot from several attempts to forcibly impose such identities over its people throughout the last century.
The establishment of modern Iraq was built on a Pan-Arabism ideology that excluded its non-Arab population, including Kurds, Assyrians, and others. Then, a series of military coups moved Iraq from one exclusionary ideology to another. All failed in bringing all the people under one inclusive nation-state.
Finally, during the last three decades, Iraq has been under the influence of Islamists of various creeds feeding the rise of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish religious parties, militias, and extremist groups who followed the path of imposing a monolithic identity on all Iraqis.
The young protesters are building a plural identity that brings together national identity and sectarian identities under one whole entity.
The identity that today’s throngs of protesters imagine for Iraq is not dogmatic and monolithic. Instead, they are building a plural identity that brings together national identity and sectarian identities under one whole entity. It is a multilayered and diverse melting pot nation, as Dariush Shayegan argues in his works on cultural identity. It is like a masterwork has emerged from a patchwork of social and cultural networks, connecting Iraqis together as one to their rich history.
These visionaries look at Iraq as a whole, united, and at the same time very diverse land, and they celebrate it. The observer can see art pieces and quotes referring to the ancient history of Iraq, and religious figures from different creeds followed and respected by Iraqis.
Contrary to most revolutions of the past, the protests in Iraq are not what philosopher Jacques Derrida describes as “democracy to come” – a group of angry people working as “a militant and interminable political critique. A weapon aimed at the enemies of democracy, [that] protests against all naivete and every political abuse.”
Their demands are not idealistic and unreachable, but instead realistic and achievable under the current constitution and political process. They are asking for new laws that would organize elections in a just and fair way, an impartial electoral commission to oversee elections fairly, and an independent prime minister with a clean history who can make the country a stable independent state, free from corruption and greed; providing a good standard of living to the people.
After four months of protests, demonstrators have not received a response from the government except live bullets, tear gas, abduction, and plenty of conspiracy accusations of being affiliated with the U.S., Israel, the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, and so on.
Finally, regardless of the fate of these protests and whether they can achieve change in the Iraqi government, the movement will remain a turning point in Iraq’s history. Its impact will continue for a long time, taking the nation toward a civil and vibrant future in a region suffering from deep division and fragmentation.