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The demographics of Iraq’s protest movement

Iraq Protests Across the Ages

The demographics of Iraq’s protest movement
Preparation for another round of protests in Baghdad Photograph: Inna Rudolf

Are the largest protests in Iraq’s history seeing the left's comeback or the birth of a new youth movement? A Communist party veteran and an icon of the 2019 popular protests explain to Iraq researcher Inna Rudolf why they are taking to the streets.

Those who have taken to the streets and squares in protest across Iraq since the beginning of October bridge the generational divide. For some, the latest wave of demonstrations which have swept across the country are part of a decades-long struggle against injustice. Others have been politicised more recently, fighting for their rights freed from both domination and party affiliations.


Young Iraqi women have been particularly visible on the streets. Among their number, Rua’a Khalaf has become emblematic of this strain of political movement. Originally from Kirkuk, she is currently studying financial management and economics and plays an active role in the Women’s Union Forum. This organisation was established to challenge the male domination of the Iraqi trade union movement and strengthen women’s position in the workplace, especially those under the age of 35. Although the 31-year-old accountant expresses some sympathies with the Iraqi Communist Party, much of her work has been dedicated to enacting change outside the traditional party machinery.


Jassim al-Hilfi, on the other hand, is a long-time member of the Iraqi Communist Party’s Politburo and protest veteran. At the last elections in May 2018, his party entered government in coalition with the Sadrist Istiqama bloc, as part of the Alliance Towards Reforms or Sa’airun. Al-Hilfi himself played a crucial role in brokering this political alliance. However, he has simultaneously spoken out in support of the protestors’ demands. He therefore speaks from an interesting position when criticising the very government that he and his party initially endorsed.


Rua’a Khalaf: ‘A lesson for future governments’

The demographics of Iraq’s protest movement
Originally from Kirkuk, Rua’a Khalaf (r.) has been active in the Women’s Union Forum and has become emblematic of a new strain of political movement in Iraq. Rua’a Khalaf

My name is Rua’a Khalaf. I live in Baghdad and I come from a leftist communist family. So, I have inherited from them what everyone inherits from a leftist family background – a free and revolutionary spirit. I have been raised to reject oppression and wrongdoing, and to stand for social justice.


I don’t think that any specific elements have been pulling the strings from afar. But it is fair to say that the popular uprising has not been entirely spontaneous either. It has been mainly promoted through social media channels, with some coordination with certain organisers from previous protests. The momentum from recently increased participation can be attributed to built-up frustration following the failures of the current and previous governments, similar to what caused previous protests. Students have been subjected to repression and attacked with hot water, for example. Those trespassing government areas have been stopped by force. In that sense, the wretched state of the Iraqi citizen was what really sparked these protests


The youth seeks to restore their country and reclaim it from the thieves who have been calling themselves politicians. But they are more like politicians “by accident”. The youth wants to achieve decent living standards for all, especially in a country as wealthy as Iraq. The government report regarding the killing of the demonstrators was unfair and biased in favour of the government, the rights of the demonstrators were forgotten. The government is responsible for these crimes.


Early elections are needed, after the parliament and the presidency have agreed on the steps needed to form an emergency government following the dissolution of parliament. The legislative framework has to be amended to include a new electoral law. A potential new government will be responsible for providing services and realising the protesters’ social demands. Most importantly, this revolution has served as a lesson for future governments, by teaching them that it is the people’s decision as to who governs them, and by reminding them that they work for the people.


Jassem al-Hilfi: ‘A nation built on the notion of citizenship’

The demographics of Iraq’s protest movement
Jassim al-Hilfi (2nd from right) is a long-time member of the Iraqi Communist Party’s Politburo. At the last elections in May 2018, his party entered government in coalition with the Sadrist Istiqama bloc Jassim al-Hilfi

Personally, I support the protests. They reflect everything that we have worked for. When the protests erupted, we were present in person in Tahrir Square. We also cooperated with some of the activists on the ground to help, to provide logistical assistance, like tear gas masks, food, water, etc. We try to offer protestors as much as we can. We have always considered ourselves an integral part of the protest movement, but we do not want to politicise the protests or to advertise the party’s participation in them. Instead, we are involved in our capacity as citizens, representatives of civil society and as members of youth organisations.


Since the start of the protests, the demonstrators’ demands have taken on a larger meaning. From calling for better service provision and a decent livelihood, the main thrust of the protests now includes appeals for statehood, constitutional and structural reform, social justice, and the transformation of a system based on sectarian and ethnic quotas to one built on the notion of citizenship. We try to support this agenda through our media presence, whether on television, in the press, or in different news agencies. We aim to shed light on any rumours and campaigns of intimidation perpetrated by security services and other actors who seek to break the will of the people and to sabotage the protest movement.


There are those who have been trying to confuse the youth in order to prevent these young people from organising themselves. They claim that the involvement of political parties should be rejected, in the hope that when the protests come to an end one day, and the elections are due, these same young people will find themselves structurally unorganised. This will allow the usual suspects to return to parliament. These opportunistic forces are not of any help. They are merely hindering the youth from organising themselves adequately. And young people have realised that these are the groups who hold power.


We have always sided with the masses against the brute force exercised by the authorities. The government’s report into the killing of protestors, in fact, constitutes nothing more than an “administrative” report, and not a political or a judicial report. How can the very government, which is itself accused, initiate a commission of inquiry and task it with investigating the killing of demonstrators by the government’s own repressive apparatus? There should be a commission of inquiry headed by experienced and brave investigators and judges. Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, should be held accountable for the failure to maintain security and to prevent the abuse of Iraqi citizens.


The Sa’airun alliance, of which the Iraqi Communist Party is a part, participated in the formation of the government. Nevertheless, we were unable to dictate the formation of the government alone as deputies of the Sa’airun alliance only amounted to 17% of the parliament. The alliance’s stance was to give the government a year to prove its capacity to govern. The understanding was that if the government begun to implement its program, we would support it and otherwise we would oppose it. We never intended to give Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi unconditional green light, so when he failed to deliver, we demanded that he be held accountable. We need to change the electoral law so that we can transform the system of governance into one which is fair, courageous, and not indebted to any other party.

Inna Rudolf