In the analysis of recent mass protest movements—whether in the global North, such as the gilets jaunes in France, or in the global South, such as in Chile, Haiti, Sudan, Lebanon, or Iraq—terms such as civil society, social movement, popular protest, and grassroots organizing are used interchangeably by social scientists. It is not always clear for analysts or observers what makes a specific mobilization a “civil society” or a “popular” one. In Iraq, the word madani (civil or civic) is often used along with sha‘bi (popular) to describe the recent protests that turned into a massive uprising.
The recent uprising began in early October 2019 and grew into a spontaneous and leaderless protest movement that quickly spread across Iraq, with a strong presence in the Shi‘a-dominated central and southern provinces, including cites such as Najaf, Karbala, Nasryia, and Basra. Initial demands for functioning state services, such as clean water and electricity provision, and an end to the sectarian political system—commonly called the muhasasa system—and widespread corruption quickly gave way to more radical demands and calls for a revolution. Protestors began chanting slogans such as, “There is no homeland,” “We want a country,” and the 2011 Arab uprisings’ most common refrain, “The people want the fall of the regime.” The remarkable scale of millions of Iraqis rising up in largely peaceful protest across the country has been matched by an equally remarkable scale of violent repression: more than seven hundred people have been killed and more than twenty-five thousand wounded by government and militia groups using live ammunition, machine guns, stun grenades, anti-riot tanks, and military grade tear gas.
Despite the repression, protestors have demonstrated a firm commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience. The protests are led by youth and the disenfranchised, including many women, and aided by tuk-tuk taxi drivers from lower-class neighborhoods, but Iraqis from all backgrounds have joined. Unions, syndicates, and students of all levels have been on strike and calling for civil disobedience. The unprecedented size and socioeconomic diversity of the uprising indicates not only a rebellion against toxic living conditions and corruption found in other regional uprisings but also a rejection of the political system. Protestors put forward the notion of madaniyya (that could be translated as civicness), which expresses a rejection of both the muhasasa system established in 2003 by the US occupation that determines political representation based on communal identities (religious, ethnic, or sectarian), and the hegemony of religious parties and their armed groups and militias. The notion of madaniyya also embodies a mode of citizenship and governance based on resources redistribution, access to services as well as sectarian equity. The protests were expressed as patriotic and oppose all foreign influence in the country.
Former waves of protests paved the way to the current uprising. The 2015 protests, for example, used the slogan, bis mil-din baguna al-haramiya (“in the name of religion we were robbed by looters”), expressing a rejection of the religious and sectarian political elite brought to power in 2003. The sociologist Ali Taher Al-Hamoud argues convincingly that the 2015 protests were the protest of a middle class seeking to assert itself after decades of silence. The end of the UN sanctions in 2003 saw the reemergence of this class previously destroyed by the economic crisis and successive wars. As rightly pointed out by Faleh Abdul Jabar, the 2015 wave of protest marked the rise of “issue politics.” as opposed to ethnic, religious, and sectarian identity politics.
The following wave of protests erupted in 2018 in Basra, an oil rich province from which most Iraq’s wealth is extracted, but which suffers from a severe lack of public infrastructure and nonexistent basic services. This wave of protests was different than those of 2015 in that it refused formal leadership and avoided political parties and any centralized organization. The Basra protests were composed mainly of educated and noneducated young men who rejected the political system altogether and demanded a change of the regime. Their protest was no longer simply against the sectarian muhasasa, as the protests were mainly intrasectarian, but instead directed toward the need for a radical change of system and a functioning state that could provide for the people. It is from the Basra protests that the now commonly heard slogans such as “No to political parties” and “We want a homeland” began to circulate in Iraq.
The 2019 uprising shows the development of social and political revolutionary modes of action and expression that exceed any previous protest movement in the country. The youth-led protestors of Iraq are calling for a “new country” as the uprising surpasses narrowly defined political demands concerning electoral politics and legal reforms. The uprising challenges dominant conservative societal norms and develops through collective actions and organizing new codes of conduct, sense of belonging, and inclusive community-building. Its inclusivity is unprecedented. Young women of all classes feel safe and comfortable in these new spaces and participate in the uprising at all levels, from the front line to cooking and providing medical care to the wounded. Differently-abled individuals, as well as individuals living in precarious and informal housing, also take part in the protests.
Protestors are developing original ways to express a sense of belonging to the country and are proposing creative modes of sociability that transgress social and political hierarchies. The uprising creates new spaces liberated from state power, such as the abandoned building commonly called the Turkish restaurant in front of Tahrir Square central Baghdad. This building is the rear base of the uprising and has been renamed Uhud Mountain in reference to the prophetic battle of Uhud between the early Muslims and their Qurayshi Meccan enemies. In the squares of protests such as Tahrir Square and Al-Habubi Square in Nasriya, protestors create their miniature society under the tents where thousands of them live. They have established their own journals and radio channels, distribute free food, and offer all kinds of free services (from drugs to hairdressing). The protestors are, in effect, establishing new “state forms” by providing free health, education, and cultural services. They are organizing street cleanings and re-paintings, as well as the restoration of public monuments and the beautification of public spaces through original art and design.
In researching the recent waves of protest in Iraq, I came across several conceptual and theoretical frames. The term “new civil society” was coined by Paul Gready and Simon Robins to critique reductive conceptions of civil society associated with human rights NGOs. If civil society is understood as the sphere outside of the state and the economic market, “old civil society” privileges working with the state, while “new civil society” insists on autonomy and independence from it. Their critique resonates with Palestinian feminist scholar Islah Jad’s notion of NGOisation, which describes NGOs’ modes of action as defined by “small project logic,” hierarchical decision making, and de-politicizing professionalization, especially in many countries in the Middle East where neocolonial and neoliberal interventions are hidden under “democratization” agendas. In many ways the Iraqi uprising radically challenges the state in occupying and reappropriating public space, and in providing its own “state forms” through various kinds of services and collective actions. Iraqi protestors could also be compared with Mary Kaldor and Sabine Selchow’s “subterranean political actors,” concerned with democracy not as it is practiced through institutions but rather through collective actions, horizontality, and leaderlessness in the squares or the internet.
Nancy Fraser’s analytical distinction between politics of redistribution and recognition is also interesting to consider as it tackles the nature of the protestors’ demands. The widespread participation of young women in the Iraqi uprising highlights how the demand for economic redistribution is as central as the demands for freedom, indicated by the slogan, “We want to live a life.” Protestors also demand freedom—freedom not be killed for the religion or sect they belong to or refuse to identify with, freedom of being religious or not, freedom to dress as they please, circulate, travel, the freedom not to conform.
The sociologist Asef Bayat’s notion of “refolutions” is also interesting to consider. It describes the 2011 movement of protests in Arab countries as lacking the kind of economic and political radicalism that characterized other twentieth-century revolutions that were socialist, anti-imperialist, and anticapitalist. For Bayat, Arab revolutionaries composed of educated lower middle class and middle class protestors were more preoccupied with the broad issues of human rights, political accountability, and legal reform. The 2015 Iraqi protestors could perhaps be referred to as “refolutionaries,” while the 2018 Basra protest and the 2019 uprising resemble in many ways what Bayat calls “nonmovements” representing the millions of subalterns, the urban poor, the dispossessed living in the ‘ashwaiyyat (slums or informal housing). Tahrir Square and Al-Habubi Square are indeed expressions of the multiple ways in which urban inhabitants challenge the propertied, the powerful, and the public in their quest for survival and bettering their lives.
The madani (civil/civic) and the sha‘bi (popular) are imbricated in the 2019 uprising in Iraq. The current movement exceeds “issue politics” or the redistribution-recognition dilemma. Through grassroots collective organizing and the production of new spaces in which new codes of conduct are created, the Iraqi uprising is as much societal as it is political. Iraqi millennials are challenging dominant societal and political norms and hierarchies, including religious and gender norms. It is a generation that is creating new imaginaries of belonging and new modes of civicness and social life.