Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Sadr show goes on

Weeks after the start of his campaign, Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr is having considerable success in presenting himself as a solo player in Iraqi politics, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Another Friday, another breach of Baghdad’s Green Zone. On 20 May, angry anti-government protesters stormed the fortified enclave that houses key government offices and foreign missions in the heart of the beleaguered Iraqi capital.

Only this time round the protesters burst into the elegant compound of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s offices. In keeping with their tactics thus far, the jubilant protesters left the building after briefly taking the seats of the ministers and posing for photographs in the cabinet meeting room.

Yet, the protesters, mostly followers of the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr who has been transforming himself into a national statesman, succeeded in what their leader has been urging them to do for months: to burst the Baghdad government’s bubble. 

As hundreds of protesters stormed the Green Zone, guards fired tear gas and gunshots into the air to drive back the mainly Shia Muslim crowds. At least four demonstrators were killed and scores of others wounded as the crowd rushed into the heavily secured compound which houses the cabinet’s main offices.

Friday’s violence came more than two weeks after the highly fortified area was first breached by Al-Sadr’s supporters in a desperate attempt to force the country’s ruling elite to launch reforms to provide badly needed public services and end rampant corruption.

On 30 April the protesters, answering calls from Al-Sadr, stormed the parliament and forced lawmakers to flee in panic, with some berated and attacked as they left the building.

Other MPs were trapped in the basement for hours, too afraid to face the crowds who blamed the blocs they belonged to for being behind the country’s political stalemate, epidemic security crisis and economic problems.  

While Iraq’s embattled political leaders condemned the breach as an attack on the legislature’s “dignity” and an attempt to spread chaos, Al-Sadr hailed the protest as “the birth of a new Iraq”.

He even declared the storming of the parliament as the “people’s revolution,” making clear that his goal was to transform the anti-government protests into a broader popular uprising.

The security forces at the time largely stood down, allowing the demonstrators to pull down walls and remove barriers. Al-Abadi later replaced the head of the compound’s security and promised that the security forces would not let anything similar happen again.

The outburst came after the parliament had failed to come to an agreement with Al-Abadi to assemble a cabinet of non-partisan experts to be in charge of reforming the government and fighting corruption.

Unlike in the earlier protests in April, Al-Sadr, who said he would go into two-month seclusion in protest over the political blocs’ procrastination over reform, did not call for Friday’s protests.

The weekend’s drama started after Friday prayers. Crowds of mostly young men gathered outside the Green Zone as part of a weekly sit-in to press their demands for reform.

With their numbers swelling into the thousands, the security forces cracked down on the protesters, firing volleys of tear gas in efforts to push the demonstrators back from the area.

The violence quickly escalated, and the protesters who had made it into the enclave rushed towards the prime minister’s offices, ostensibly showing frustration with Al-Abadi’s reluctance to implement the reform programme he had earlier promised.

The violence prompted Al-Abadi to impose a brief curfew in Baghdad, raising fears of a further escalation with the protesters and a possible confrontation between the security forces and Al-Sadr’s Salam Brigades militia.

Though the organisers seemed to have planned to make the events look like a spontaneous demonstration, the imam of the Kufa Mosque near the city of Najaf, who represents Al-Sadr at Friday prayers, called hours before the crowd gathered in Baghdad for Iraqis to “rise up to topple the corrupt [political] class.”

In what seemed to be a direct incitement to turn the public against the government, sheikh Ali Al-Numani said the Iraqi people “bear some responsibility for putting a corrupt government in power”.

Al-Sadr himself reiterated his description of the protests as the “people’s revolution.” In a statement to the protesters released by his office late on Friday Al-Sadr said that “your peaceful revolution will inevitably be triumphant.”

However, the eruption throws more light on Al-Sadr’s strategy and tactics in the open war he has declared on the Al-Abadi government and the ruling Shia groups. Friday’s protests have demonstrated that Al-Sadr is a smart tactician, and he probably has a calculated strategy for change.

After 30 April’s storming of the parliament, Al-Sadr said he would be going into seclusion for two months, probably for religious contemplation or study, leaving his rivals to think he could be running out of energy.

This theory also suggested that Al-Sadr, long dismissed as a firebrand cleric and an unpredictable politician who lacks a well-defined long-term political strategy, might have finally ruled himself out.

Both these scenarios were based on the assumption that Al-Sadr had come under pressure from Iran, which rumours have it has been pushing him to end his revolt out of fears that it could increase political infighting among the Shia groups which control the Iraqi government.

Yet, by emerging from his seclusion to guide the “revolution” Al-Sadr has showed himself to be a man who does not bend. Furthermore, he now seems to have something new up his sleeve.

Al-Sadr’s intention in massing so many people in the heart of Baghdad has now become crystal clear.

By explicitly talking about revolution his aim is no longer to reform the broken governing system or form a cabinet of technocrats in Iraq. Now his goal is to “uproot” the political class which has been in power since the US-led invasion in 2003.

In order to achieve this goal, Al-Sadr is using the power of the streets. He has commanded his populist Sadrist Movement to create mass demonstrations to support his now-explicit campaign to topple the government.

There are three main factors which Al-Sadr could use to create such a would-be revolution of the streets.

First, support among the Iraqi Shia for their political blocs has been eroding. The Shia are becoming increasingly disgruntled with the abysmal performance of their political leaders, along with their greed and corruption.

Only 30 per cent of eligible Shia voters participated in the last elections in, 2014the lowest figure since the Shia blocs took power following the US-led invasion in 2003, and the number is expected to be even lower in 2018.

Al-Sadr’s Al-Ahrar Bloc has 34 seats in the current parliament, and by presenting himself as the standard-bearer of protest he is eyeing the next elections, in which he will want to maximise Al-Ahrar’s chances of getting more seats and being closer to the doors of power.

Second, most of the protesters come from Al-Sadr’s stronghold of Al-Sadr City, Baghdad’s biggest slum, and other traditional tribal and poor constituencies in the country’s southern Shia provinces.

These are disfranchised Shia who feel oppressed, disfranchised and abandoned by their leaders, and they could be Al-Sadr’s biggest assets and his most effective bulwark in his anti-establishment popular revolution.

Third, by reaching out to liberal-minded Shia and Sunni Arabs, Al-Sadr is presenting himself as an Iraqi nationalist leader and not just as a member of the Shia clergy.

By leading a popular revolution to topple the regime founded by the American occupation, Al-Sadr is also posturing as an Iraqi national leader leading a movement aiming to build a new political system to replace the one imposed by the Americans.

By all accounts, the government’s crackdown on the protesters on Friday could be the spark for this mass popular movement, which many Iraqis believe is the only vehicle for change left after the Shia ruling cliques have resisted all calls for reform.

Evidently, Al-Sadr has made himself felt. He has grand ambitions for change and the self-confidence to match. But he has yet to show how he will deliver.

One thing is certain: Baghdad’s kakistocracy is making it easier for him to shape his campaign and for the people to use their power to bring about the much-needed change in Iraq.

It is hard to believe that Al-Sadr’s opponents do not understand the dangers of this campaign or underestimate Al-Sadr’s strategy to resort to street politics to bring about change. 

Following Friday’s upheaval, Al-Abadi accused the protesters of being “surreptitious elements” allied with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party and the Islamic State (IS) group.

Other government leaders condemned the protesters as creating chaos and causing distraction in the war against IS and the current wave of terrorist attacks in and around Baghdad.

This speaks volumes about how ignorant and out of touch, or how craven, the ruling Shia cliques can be. One lesson which they have failed to learn is that the revolutionary fervour will be hard to dissipate with or without Al-Sadr.

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