Guest Contributor Zeinab Shukur is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on the political economy of the MENA region, with special reference to Iraq's past and present.
In October 2019, large groups of Iraqis - mostly, but not limited to, students and unemployed youth - marched, in one of the most massive protests in the modern Iraqi state, to city centers across the country demanding social, economic, and political change. Their protests have become known as the October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen).
These protests were the results of the Iraqi population’s frustration with an increasingly corrupt political system; frustration with the increasing levels of poverty in this oil-rich country; frustration with the neglect cities and their residents have experienced since and before 2003; and frustration with the greed of Islamist political parties which have turned the country into their personal gold mine.
With increasing levels of corruption, state and resource mismanagement, and a bloated public sector, youth and recent university graduates - Iraqi youth under 30 make up around 70 percent of the population - faced high levels of unemployment; in 2019, youth unemployment reached as much as 17% among men, and 27% among women.
|Unemployed Iraqis wait for daily employment opportunities|
According to a 2019 Borgen Report, the quality of Iraq’s critical infrastructure, such as access to water and sanitation, has deteriorated to the point that only 9% of the poor and 13% of the non-poor have access to a stable supply of water, with poverty rates reaching an overall rate of 18.9% in the country. These dire economic, social, and political conditions have mobilized people, many of whom had no previous interest or history of social and political protest, to take to the streets. The Borgen Report - Poverty in Iraq
Political activism, and a thriving civil society, are not new to Iraq. During the 1940s and the 1950s, the country saw waves of protests among youth and the working class - mostly organized by the left - against colonial influence, as well as political and economic injustices.
During al-Wathba (the Great Leap) of 1948, scores of students and workers filled the streets of Baghdad to protest against the Portsmouth Treaty, and were brutally suppressed and killed on a Baghdad bridge on the Tigris river -- later named Jisr al-Shuhada’ (Martyrs Bridge) -- in memory of the fallen.
|Youth protestors on the Bridge of the Republic|
In 2019, a new generation of Iraqis poured onto another bridge -- Jisr al-Jumhuriya (the Bridge of the Republic) - also to be met with live rounds of bullets but also skull-piercing tear gas grenades. And like 1948, the protesters relied on symbols, images, music, and different forms of artistic expression to express their economic and political anger and alienation, and the depth of their pain. One of the most prominent examples was the elegy of the great Iraqi poet, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, to his slain brother, Ja’far.
Examining the art of the uprising is particularly important, since it provides us with an insight into the nature and the future of this powerful social movement, the October Revolution. Art plays an important role in social movements, both as a tool of framing and as a tool of resource mobilization. According to Edelman (1995:2): “Works of art generate the ideas about leadership, bravery, cowardice, altruism, dangers, authority, and fantasies about the future that people typically assume to be reflections of their own observations and reasoning.” Furthermore, social movements use artistic expression to facilitate internal communication, as well as communicate with the larger society. Thus, art is used to raise awareness and societal consciousness.
|Youth protest art inspired by Iraqi artist Jawad Salim|
For example, songs and slogans recruit individuals through providing reassuring emotional messages, play on the spirituality of the general population, connect with important moments in the nation’s history, and create a sense of hope that change is possible. Once the movement starts, art allows its momentum to continue, by creating a feeling of solidarity, and group and collective unity.
Chaffe (1993:30) argues that protest art in general under undemocratic governments plays the role of “psychological warfare against the dominant culture and elite and reveals an emerging subterranean movement. This is threatening because it connotes a prelude to an organized opposition, or the existence of one...The act [of producing street art] symbolizes a culture of resistance exists that dictators pretend to ignore.”
Like most social movements, the 2019 uprising confronted a hostile and established political environment with very different interests vis-a-vis the protesters. And here is where the importance of the 2019 uprising lies in terms of what it tells us about the Iraqi society. While all anti-government movements face hostility from the established order, the 2019 protesters faced an added challenge that even their 1948 counterparts failed to experience in the same way - the challenge of a long undermined and weak civil society and sense of public space.
Politically, the country has witnessed years of authoritarian political practices. Saddam Husayn virtually monopolized power within the country for 30 years, eliminating most forms of political expression which were outside his control. Following its toppling in 2003, the autocratic Ba’thist state was followed by a political vacuum composed of competing factions and religious-political parties with an invested interest in maintaining an oppressive political structure based on a network of loyalties and patronage.
Political oppression, combined with years of war and economic hardship, left the Iraqi population alienated from the political process with little faith in political parties or political promises. In different interviews with activists in Iraq in 2016 and 2017, almost everyone I spoke to expressed their rejection, and often hostility, when I mentioned the need for a formal political party to organize the population against the well-funded and well-organized religious-political parties which dominate politics and the economy.
|Iraqi youth protestors on the Turkish Restaurant in Baghdad's Liberation Square|
Furthermore, the 2019 uprising came on the heel of over a decade of protests across the country demanding political and economic change. These protests were met with varying degrees of brutality and oppression from the political elites, including but not limited to the kidnapping and murder of activists, journalists, and organizers.
Since 2003, the danger of the Islamist political parties running the country is not limited to their ability to mobilize resources, weapons, and men to brutally oppress all who threaten their political hegemony. The larger danger is that these groups have formed a state within a state. Their political and financial power has enabled them to weaponize sectarian and tribal identities, and claim religious imagery to their advantage.
In political science and sociological research, scholars have long established that leaders cannot rely purely on the use of force to maintain their power. It is necessary that political elites acquire at least some modicum of legitimacy if they are to sustain their rule. And the different competing religious-political parties in the country have not only relied on the use of force but have also attempted to create a hegemonic system of ideas, images, and thoughts to protect their interests through promoting a disingenuous Islamist ideology.
Against this backdrop, the largely peaceful October 2019 uprising arrived on the Iraqi political scene. Protesters realized that, if their demands were to be heard, they must frame their movement’s goals successfully. Snow and Benford (1988:198) argue that social movements “actively engaged in the production of meaning for participants, antagonists, and observers...They frame, or assign meaning to and interpret, relevant events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support, and to demobilize antagonists”
|Art is central to the October Revolution's struggle|
Thus, protesters did not simply frame their grievances against an unjust political and economic system, but also framed their movement against the political elites’ hegemonic project, the same project which dominated Iraqi society for generations. One of the most powerful “devices” the protesters used was to reclaim religious identities, based in tolerance and pluralism of belief, and separate religion from politics, thus demonstrating the political elites' hypocrisy. As indicated earlier, contemporary Iraqi political elites rely heavily on utilizing religious imagery and language to legitimize their control of the state.
Protesters have countered the political elites with slogans like “Bism al-din, bakona al-haramiya” or, “In the name of religion, the thieves have robbed us.” This slogan has been one of the most utilized and effective in the protests. First, it created a separation between religion as an institution, onto itself, and its use by political cliques who seek to manipulate it. Second, the protests’ slogans have demystified the political elites, by calling them thieves, who often legitimize their right to rule by blending it with their supposed religious authority.
|Youth protestors stand before a painting of Imam 'Ali|
Furthermore, the October Revolution is not an attack on religion, which would have alienated a large portion of the Iraqi population which views religion as an important moral code. Rather, it is a reclaiming of religious identity and taking away the most significant source of legitimacy from the current political elite. The protests’ methods signify another form of reclaiming religious identities and national historical memory. The large number of protesters, mostly youth, took their peaceful resistance to religious spaces during Shi’a religious ceremonies and rituals.
The Arbaeen celebration, one of the most significant symbolic religious moments in the Shi’a ethos, and the largest peaceful gathering in the world, commemorates the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. In Shi’a belief, Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, is a symbol of revolutions and protest against oppressive rulers. Since 2003, Shi’a political elites have invested funds in these commemorations to cement their legitimacy and to mobilize voter support for elections.
But art serves another purpose beyond the reclaiming of religious identities. On the walls of the 15-store shell structures of Baghdad’s Turkish Restaurant, self-declared stronghold of the anti-government protesters, the walls and the first five floors became the official art venue and gallery of the October Revolution. Tahrir Square was another creative hub in Baghdad, where art covered the underpasses, the green space behind it, and the streets leading into it.
The political art covering the streets depicts the faces of women and men of the uprising and the violence they faced at the hands of the security forces. More than 600 protesters have been killed and thousands injured. One of those was Safaa al-Sarai, a human rights activist, poet, painter, and one of the first killed in the protests at the hands of security forces. His face was painted on the walls of the city, in a fashion similar to those iconic images of Che Guevara. Individualized portraits of those killed are a common subject of the October Revolution.
|One of the October Revolution's first martyrs - Safaa al-Sarai|
On other walls, one can see images of lions, a symbol of Iraq dating back to the Assyrian period. The walls were also painted with images of the alternative country the protesters envisioned - images of women empowerment, like Rosie the Riveter with an Iraqi flag on her check, images of economic commentary, like a red tuk tuk flying out of the roof. The tuk tuk became the protesters’ mascot, and the unofficial front line ambulance - a three-wheeled vehicle transporting the country’s working class as opposed to the tinted windows of the government officials’ high-end vehicles.
|The tuk tuk - the mascot of the October Revolution|
Where the public space has often been dominated by men, the October uprising came to be a turning point for women who constitute an active part of the movement and its art. This moment brings back memories of another time where women played a significant role in Iraq’s public sphere. The memory of Bahija comes to mind, the brave woman who in 1948 marched against the Portsmouth Treaty, and later her death and that of her comrades prevented the treaty’s ratification.
|Rosie the Riveter - according to the October Revolution|
In a traditionally patriarchal society, especially with the rise of traditional forms of societal control in the form of tribal and religious values designed to enhance male control of women, women’s participation and leading role in the October Revolution signifies one of the most powerful forms of challenging the social, political and cultural structures created by the ruling political parties. Murals, often produced by women, sprung up across the capital, Baghdad, creating a collective community for women to reclaim their identity and reshape their marginalized position in society into one of empowerment.
|Iraqi women are active agents in the October Revolution|
While the walls were covered with murals documenting the October Revolution, and connecting it to Iraq’s ancient history, there were few anti-American messages. Even after the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), by the United States, in January 2020, the outrage came from the supporters of the pro-Iran groups, rather than the protesters still occupying Iraq’s public spaces.
|A view most Iraqis share - Iran must end its political control of Iraq|
Anti-Americanism has been a constant feature of pro-Iran religious-political parties’ public expression. For the October protesters to choose to separate themselves and their art from the anti-American messages does not necessarily indicate support of the United States or its policy in the country, but rather is a commentary against the dominant political players who refuse to address Iraq’s massive political corruption and pressing social needs.
|The ancient Sumerian word "Amag'i" means freedom - the October Revolution's goal|
Beyond art, Baghdad and other cities came to life with acts of civic engagement, such as cleaning the city centers, food preparation, and fixing damaged streets. Acts of reclaiming cities and homes that were deformed by concrete walls, barriers, and neglect have been seen in all cities in which youth demonstrations have occurred. In addition to visual art, theater, performing art, poetry, and songs have filled public spaces.
Music as a framing device works on the emotional and cognitive levels. Songs of the uprising combine traditional Iraqi music with current social and economic problems, such as the lack of services and lack of jobs. Through artistic expression, protestors’ stories have reached thousands of Iraqis in their homes, inside and outside the country. For the first time in many years, Iraqi cities came alive with sounds and colors.
In addition to framing, resource mobilization is another determining factor of the success of social movements. In the social movement literature, resource mobilization signifies the ability of the movement leaders to create a formal organizational structure, via a process of resource control, linkage with other groups, and obtaining external support. This formal organizational structure allows negotiation with political elites, representation in the political process, and future organization once the momentum of the initial uprising slows down.
As indicated earlier, the protestors’ general mistrust of political parties, and the overall weakness of Iraq’s civil society, hindered the ability of protesters to formalize their uprising - a necessary step in most successful social movements. This is one possible explanation for why the October Revolution was difficult to sustain once the initial wave of demonstrations slowed down.
During the past year, many of the protestors’ grievances have yet to be addressed. However, that doesn’t mean that the protesters haven’t made important gains. The movement forced Prime Minister ‘Adel ‘Abd al-Mahdi to resign, and ultimately leading to the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the new Prime Minister. al-Kadhimi has shown a serious interest in addressing the protesters' demands and, since his appointment, has set June 6, 2021 as the date for early parliamentary elections.
While one of the protestors’ major demands, a new election law which would allow for disrupting the traditional system of power, has not yet been achieved, the protests have at least started that political conversation. On October 25, 2020 protesters are expected to march again to the streets to celebrate the first anniversary of their uprising.
|Iraqi youth celebrate the 1st anniversary of Thawrat Tishreen|
Many factors will likely lead to a smaller showing this time around, such as Covid-19 restrictions, fragmentation among the protesters, and the continued violence used against the protesters and civic leaders. Yet, the October uprising represents a turning point in Iraq’s historical narrative. For the first time in a long time, a new Iraqi generation can see the possibility of a better future.