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Iraq Protests Battle for State Sovereignty

In October of 2019, Iraq witnessed the launch of a mass protest movement known as the "October Revolution," with the slogan “We Want a Homeland” (نريد وطن ), which has become the movement’s online hashtag and raison d’être.

In October of 2019, Iraq witnessed the launch of a mass protest movement known as the “October Revolution,” with the slogan “We Want a Homeland” (نريد وطن ), which has become the movement’s online hashtag and raison d’être.

This slogan must not be misunderstood. Even with internal territory disputes, Iraqis do have a delineated land on which to live. The slogan connotes the desire for a sense of belonging—to a larger collective; a united society; a state in which Iraqis would not feel estranged. This social and political estrangement has been imposed by governments whose authority and legitimacy protesters do not recognize. Protesters vocally reject the ethnosectarian political fragmentation imposed by a political elite who claim pluralistic representation while excluding minorities, and who override popular vote with party quotas while purporting to be democratic. There is vocal and notable deficit of social trust in state institutions, which partially exists for enabling Iran-backed militias’ criminal impunity and threats to sovereignty.

These militias have been particularly active since early 2020 when the U.S. assassinated Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes in Baghdad. Since the assassination, much of the discourse on developments in Iraq have been through the lens of the U.S.–Iran proxy war. This was exacerbated when the U.S. warned that it may shut down its embassy in Baghdad unless the Iraqi government reined in these militias. This focus on foreign relations has quite visibly left out the voices of Iraqi citizens.

Such an approach to state sovereignty in policy and political analysis references conventional definitions from which literature on the topic has been evolving towards more hybrid and divided models. Even so, there seems to be a common misconception of a population’s role in the recognition of state sovereignty, which is in fact central. The people residing within a state’s delineated territory and subject to governance are central to statehood. Their government’s recognition by foreign entities does not override or have primacy over theirs in theory, nor should it do so in practice at the expense of democracy and self-determination. Therefore, when analysis views Iraqi sovereignty purely through the lens of a US-Iran proxy war while Iraqi protesters chant “Stooge, toady, to hell with Iran and the US!” in a clear rejection of all sides meddling in Iraqi politics and their enablers, it appears disconnected from developments surrounding protests on the ground. It excludes popular and pluralistic Iraqi voices, giving no regard for societies and their ability to reshape politics, and denying their sovereign agency.

Such denial of popular agency and voices is evident in an article by a former Iraqi cabinet member, where he explicitly argues that Iraq needs not a revolution to see progress, but an “evolution” in people’s mindsets. He proposes a “manifesto” he had drafted years ago for reference as crucial to the reformation of a social contract, a national identity, and the protection of state sovereignty. A revolution, according to him, slows down progress; people must “evolve” past it and its emotional nature.

This represents a prime example of how Iraqis’ rightful emotions, legitimate demands, and importance in the state-building process are downplayed. Worse, it is an example of how Iraqis’ decades-long fight for self-determination is demonized as a barrier to progress rather than a crucial component of the state-building process. With a corrupt government in place and no accountability, how can Iraqi society trust that it will manage the current economic crisis fairly? 

Such approaches fail to realize that state sovereignty and building come hand-in-hand with popular sovereignty. The recognition of a state as sovereign, despite its people’s disenfranchisement, has allowed the same political elite to rule for over 17 years under the guise of consociationalism—a system where an ethnosectarian quota overrides popular vote is not one designed to empower or represent popular voices. Iraqi society largely feels unrepresented politically, which is why many support the Iraqi protests, even if not directly involved. To them, the protest movement expresses their grievances and speaks to the many issues plaguing Iraqi society and politics.

Furthermore, like any other protest movement, Iraq’s October Revolution is rooted in emotions emerging from real, lived experience and are far from the irrationality which critics cite. In Iraq’s context, it is the lived experience under ruthless dictatorship, kleptocracy, terrorism, and political gaslighting. Collective emotion particularly arises out of structural issues. When an ethnosectarian quota is imposed constitutionally and politically, xenophobia is legitimized. When misogyny is institutionalized, women and girls are disenfranchised. When minority communities—like Yazidis and Assyrianslack constitution protections, their existence is compromised. When militias commit crimes with impunity, public terror is normalized. In turn, the political establishment effectively drives and motivates the protest movement.

When Adil Abdul Mahdi’s government shut down the internet to silence protesters, it inadvertently legitimized their movement, illustrating the very systems of oppression that protesters  want to dismantle. When snipers shot at protesters, they turned protesters into martyrs—fallen protesters commemorated as symbols of the movement. Forceful disappearances of activists and protesters have become the new norm. The greater the violence against protesters and activists, the greater their determination. What motivates people to mobilize and protest is their own very disenfranchisement. As such, the Iraqi protest movement turned into much more than an anti-corruption and anti-establishment movement.

Social movements are, by nature, “cauldrons of emotion at the boil.” The dismissal of collective emotion means willful disregard for people’s grievances and lived experiences; it is complicity in injustice. Systemic problems are never solved when overlooked, downplayed, or treated as irrelevant.

Moreover, public, collective emotion in the October Revolution has not only been anger- and grievance-focused. It has celebrated the joy and pride of collective mobilization and civil rights. Collective emotion has included not only fear and indignation, but pride as well. By demanding political, economic, and social justice, Iraqi protesters demonstrate that they are living constitutions. Cross-sector participation of labor guilds, professional unions, and academic associations has demonstrated the movement’s universalism. Corrupt politicians like Moqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim attempt to co-opt this movement and form a new “social contract”  instead of listening to protesters who are already reshaping it. 

The October Revolution began as a collective expression of grievances about systemic injustices, but it has evolved into a struggle for the Iraqi state. The real struggle for Iraq’s sovereignty is not between the U.S. and Iran inasmuch as it is between the Iraqi people and their governments.

The October Revolution is a directive for policymakers and analysts. Legislators and political leaders must address Iraqi demands. Their use of violence through unjust laws as well as physical intimidation through militia affiliation to maintain power demonstrates weakness, irrelevance, and desperation. This has enabled militia infiltration of security apparatuses, thereby contributing to chaotic—or a complete failure in—governance. Asa’ib Ahlul Haq’s recent break of armistice with U.S. troops in Iraq demonstrates its rogue nature. Not even Iran can control the militia juggernaut that it once supported in Iraq. Once governance collapses entirely to militia rule, neither civilians nor politicians will be protected. This can still be prevented by placing Iraqi voices— not violence— at the centre of legislation and governance.

This can only be done through the recognition of the people as sovereign agents of self-determination and living constitutions that guide the legislative and political process. In response to their demands, fair and transparent elections would place a legal ban on the formation of ethnoconfessional parties and coalitions. This way, political candidates would compete based on merit, not identity. This can also be done through establishing transitional justice and accountability mechanisms. Among these would be the fair and transparent prosecution of those behind protesters’ deaths and enforced disappearances. The de-politicization of the courts and transparency of due process would ensure the peaceful deposal of corrupt politicians fairly. This would also provide citizens with political justice and closure. By acknowledging that violence is not a viable or sustainable means of governance, state institutions can address the protest movement’s demands, and establish social trust toward a stable future. A state is produced through management of social crisis; the moment for Iraq to do so is now. 

The October Revolution is a movement that has triggered a turning point in Iraqi history. It has found its place in Iraq’s social consciousness, especially among the younger generations who will outlive the older, political class. The bonds between protesters, lawyers, journalists, and academics are strengthening as they have a shared enemy: violent suppression by government and non-government forces. This common disenfranchisement can only have one outcome, and in it, one can find promise for the protest movement. Society is fluid, ever changing, and evolving as is state sovereignty. The October Revolution will take different forms over the next few years, and will not truly end until the younger, stubborn generations get what they rightfully want.


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