In early October 2019, Iraq was shaken by one of the biggest waves of popular protest since the American occupation. During yet another of the periodic negotiations among Iraq’s political elites on the formation of a new government, thousands of young unemployed university students, joined by other Iraqis, gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest their unemployment, their poor living conditions, and the corruption of the political class. Iraq’s protests were part of the recurring eruption of global protest movements against the privatization of state resources, political corruption, and increased inequality. The protesters in the streets of Iraqi cities, particularly Baghdad, reproduced symbols and repertoires used by protesters since the Arab Spring in 2011, as they did of the 2019 protests in Lebanon and Chile.1
The government’s loss of great swaths of northern and northwestern Iraq to the Islamic State in 2014 marked the beginning of mass organized protest movements against Iraq’s corrupt and kleptocratic political elite and their militarized parties in the southern and central Iraqi cities. The 2019 protests were spearheaded and dominated by youth who had come of age after the fall of the Ba’ath regime. The protesters were largely drawn from the Shia population, in whose “interests” the political elite of Arab Iraq ruled. They called for a “homeland” that included Iraqis irrespective of their religious sects and a state that protected their social and civil rights: “I am out here to take my rights,” they chanted. They eschewed the politics of injury and redress that had dominated the political discourse of the post-Ba’athist political class. They asked for a democratic government that would jettison the apportionment of power and economic resources according to sect.2
Like a series of protests that had started in 2015, the 2019–20 demonstrations drew on cross-class and group alliances in the capital and the southern provinces of Iraq, developed new repertoires of protest, and produced distinctive cultural symbols. By early November, the protesters had articulated clear political demands. Despite their violent repression by the government and lack of a unified leadership, they refused to be assuaged by the government’s promises of new public-sector jobs, a knee-jerk reaction to the demands of earlier protests. They wanted radical change: a new election, reform of the electoral law and its system of confessional representation, and the appointment of an independent electoral commission. In other words, they wanted to overturn the neoliberal and confessional form of democratic politics and the economic and political distributive order that undergirded it, an order created and enforced by the United States and its Iraqi allies after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The demands of the protesters for a homeland and the conspicuous presence of the Iraqi flag in the iconography of the protests represented a call for a nonsectarian form of rule and for a state that guarantees their rights.3 Although the protest leaders did not clearly articulate a vision of a state, they evinced a rejection of the kind of distributive corporate state that had existed under the Ba’ath regime and pushed instead for a state that guarantees the conditions for the provision of care and social goods: jobs, electricity, health care, education, security, and a semblance of what some have called, using a stanza from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “a dream of life, no more than life.”4 The protesters organized outside and against the politics of party, drawing on the support of labor, professional, and women’s organizations as they did on the support of tribal networks in the southern cities of Iraq. They deployed, according to sociologist Zahra Ali, a notion of “madaniyya,” a form of civicness that is post-sectarian.5
While the wave of protests did eventually recede, the factors that led to its eruption did not. Indeed, the underlying contradictions, conflicts, and power constellations that were behind the upsurge are still very much in place. They can be traced directly to the settlement cobbled together by the United States after invading the country and, even further, to the sanctions regime of the 1990s. While Iraq no longer commands the attention of the American media, the catastrophic effects of the invasion and subsequent occupation still define much of the current political scene.