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Sofia Nitti

Why Iraq's protest movement fears being co-opted by political elites

Negotiations are underway in Iraq to form political alliances for upcoming elections. [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 February, 2021

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In-depth: With elections on the horizon, activists and mainstream parties have been discussing possible alliances. But many in Iraq's protest movement fear they will be silenced.
Huddled over his coffee, Ihsan al-Shammeri stares ahead sullenly from his spot on a rooftop above Baghdad. In Iraq, the last days are approaching to negotiate lists and alliances before the next elections, now postponed until 10 October. 

But the activist leader and political analyst doesn't care. "Several of them contacted me but I refused: two big Shiite parties [which he does not want to name], asked me to create and lead a new formation with other activists from Tishreen [the popular protest movement which shook Iraq between October 2019 and 2020]. They even offered me money".

When traditional Iraqi parties began to approach activists last year, many were suspicious. "Under the pretext of giving a voice to the youth and taking into account the demands of the demonstrators, they seek to build shadow parties, which depend directly on this same corrupt hierarchy which has always managed Iraq," al-Shammeri, once an adviser to former prime minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi, said.

"He fired me right after the beginning of Tishreen demonstrations, when I told him he was killing the protesters." But for many young activists who lack the experience and charisma of Ihsan al-Shammari, these proposals remain appealing. Since the end of the protests a wave of threats, persecution and assassinations has swept over the activist community.

The co-optation of political parties can have many faces: a way to silence them, while guaranteeing them protection

"They are so extremely vulnerable," says Lahib Higel, senior researcher for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Iraq, currently investigating violence linked to the 2019 and 2020 protests. "The co-optation of political parties can have many faces: a way to silence them, while guaranteeing them protection". In Iraq, the entire political system is going through a deep crisis of legitimacy, undermined by corruption and nepotism. 

"They tried in every way possible to silence the protesters, but some parties understood that the demographic trend cannot be ignored: 70% of the population is under 30 years old. Some traditional politicians came to the conclusion that they need to have a more strategic approach and include youth on board," explains Lahib Higel.

Read more: Iraq's reign of fear: Inside the violent power
struggle killing Basra's activists

Towering in his armchair, his pug dog snoring loudly at his feet, Saad al-Muttalibi proudly recounts the new political movement he has been leading for the past few months with a few dozen activists.

"I am training them. We hope to win one or two seats in October, it would be a huge start," he explains, in-between taking puffs from his gold-decorated pipe. In politics since 1981, al-Muttalibi was part of the Shia Dawa party for more than 17 years, until the start of the demonstrations in October 2019. 

"I took note of 17 years of failure in civil society and left my coalition," he confesses, before specifying. "The activists came to see me after seeing me speak on television, and not the opposite". He categorically denies acting on the request of his previous coalition. "I am an independent now!", he exclaims offended. And Dawa? "You see…" he says, "it's like the relationship with an ex-lover. If you meet him, you exchange a few words, in memory of what has happened between you. But that doesn't mean there's something left between you."

Yet al-Muttalibi admits to still being in regular contact with Nouri Al Maliki, and even discussing political collaboration with the ex-president and the group of activists he chaperones. "The last time I saw him was last week. Two months ago, he asked me to meet these activists with whom I work. I arranged a meeting between Maliki and 36 of them."

Under the pretext of giving a voice to the youth and taking into account the demands of the demonstrators, they seek to build shadow parties, which depend directly on this same corrupt hierarchy which has always managed Iraq

In his office on the first floor of a mosque in Sadr city, Sheikh Ibrahim al Jabari is visibly annoyed. "We don't do that. It is the other parties, who go to the activists, and who put them against us. Us, we don't need it," says the follower of controversial Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

"After the elections? Yes, we could welcome into our ranks those of them who are independent," he concedes. Initially a sympathiser of the demonstrators, al-Sadr turned against the protests in February 2020. Since then, his militias have attacked the demonstrators on several occasions, in Nasiriya and Najaf in particular, killing dozens.

Read more: 'They are still trying to silence us': One year
on, Iraq's youth rise again

The one party which has never hidden its interest, utilitarian or not, for the youth, is al-Hikma, formed in 2017 by the leaders of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. "We have been in contact with activists since the beginning of 2020 and our lists have always been mostly independent," said Fadi al-Shomeri. "It's not a mistake to want to improve your image," admits the politician. 

"They, too, contacted me a few days ago. No thanks," Ihsan al-Shammeri shrugs. "These elections will not change anything and all those who participate will be the losers. For that, I advised the activists I know not to take part." 

So will the activist movement be absorbed into the ranks of political groups or not? Each Iraqi party has its own strategy. It remains to be seen which one will prove successful in October.

Sofia Nitti is an Italian video journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq

Follow her on Twitter: @SofiaNitti

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