Translation: Jassim Al-Helfi, ‘The Social Movement in Iraq’

Translation starts here:

Jassim Al-Helfi, ‘The Social Movement in Iraq: Diverse approaches towards a single goal’, al-thaqafa al-jadida, 380/2, 2016.


The broad protests, which erupted on the 25th February 2011, have continued, via various ups and downs, until they took on the form of a wide popular momentum from the 31st July 2015. The protests have spread through provincial and district centres and attracted different sectors of society, different social classes and groups. These protests can be defined according to the concept of the ‘new social movements’ which were first manifest in the student movement in Paris in 1968, when the students descended into the streets where they were joined by the workers and a wide spectrum of the French people who responded quickly and in a coordinated fashion, shocking the outside world.

The concept of social movements

The ‘new social movements’, which spread and expanded their activities through various countries and around the world, have received significant interest and intellectuals have deliberated over their characteristics and features which centre on their horizontal organization, unity of purpose, breadth of activity, and their participants are drawn from popular strata of society, among other factors.

Seizing political authority is not an objective of these social movements, as it is for political parties. Rather, these social movements work to employ the tools of direct political action to achieve their goals. They make their demands of the decision makers, and seek to affect the decision making process, but do not aspire to more than this. These movements do not seek to acquire the institutions of authority, or to compete with the political parties in the arena of their activity. Rather, they hope to consolidate a particular mode of political participation in order to affect the mechanisms of decision making, and to realise political, economic, social, and cultural gains on multiple levels.

These ‘new social movements’ have succeeded in using digital communications methods to mobilise and to open up the discussion, and to delineate their demands and frame their goals. In this respect, the movement ‘Occupy Wall Street’, which culminated on the 15th of October 2011, is a tangible example of the capacity to mobilise. This movement surprised the world with its ability to break through entrenched mental frameworks, and to raise tangible demands that could gain the sympathy of the people and convince them of their shared interests. Thus, these movements express a particular form for confrontation between the exploited and the exploiters, between those who aspire to a more just world, and the gatekeepers of authority and capital for whom there is no limit to their greed and gluttony.

A number of intellectuals, including the French sociologist Alain Touraine, consider the concept of the social movement a dimension of popular struggles, which occur primarily at the conjunction between the political, social, and cultural components of these movements, reflected in their activities and goals. By contrast, there are those who reject the political aspect of the ‘new social movements’, believing that mobilisation at this level obscures the underlying economic and social conditions of mobilisation.

Alain Touraine discussed the ‘new social movements’ saying: ‘we live in a time where the mode which Charles Tilly termed – the social movements of the industrial phase – are disappearing: the mass protests, the old slogans, the idea of seizing power. I have myself witnessed, in May 1968 in Paris, the coming together of these two modes, the old mode of general strikes which were used by the General Workers Union (C.G.T), and the new mode pioneered by the students.’

The ‘new social movements’, or the oppositional social movements, are a series of social movements that appeared in Western societies since the 1960s responding to the volatile risks that human societies face. These trends included the feminist and environment movements, the opposition to nuclear weapons and protests against genetically modified foods, and anti-globalisation protests. They differ from other social protests in terms of their campaigns being launched focused on a single issue, seeking to realise non-material objectives, while deriving the support and backing from all the social classes.

The ‘new social movements’ appeared during the 20th century, continuing their development into the 21st century. Their activity has been distinguished by pluralism, diversity, and efficacy at the level of each country and globally. They broke entrenched mental frameworks, raised tangible issues which gained the sympathy of the people and directed them towards cooperation, thus establishing broad frameworks such as the movement for civil rights, or the movements calling for the rights of women, the right of political participation (including the right to vote), protecting the environment, ending the ‘War on Terror’, and combating poverty, disease, and illiteracy.

Castells, one of the contemporary social scientists, argues that: ‘The information age in which we live has witnessed a radical transformation in modern social movements.’ And this research studies three cases of social movements, each different in terms of goals and intentions, the nature of their activity, and their geographical locations, but each possessed of a wide global interest, through its use of techniques of information. If not for the way such movements have used the internet, their direct publishing through visual and audio media, and the use of satellite TV, then they would have remained isolated and embedded in their original national settings, in Mexico, the United States, Japan. These techniques offered them important possibilities to raise their demands and bring forward their issues, thanks to the communications and information revolution and the advances in media, internet, email, and social media which these movements have used to energise and mobilise, to crystallise their ideas and organise their campaigns, to delineate their demands and defend them. As a result these trends have spread across a wide space in Europe, and in North and Latin America, and their efforts have been distinguished by their ability to find flexible and diverse organisation forms.

Factors in the emergence of the protest movement in Iraq

The current social movement in Iraq formed against the background of a political, economic, and social crisis, the most important manifestation of which has been the deepening of social conflicts caused by the severe polarisation in the distribution of income and resources. The current mobilisation is the latest expression of protest against the terrible situation in which Iraqis have languished, and it is a clear indication of their rejection of the system of sectarian quotas, corruption, and their discontent over the division of resources which has been the foundation of the political and administrative system since 2003.  Corruption is embedded in the institutions of state, squandering Iraq’s wealth and leading to the deterioration in the security situation as a third of Iraq’s territory fell under the occupation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (Daesh), and in the formation of militias and the spread of weapons outside the military institutions of the state.

The crisis of the regime is clear and there is no doubting it. This crisis is manifested in the inability of the regime to pay wages on time in a number of institutions and the delays in paying wages for the workers in self-employed companies contracted by the government, the expansion of unemployment amongst the young, especially graduates, and the inability to  provide services to the citizens. The shortages in the provision of electricity during the summer, when the temperatures rose to more than 50 degrees, are also part of the reason for the outbreak of protests which began in Basra. These protests were met with the use of excessive force in the effort to repress them. This confirmed the incapacity of the authorities to convince the angry public of their sincerity and the seriousness of their promises to respond to the just demands of the protesters, and their commitment to improve conditions and provide opportunities for work for the armies of unemployed. However, the police arrests continued to escalate the systems of oppression in the face of demands for rights and freedoms, and other harsh measures which were used to subjugate the citizenry and humiliate them, including the use of live ammunition. All this underestimated the will of the deprived to wrest their rights from the usurpers. The death of Montadhr al-Helfi in ‘al-madina’ in Basra province was the seed that launched the mass movement, a reconsideration of the utility of a movement of protest in defence of right and to regain the feats of the heroic Iraqi people against injustice, exploitation and oppression.


The features of the protest movement

  1. Clarity of purpose: There has been no confusion from the protesters who have demanded with clarity and courage the reform of the political system, the ending of quotas, corruption and incompetence, the adoption of a national identity rather than particularist identities in politics and administration.
  2. The national dimension of the protests: All the provinces of Iraq, including their districts and villages, have been included with the exception of those that have fallen under the control of the Islamic State (Daesh), and this national character was proven by the raising of the Iraqi flag, without the presence of any other flags, and without allowing the raising of any religious or party symbols.
  3. The popular character: This is manifest in the contribution of activists from all social classes and groups in Iraqi society: workers, farmers, businessmen, intellectuals, women, and many young people.
  4. The social contents: The issues and demands that touch on social aspects are clearly present in the slogans of the protesters and their chants calling for social justice, social security, fighting unemployment, narrowing the gap between levels of income and tacking pay-scales.
  5. The legitimacy of the demands: What characterises the protest demands in particular is their legitimacy and practicability. They touch on human life, the rights and respect for humanity and dignity. The funds that are allocated in the budgets are enough to provide for the needs of the citizens if the money were not appropriated by the corrupt politicians, and if it were administered with due care and competence.
  6. The use of non-violent means: The citizens have exercised their right to expression and to organise peaceful protests, exercising non-violent resistance.
  7. The organisational structure of the protests: The protesters have adopted a horizontal organisational structure coordinating with a large number of coordinating committees. The organisers of the protests convene meetings and their ideas and decisions are then reflected through social media wherein the time and place of protests are determined as well as the basic demands, chants, and statements.


The demands of the protest movement

The protesters have made their case with conviction, carrying forward their legitimate demands which can be summarised in three principal points:

  1. Reform of the political system and an end to the sectarian quotas which are the root of the crisis and the basis of the deformation and failure of the system. Working to rebuild the system in accordance with equal citizenship in rights and duties.
  2. A clear position against corruption which is embedded in all levels of the state and is rotting its institutions, and the necessity of the corrupt being held to account, expediting their passage through the justice system where they should find just representation. This requires the reform of the justice system, freeing it from political, sectarian and ethnic interference, strengthening its independence through rapid legislation and procedures.
  3. The services that impact on the quality of life of the citizens.

On behalf of these demands, that were raised with clarity through thousands of slogans, the protesters descended to the squares and streets in force, they spared nothing in peacefully expressing their love for their nation, on behalf of which they aspired to a vision of security, stability, and prosperity. Their voices chanted and sang for this purpose, and their non-violent struggle has continued since the outbreak of the protests with remarkable energy and patience. Their enthusiasm has not been broken even though it has been met with campaigns seeking pressure and compulsion, efforts to distort their activity, and threats and kidnapping and even deaths in many places.

Seriousness about the reforms requires the formation of a working team that is convinced by, and committed to, comprehensive reform. This team should be capable, impartial, competent, and open to others (especially the protesters). This will not be easy without the support of the political and civil powers that have an interest in reform. For it is not possible to imagine achieving success via the capacities of one person, no matter what he may possess in terms of qualifications, competencies and powers.

A deep reading of the reform process requires a profound understanding of the crisis and a firm conception of how to extricate ourselves from it. This means appropriate power capable of maintaining the struggle on a path towards rebuilding the system in accordance with the concept of citizenship, free from the practice of quotas and corruption, and capable of rolling back the terrorism and chaos which is the precursor to construction and development.

The forces of reform and its opponents

On the issue of the impact of the demonstrations on decision makers, we can say that their capabilities and analyses, the characteristics of which are outlined above, have had an effect on how decision makers are dealing with the important sections of the protesters and expanding their support. Here we can indicate to the position towards the protesters on behalf of the marja’iya in Najaf, the response of the government, and the positions of those symbolic of sectarianism and corruption.

The protesters: they are demanding the implementation of the announced package of reforms and their translation into tangible results. In their view, this must include the comprehensive reform of the entire system. They are determined to continue their presence in the arenas of protest and to mobilise with strength, supporting the reforms and expressing their rejection and resistance to any efforts to retreat from reform, to circumvent or overturn them.

The marja’iya: The marja’iya has provided clear support for the demands of the protesters through the Friday sermons which are transmitted through the media. This has encouraged wide sections of the public to join with the demonstrations. At the same time, it has contributed to applying pressure on decision makers to adopt a clear position and set out measures that deal with the demands of the demonstrations. The marja’iya has been very explicit in standing with the protesters and giving them powerful support and has not retreated from this in the Friday sermons which have focused on the crisis of the political system and the weakness of its foundations thanks to the sectarian quotas and corruption. The marja’iya has also pressured the government to listen to the demands of the protesters, legitimising their demands while closing the door to officials, continuing to highlight the corruption and the actions of the heinous and shameful corrupt officials, providing clear and sincere advice for the call of reform, and warning against circumventing the demands of the protesters and efforts to distort or delay their implementation or postpone reform.

The head of government: The Prime Minister responded to the demands of the protesters, especially after they received the support of the marja’iya, rushing to bring forward the first package of reforms which were ratified by the entire council of ministers and later by the parliament. This latter body attached its own amendments to the reforms. The reform package was widely welcomed as it set out the path towards reform. However, this did not convince the protesters that the wheels of reform were in motion, owing to the weakness of trust in the government because of the accumulation of the promises to the people from the previous heads of government and their ministers which had never materialised. Unfortunately, the performance of the Prime Minister did not rise to meet the challenge. This is what gave the opportunity to those who represent the system of the quotas and corruption to catch their breath, rearrange their affairs, and reconstitute their forces. This weakness was a shock which highlighted the truth that the announced measures did not amount to a wide reform vision, did not constitute a comprehensive reform agenda, and did not include any scientific method of measuring their implementation. This is what gave birth to the disappointment and lack of faith in the ability of the Prime Minister to lead the reform movement in the correct and productive direction.

The position of those against reform: They represent the symbols of sectarianism and corruption who will do their best to disfigure, distort, divert, circumvent, disable and delay, playing for time in order to escape with the minimum losses possible. They realise that the reform process, if completed in the manner demanded, will bring them face-to-face with justice and will see the wealth they have looted from the Iraqi people returned, as well as an end to their political ambitions shrouded in projects of corruption.



By observing the arenas of protest, and participating in them directly, the researcher would like to put forward some conclusions based on these observations:

  • The protest actions and popular demonstrations cannot achieve all their goals and political demands all at once. Change comes through the accumulated effect of forming diverse mass protest action. The current movement, which persists, has reserves of mass support that feed its momentum. It is an open-ended process about which it is too soon to discern what the direct and indirect outcomes and achievements will be.
  • The wheels of reform have begun to turn, and they will be hard to stop. On the other hand, it is important to consider this momentum realistically, not to rush injudiciously, but also not to slow down and dampen the momentum, by working to ensure support of a realistic momentum which can realise the desired goals.
  • The organisers of the social movement have sought to provide organisation at all levels of the protest movement and to coordinate its activities, maintaining its direction towards reform of the system by freeing it from quotas and corruption.
  • The organisers and coordinators of the social movement have succeeded in opening a peaceful dialogue with the marja’iya in Najaf, and the presence of young people has been clear in the ranks of the movement. This dialogue has resulted in transforming the cooperation from a general harmony in discourse towards a search for mutual understanding on larger, tangible issues.
  • The current political system based on sectarian and ethnic quotas is incapable of bringing forward any serious or convincing achievements and cannot produce a tangible advance in the tragic situation which the public endure. Therefore, it is necessary to speed up the rebuilding of the political system on the basis of citizenship.
  • There is growing awareness of the importance of building a civil state which depends on the principle of citizenship in its construction, rather than establishing its components on a sectarian or ethnic basis.
  • The movement has proved the futility of those efforts which wagered on the apathy of the citizens and bet that that they would not agitate to demand their rights.
  • The emergence of the role of young people, their actions and capabilities in mobilising public opinion and the citizens, has prevented the mobilisation of the street being left in the hands of the forces which employ sectarian slogans.
  • The level of awareness in young people of the importance of their political participation has been raised, expanding the demands for social justice in a clear and tangible manner by persisting with their protest activity. This has given them a repertoire of expertise and field experience transforming protest and demonstration into a routinised practices, breaking through the fear and hesitation felt towards this mode of social practice by the ordinary citizen.


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