October uprising breaks down sectarianism in Iraq

December 7, 2019
Iraqi protests in October 2019 in Liberation square. Photo: FPP/Wikimedia.

Since protests began in Iraq in early October, more than 400 people have been killed and thousands have been injured.

The uprising has escalated, despite the cruelty and brutality used by security forces against demonstrators, which has been strongly condemned by many governments and international humanitarian organisations, including the United Nations.

Iraqis initially protested corruption, unemployment and the government's failure to provide services, but after a month of state violence, they called for the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and comprehensive reform of the political process in the country.

The protesters say the Iraqi government and the political elite have failed to respond in an acceptable manner to their demand for an end to the current system in which governments are formed through deals.

Protesters have rejected a promise by Iraqi President Barham Saleh to draft a new electoral law and reform the country's election commission by bringing in independent experts, as too little too late and merely cosmetic changes, aimed at supporting a distorted political system.

Most of the protests have taken place in Baghdad and other southern cities. It appears that these predominantly Shiite provinces have not benefited from political parties that use “Shiite identity” to gain and maintain power.


The protests and the violent reaction by the authorities have torn apart the myth of sectarianism as a basis for political power, as state-sponsored sectarianism has not achieved protection and progress for Iraqi citizens.

The problem with the political system imposed on Iraq by the United States-led coalition in 2003 is that it established the lie that Iraqis do not have a unified national identity and their predominant identity is based on sectarian divisions between ethnic Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, thus isolating Christians, Yezidis, Mandaeans and other minorities.

The October uprising in Iraq is a response to this lie. Iraqi demonstrators are carrying the Iraqi flag and rejecting all other political and sectarian symbols. Iraqi patriotic songs and enthusiasm are filling the streets once again. The popular slogans "We want a homeland" and "I will take my rights myself” call for an Iraq that is not suffering from the disease of sectarian division and is not manipulated by politicians.

The political class in Iraq, rather than building on the principles of citizenship after the fall of what it called the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, worked on a system of sectarian patronage to obtain political power and material gain, enshrining sectarian identity as an unwritten basis for power sharing. The prime minister is Shiite, the president is Kurdish, and the speaker of parliament is Sunni, reinforcing sectarian divisions and undermining electoral efficiency and legitimacy.

The formation of the government has become closer to a brokerage. This has pushed the demonstrators to demand a national government that does not depend on any external forces.

Iraqi security forces' violence against demonstrators in provinces such as Nasiriyah, Basra and Baghdad generate mixed responses. The courage of the protesters gives hope for change, but the brutality of the security forces' response provokes fear.

The cruelty of the Iraqi government is embodied in a recent statement, in which it said it “did not know the identity of the snipers who shot and killed many protesters in Baghdad”.

State of sovereignty

It is noticeable that people from the Sunni majority provinces and cities initially kept away from the protests — either out of fear of being stigmatised and accused of Baathism, or of supporting the Islamic State, or fear that the government will take their support of the uprising as an argument for more abuse and repression against them.

However, some protesters from Sunni cities and provinces have now joined the protests in Baghdad with banners expressing the solidarity of their cities.

Although economic deprivation and political collapse have led Iraqis to the streets, a sense of pride has emerged from the protests, centred on the fundamental requirement to see Iraq as a sovereign state.

A permanent solution to the problem of the political system in Iraq would involve tackling corruption, holding corrupt officials accountable, ensuring a transparent system in forming the next government, and ensuring that Iraq, which has the world's fifth largest proven oil reserves, can provide basic public services, education and health for all.

Iraqis of all religious and ethnic backgrounds are fed up with the current power-sharing system. There are growing calls for a presidential system in which the leader is responsible for the welfare and sovereignty of the state and for efficiency and accountability so that officials cannot hide behind the regime.

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