Iraqi activists torn between hope and cynicism over election

New electoral law allows reformers to stand for parliament, but many activists say more changes are needed

Two years after a youthful protest movement took over town squares and city centres in Iraq, its idealistic protagonists are injured, exiled and exhausted. Some are missing limbs, others are simply missing home, and few believe that Sunday’s general election, taking place almost seven months early, will bring the country any closer to realising their dreams.

On paper, the activists – who marched against a stagnant and corrupt political system – scored several big victories: a new electoral law, an early election and the resignation of one prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi. They call themselves the "Tishreen" after the Arabic for October, the month mass protests broke out in 2019.

It is hard to see much optimism among them. Tahrir Square in Baghdad, once home to a sprawling protest encampment and a legion of supporting tuk-tuk drivers, is back to being a congested intersection. Many of the young men and women who, quite literally, pitched their tents in the hearts of the country’s cities have been beaten and chased out of town. They have found safety in Iraq’s Kurdish region or overseas in Turkey and Europe.

There has been no accountability for the more than 600 activists killed by security forces during the protests, and the unknown number who disappeared or were assassinated after the protests camps were dispersed.

“We succeeded in changing the election law. It was a failing system, but the new one has a lot of independent candidates, a lot of lawyers and engineers,” says Seif Salman, 27, who lost a leg after being hit by a tear-gas canister.

Although he is straining to put a positive spin on events, he is not wrong. The new law means that a record number of candidates – many of them independents, or from small parties – are standing. Beyond this, there is little to point to in terms of concrete change. It is hardly the toppling of a regime demanded by hundreds of thousands in October 2019.

Those who demanded new elections are now split. Many are boycotting the vote, convinced it will simply return the same old faces, while a handful are competing under the banner of revolutionary parties. Others are quietly supporting independent candidates associated with the movement.

Ridha Hajoul, 32, from Karbala was forced to move to Erbil, capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, three months ago. The death threats continue to land in his inbox every day, but he has not tempered his tone.

“We received so many threats, it has become routine. We don’t know which one is actually going to end up killing us,” he says.

Unlike many of the others forced to flee, he says he knows exactly who the threats are coming from – Saraya Al Salam, the militia loyal to Moqtada Al Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose list is widely expected to win Sunday’s election.

The threats increased after Mr Hajoul testified in court against a senior figure in the Sadrist movement who he accuses of being behind much of the violence against Karbala’s protesters.

The danger is very real – his close friend, Karbala protest co-ordinator Ehab Wazni, was shot dead in May.

Mr Hajoul is cutting about those who choose to take part in the election.

The parliament and the government are not the ones who are ruling Iraq. Iraq is ruled by eight to 10 people, so there is no point in elections or participating in them
Ridha Hajoul, political activist from Karbala

“It’s a stupid plan. We have told them that they will fail. The parliament and the government are not the ones who are ruling Iraq. Iraq is ruled by eight to 10 people, so there is no point in elections or participating in them,” he tells The National in an Erbil hotel.

“All you are going to do is ruin your reputation – next time there are protests, when the Tishreen return, they won’t be welcome down in the squares,” he says.

He reels off a list of demands that should be met before the Tishreen participate in any elections – everything from stopping political money to preventing parties with armed wings from standing for election.

Mr Hajoul and other activists say that participating in the vote should be conditional on accountability for the killing of protesters, although some are quietly supporting the handful of Tishreenis who have decided to stand for election.

Ammar Zahrawi Al Taaie, a lawyer associated with the protests, is standing as an independent in Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb and a stronghold of the cleric after whom it takes its name.

He says that boycotting the vote would be a mistake.

“If we give the chance to vote only to the political party supporters, they will elect the same people. The same names and the same political parties,” he tells The National.

“What is supposed to happen is the people of Iraq should go and elect new faces, the independent names and the independent people to replace – even if it is only small portion – the old elite.”

“We will be the voice of the October revolution in the parliament if we win,” he says.

Updated: October 9th 2021, 9:40 AM