Moqtada Al Sadr represents the dysfunction of Iraqi politics

The populist nationalist holds many of the country's political cards, but still not enough of them to end the political stalemate

Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. AFP
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The elite political consensus that has underpinned every Iraqi government since 2005 is falling apart. This is part of a long-term trend of elite fragmentation – a process accelerated by the decline in inter-sect elite competition on the one hand, and an intensification of intra-sect political contestation on the other. This has been particularly acute in Shiite politics.

Another long-term trend has been the widening gulf between the political elite and the people. This gap is rooted in the failure of the political classes to provide even a semblance of good governance or public service. It has long been recognised that the post-2003 political order and the oligarchy of actors that dominates it are no longer fit for purpose. So widespread is the sentiment that, in an attempt to tap into populist discourse, even some of the system’s established figures have had to admit as much in public.

In recent years, these two trends have converged and expanded. Long-standing public anger at the political classes’ inability to live up to the most basic responsibilities has taken the form of yearly mass protests since 2011, and more so since 2015, culminating in the enormous demonstrations of 2019-2020. In responding to public discontent – and in competing with each other – Iraq’s political actors have exploited the vocabulary of reform in a bid to appeal to populist sentiment. Where once the language of Iraqi populism was rooted in identity politics and sectarian entrenchment, today the more resonant theme is that of reform and change.

Few have adopted this theme more than Moqtada Al Sadr. Mr Al Sadr has positioned himself as the champion of reform and as a stalwart defender of the people against the political system of which he is a part. On numerous occasions, he has mobilised his considerable grassroots support base to stage protests or to co-opt and dominate non-Sadrist activism. In effect, he has strived to portray himself as the patron of the people and of public protest.

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Rather than the revolutionary overhaul, the more likely scenario would be a reconfiguration of the governing elite bargain

This much has been clear in Mr Al Sadr’s manoeuvrings since the October 2021 election. The elections produced two opposing camps: a diverse alliance led by Mr Al Sadr on the one hand and, on the other, the Co-ordination Framework (CF) led by the more Iran-leaning elements of the Shiite political establishment. Both have claimed the right to form the next government but neither have been able to do so.

After an eight-month stalemate, Mr Al Sadr ordered his MPs to resign. As expected, the withdrawal from parliamentary politics meant a turn to street power: he mobilised his supporters to block the formation of a CF-led government. Shortly after, his followers occupied parliament effectively paralysing Iraqi politics. Mr Al Sadr characterises his challenge to the CF as a revolution, and he insists that there will be no dialogue or compromise in pursuit of a new political compact – music to many Iraqi ears.

The contest can be characterised as a struggle between the forces of the status quo versus the forces of change. However, the nature of the change that Mr Al Sadr seeks is unlikely to accord with popular expectations beyond his base. Mr Al Sadr has sought to tap into general anti-systemic sentiment explicitly stating that the protests are Iraqi protests and not just a Sadrist affair. The response has been ambivalent. Some social media influencers and protest activists have eagerly supported Mr Al Sadr. This is probably driven by a my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend logic and a desperate yearning for the demise of the political classes and of Iranian influence, regardless of who ushers in the long desired change. Others view Mr Al Sadr as the only practical option for challenging the political system and particularly the powerful Iran-leaning political elites and their associated armed wings. However, many remain wary of him.

Mr Al Sadr has thrown his weight behind anti-government protests in the past only to subsume them under his influence or turn on them completely, as happened during the 2019-2020 protests. More to the point, the relation between political activism and the Sadrists has long been a paradoxical one. On the one hand, Mr Al Sadr possesses the street power, political weight and coercive capital necessary to enable sustained mass protest and political pressure. On the other hand, despite his reformist rhetoric, he is a pillar of the political system and has been pivotal to the formation of every government since 2005. Indeed the Sadrists are as culpable as anyone else in the long list of grievances that animate anti-systemic sentiment from corruption to paramilitary violence to the undermining of the rule of law. Mr Al Sadr’s rhetoric essentially takes aim at a system he has helped create and sustain.

This raises the question of what his aims are moving forward. Mr Al Sadr has demonstrated his ability to paralyse Iraqi politics, but is he capable of building an alternative? He has stated that his goal is to launch a democratic revolution that includes ending consensus government and ethno-sectarian apportionment of office, dissolving parliament, holding new elections, bringing corrupt officials to account, upholding Iraq’s sovereignty and rewriting the constitution. How any of this is to come about is unclear.

This leaves the possibility that, rather than the revolutionary overhaul that many Iraqis hope for, the more likely manifestation of his declared "democratic revolution" would be a reconfiguration of the governing elite bargain in a way that excludes some of his rivals while bringing the system more closely under his overarching authority. In other words, even if Mr Al Sadr succeeds in clipping the CF’s wings and marginalising his Iran-leaning rivals, there is nothing to suggest that he is willing or capable of altering the fundamentals of Iraq’s political economy.

Nor is Mr Al Sadr operating in a vacuum. Beyond pushback from the CF and its Iranian backers, other political actors – Shiite or otherwise – may have reservations about Mr Al Sadr’s project, not least regarding his vow that the “old faces” will have “no presence [in politics] after today”. More generally, many within the political classes will probably be apprehensive about the prospects of a Sadr-dominated system regardless of how they feel about the CF. Ultimately, this is a contest over power and authority within the political system, and it is driven as much by personal rivalries as by political conviction.

In the immediate future, the worst-case scenario would be for the current standoff to spiral into an armed conflict. No one wants such a scenario given the stakes and how much all concerned stand to lose (of course accidental escalation between squabbling armed actors can never be entirely ruled out). This points to a second scenario: Mr Al Sadr reaching a deal with the CF, or parts of it, that excludes or at least marginalises those elements of the CF that Mr Al Sadr is opposed to – particularly his arch-rival, former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. The third scenario would be for the current caretaker government to continue with a suspended parliament until early elections can be held. This would be more of a fudge than a solution as it raises many technical, legal and constitutional issues, but it does however create more time with which to pave the way for scenario two.

Ultimately, Mr Al Sadr firmly believes that he should be the senior partner in any new government. He will therefore not allow the CF to move ahead with government formation nor is he likely to allow parliament to reconvene without his resigned MPs. The most likely scenario is for a deal of some sort to be reached. The question is, with the ongoing standoff and with possible new elections on the horizon, what will the balance of power within Iraqi politics, and particularly between Shiite political actors be, and who, if anyone, could be sidelined from the bargaining process? With all the anticipation surrounding current events and hopes for revolutionary change – Mr Al Sadr’s power play is already being labelled a revolution by some observers – perhaps the easiest prediction to make is that the political aspirations of the Iraqi people will yet again remain unfulfilled.

Published: August 09, 2022, 7:00 AM
Updated: August 10, 2022, 7:57 AM
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