Sadr-Communist Alliance And Iraq’s 2018 Elections Interview With Benedict Robin
The results of the 2018 parliamentary elections in Iraq were a shock to many. Seemingly out of nowhere the Sairoon list made of the Sadrists and the Iraqi Communist Party won the most seats. To have an Islamist religious figure align with a secular leftist was another twist. The two actually aligned several years beforehand during the annual protests that hit the country. To help explain Sairoon and its victory is University of Edinburgh PhD student Benedict Robin. He can be followed on Twitter @Benrobinz.
1. What have you heard about the on going negotiations to form a new government and how that is effecting the internal dynamics of Sairoon between Sadr and the Communists?
I would say that right now the immediate future of the Sadrist-ICP alliance looks to be in doubt. The way the final seat count has played out means that Hadi al-‘Ameri’s Fatih list has become difficult to exclude from a possible governing coalition. Negotiations between Muqtada, ‘Ameri, Hakim, and ‘Abadi have been taking place, and although it’s too early to say for certain, it seems these could be the forces that come together to form a new government.
This would place the ICP in an extremely difficult position should it continue to participate in Sa’iroun, since it would appear to reinstate the same Shi’i Islamist status quo that was targeted by the protests. I spoke this morning with Jassim al-Helfi, who is involved in negotiations on behalf of the ICP, and he told me that any coalition involving Fatih would be difficult but could possibly proceed if Fatih split and some of its worst elements (from the ICP’s perspective), such as ‘Asa’b Ahl al-Haq, were excluded. This may hint at what is currently being sought by Muqtada and Sa’iroun, i.e. accepting that Fatih must be part of the governing coalition, but trying to marginalize those elements within it that are most antagonistic vis-à-vis the Sadrists and the civil trend.
This outcome is highly unlikely to satisfy the rest of the civil trend, many of whom were already deeply pessimistic about the chances that the Sadrist-ICP alliance could bring meaningful reform. Even staunch supporters of the Sadrist-ICP alliance are troubled by this outcome and would prefer Sa’iroun to go into opposition. I also spoke earlier today with the academic Faris Kamal Nadhmi, who is a close friend of Jassim’s and one of the most vocal civil trend advocates for the Sadrist-civil trend cooperation. He told me: “I know it will be a very critical moment for the ICP if Muqtada is building such an alliance with Fatih. I think Sa’iroun is going to be an effective opposition rather than part of a semi-sectarian alliance”. However, a more likely scenario in the event of a Sadrist-Fatih accommodation would see the ICP break away from Sa’iroun and go into opposition alone, dramatically curtailing any hopes for achieving the reform agenda which constituted their election manifesto and which emerged from the demands of the protest movement.
2. The outcome of the 2018 Iraqi election can in part be explained by the last protest movement. What were they about and who was involved?
The demonstrations that began in 2015 are probably best understood in the context of previous phases of mobilisation, particularly the June 2010 electricity intifada that saw protests in Basra, Nasiriyah, Hillah, Karbala, Kufa, Ramadi, Kut, and Baghdad, and the 2011 protests that erupted on 25 February with a “Friday of Rage,” sometimes referred to as the “Iraqi Spring”.
The 2010 protests were fairly uncoordinated and reactive, a spontaneous and localized response to the government’s failure to provide electricity as temperatures passed 50 degrees. However, through the 2011 and 2015 mobilizations the protests gradually acquired a more explicitly political character and more coherent organization at the level of civil society. This linked conditions of material deprivation (essentially the state’s failure to build infrastructural power), with a political diagnosis (rampant corruption and, connectedly, the mahasasa system of sectarian and party quotas by which political elites divided the spoils of power, and a critique of politicized religion).
It also provided a programme for political reform to address these issues. This centered on breaking the grip of sectarianism and party factionalism on governing structures by introducing independent technocrats as ministers. Other proposals discussed included reform of the civil service to set government ministries outside of party political patronage, reforming the electoral law, the judiciary, and issues of economic and social justice.
Alliance with the Sadrists served a number of strategic functions in pursuit of these political goals: it was a force multiplier which connected secular-leftist and liberal elites with a broader social base; it provided security guarantees vis-à-vis intimidation from state and non-state forces; and, perhaps most importantly, it served to exacerbate extant transverse cleavages within the Shi’i Islamist power structure and develop lines of interpenetration between civil society and the political field. The absence of such interpenetration has been a key factor in the failure of previous episodes of popular mobilization in Iraq.
For those who like to think in Marxian terms, this process can be interpreted as a war of position, where basic economic struggle by marginalized groups enters a more complex political phase involving cultural and ideological contestation. Consequently, running in parallel to the demonstrations in 2010 and 2011 was the development of an inchoate movement of secular-leftist and liberal cultural and intellectual elites and political activists that came to identify themselves, and be identified in Iraqi public discourse, as “al-tayyar al-madani” (the civil trend) (or sometimes the “civil elites”). In Gramscian terms this would be the organic intellectual strata that gives marginalized groups consciousness, coherence, and representation at the cultural and political level. I don’t apply this Gramscian framework as an externally imposed analytical lens, rather, these are the concepts, along with Gramsci’s idea of the historical bloc, developed and deployed by civil trend and Sadrist leaders (e.g. Dhia al-Asadi), to interpret and justify their alliance.
I trace the emergence of the civil trend back to 2009 when Ahmad ‘Abd al-Hussein, who was then an editorial secretary at al-Sabah, published an article entitled “800,000 blankets” which was severely critical of the governance failures of the Islamist authorities. The article provoked an angry response from the Supreme Council’s ‘Ammar al-Hakim, ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi, and Badr’s Hadi al-‘Amiri, amongst others, as the controversy around the article grew. On the Friday following its publication, Sheikh Jalal al-Din al-Saghir (Supreme Council) used his sermon to threaten ‘Abd al-Hussein. The whole incident sparked a fierce backlash from Iraqi secular and liberal intellectuals, journalists, and activists who held a major demonstration in Mutanabbi street (a center of book selling and intellectual activity in Baghdad) against religious censorship and intimidation. During my interviews with activists, many have identified this moment as an important event in the formation of the civil trend as a self-conscious movement.
Coming back to the 2015 protests, we find many of the same civil trend actors continuing to play leadership roles: Ahmad ‘Abd Al-Hussein, ‘Ali al-Sumeri, Jihad Jalil, Baha Kamil, Mo’ayad al-Tayeb, Nabil Jassim, ‘Ali al-Khalidi, Zaid al-‘Ajili, Mustafa Sa’adoun, ‘Ali Wajih, Sa’doun Mohsen Thamad, and Star Mohsen ‘Ali, to name just a few prominent examples. Many of these would reject cooperation with the Sadrists, but ‘Abd al-Hussein became one of the alliance’s most vocal supporters and played a key role in coordination between the civil and Sadrist trends. The ICP, the largest and most organized political party within the civil trend, formalized its cooperation with the Sadrists later, around March 2017, when an official Sadrist delegation met with ICP Secretary General, Raed Fahmi. There was internal resistance within the ICP to the alliance, but Jassim al-Helfi, a key member of the ICP polit bureau, had been working on bringing the Sadrists and civil trend together from the early days of the protest movement when the Sadrists initiated the first exploratory meetings between the two camps.
On the Sadrist side of things, I’d highlight two interesting phenomena. First, that several Sadrists participated in the initial protests before Muqtada gave any official guidance to do so. And second, that when Muqtada decided to try and integrate the Sadrists into the protest movement, and, later, to foster a political coalition with the ICP for the 2018 elections, he drew heavily on a range of Sadrist actors in political and cultural roles who already had strong links to Iraq’s secular cultural domains. These included Dhia al-Asadi, head of the Sadrist political bloc, but also less well-known Sadrist cultural figures such as ‘Abd al-Jabar al-Hidjami and ‘Alaa al-Baghdadi (who edits the Sadrist magazine Rusul (Messengers)). Muqtada also used religious figures from his Shura Council who had a background in leftist thought and praxis, e.g. Sheikhs Sadeq al-Hasnawi, Muhamad al-Aboudi, and Salah al-Obeidi.
This is interesting, at least to me, because our thinking on the Sadrists has tended to focus exclusively on Muqtada and to operate through a psychological lens, emphasizing his mental instability, unpredictability, rashness etc., the title of “firebrand cleric” that he earned in 2003 is still in use in some quarters even today. These psychological analyses may contain some truth, but I don’t think they are especially helpful in interpreting Muqtada’s political strategies. I prefer to focus on the structural context of action and thereby find more consistency and predictability in his behavior than the “firebrand cleric” moniker would suggest. Looking at other Sadrist actors, and the social and ideological resources they possess, helps to deepen our understanding of the strategic opportunities that shape Muqtada’s political practice. Failure to do this, in my opinion, largely explains why the Sadrist-ICP alliance took almost everyone by surprise.
3. Do you think that the discontent expressed in the demonstrations might have led to the low voter turnout in 2018?
This certainly seems to have been the case. There was hope in some quarters that battlefield success against the Islamic State would help revivify the existing political order and lend it renewed legitimacy. However, this element of the vote was split between various factions, most prominent of which were ‘Abadi’s Nasr list and Fatih (which brought together the more Iranian-aligned elements of the Hashd). Even more damaging from this perspective, however, has been the decision of many Iraqis to abstain from the elections altogether, refusing to cast votes for what they regarded as the same array of failed and corrupt political entities.
I monitor protest activity across the south and it was clear from the almost daily occurrence of small-scale, sector-specific protests (usually demanding job opportunities, payment of delayed salaries, housing, or the completion of construction projects that had stalled due to corruption e.g. sewage systems, roads etc.) that there was huge dissatisfaction with governmental performance. In fact, many of the demonstrators explicitly stated they would boycott the elections. This was in addition to much larger-scale protests that occurred earlier in the year over ‘Abadi’s reform proposals for the electricity sector. All this stood in stark contrast to the noises coming from pro-‘Abadi/Da’wa outlets, oriented towards Western consumption, that championed the PM’s successes, particularly against Islamic State, and predicted a large turnout and victory for ‘Abadi. In the event, from the figures I’ve seen, turnout across the south was extremely low: Muthanna 46%; Dhi Qar 39%; Basra 40%, for example.
This low turnout has been cited as a key factor in the success of Sa’iroun. The Sadrists are amongst the few Iraqi political actors with a sizeable, fairly coherent, and stable social base. Consequently, they appear to have benefited from their rivals’ failure to mobilize support. Muqtada even hinted at this himself in when he thanked those Iraqis who didn’t vote for at least not lending their support to the usual, failed politicians.
4. It was during the demonstrations that the Communists, civil society groups and the Sadrists came together. How did that come about and how did they reconcile their different ideologies?
One of the most interesting aspects of the Sadrist-civil trend convergence, and the electoral alliance that it spawned, was the degree of cultural and ideological interaction and accommodation. This distinguishes the alliance from previous examples of cross-sectarian and cross-ideological political alliances, such as those formed by Ayad ‘Allawi. These latter cases were intra-elite strategic bargains that had little ideological content, they were typically driven by bandwagoning practices, and they placed no demands on participants in terms of ideological accommodation. Nobody was particularly interested that the ICP and the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood appeared on the Iraqiya list in 2010, for example. The Sadrist-ICP alliance is also somewhat unusual in the broader context of secular/leftist-Islamist cooperation in the Arab World in that it sought to build a shared political project that focused almost entirely on matters of domestic politics. The dynamics of cross-ideological cooperation in opposition politics in the Arab World have more typically found common ground on matters of foreign policy where there is existing agreement on issues such as Palestine and opposing US military interventions.
Since the Sadrist-ICP coalition was announced, some have pointed out, by way of explaining the convergence, that the Sadrists and the ICP shared social and ideological roots. This sort of argument would probably go something like this: sociologically, the Sadrist movement has put down deepest roots in al-Thawra (now al-Sadr) City in Baghdad, Nasiriyah, Basra, and al-‘Amarah in the south, former Communist strongholds; while ideologically, there has been considerable liberal (constitutional), Rousseauian, and Marxist influence on Iraq’s modern Shi’i Islamist movements, apparent, for example, in the seminal works of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr published in the late 1970s. So why should we be surprised by the Sadrist-ICP convergence?
I think this is only a partial explanation and can give a misleading picture of the processes through which the alliance was realized and the barriers it faced. First, because it does not attempt to explain why this supposedly natural alignment had waited until 2015 to emerge, and why nobody had predicted its emergence in advance. And second, because merely identifying shared roots is no explanation of cross-ideological cooperation. In fact, competition over similar ideological, symbolic, and sociological terrain has often proven a factor for intense social and political struggle between leftist-Communist and Islamist movements. Baqir al-Sadr, for example, may have been influenced by leftist intellectual trends, but he critiqued and redeployed these resources in the cause of a staunchly anti-Communist movement.
Alternatively, I would begin by pointing out a key distinction between the Islamism of the Da’wa Party, in whose creation in the 1960s Baqir al-Sadr was instrumental, and Sadeq al-Sadr’s Sadrist movement of the 1990s. The former was a political and ideological response to the crisis of expanding Communist influence amongst the Shi’i masses. The latter was a movement of popular religiosity and ritual-bound Shi’i identity in a context where avenues for political expression and organization had been firmly closed. It was this latter mode that succeeded in reconnecting the clerical strata with the Shi’i masses that had been lost in previous decades to communism and other modern ideologies. This was achieved without the mediation of a modern political party with its lay activist class and systematizing ideologies. I think this has been explained very well by the late Faleh Jabar in his book The Shi’ite Movements in Iraq.
Consequently, Muqtada’s Sadrist movement emerged in 2003 as a basically non-political and non-ideological religious movement that sought to generate power by politicizing the social dynamics of the religious field. This took the form of a messianic religiosity combined with conservative cultural puritanism and anti-imperialism. There was very little here by way of systematic political ideology, there was no clear vision of an Islamic state or clearly articulated theory of wilayat al-faqih, for example. So, it isn’t clear to me why we would focus on the ideological texts of Baqir al-Sadr when talking about Sadrist political ideology. There is also very little here by way of shared ideological terrain with Iraq’s secular-leftist and liberal cultural elites (who were frequently targeted for intimidation and assassination Islamist militias, amongst whom Jaysh al-Madi was probably the most powerful pre-2008).
Since the Sadrists’ political turn and participation in the 2005 elections, the movement became increasingly engaged in professional politics and developed lay activist strata that operated in political, journalistic, and cultural domains. This process of political professionalization has run up against the movement’s early messianic mode of religious mobilization and consequent lack of systematic political ideological resources. It is not surprising that in a context in which Islamist ideologies have been discredited by years of governance failure, the Sadrists would seek to fill this ideological gap by recourse to non-Islamist ideological and symbolic resources, particularly those of the civil trend that seemed to be gaining popularity with the outbreak of protests in 2015. Muqtada even stated during an interview: “I'll say this despite the ‘Amāma [turban] on my head. We tried the Islamists and they failed miserably. Time to try independent technocrats.”
This isn’t to say that the Sadrists have been an entirely empty vessel, ideologically speaking, into which the civil trend could pour its ideas. Without wanting to get too technical, I would draw a distinction between systematic, articulated political ideology (associated with professional party politics), and unarticulated ideology that can be best observed via its embodiment in the social world via everyday practices. There are clearly powerful ideological forces at play in the Sadrist trend (particularly on matters of religious authority and social ethics), but these tend not to find expression in systematic form or in a textual culture, but are, rather, enacted via everyday social practices. This distinction reflects the tension between the esoteric textualism of the traditional marja’iyya of the Najafi hawza, and “marja’iyyat al-maydan” i.e. the practice-based marja’ism of Sadeq al-Sadr which sought to make religious authority immanent in social life.
So, on my account, Sadrist-civil trend cooperation still faced considerable ideological barriers that required innovation and accommodation to overcome. But the absence of systematic Sadrist ideology lent them greater flexibility and adaptability. Muqtada was quite happy to seek the advice of non-religious and non-Islamist academic specialists, Faleh Jabar for example, as he adopted much of the civil trend’s political programme into his own political rhetoric. Cultural issues such as the veiling of women and drinking alcohol were controversial topics that could be pragmatically pushed to one side. The tension between the language of a “civil” versus “Islamic state” (al-dawla al-madaniya/al-Islamiya proved a thornier issue, as these terms are touchstones of secular-Islamist ideological disputes in Iraqi discourse. Discussions between the two sides settled on the term “citizen state” (dawlat al-muwatana) as a compromise. But this was a matter of language, it did not require a deeper ideological critique and revision of an extant political ideology of state, since the Sadrists did not come to the table with such a concept in mind.
I also argue that Sadrist-civil trend ideological interactions go back further than is commonly understood. In my research I point to 2010, when Muqtada began establishing cultural institutions which he hoped would become a platform for building ties between the Sadrists and Iraq’s secular-leftist and liberal cultural domains. I interpret this as Muqtada testing the potential for reorientation of the movement following the setbacks they suffered in 2008 because of the Charge of Knights operation in Basra.
It is worth noting that one of the civil trend actors who was engaged in these new Sadrist-secular shared cultural spaces was Faris Kamal Nadhmi. In 2010, because of his interactions with Sadrists, Nadhmi began to formulate new and controversial ideas which he published in a remarkably prescient article calling for a Sadrist-civil trend convergence. Nadhmi presented this alliance in terms of South American liberation theology (which synthesizes Christian theology with Marxist socio-economic theory), and Gramsci’s concept of an historical bloc. The article also called on the Sadrists to prove their sincerity as a reformist force by committing to ending the system of sectarian and party quotas in ministerial appointments and promoting technocratic alternatives. This was some five years before the 2015 protest movement emerged.
5. This alliance was not without its problems as some groups left and others decided to stay and work with Sadr. What happened?
I think this is one of the most overlooked aspects in coverage I’ve seen of the Sadrist-ICP alliance. There’s been a plethora of very positive takes on Muqtada’s supposed transformation from radical “firebrand cleric” to bona fide political reformer, based on his apparent adoption of a more secular set of political ideas and discourses and alliance with the civil trend. As I stated earlier, I am not particularly interested in this approach, which tends to focus on cognitive and psychological questions that I think are basically unanswerable (“Has Muqtada really changed his ways?,” that sort of thing). I’m more interested in tracking changes in the structural environment of political action and how this presents different constraints and opportunities that shape Muqtada’s political practice.
However, I also think this positive coverage has tended to gloss over both the profound skepticism about the reforming potential of the Sadrist-ICP alliance from the perspective of Iraq’s civil trend, and the internal divisions and fragmentation of Iraq’s secular political scene, partly as a direct consequence of the Sadrist convergence.
Going back to the previous elections in 2014, there was an attempt to unite the civil trend behind an ideologically secular political platform committed to a civil state. This was the Civil Democratic Alliance (al-Tahaluf al-Madani al-Dimuqrati, CDA). It was an ICP-led initiative, but to avoid the appearance of ICP dominance, an independent academic, ‘Ali Kadhem Aziz al-Rufa’i, was made the CDA’s nominal head. From the ICP’s perspective, the CDA strategy was a failure. The alliance won only three seats: Mithal al-Alusi; Faiq al-Shaykh ‘Ali; and Shirouk al-‘Abayachi who took the third seat through the female quota. Faris Jajo, who obtained his seat via the quota for religious minorities, joined the CDA post-election. The ICP’s candidate, Jassim al-Helfi, came third with 17,000 votes in Baghdad, but lost his seat to ‘Abayachi because of the quota system. This outcome generated considerable animosity, particularly between the ICP, its allies, and ‘Abayachi. Another effort was made to establish a united secular front following the disappointing 2014 election results. Taqadum (Progress) was launched in October 2017 and included the ICP and former CDA members. However, this initiative quickly unraveled following the ICP’s withdrawal.
Outside the party-political realm, further fragmentations occurred within the civic groups participating in the protests because of the Sadrist convergence. Mustamirun (Continuing or Persisting), in which ‘Abd al-Hussein and Helfi were prominent, and which became closely associated with the ICP, persisted with the Sadrist alliance. Meanwhile, a new group founded by Sa’doun Mohsen Thamad, called Madaniyun, drew activists together behind a strictly secular platform that rejected cooperation with any political entity, and particularly the Sadrists. This latter platform eventually attracted several key figures in Mustamirun who opposed cooperation with the Sadrists. There were also splits within Mustamirun itself as activists struggled for control of the group and its orientation.
It ought to be recognized that many civil trend actors saw the ICP’s alliance with the Sadrists as a strategic disaster and betrayal of the civil trend’s identity and purpose. They feared that the Islamists would hijack the protest movement and use it to their political advantage and eventually sideline the civil trend. They argued that it was not realistic to expect the Sadrists, who had been part of the corrupt political system for years, to initiate meaningful reform of that system. Their fears were at least partly borne out by the poor performance of madani candidates in the 2018 elections (outside the ICP). From those who won seats for the CDA in 2014, only Faiq al- Shaykh ‘Ali managed to win a seat in May’s elections (for Tamadun). Mithal al-Alusi did not stand. Mohammed ‘Ali Zaini was a surprise and singular win for the CDA in Baghdad.
If the hope of genuine political reform in Iraq, as many have argued, rests on the emergence of a unified secular-nationalist politics rooted in civic organization, then the post-2018 election landscape looks more bleak than recent coverage of Muqtada’s electoral success would suggest. The genuinely secular-madani political scene is weaker and more fragmented than at perhaps any time since the 2011 protests. The ICP and its allies made a different argument, that secular civil society cannot hope to obtain political power unless it is willing to compromise with political elites and show greater ideological flexibility. The potential benefits of that tradeoff will now be put to the test.