Interview to Sami Adnan, co-founder of “Workers Against Sectarianism”. “The demands of the square – says Adnan – are similar to those of previous periods, but have become more precise and targeted. And they are going beyond religious belonging”
by Maurizio Coppola
Italian version here
Berlin, November 8, 2019, Nena News – The authoritarian government responded to the protests that broke out in early October in the major cities of Iraq with violent repression. In thirty days of demonstrations, hundreds of people have already died and thousands have been injured.
A few days ago the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi declared that he was willing to resign as his Lebanese counterpart Saad Hariri already did. Not all reactionary forces accept his decision, but this is of little importance given the demands that go beyond personal change in the sectarian political system.
The protesters demand change of the entire political system and radical responses to rampant unemployment, the lack of basic services and a sectarian political system that has filled the pockets of a few despite the vast state revenues from the oil industry.
After a brief truce, protests resumed on 25 October and Iraqi roads filled up again as they had not been seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Even yesterday, demonstrators took to the streets to block the main roads, a method copied from the Lebanese protests unleashed in mid-October.
The images circulating on social media show a real civil war between two totally unbalanced parties: on the one hand the Iraqi security forces that without any fear shoot tear gas at human height and the Iranian militias that came to help the Iraqi government to “stabilize” the socio-political situation in Iraq; on the other hand a mass movement composed above all of unemployed youth with the only weapon of determination to overthrow a system unable to fill their bellies and a popular solidarity that is expressed in the organization of the squares.
At an international meeting in Berlin we had the opportunity to speak with Sami Adnan, a 28-year-old political activist living in Baghdad and founder of the Workers Against Sectarianism group, a newborn group of unemployed young people who take part in this social movement by insisting on the link between social protest against unemployment and political demands against the sectarian system.
Seen from here, the Iraqi protests exploded by surprise. Could you give us a general overview of what has happened in Iraq in recent years?
We have to remember that the first Republic of Iraq was a consequence of a revolutionary coup d’état in 1958. The government developed social programs that were good for the people: there was an industrial plan with the opening of factories and a developed agriculture. But this period lasted only a brief time, until the Ba’ath Party took power. We can call the domination of the Ba’ath Party a fascist regime during which the privatization of the country started. Above all during the Saddam Hussein period from 1979 to 2003 we had a kind of dictatorship on the basis of a very deepen state-capitalist, oil-centered economical system. After 2003 with the US military invasion, the so called free market was introduced in Iraq. The military intervention was not only a removal of a dictatorial political system, but also and above all a the destruction of our territory and a destruction of the economy of Iraq: a big part of our around 50.000 factories was closed, the industrial production crashed and also the agriculture stopped practically totally. This was done with the promise that the opening of the market will bring better times.
What is happening right now is linked to the development since 2003, because in Iraq we do not produce even a single good. All daily life products are coming from imperialist countries like China and Turkey. We also import food and other agriculture goods from Iran. We are deeply dependent of the importation of every single product, even of the drinking-water. This is the reason why we have such a huge unemployment rate in our small country: From 40 million of inhabitants, 13 million people are unemployed, nearly half of the population is without a job. And we do not only talk about unqualified and workers, even higher educated people are jobless.
The introduction of the global market was organised through the international institutions like the International Monetary Found (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). In the treaty they negotiated with Iraqi government they imposed that the state should retire from the organization of basic services and that the public sector with the public employees should be drastically reduced. The first problem Iraqi people have to face is the globalised free market.
The second topic is the missing of a modern public sector. The neo-liberal dogma and programs destroyed the old public sector was destroyed by purpose following the neoliberal dogma. Imagine that we do not even have laws regulating the way companies can enter the national economy, labor standards and so on. This started already under Saddam Hussein who destroyed the working class especially with what we call the Law 52: the workers status was dissolved by this law defining workers simply as state employees. At the same time, he integrated the working class by repressing the independent unions and by building a labor union incorporated to the Ba’ath Party. This repression against the working class continued after the US invasion: they destroyed practically everything in Iraq, but they kept those labor-laws and those labor-relations. Beside this, Saddam Hussein militarised the economy and integrated the national production into the military, in a very similar way how al-Sisi is doing it in Egypt now.
What role does the oil industry play in this?
The oil industry can be said the only sector producing wealth for Iraq: With the production of oil, the state buys goods like vegetables, fruits and other everyday products. But the industry is totally oil-centered, so that in no way we can be auto-sufficient and depend from ourselves. We have a classical so called rentier state as we know it from other countries. From 2003 till now, the government wasted 1.3 trillion dollars for this kind of economy. Those are the official numbers, so imagine how much money it spent for real. This huge amount of money could have been invested in the construction of factories, in the development of the agricultural sector, in public services. Today we miss real public schools and universities. From 2003 till today, the Iraqi state did not built even one public school or open one public hospital. The hole infrastructure indispensable for the developing of sane economy was destroyed and is still missing.
Have there been any social protests in this particularly destructive and difficult period for the Iraqi working classes? Can we talk about an “Arab Spring” in 2011?
Yes, from 2011 till 2016 we had protest and all with the same topics and subjects. They are related to the Arab spring, but they focused not only the national regime but also the foreign occupation. This is the reason why Iraq was not counted among the countries in which an “Arab spring” erupted. During the protest of this time, the people had one particular demand: a secular state. People had enough of the all the parties representing the political Islam. And in our constitution it is not written that we have to be an Islamic Republic, like it is in Iran. But the Islamic parties are controlling all the institutions.
But there were also other demands during the protest of 2011-2016: bread, freedom, social justice, as in the Egyptian protest during this time. The problem was that on an organizational level, the protest remained in a sectarian mode. With the actual protest, people are going well over this sectarian mode, what is demonstrated by the fact that around 1.5 million people are taking the streets and are recognizing in the sectarian political system one of the reason for their social and economical situation. It means that they recognize that the sectarian system is not bringing the opportunities it promised and now people are recognizing themselves more as part of the working class than part of a religious or ethnic group. There is like a new consciousness expressed also in the slogan “in the name of the religion, the thieves are steeling our life”.
As already mentioned, on October 1, therefore, people began to protest again.
In general, they demanded freedom, safety, job opportunities and unemployment insurance, basic services and the end of corruption and a radical change of the system. The demands are similar to those during the earlier periods, but they got more precise and focused. During the protests of first of October, the so called middle class – above all state employees – did not participate, they were afraid that the government cut their salaries. The government reacted on the protest by closing the streets, cutting internet connection and media coverage. And the government, with the help of the Iranian militias, killed and injured a lot of people. In this situation, the people did not see any alternative than returning back at their homes and reorganize. During this time, the neighborhoods were practically closed by barricades organized by firing tires and so on. They announced that they will return on the street at the end of the month.
In the night of October 24, more than 5.000 people started to protest by occupying the squares. Then, on October 25, an incredible quantity of people participated at the protest. The protesters took the streets and even occupied the government place. The government reacted by shooting to them and the army, the police and the different militias, also coming from abroad like from Iran. The government mobilized also helicopters and tanks to go against protesters. So until now 260 people were killed and 3000 injured in three day and only in Baghdad.
If we compare the protest from the beginning of the month and the protests of last weekend, something changed. The so called middle class participated and shared the demands of working people. Also a lot of students of universities, colleges and primary schools mobilized to the protests. Then doctors, oil workers, lawyers and judges supported the protests with important strikes. The prime minister escaped the capital and flew in the Kurdish part of the country. Finally, the solidarity among the people was great, how the example of the organized transport workers shows: the precarious workers transporting people with the three wheels vehicles called tuk tuk were helping the ambulances transporting the injured people, because the ambulances couldn’t manage the bring all the people to the hospitals. It was amazing seeing this around 3.000 tuk tuk bicycles around the city serving the cause of the protesters.
So how can we describe the social context in which people have started to take to the streets again?
Because of the unemployment, people got really connected to each other. We spend our time together in the bars, in the coffees and we are connected through Facebook; without jobs, we have generally nothing to do during the day. When the protest happened in Egypt first and in Lebanon after, people started to put on Facebook the same propositions, like “let’s go on the streets, we have the same problems with our Islamic system”. The people proposing to go to the streets were the same persons who led the protests in 2015. When people met at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, we built a stage and people spoke on the stage about how to organize the protest and which demands we should advance. In this way, the slogan “Secular, Secular, neither Sunni nor Shiite” was born.
Who is actually leading this protest?
Some political parties wanted to co-opt this movement by participating, but this made the people on the streets angry because we don’t want new elections or a solution in the dominant institutions, people want to end the all the system and ask for a new one. People do not believe any more in what United States calls democracy or in the Parliament as an expression of the people’s opinion. What people ask is a new system, nothing else. But none of the parties can understand what people want, not either the Iraq Communist Party. The ICP want to keep the system and take seats in the Parliament and the institutions. The existing parties are not getting what people are demanding on the streets, especially a social, democratic and secular system.
What role do foreign and imperialist forces play in the country in this phase of accentuated social conflict?
If we talk about Iran, we are totally conscious that our neighbor is not a friend of the people, because during the IS crisis we lived in the last years, even the revolutionary guard under general Qasem Soleimani invaded Iraq. Generally Iran supports militia activities in the Middle East; in Iraq, it protects Islamic Shiite parties and parts of the Iraqi government. During the Nouri Al-Maliki government of 8 years (2006-2014) 1.6 trillion dollars ended up Iran. During the IS war, the militias conducted sectarian cleansing in Sunnite majority cites like Diyala or Samarra. This was done with the help of the Iranian revolutionary guard.
However, if we talk about United States, under Trump we can also think that he wants to use such protests directing them against Iran. It is clear that US is playing his game, they are actually bringing their military forces from North Syria to Iraq and now even the military presence is increasing with 13.000 American soldiers in Iraq. In the American Embassy located, together with the Iraqi government, in the so called Green Zone, 5.000 soldiers are living there. It’s the biggest American Embassy in the world. So of course they will try to use it, but US is not like Iran, they don’t have activists, they don’t have groups rooted in society, they are not on the street. If America is rising the same demands as the people, this does not mean that America is behind the protests. But there is one real problem: using this protest is possible because people on the streets are not really organized, even if there is a strong consciousness in saying “no to Iran, no to Turkey, no to America – we are just workers”. But we can in no way judge the protest as lead from outside.
From my perspective, what is happening in Iraq in those days is really pure: the demands are pure, the movement is pure, the people on the street have no loyalty to anybody.
How are the protests in the Middle East connected?
In the Lebanon protests of the last days, we could hear the slogan “One revolution from Beirut to Baghdad”. There is also a solidarity expressed to the Syrian people when they say “One struggle against the Ba’ath regime”. And there is also a huge solidarity wave from Iran. People were painting slogans on the walls like “One class, one struggle against one government”. But there remains a huge question also: What can we do now? People are asking this question.
The example of the Basra revolt 8 month ago shows very well where the problem lies concretely. In Basra this problem was very concrete. The protest were leaded by unemployed people and they were really radical. Protesters started to burn the local government building and they burned all the offices and headquarters of the parties of the political Islam. The government forces were forced to go out of the city and all the people were occupying the streets and the oilfields and they understood what was the real problem and how the system is functioning. In a very new situation a radical consciousness developed, and also the workers of the oilfields supported the protests with strikes. But then the question rose: What shall we do now?
The Workers Communist Party of Iraq proposed to build councils in the neighborhood and with the workers and to take the government of the city. The WCPI has even a strong union presence among the oil workers, they try to exchanges experiences trough round-tables and by building strong leftist social tendencies and the connect women struggles and build women movement. But building such self-organized structures is a very difficult thing to do without experiences and in such a difficult situation. We should also not forget that the bourgeoisie and Islamic parties have money, they have weapons, militias, international support. We are also living of a very scared society, because of the violent terrorism of the state. We live a a real everyday war.
At the end, people went back to their homes, because a structured organization present in the territory and in which the people trust was missing. At the end, the government came back and took the city again.
How is the political movement of al-Sadr (1) positioning itself in these social protests?
Muqtada al-Sadr is part of the local bourgeoisie. He always was for an open Iraq and for the development of the local production. But al-Sadr also participated in all of the governments until now. His movement also leads five ministries, in which there is a lot of corruption, and has twenty parliamentarians. He declared himself as the leader of the Reform. But in reality he is totally part of the system, since the beginning. And the protesters on the street are understanding this, what is also happening in Beirut to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah. We can compare the role of al-Sadr in Iraq with the role of Nasrallah in Lebanon.
So when the people came out on the streets in the past, the hole political system felt afraid of the people. Al-Sadr came to the protests and he controlled them with his people. In the bigger, uncontrolled protests of the last years, his aim was always to try to lead the protests, declaring to stand with the people and promising reforms. But he was always there for calming down the people’s rage and let the protests die. In this way, he only grew his power inside of the state institutions.
In the last protests of October, people understood his role in the system and his game. They criticized him for just ride the wave of the protests and they screamed “all of them, all of them, you are one of them”. Because of him and of the party al-Fatah, it was them bringing the actual Prime minister Adil Adb al-Mahdi. If they really are interested to be with the people’s demands, they could just retire from their ministries and from the parliament and put in to a crisis the government.
Finally, what do you expect from people outside Iraq?
Since 2003 we are really depressed because the world abandoned us and nobody cared about us. Iraq is a very important and strategic country for the imperialistic interests. We are happy that finally, since October 1, the world heard our voice and this is already a fist step. There are basically two things people can do for us: first, to talk about what is going on in Iraq today and try to bring a media coverage about our struggles. In this way, the world is informed that we are fighting for freedom and social justice and against a despotic, Islamic and sectarian political system. You can make information campaign against the repression and oppression we live in Iraq.
Second, you should try to affect your governments to change politics and to go out of Iraq for letting Iraqi people decide by their own how they want to build and develop their country and their lives. It is not only the United States interfering in a direct way in our lives, but also other countries like Germany or Italy, even though in a more indirect way. For example: from whom do the militias get the weapons and the money they use against us? United States and European countries do that because they sell the weapons and get the oil in return. We never had a real genuine constitution and government of ourselves, it was always determined by foreign interests. You can support us by putting pressure on your government, I think this is the first step of practical international solidarity. Nena News
(1) Muqtada al-Sadr is an Iraqi Shiite cleric, politician and militia leader. He is the leader of the Shiite militia Saraya al-Salam founded in 2014, a successor to the Mahdi Army that fought against the US-led occupying forces until it disbanded in 2008.