Iraqi Activists And The Difficult Decision To Boycott Elections

In October 2019, a broad based protest movement in Iraq seized international headlines with mass rallies, marches, occupation-style encampments, and civil disobedience in Baghdad and other cities across the south. Activists dubbed their movement “Tishreen” from the Arabic word for October. Despite the largely peaceful, inclusive, and organized nature of the movement, the protests were met with unprecedented violence. Iraqi security forces and non state actors, including militias backed by Iran, responded with excessive and unnecessary lethal force, killing hundreds of peaceful protesters and wounding many thousands more. And yet, in the face of terrible violence, the youthful protests continued week-after-week for months, toppling the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and ushering in the caretaker government of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.

With early elections now scheduled for October of this year, the protest movement is at a crossroads. While some activists are actively supporting candidates or running for office, others are calling for a boycott.

EPIC recently had the privilege of talking with Mr. Hussein al-Ghorabi, a prominent figure of the Tishreen protest movement and one of the many lawyers who stepped up to protect and defend the rights of the protesters. Mr. Ghorabi is also a founding member of al-Bayt al-Watani (BW), a political party formed to express and advance the political reform ideas of Tishreen. We talked with him about his decision to help start BW, the party’s vision for Iraq, and how Mr. Ghorabi and his colleagues are working towards that vision. Here’s our conversation with him, edited for clarity and length.

Ghorabi standing in front of a sign that reads “those who are afraid do not create freedom,” at Haboubi Square, the epicenter of protests in his hometown of Nasiriyah, Dhi-Qar province.

EPIC: Can you tell us about your personal journey with Iraq’s protest movement and your vision and philosophy as a cofounder of al-Bayt al-Watani (BW)?

Hussein al-Ghorabi: I was born in Nasiriyah in 1987 and am a lawyer by profession. I began participating in protests in 2011. At that time, we were calling on the government to improve electricity, water, and other essential services; and to create more jobs. I also joined the campaign against paying pensions to members of parliament because their salaries were creating too great a burden on Iraq’s national budget. We returned to the streets in 2015 to demand systemic political reforms. [In 2019] I was among the participants of the first day of action, October 1st, which marked the beginning of the Tishreen movement. As a lawyer, I defended young Tishreen protesters in Dhi-Qar along with my colleagues. I also worked on the media side, defending the Tishreen movement and its cause, including the right to publicly protest and the [freedom of] expression. This has been my most important role in Tishreen.       

Regarding BW, in Tishreen, we called for an end to [the rule of] the corrupt and criminal political class that has taken over Iraq since the fall of Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. This class has failed to govern Iraq. We are demanding a replacement of this political class, an end to the muhasasa system, and early elections.* 

*Muhasasa taifiyah, literally, sectarian apportionment, is the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system that has characterized Iraqi politics since 2003. Many Iraqis and observers view muhasasa as the foundation of politically-sanctioned corruption.

There’s a crisis of trust between the people of Iraq and the political blocs. We want elections to be truly democratic. From the start of Tishreen, we sought to create a political alternative. Because we are true democrats and because the democratic system in Iraq is dysfunctional, our belief is that reforming the democratic system must begin with the foundation of a new political party, one that is genuinely democratic. 

Parties in Iraq revolve around one individual or one family, or are ‘political shops’, not political parties in the true sense. These parties formed with the purpose of contesting elections to commandeer public funds and control the resources of the Iraqi people. We want a party to be representative of all Iraqis and to serve the Iraqi nation. 

This [concept of an] Iraqi nation is a space in which no one has worked before. Perhaps King Faisal I, during the early days of the modern Iraqi state, wanted to build an Iraqi national identity but didn’t succeed. We have come to say that all Iraqi constituents that exist within this map are the sons and daughters of one political Iraqi nation. The parties that exist now have always worked through sub-identities: sectarian, regional and ethnic, but none of them have seemed particularly concerned about a national identity that includes all Iraqis. 

BW gets its solid foundation from our reliance on citizenship as the single identifier for all Iraqis. BW combines the protest square youth who understand political work with university professors, social figures, and unions. Those components of Iraqi society have all joined with us and make decisions within BW. Untainted by the corruption of the current political class, we rely on their experience and expertise to produce this political alternative.

Given current conditions, systemic change through elections this coming term seems unlikely. What’s your strategy for achieving political change? 

We believe that ideal political change comes through democracy, peaceful transfers of power, and respecting the will of the Iraqi people as the source of authority. We do not support  military coups, foreign interventions, or an overthrow of legitimate institutions. 

We believe that what currently exists in Iraq is not true democracy but a farce in which political money and weapons outside the framework of the state are used. 

The current existing parties have armed factions that prevent us from fully participating in the political life of our own country. My home was blown up during the early days of BW’s formation, and now, I’m forced to live outside of my hometown. These circumstances are not democratic. Democracy is not [just] a ballot box. There needs to be electoral fairness, a safe environment for participation, and equal opportunity for the candidates and parties to compete for electoral support. A party should not be able to access state resources. 

Right now in Iraq, the public budget is exploited to award jobs [based on party loyalty rather than merit], and entire villages are forced at gunpoint to vote for candidates they don’t even know. Activists like MP Basim Khazaal Khashan are barred [by powerful parties] from entering parliament even though he was elected to represent his community.* That is not democracy! 

*Mr. Khashan is a member of the Civil Democratic Alliance, a group of activists who contested the 2018 elections in an alliance with the Sadrists. Although Khashan won a parliamentary seat in his province, Muthanna, the Sadrists later gave his seat to one of their own using a dubious interpretation of electoral rules.

We want an improvement in democratic conditions so that we can run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. We are confident that we can compete and win. But under current conditions, we are prevented from fully participating, or in some cases, altogether disenfranchised.

We have insisted that there must be international supervision (ishraf), not international monitoring (muraqaba). In 2018, the UN monitored elections in Iraq and gave them an imprimatur of legitimacy, even though then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and members of parliament admitted there was fraud.* Electoral centers and ballot boxes were burned, preventing the completion of a recount ordered by Iraq’s judiciary. Therefore, our vision is a safe environment and electoral fairness, including a ban on the use of weapons and resources from outside the framework of the state, so that we can fully participate and compete in the elections. 

According to Abadi, a government investigation found “dangerous violations” in the conduct of the 2018 elections and recommended a recount. 

Some protesters who are considered Tishreenis have made alliances with politicians who are considered moderates like Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, Adnan Zurfi, Ammar al-Hakim, and Haider al-Abadi. What’s your view on this?

We think that this political class, as a whole, is the same. They are either actively oppressing Tishreen and any dissenting opinions, or they are complicit [in the oppression] by remaining silent. We have more than 800 martyrs and 25,000 wounded. Fifty homes were blown up in Nasiriyah with IEDs, including my own. Sajjad al-Iraqi, Ali Jasib, Mazin Latif, and dozens of other citizen activists have been abducted and forcibly disappeared. There are assassinations outside the [protest] squares, and constant threats. 

Adnan al-Zurfi, Haider al-Abadi, and Ammar al-Hakim possess seats in parliament. What are they doing to stop the shedding of Iraqi blood? And what are they doing to ensure a free and fair democratic process? We hold them responsible. 

If the Tishreen youth decide to participate in the elections, they will almost certainly only do so in coalition with other members of the Tishreen movement who are untainted by [carrying] weapons or [stealing] public funds. 

Personally, I don’t trust any alliances with the parties of political Islam. Consider the experience of the [Iraqi] Communist Party with Moqtada al-Sadr [in the Sairoun Alliance], and how he later turned against them.* The Egyptians had an experience with the Muslim Brotherhood, and there was a coup. There’s the experience with the Khomeini regime in Iran with the Communists and again, there was a coup. It’s impossible to work with the parties of political Islam. Once they are empowered, they sideline you and break their agreements and promises. Moderate politicians must prove their moderate credentials, and — among other things — help expose the “third party” killers.**

*The 2017-2018 alliance between Sadr and the communists was touted as a remarkable sign of the political evolution of cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr. The pact was shaken after Sadr cornered all but two of the seats won by the alliances, and collapsed after Sadr’s crackdown on protesters in 2019-2020.

**Mr. Ghorabi is referring to November 2019 remarks by Iraq’s former defense minister in which he blamed the use of live fire against protesters on an unknown “third party.” 

As a result, I encourage Tishreen [activists] to enter elections on their own or as individuals. To ally with and bestow legitimacy on the parties of political Islam, I think that would be a disaster. Regarding Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, the gentleman is not considered part of the political Islam establishment. There are also civil movements like the Civil Democratic Alliance–Dr. Ali al-Rufaie and others. We think well of them. They were not party to the muhasasa, and have never been allies of the corrupt parties, so it’s possible to consider alliances with them and enter in lists, if there were true democratic conditions.  

After the assassination of activist Ehab al-Wazni on May 8th of this year, BW announced its boycott of the political process and called on other Tishreenis to do the same. We are hearing different interpretations of what boycott actually means.  What happens if conditions are the same on October 10th?

BW has chosen to oppose this political process. Why? Because there are fundamental prerequisites for establishing a democratic system. In Iraq, the term [democracy] and the concept are greatly distorted. There is no democracy in the presence of [extralegal] weapons. 

All these parties have armed wings and support armed factions outside the framework of the state. These factions are engaged in killings, assassinations, and they terrorize the protesters and anyone who disagrees with them. These parties are engaged in the exploitation and corruption of political money. Therefore we are looking for the primary prerequisites of this political process before we go [in]. 

We chose political opposition, which comprises four points: the first will be a conference for opposition groups. We have invited emerging Tishreeni parties to this conference, and existing parties I mentioned earlier, such as Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, Shurooq al-Abayachi, Dr. Ali al-Rufaie, and the Communist party. This conference will present a political alternative to those who are looking for one. 

Second, there’s an effort to strengthen the protest element, to study new ideas and steps for Iraqi protests, [and to explore] other forms of pressure. 

The third point is to organize a legal effort to challenge the constitutionality of this political process. There are violations of the election law. All of the participating parties have armed wings, which is forbidden in the Iraqi parties law, but the state is failing to enforce the law. There are violations of the [electoral] commission law, and there’s muhasasa inside this commission. The commission[ers] as judges were appointed according to muhasasa, apportioned among the Shia, Sunnis and Kurdish parties. This legal effort will be directed at the federal court. 

The fourth point concerns human rights and humanitarian principles: [to expose] the violations that have occurred, how many martyrs fell, the number of the wounded, the number of the forcibly disappeared, the number of bombed homes, the number of those threatened… We will present this [information] to the public and to the UN representatives in Iraq so they know what’s going on and not become false witnesses to this corrupt political process. 

If the current status quo remains, regardless of your efforts and desires, what do you believe is the most likely outcome of the election?

If the political class proceed to hold elections under the same conditions as the 2018 elections, then there will be a popular revolution larger than in Tishreen [October 2019] to confront this regime, because the regime is dismissing the people’s demands. The political blocs and their leaders have yet to offer any concessions to the Iraqi people, and they insist on dividing up the state according to muhasasa, and to deplete its resources and deny its people services. As a result, I believe that large-scale protests will happen after the election and [during] government formation. Certainly, the political blocs won’t be successful and there will be conflict over [their shares in] the next government. This is what I think. I believe that this political class must leave, and must respect the Iraqi people’s demand for their departure. We respect the democratic system and want to have a solid democratic system. We work towards this [goal] because we are the sons and daughters of democracy.   

Our conversation with Mr. Hussein al-Ghorabi is part of EPIC’s year-long study of the struggle between Iraq’s broad-based “Tishreen” movement and those opposing it, including the country’s ruling parties and extralegal militias aligned with Iran. Our full report will be released this September. To receive a copy, subscribe to EPIC today. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email