Iraq’s populist leader quit parliament. What happens now?
Rallying anti-establishment protests strengthened Muqtada al-Sadr’s hand in the past. It might not work now.
Analysis by Renad Mansour
June 22, 2022 at 5:00 a.m. EDT
Two Iraqi boys pass by the pictures of Muqtada al-Sadr and his father, Mohamed Sadiq al-Sadr, in Baghdad's Sadr City on June 14. (Ahmed Jalil/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Iraq’s populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his bloc to withdraw from parliament last week, then proclaimed he would “not participate in the next elections if the corrupt participate.” After winning last year’s election, Sadr appeared to be in the driver’s seat of Iraqi politics — and claimed to be on a path to form a majority government and sideline his main rivals, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and parts of the Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
Eight months later, Sadr seems to be walking away from the government-formation process, throwing Iraqi politics into uncertain terrain.
What’s his end game? Our interviews with senior figures within Sadr’s group suggest he may now focus on leading protests against political opponents. The protest space is where Sadr has been uniquely powerful as the leader of one of the largest Islamist movements in the region, organized around his personal authority as a charismatic, religious figurehead.
For Iraq, the result now may be further political instability — and potentially another early election. But more critically, the approaching summer will put added pressures on Iraq’s government amid scorching heat and growing public anger over the lack of jobs and basic services. This summer may see a repeat of last year’s blackouts, for instance — and protests. And supply disruptions could exacerbate ongoing protests over unemployment, wages and working conditions in the public sector.
A replay of the delicate balancing act that served Sadr well in the past seems likely. He reportedly will now try to retain his influence across the government’s most powerful institutions while rallying anti-establishment protests in the streets. But will it work this time?
Sadr failed to form a majority government
Sadr’s coalition won 73 out of 329 seats in Iraq’s October 2021 election, 19 seats more than the previous vote. This left his movement the largest in parliament. Some observers said Sadr offered Iraq its best chance for political change — if he could break the logjam of consensus-based politics.
While Sadr’s supporters anticipated the coalition would form a government quickly, his rivals within the Shi’a Islamist and Iran-aligned bloc pushed back, using political violence and their influence over the judiciary. The latter issued critical rulings that halted the vote for president and sucked momentum from Sadr’s push to form a government. Neither Sadr nor his rivals could assemble a majority government from the patchworks of parties in the new parliament.
What happens now? Senior Sadrists have told us that they believe his main rivals — Maliki and parts of the PMF — are unlikely to garner enough support from other factions to form a government in his absence. And even if Sadr’s rivals succeeded, they say the Sadrists could topple this government through protests.
Sadr is caught in the middle
In recent years, Sadrists have become Iraq’s dominant governing party, taking over powerful positions across the Iraqi government. But Sadr’s rise came as citizens grew angrier about their government’s failure to provide basic services and jobs — and unhappy about government crackdowns on advocacy groups and activists pushing for broader changes.
Sadr has long seen his movement as anti-establishment, as does his base. A renewed focus on being the clear leader in Iraq’s anti-government protests would reflect the Sadrists’ historical origins as an opposition movement against both the Baathist regime and the U.S. occupation. The height of Sadr’s popularity in Iraq was arguably in 2016, when the movement took charge of protests by joining forces with leftist and liberal activist and protest groups.
Sadr lost his hold over protest leaders
However, that leadership role in protests is more contested today. Massive anti-establishment protests in October 2019 — known as Tishreen — swept away the older generation of leftists and intellectuals who supported working with Sadr to coordinate protests. And Sadr ultimately found the new generation of Tishreen activists threatening to the bases of his power. A fundamental breakdown in relations with the new activists prompted the Sadrists to violently suppress elements of the protest movements in 2020. This alienation will no doubt complicate Sadr’s efforts to lead a return to street politics.
Iraq’s protest space is also more fractured today. Sadr’s opponents have been moving in to prevent mass youth mobilizations and to minimize the Sadrists’ protest advantage. For example, when Ammar al-Zaidi, the leader of Basra’s largest employment-related protest group, was arrested recently, it was Sadr’s PMF opponents in parliament, Asaib Ahl-Haq and the Badr organization, who negotiated his release. Many “independent” MPs and those from the Tishreen movement, such as MP Bassem Khashan, have used parliament and the courts to oppose Sadr’s political moves.
The Sadrists may find it difficult to co-opt the current economic protests. Recently, the movement held talks with representatives from one of Iraq’s biggest public sector employment protests in the education sector. However, insiders told us that the talks broke down in acrimony. Other factions are also competing hard to leverage these groups.
What happens now?
Sadr’s opponents could try to form a government without him — a move that would leave them well-positioned to deploy the windfall from surging oil prices to further encroach into the protest space.
He may be willing to take this risk, in the hope of overcoming his biggest challenge: a declining social base. Losing protest credibility has become a big issue for Sadr, whose coalition won more seats but lost hundreds of thousands of votes in the last election. This has reinforced fears within the Sadrist leadership that many younger Iraqis could lose interest in their movement. Most of this young population — including the Sadrist base — only remember their country after 2003, and the recent decades when the entire elite, Sadr and his opponents alike, have become incredibly powerful and wealthy at the expense of the rest of society.
For Sadr, protests are not just about leverage against political rivals. Street protests in the past offered a means to energize his followers and build a more cohesive movement. But this time around, street activists are not necessarily inclined to follow his lead and his rivals appear more prepared to counter with their own protest tactics. Given the fractured nature of establishment and anti-establishment politics in Iraq, Sadr may soon feel it is the wrong time to walk away from parliament and head back to the streets.
Renad Mansour is a senior research fellow and director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, and co-author of “Once Upon a Time in Iraq,” published by BBC Books/Penguin to accompany the critically acclaimed BBC series.
Benedict Robin-D’Cruz is a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University’s political science department, where he works on the project “Bringing in the Other Islamists,” comparing Arab Shiite and Sunni Islamism in a sectarianized Middle East. He specializes in the Sadrist movement, Shii Islamist politics in Iraq and Iraq’s protest politics.