BAGHDAD – Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made a exaggerated statement July 23 by answering a question from one of his followers. Sadr said: “We are the only ones who can influence the Iraqis to take to the streets. ”
Sadr’s statement came days after a TV interview on July 18 by his rival, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who declared that Maliki’s supporters and those who voted for him are educated people and academics, insinuating that Sadr’s supporters are ignorant.
Sadr’s claim that he is the only one who can mobilize the Iraqi street has been refuted by the small number of demonstrators which gathered on July 22 in Tahrir Square. While hundreds of people participated, it was a small total compared to the number of followers of the Sadrist movement who take to the streets in previous protests.
It should be noted that the number of Sadr followers attending the July 8 and 15 protests was also not as high as expected. This surprised anyone who expected a large turnout after each call to protest from Sadr.
Sadr justifies the low participation rate, declaring: “Some fear the unknown and the ultra-conservative members of the movement, while others do not have a clear understanding of the reform project.
He added: “Some people think that the revolution opposes jihad against terrorists, while others focus on their personal well-being; some profit financially from corruption. These are the group in power and its supporters.
Sadr is now fighting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi through the protests. Both use all of their tools to showcase their individual strengths. For example, Abadi ordered Iraqi security forces and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to organize a military parade July 14 in Tahrir Square, the day before a protest called by Sadr for July 15th. Abadi wanted to let Sadr know that someone will rise up against him.
Abadi hinted in a July 23 speech that Sadr’s behavior is not in line with the reform and that he has no right to claim that he is defending the reform. Abadi said that when someone’s institutions and associates are rife with corruption, then he cannot claim to be fighting corruption, and Sadr is part of the government.
The fact that Sadr presented himself as the leader of the protests, which were launched on July 31, 2015, to call for reforms – in addition to the political conflict between Sadr and Abadi – prompted civil society activists to consider break their alliance with Sadr.
A group of activists who broke away from the Mustamerroun movement (in Arabic for “We will not recoil”) – which was allied with Sadr – announced on July 2 forming a group calling themselves Madaniyoun (Arabic for “The defenders of the civil movement”). In his founding statement, Madaniyoun focused on several points, including protecting freedoms and respecting people’s claims.
The most important point of the statement is that the group believes that no party or political bloc in power has been serious in implementing reforms. This, according to the group’s statement, proves the futility of the alliance and the futility of coordination with a party or bloc.
Although the Madaniyoun group – which includes figures who were part of the group that launched the protests in July 2015 – refuses to meet with any political party, Sadr tried to convince the group when he announced on July 11 that he was about to organize a meeting with the Madaniyoun movement.
But it didn’t take long for Madaniyoun to publish a Press statement to clarify his position on Sadr’s statement, in which he said there was an impending reunion between his movement and the group.
“Madaniyoun received no formal invitation from Muqtada al-Sadr [to meet]. Our civil movement is the voice of the Iraqi people from all walks of life and does not reflect the interests of any specific political or factional group, ”the statement said.
The civil movement is now trying to put the protest movement back on the “right track”, claiming he had deviated when he allied himself with the Sadrist movement. This prompted members of the Madaniyoun group to withdraw, announcing the formation of a new group that will not participate in the protests held every Friday in Tahrir Square in Baghdad.
The newly formed group said it would use several different protest mechanisms from those adopted by the Sadrist movement.
Sadr now has the upper hand in the protest movement in Iraq, as civilians see themselves as part of the Sadrist movement in one way or another. Many activists and intellectuals accuse the Mustamerroun movement to identify with the Sadrist movement and follow in its footsteps.
Ultimately, Sadr appears to dominate the upper level of popular movements and protests in Iraq, despite his mild speech at times. But in fact, the slogans that are thrown in Tahrir Square in Baghdad mimic those thrown by its supporters.
Nevertheless, some continue to bet on Madaniyoun to take the lead of protest movements and preserve their civil society and even civil aspect, given that the Sadr militiamen are part of the PMU fighting the Islamic State. It will not be an easy task for the group given the human and material capacities of the Sadrist movement, not to mention its heritage and name, which can be used to mobilize large numbers of followers.