BAGHDAD — Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made an exaggerated statement July 23 when answering a question by one of his followers. Sadr said, “We are the only ones able to influence the Iraqis to hit the streets.”
Sadr's statement came a few days after a TV interview July 18 by his rival, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said that Maliki's supporters and those who voted for him are the educated people and academics, insinuating that Sadr's followers are ignorant.
Sadr’s claim that he is the only one who can mobilize the Iraqi street was rebutted by the small number of protesters who rallied July 22 in Tahrir Square. While hundreds of people took part, this was a small total compared with the number of the Sadrist movement’s followers swarming the streets in previous protests.
It should be noted that the numbers of Sadr followers participating in the July 8 and July 15 protests also were not as high as expected. This surprised all those who were expecting a great turnout after each call to protest made by Sadr.
Sadr justified the low turnout, saying, “Some fear the unknown and the movement’s ultraconservative members, while others do not have a clear understanding of the reform project.”
He added, “Some people think that the revolution opposes the jihad against terrorists, while others focus on their personal well-being; some are financially benefiting from corruption. These are the ruling group and its supporters.”
Sadr is now battling Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi through the protests. Both are using all of their tools to highlight their individual strengths. For example, Abadi ordered the Iraqi security forces and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to hold a military parade July 14 in Tahrir Square, a day before a protest called by Sadr for July 15. Abadi wanted to let Sadr know that somebody will stand up against him.
Abadi hinted in a speech July 23 that Sadr’s behavior is not in line with reform and he has no right to claim that he is defending reform. Abadi said when someone’s institutions and associates are plagued by corruption, then he cannot claim to be fighting corruption, and Sadr is part of the government.
The fact that Sadr portrayed himself as the leader of the protests, which were launched on July 31, 2015, to call for reform — in addition to the political conflict between Sadr and Abadi — pushed civil society activists to consider breaking their alliance with Sadr.
A group of activists who split from the Mustamerroun movement (Arabic for "We will not back down") — which was allied with Sadr — announced July 2 the formation of a group calling itself Madaniyoun (Arabic for "Advocators of civil movement"). In its founding statement, Madaniyoun focused on several points, including the protection of freedoms and the respect of people's demands.
The most important point in the statement is that the group thinks no political party or bloc in power showed any seriousness in bringing about reform. This, according to the group’s statement, proves the futility of the alliance and the uselessness of coordinating with any party or bloc.
Although the Madaniyoun group — which includes prominent figures who were part of the group that launched the protests in July 2015 — refuses to meet with any political party, Sadr tried to win this group over when he announced July 11 that he was about to hold a meeting with the Madaniyoun movement.
But it was not long before Madaniyoun issued a press statement to clarify its stance on Sadr’s statement, in which he said there was an imminent meeting between his movement and the group.
“Madaniyoun did not receive any formal invitation from Muqtada al-Sadr [to meet]. Our civil movement is the voice of the Iraqi people of all walks of life and does not reflect the interests of a specific political or factional group,” the statement said.
The civil movement today is trying to put the protest movement back on the "correct path," saying it had deviated when it allied with the Sadrist movement. This prompted members of the Madaniyoun group to withdraw from it, announcing the formation of a new group that will not take part in the protests held every Friday in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
The newly formed group said it would resort to several protest mechanisms that are different from those adopted by the Sadrist movement.
Sadr has the upper hand today 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 of identifying itself with the Sadrist movement and following in its footsteps.
Ultimately, Sadr seems to dominate the upper level of popular movements and protests in Iraq, despite the softness of his speech at times. But in fact, the slogans that are being raised in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square emulate the ones set by his followers.
Nevertheless, some continue to bet on Madaniyoun to retake the lead in the protest movements and preserve their civil society aspect and even their civilian one, given that Sadr militia members are part of the PMU fighting the Islamic State. This will not be an easy task for the group given the Sadrist movement’s human and material capabilities, not to mention its legacy and name, which can be used to mobilize large numbers of followers.