The protests in Iraq are not just around a particular demand, but against the whole governmental system. How can an alternative government be won, and what sort of government?
We talk about councils – in place of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, we want councils which establish direct democracy in neighbourhoods and workplaces. When there is a political vacuum, these bodies can take control of cities. However, this kind of idea is unfamiliar to the younger generation in particular, who know little about socialist traditions. The young people in the protests we discuss with often think we just mean something like a muncipal council. There’s also a feeling that if we organise such bodies, they will immediately come under attack from sectarian militias. In fact that happened in a suburb of Nasiriya where we tried it in October and November.
How did that take place?
We work there through a group called the October Uprising Committee, which published a bulletin two or three times a week, calling on people to organise councils locally. Two groups of young people in the city took it up, but they were quickly approached and hassled by Shia militia. To organise in a square is one thing, but to go back and try to organise your neighbourhood is quite another.
Other influential proteesters have rejected the idea, and instead proposed councils of representatives from the occupied squares. This is obviously an important idea, which lacks the key elements of delegation and representation. But to try to relate to other pragmatically, we we agreed. At least that allows some element of coordinated organisation.
What about councils in workplaces?
In some of the key industries, for instance electricity and oil, it is just not possible to get a look in. The oil workers, who could be decisive, have not joined the protests or taken action as an organised force. Some individuals have come as individuals after work, but that’s a different matter. Some protesters have blockaded the oil fields, but it’s not an action by the workers themselves, who know they would be punished. Unions do exist but essentially externally; they do not organise seriously in the workplace itself.
What about universities?
Our student comrades and friends are working to establish student unions; and our other young people are working to set up unemployed unions. We have discussed the idea of councils with student and young people in the squares, but the idea has not taken off widley. I fear there is still a widespread idea of political power as something external, or from above, not flowing from below, from the movement. Of course the bourgeois political parties that are present in the squares constantly reinforce this idea.
Wouldn’t all this also suggest making use of existing elections, and arguing for a constituent assembly to create a new constitution?
Many people say that if you raise the question of government and who is the government, then you will be targeted by the sectarian parties and their militias, either with bribes or with physical threats. And they are right, this is a very real threat.
So far this movement has been going for four months. If it continues, say, another year or longer then I think it will generate very widespread popular reject of the government. I think we will also see a growing willingness to resist the militias. Already we have had militias coming into the squares, destroying tents and attacking people – which is why some call for UN intervention, by the way – but people carry on and rebuild afterwards. In some cases they have replace their tents with corrugated iron buildings.
There is also a political problem that while the protesters and most young people think the parties in power and in parliament are no good, they do not know what the alternative is. This is a major problem in Iraq – the lack of a political alternative. That’s why there has been some retreat from talking about getting rid of all existing politicians to just focusing on the prime minister.
Some in the movement have proposed various people, there are four candidates, to be prime minister. Three of the four are people who are widely respected and trusted by protesters but what they stand for is not clear.
If things go on without a clear political alternative, won't the movement either dissipate or some right-wing force will gain hegemony over the movement?
Things can shift. Early in the movement, people rejected any idea of representation as inevitably becoming corrupted. After three months, the idea of councils based in the squares got some traction. How things will develop further depends on what ideas and political movements gain support. That is why we continue to argue for councils.
Even if more right-wing forces gain traction, I don’t think they can address the issue of unemployment. That is the resevoir feeding these protests and why they are likely to continue.
The [right-wing, Shia Islamist] Sadrists are present in the protests, aren’t they?
Yes, in Tahrir Square [in Baghdad] probably a majority of tents have some connection to them. Last week they withdrew from the squares and when they did Shia militias, Sadrists, came in and attack. But now that the protests have continued they have returned.
They present themselves as for reforms, against corruption, for supporting the poor. They emphasise wanting a non-corrupt government, even though they helped put Abdul-Mahdi in power.
The demonstrators are against both the US and Iran – hence the Iraqi flag, which is also an anti-sectarian thing – but the Sadrists try to shift this to being just against the US. In fact the thrust of the movement is more anti-Iran, because of the role of the Shia militas. That’s why you get some naivety about the West, for instance the call for UN intervention.
On the issue of jobs, what do you demand specifically?
We say there must be jobs or social benefits for everyone in need. The government should ensure jobs but also provide a livelihood for everyone if they can’t or until they get a job. We advocate the provision of services, electricity, water, clean streets, healthcare, social security, nurseries – free and provided by the government.
So you are demanding jobs in the public sector?
No, not necessarily. It could be the government pushing the private sector to create jobs. We do not support state capitalism as against private capitalism. We want the means of living secured by the state, whether through jobs in the public sector, or state put more investment in the private sector, or industrialised the state. The issue is to secure income for the jobless people so they can live a decent life.
We argue for a labour law that strengthens the rights of workers in all sectors and allows them to organise. We want a minimum wage, job security, benefits, the right to strike.
What is women’s role in the uprising?
Women’s role in this uprising is remarkable and something new. The isolation of women from political life that has been a major feature since the Islamist takeover in 2003 is being challenged. In this movement women, and particularly young women, have played so many roles. We have tried to raise the question of solidarity between women in Iraq and women’s movements in other countries, particularly in the Middle East, for instance Lebanon.
We are part of a socialist women’s organisation called Aman (Security). It calls for economic security, political security, social security. We have organised a number of activities, sit ins, appearance on the media, social media and we are preparing to get women organisations to march together on 8th March this year.
Where in the country is the movement strong and where not so strong?
Baghdad, Nasriayah, Najaf and Basra are the strongest, in general and as regards the involvement of women Baghdad occupies the first place. But it’s fairly strong in all the cities of the South.
There aren’t protests in the heavily Sunni areas, where there is still major government repression. People there are afraid the government and the Shia militias will say they are afraid of accusations of being connected to the ISIS or the remnants of the Bath regime, and attack them. In the South as I’ve explained there is repression, and attempts to portray the protests as tools of Western governments, but it’s on a much lower level. Baghdad is the place where is major Sunni participation, but those people aren’t participating as Sunnis. It is a very big deal in this movement that everyone comes from a different background and nobody cares about sectarian division. The Iraqi flag is an expression of that and sometimes people even carry a cross to show solidarity across different religions.
Some hostile Shia forces have presented it as basically a Ba'athist movement, which it is not.
You general picture of the movement seems similar to the Organisation of the Communist Alternative [a split from the WCPI we interviewed recently]. What are the differences and can you work together?
The comrades who left did not leave over political differences, but for other issues related to some traditions of our party. But for sure we can work together, for instance on the call for councils where we have a shared idea. And for instance our women's organisations could work together. That's not at all ruled out in principle.
• Nadia Mahmood spoke to Sacha Ismail from Solidarity.