Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saving Face and Political Uncertainty at the Heart of Al-Sadr’s Politics

Al-Sadr's Politics
Volunteers distribute food to supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr outside the Iraqi parliament building in the Green Zone in the capital Baghdad, on August 16, 2022. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Dana Hourany

Photos of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are plastered all around the parliament building inside the Green Zone of the capital Baghdad. The Iraqi flag, posters of the holy Imam Hussein, and Al-Sadr’s father, Mohammad Al-Sadr surround the Shia’s cleric face.

Although temperatures have soared to levels above 50°C, supporters of Al-Sadr continue to protest outside parliament’s offices.

“All for Muqtada!” one person yelled when reporters from Al-Jazeera asked why he kept protesting under such scorching temperatures.

Al-Sadr’s loyal followers stormed parliament on July 27 and “when instructed to leave, the crowd sang, danced, and lay on the tables.”

This unrest comes after nine months of stalemate on the government formation front mainly due to political incompetency on the part of those in power, analysts say.

The first Sadrist demonstration successfully suspended a session to nominate a pro-Iran candidate for the premier’s post.

However, when a thousand more protestors breached the gates of the highly secure Green Zone, which houses embassies and governmental bodies, the situation escalated leaving 100 civilians and 25 members of the security forces wounded.

“Revolution of reform, and rejection of injustice and corruption,” Al-Sadr expressed on Twitter, referring to the protests.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, a cleric and a politician

Considered one of the most influential political figures of the early 21st century, Al-Sadr fiercely opposed the US occupation of Iraq. Cementing his ties with Iran, Al-Sadr received financial and logistical aid in support of his fight against US forces. Former US president George W. Bush once declared him an enemy that can “change the course of an entire country.”

Al-Sadr is heavily influenced by his father, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq Al-Sadr, founder of the Sadrist movement in the 1980s. A nationalist movement by origin, it appeals to the destitute Shia population all over Iraq – but especially in the city of Al-Sadr.

Located on the margins of Iraq’s capital, the impoverished city – once dubbed Revolution City – houses Shia farmers who had abandoned their poverty-stricken countryside for a new life close to the country’s only power-center, Baghdad.

However, rising social inequality, lack of education, and skyrocketing unemployment rates moved locals away from the government and closer to Al-Sadr. He not only expressed their demands, but he actively advocated for them before Saddam Hussein.

To this day, the area is neglected and segregated, with no promising developmental projects in the works.

“The Shia faith is characterized with large respect for religious figures that places them on a pedestal,” political analyst Ali Baidar told Fanack. “His followers see things from a tribal perspective that is less about politics and more about religious allegiance.”

Political gridlock and a compounding crisis

Failing to win the majority of seats in parliament in the last October elections, Al-Sadr was able to score the biggest bloc instead.

When his attempts to form a government that would cut out his Iran-backed rivals faltered, the cleric withdrew his 73 lawmakers from parliament.

Al-Sadr was no longer interested in talks with his opponents in the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, leaving the country without a government for ten months – a first since the 2003 US invasion.

“There is no point of that dialogue, especially after people have spoken their free and spontaneous word,” Al-Sadr stated.

Despite pressures from international and local bodies such as French President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, President Barham Saleh, Iraq’s UN mission, and Al-Sadr’s foe former PM Nuri al-Maliki, Al-Sadr persists in his stance.

As the country simmers in a deep political crisis, Iraqi houses plunge into darkness with the Ministry of Electricity running out of finances to provide electricity.

“This gridlock has caused a lot of economic, political and security confusion. It’s hard to understand what he [Al-Sadr] wants and what his next steps might be. He is unpredictable,” Baidar said.

Religion and politics

Political stalemates are not unique to Iraq. Since Najib Mikati‘s June reelection as Prime Minister to Lebanon, little progress has been made in forming a government.

With worsening living conditions, an ongoing economic free-fall and a recent public sector strike, people are fending for themselves while politicians continue to scuffle.

In a region dominated by diverse religious beliefs, Shia clergymen in power are not new to the MENA. In Lebanon, the Shia Hezbollah party, is headed by cleric Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Iran, home to the largest Shia population, is run by spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, Baidar sees no prospect in Al-Sadr’s leadership skills.

“He’s a religious figure with no pragmatic approach to politics,” the analyst said. “In my opinion he’s just trying to exert dominance over the Shia street to cement his influence and guarantee his stay in power.”

“As for street movements, I see them as a shallow demonstration of strength,” Baidar added while noting Al-Sadr’s possible attempt to overshadow the 2019-2021 October revolution when Iraqis took to the street to topple the ruling class.

“The Sadrists are larger in number and have weapons at hand,” Baidar said.

A Shia-Shia conflict

Al- Sadr has called for early elections and is requesting unspecified changes to the constitution.

On August 10, the cleric gave the judiciary ten days to dissolve parliament, threatening unspecific consequences. However, the judiciary holds no constitutional power to enact such a decision. It is only the lawmakers who can vote to dissolve parliament.

Further escalation between the opposing Shia factions continues. Al-Sadr has already expressed his willingness to “be martyred” for his fight while his Iran-backed rivals receive armed support from Tehran.

However, an inter-Shia conflict would call for the intervention of the religious establishment in Najaf and Iraq’s most senior Shiite dignitary, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Early elections are, therefore, not completely off the table.

“The most likely scenario out of this political stalemate is for all political parties to agree to new elections, which allows Al-Sadr to save face, and does not shake up the system – despite the language used by Al-Sadr,” Hamzeh Hadad, a political expert told Fanack.

Hadad stressed that Al-Sadr’s call for early elections is not revolutionary, but rather a “desperate act that will most likely result in lower voter turnout.”

What’s next?

Early elections will not happen overnight and are complicated to hold, Hadad added.

“The question is, therefore, whether Prime Minister Al-Khadimi will continue with his interim government which is what Al-Sadr has been rumored to want, or whether a new government will be sworn in to prepare the country for early elections in a year or two’s time. The latter is what the other Shia political parties want,” the expert said.

In a survey done by Chatham House on 1,000 Sadrists, the majority was found to be skeptical of the current political leadership and believed religious authorities were the answer to the country’s woes.

However, the study notes that Al-Sadr has been increasingly associated with politics since winning the 2018 elections, creating a discord in his public image.

“Al-Sadr will be detrimental to Iraq’s politics if he further fortifies his power. The country is full of religious and ethnic diversity that needs to be tended to. Political awareness needs to replace this tribal mentality installed since Saddam Hussein’s days,” Baidar said.

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