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Iraq's Communists Given New Life by Protests

Struggling for decades to find its voice, the Iraqi Communist Party is helping shape the battle for the nation's soul

Supporters of the Iraqi Communist Party chant slogans during a rally marking Labour Day in the capital Baghdad (AFP),

Compared to the ostentatiously huge buildings afforded to some of the parties in Baghdad, the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) are relatively humble.

The building comprises a shop, offices and a small function room decorated with modernist art and depictions of communist martyrs, including former executed leader Yusuf Salman Yusuf.

Iraq's oldest continuously existing political party is no longer the mighty force it was in the mid-20th century when it was arguably the largest mass membership party in the country - and the largest communist party in the Middle East. But with the nation gripped in the kind of social upheaval that cries out for Marxist analysis, the party is in its element.

So far, the ICP is the only party to have fully withdrawn from the Iraqi parliament in response to the government's fierce crackdown on protests which began last month, which has so far seen at least 355 people killed and tens of thousands injured.

Mass public anger has largely been focused on the country's political parties, accused of cronyism, corruption and connections to violent armed groups.

According to Raid Fahmi, the ICP's general secretary, the party is the only one which is not treated with total scorn by the protesters.

"Different communists are there as individuals, they are among different groups," he explained, speaking to Middle East Eye.

"We respect the general rules of the protest movement - but they know who the communists are, present within them, and they accept the communists. Other parties are not accepted."

Atheist perception

A widespread perception exists that Iraq's political parties are largely confessionalist and clientalist - all follow a cleric or a tribal leader, or represent a religious or ethnic minority, and are basically seen as working to see that their particular interest group has access to state services, jobs and funds.

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The ICP has long presented itself as the only genuinely non-sectarian party in the country - although conversely this has also coincided with a perception that its members are atheists, a drawback in a deeply religious country.

Visibly enthused about the demonstrations, Fahmi - one of the ICP MPs who resigned on 27 October - said that the authorities had "misread" the situation in Iraq and the potential scope of the protests.

"They are still betting on its fatigue or that it will dwindle down gradually," he said. "Which is wrong, because it keeps getting new impetus and new momentum from new forces and new forms and we can see the different forms in different provinces."

Fahmi cited the use of general strikes, which he described as "the most effective since 1921, since the creation of the Iraqi state", and the expansion of the protests into the student population, into the middle classes, into a wide spectrum of Iraqi society, as proof of the protests' malleability.

Controversial alliance

The ICP has, since 2018, been in political alliance with the popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - in the May elections of that year, their Sairoun alliance took the largest number of seats in parliament, off the back of a campaign based on opposing corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq.

Although formalised in 2018, there has been tacit cooperation between the two groups since at least 2015, which saw Baghdad and other regions rocked by protests against corruption - albeit not on the scale seen in 2019.

The alliance has been criticised by some on both sides, who see the secular communists' arrangement with the religiously conservative Sadrists as a sellout to Islamism.

The ICP has defended the move on the basis that both groups seek to represent the poorest and most marginalised groups in society.

In terms of an economic programme, the ICP's current platform may also surprise those used to equating communism with mass nationalisation.

Arguing that Iraq is still in a stage of "capitalist development", Fahmi suggested that a mixed-economy "social market" was the most reasonable way forward, along with the building of institutions such as trade unions and social security.

"People are insisting on social justice, that means they are against ultra-liberalism - those who call for a free-market economy, in our condition that means polarisation of wealth and poverty and lack of development," he explained.

Many of the protesters' demands chime with those of the ICP - an end to corruption, an end to the distribution of government positions on a sectarian basis, and the implementation of secular governance.

The desire for social justice has also been at the forefront of protesters' demands, even if there has been little sketched out in terms of an economic plan.

But Fahmi is critical of a number of other positions - in particular, the repeated demand by activists for the creation of a presidential system in Iraq and the reduction of the number of seats in parliament.

"We believe a presidential system in Iraq is not appropriate," he said.

"That doesn’t mean you can’t look into how you redistribute powers between the presidency and the parliament, probably you can make some kinds of amendment, but without putting into question the parliamentary system."

He warned against the "retreat towards more centralisation at the expense of freedom and liberties", adding that it was important to maintain the country's federal system in order to reflect the "diversity of Iraqi society".

'Symbols of the revolution'

Numerous stalls litter Baghdad's Tahrir Square, which has become the focal point for Iraq's uprising.

Many cater for culture, medicine, communication and a whole host of other issues surrounding the months-long demonstrations.

In the centre, one stall proudly display pictures and quotes by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Nawal el-Saadawi.

This abashed display of communist heroes - and one Egyptian feminist author - was not set up by the ICP, however, but by the smaller Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI).

Followers of Mansoor Hekmat, the late Iranian Marxist, the party distinguishes itself by its assertion that neither the Soviet Union nor the People's Republic of China were ever socialist, as well as its ultra-secularism.

“They are symbols of the revolution, they are symbols of the social protest," said Aamar Sharif, a WCPI member, referring to the banners.

He said that there needed to be more than cosmetic changes to Iraqi society, which would require more than just a reform to electoral laws or the arrest of a few corrupt individuals.

“The government should be replaced by a people’s government, not another corrupt parliament," he explained.

Sharif said that democracy did not consist of "choosing one person every four years" and then sitting at home.

“People must practice their rule everyday," he said.

In addition, he argued, the need for secularism had become more apparent than ever.

“There is no freedom without secularism - the sectarian system in Iraq has done so many crimes against people," he said.

"Now people actually demand that - even the religious people, they don’t want a religious government.

"That’s why we support the secular system in Iraq, so that everyone, religious or non-religious, can live equally in the country.”

New opportunity

Hekmat, one of the WCPI's founders, is now buried in Highgate Cemetery in north London, metres away from the enormous bust atop Karl Marx's grave.

Alongside him lie numerous other Iraqi communists, such as Saad Saadi Adi and Jamil Munir Abdul-Hamid - victims over decades of repression by various monarchists, Ba'athists and Islamists.

Once a powerful force in Iraq, the history of the left since the 1970s has largely been one of exile, arrest, murder and, worst of all, irrelevance.

The overthrow of their longtime enemy Saddam Hussein in 2003 only marginally improved their fortunes.

Gripped for so long by war and sectarianism, the space for discussion about social change and the material concerns of the people of Iraq has been severely limited.

In this sense, the latest demonstrations represent a new opportunity and, said Fahmi, make "certain things possible that were not possible before".

“We believe that the protest movement, which has developed into some kind of uprising, needs to maintain the initiative, and in order to maintain the initiative they will gradually need some kind of leadership - and this leadership needs to come from within, not from without."

He said that though it was unlikely the protests would subside, the question of social and economic change would eventually need to come to the fore alongside the question of political change.

"[Demonstrators] say we need social justice, we need public services, we see that education and health have been more or less not accessible to ordinary people," he explained.

"So these are demands - what system will provide [an answer to] these demands, what is the priority, what is the role of the state? These issues are debatable."