The October 2019 protest movement and Arab Sunnis

The Iraqi protests which started in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square in October 2019 and spread all the way south to the cities of Diwaniyah and Nasiriya, have shaken up previously politically unrivalled actors who had been dominating the post-2003 Iraqi political system.

These anti-government protests remained in Shia-majority provinces/governorates, while the inhabitants of Sunni-majority areas refrained from participating, fearing the protests would create a fertile ground for a resurgence of Islamic State (IS). Consequently, local Sunni governors prevented them from staging protests. This then limited the potential of comprehensively transforming the protests from sub-national protests, which lacked the widespread participation of the Arab Sunni and Kurdish sects of Iraqi society, to national protests which included all sects. As a result, Sunnis only participated in the protests in Baghdad despite a segment of Arab Sunnis in Iraq sympathizing with the protests in the south.

Beyond the sect-based approach, the broad anti-ethnosectarian dimension of the October 2019 protest movement generated a perception that these protests projected an ‘Iraqi national will.’ But rather than having a leadership which reflects clear demands and attitudes of such a ‘will,’ the Shia-majority protest movement has remained diverse, leaderless, and in a state of flux.