Ideas Beyond Borders is funding training workshops for Iraq’s newest party as it challenges a corrupt political system from within
In a country where the ruling elite retains a tight grip on power, political upstart Emtidad surprised everyone by securing nine seats in Iraq’s 2021 parliamentary elections. Launching the movement in January last year, the party’s founder, Dr Alaa al-Rikabi said he wanted to “confront the corruption of the current regime” and challenge a political class that had failed the Iraqi people.
The pharmacist-turned-politician was at the forefront of protests that gripped the country in 2019, when tens of thousands flooded the streets demanding jobs, better public services and the chance to lead a dignified life. The response from authorities was brutal. Security forces launched a violent crackdown that left nearly 600 dead and 30,000 wounded, but protesters – most of them peaceful and unarmed – refused to go home.
Instead, they created a community, erecting food stations, medical tents and grocery stalls around Tahrir Square, where a febrile mix of fear and excitement reinforced the sense of solidarity among people of all backgrounds. Protesters came from across Iraq, finding common cause with Iraqis of different sects and beliefs in a country where ethnic and religious tensions run deep. Many stayed in the square for weeks, including overnight, when the atmosphere intensified and violence increased.
Five weeks in it looked like the protesters were gaining ground when Iraqi Prime Minster Adel Abdul-Mahdi said he would resign. That December, parliament approved a new electoral law addressing demands for political reform. But protesters refused to accept anything short of an overhaul of the political system. Around Tahrir Square, the violence continued as protesters faced rubber bullets, weapons-grade tear gas and sniper fire, while lawless militia groups abducted and assassinated activists in the streets.
Despite these dangers, thousands continued to turn out daily, demanding the resignation of a government they saw as subservient to foreign powers. Chants of ‘out, out Iran’ rang through the streets as students, women and other groups marched to the square, defiant in the face of masked militiamen pointing guns at the crowds.
It was only when the pandemic hit Iraq in March 2020, plunging many Iraqis deeper into poverty, that people were forced off the streets. With no central leadership to keep the message alive, the protests dwindled and died out. Emtidad aims to fill this void and carry the voice of the protesters into parliament, challenging the corruption from within.
“Patronage networks have typically shut out small parties, silencing voices of dissent in a political process tailored to the interests of Iraq’s elite,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “Emtidad offers an alternative and younger voice that’s aligned with Iraq’s largest demographic – the youth.”
Emtidad’s win is significant, but there’s a long way to go. Without the political experience and financial clout of major parties, they are at a disadvantage. Ideas Beyond Borders is lending support by funding media sessions and political workshops run by specialist trainers to help Emtidad develop its capacity as an agent for change in Iraq.
“I’m aware that our size in parliament will not allow us a lot of leeway,” Ribaki told The Arab Weekly in an interview late last year. Instead, his party plans to act as a watchdog and “hold leaders to account,” pushing back against a system that enriches the elite at the expense of ordinary Iraqis.
Most have long since lost faith in the country’s political process, which has denied the population an opportunity to benefit from the country’s oil wealth. Only 41 percent participated in the 2021 elections, a drop from the previous record low in 2018, when 44 percent cast their ballots. “There is a big gap between the hopes of the street and the people in power… Emtidad aims to restore the public’s confidence in the political process through sincere political performance devoid of personal interests,” says Wameed Al Shaibi, who is organizing the workshops for IBB.
And this is just the beginning. Emtidad has joined forced with other grassroots groups and is intent on “expanding its political base to have an active role in correcting the course of the Iraqi state.” Meanwhile Al Shaibi hopes to expand the training to other nascent political movements with the potential to disrupt Iraq’s decaying political system. It’s early days, but for ordinary Iraqis there’s the prospect of real representation, and a growing voice in the corridors of power.