How the war in Gaza shattered Iraqi civil society’s trust in Western institutions

Hamzeh Hadad, European Council on Foreign Relations

Since the 2003 war, the United States has invested millions in the promotion of grassroots democracy in Iraq through the funding of civil society organizations (CSOs). Despite the American troop withdrawal in 2011 and Iraq fatigue in Washington, the connection to Iraq’s civil society was maintained through the American embassy, and through development arms like USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and various United Nations agencies. Although the U.S.’s diplomatic presence in Baghdad was minimal and its military presence was contentious, it was able to cultivate soft power through civil society. At a time where the United States may be exiting Iraq, these societal links are arguably more important to American policymakers than ever.

The importance of the civil society which the United States helped to promote in Iraq became even more clear during the 2019 October protest movement, which lasted months and culminated in a new electoral law and the resignation of a prime minister. For many who had lost hope in Iraq’s stagnant democratization process, this reinvigorated their beliefs in the possibility of democratic change and led to the establishment of new protest-based political parties and organizations.[1] NGOs from across Iraq began to host training sessions, discussions, and conferences with new political activists, usually with the financial and technical support of Western or international organizations.

However, many of the ties that link Iraqi activists and researchers to their Western allies are beginning to unravel under the weight of the war in Gaza. For many Iraqi activists, particularly those young enough not to remember the United States invasion and occupation, the West’s commitment to human rights and democracy made Western institutions an appealing partner. For some organizations – like pro-democracy, women’s rights, and environmental groups – Western support kept them afloat when there were few sources of local funding, thus creating a partnership of shared beliefs. But this was no longer the case, as the unwavering Western support for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza shook not only Iraqi civil society, but activist groups throughout the Middle East. These organizations and activists enjoy a great deal of legitimacy in their own communities, largely due to the personal sacrifices they make in support of freedom and good governance. In Iraq, their association with the United States has come at a high cost and has led to their persecution, a risk they were willing to take when they believed in the sincerity of their ally and patron. This is due both to the legacy of the United States invasion and the continued skepticism with which many Iraqi politicians view the United States. In light of recent escalations between the United States and paramilitary groups in Iraq, and the growing unpopularity of the United States more broadly, this is a risk they may no longer be able and/or willing to take.

This paper explores the implications of this lost faith in working with the United States by Iraq’s (and the region’s) activists. In the short term, this can halt organizational programming and research collaboration on important topics. In recent years, research on Iraq has proliferated, and foreign researchers traveled to the country where they met and made contacts with local organizations, researchers, and activists. Iraq, which had achieved hard-earned stability after decades of violence, was beginning to look inwards and to ask crucial questions about good governance, transparency, political freedoms, economic development, and climate change. In the long term, this has made Iraqi activists question the viability and universality of those values and ideas that have often been pushed by the West. In Iraq, it is civil society actors who curate the democratic debate on the street and shape the language of the growing number of young liberal protestors.

Protests, civil society, and democracy in Iraq

The October protest movement, the largest in Iraq since 2003, involved a vast array of activists, many of whom were part of CSOs or had participated in their leadership and democracy workshops. In fact, it was civil society veterans who helped transform the energy of the movement into practical political aspirations, like an early election law. Later, they helped leaders from the protest movement position themselves as political candidates and provided training for campaign management and running for office. It is not surprising, in the Iraqi context, to see longtime civil society veterans become political candidates, or vice-versa, to see an unsuccessful political candidate turn to civil society work.

Before 2003, civil society had been either swallowed up or wiped out by the former Ba’ath regime. After regime change, CSOs began to pop up across Iraq, as international donors, primarily the United States, began to fund various CSOs to promote democratization. Although democracy promotion through supporting NGOs is an oft-criticized tool of American foreign policy, it has produced mixed results in Iraq. As of May 2020, there are over four thousand registered CSOs, and nearly 500 are devoted to human rights or democracy.[2] In the past, many CSOs have been abandoned, as they had run out of funding or were created to tackle a specific issue that was no longer necessary. Having said that, there is a significant number of active CSOs in Iraq, many which are still in operation years after foreign funding decreased, and they were active in promoting democratic values over two decades that accumulated in the 2019 October protest movement.

A key and organic democratic value that was manifested by the protests was the deliberate promotion of anti-sectarianism by Iraqi youth. The protests took place largely in Shia-majority areas and were protesting the informal consociational system in Iraq and the Shia-dominated government.[3] Political elites, from across the ethno-religious spectrum, responded to these protests in various ways. There was, of course, the heavy-handed security approach in which hundreds of Iraqi protestors were killed by security forces. Others, like Muqtada Al-Sadr, tried to co-opt the protests in an attempt to gain political momentum. Arguably the response that had the most enduring impact was to paint the protestors and civil society activists as foreign agents. When the U.S. targeted Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis on Baghdad Airport Road, it marked a dark turn for activists, in which they were now painted as disloyal foreign agents. In doing so, the political elite were trying to delegitimize their grievances.

While some protestors were revolutionary in their demands, many in the protest movement were pushing for reforms within the system. To help push for reforms, these same CSOs have assisted in the research of better policies in Iraq. Whether it is democratic reforms, women’s rights, or climate change, Iraqi CSOs have been at the forefront in supporting this research and promoting its policies. Moreover, they have done so despite significant threats to their lives and livelihoods, directly associated with their actual or imagined ties with the United States.

Iraqi civil society reacts to the war in Gaza

Four years after the October protest movement, CSOs in Iraq find themselves at odds with the Western countries that had supported them. They watched as hospitals, refugee camps, schools, mosques, and churches were attacked in Gaza, and all the while, many of their Western patrons continued to support and defend Israeli actions. From the perspective of Iraqi CSOs, the Western states that have been funding programs promoting human rights were nothing more than hypocrites, who held selective views of human rights that excluded Palestinians and Arabs. Iraqi CSOs were not the only ones who formed that view. In late October, a group of activists from Egypt, Palestine, Kuwait, Jordan, and Lebanon who had received a German-French human rights and rule of law award, wrote an open letter to the French and German ambassadors in their countries, stating that “we have no recourse but to imagine that you too believe that the people in Gaza are less important humans, perhaps this belief extends to all Arabs”.[4]

Members of Iraq’s CSOs have also gone public with their condemnation of the Israeli campaign in Gaza and have expressed their shock and disgust with the stance of Western states. The negative response to the South African case at the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICCJ), further enflamed anger at the apparent subjectivity of human rights international institutions. This has manifested in several policies on the ground. First, many of the politically oriented CSOs are now producing content relating to Palestine and the war on Gaza, thus serving a role of informing the public. Others have taken to organizing protests and public gatherings in support of Palestine. Although the Sadrist-led protest in October garnered the most media attention, as it attracted nearly half a million participants, other protests have taken place across Iraq. For example, a prominent activist from Mosul led a protest in late February in his hometown, which had avoided political activity in 2019. Finally, some have refused to collaborate with Western organizations, and critically, to accept funds from them. For many CSOs, it is impossible to function without Western financial support, which makes this position both rarer and more powerful.

Although it is too early to map out and measure these responses, it is evident that the mood is changing in civil society spaces, and this will have short and long-term impacts. In the short-term, it will have a negative impact on the cooperation between Western researchers, particularly among international organizations and think tanks, and local researchers and CSOs. This has played out on social media and behind closed doors. For example, a prominent American think tank, with a good reputation in Iraq, was seeking to hire a local researcher for an important project on climate change, an issue that is of dire importance to Iraqis. One of the environmental activists that was approached for this refused to participate, saying that they had already left the environmental NGO they were working with because it was receiving foreign funding from sides they viewed as aiding the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. They were not interested in working with an American think tank, despite their personal interest in climate change and the importance of the research to Iraq.[5]

The issue has become more troubling for Western research centers that have offices in Iraq. With the improved security situation in Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, the space for Western organizations to have a presence on the ground became possible. With the democratic backsliding in Tunisia and the economic crisis in Lebanon, Iraq has become the rare state in the region whose stability is not based on an autocratic regime, making it viable for research. Unfortunately, one Western institution was forced to close their local office after the conflict in Gaza broke out, because their institution’s main office showed solidarity to Israel. This closure meant the loss of a research institute that was conducting high quality research on the ground.

In the long-term, Iraqis who believe in liberal democracy will be disheartened with the double standards of the West. For the West, their chief allies in the region should not be the autocratic regimes that do not share ideological beliefs, but the CSOs that do. Autocratic regimes may serve as a stable ally to the West today, but they are quickly able to begin flirting with other autocratic powers like China and Russia if it serves their interests. That is not the case for ideologically driven CSOs who have put themselves at risk to promote liberal democratic values. The current conflict risks CSOs in Iraq and elsewhere in the region becoming disillusioned with Western states, who are seen to prefer working with autocrats for the sake of political expediency.

Conclusion

The United States has a multiprong approach to foreign policy in the region. Although it has cultivated longstanding alliances with autocratic regimes, like Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; it has also invested in promoting grassroots democracy through funding civil society actors across the region. The former gets far more attention than the latter, but it is investing in civil society that has continued to give the United States the upper hand over China and Russia. This form of soft power is now at risk.

Although the Middle East is one of the world’s least democratic regions, its leaders are not immune to the pressures of public opinion, as witnessed during the Arab Spring in 2011 and the regional Hirak Movement in 2019. Regional public opinion is shaped by civil society activists, which the United States considers as the only ones that hold democratic principles in the region. In the rare democratizing states, like Iraq and Lebanon, it is civil society actors who serve on the frontlines against authoritarian encroachment.

While the United States has worked with autocratic leaders to maintain stability, the long-term vision of a democratic Middle East is harnessed through promoting civil society. Now, civil society is growing disenchanted with the West for their silence in the face of Gaza’s bombardment. As the death toll mounts in Gaza to over 30,000, the United States’ credibility with its once staunch civil society allies is waning.

 

[1] Alshamary, Marsin. 2023. “The New Iraqi Opposition: The anti-establishment movement after the 2021 elections” Clingendael CRU Report. https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/2023-08/The%20New%20Iraqi%20Opposition.pdf.

[2] Alshamary, Marsin and Maqsoud, Sura. 2022. “The Landscape of Civil Society in Iraq: The Relationship of CSOs with Government, Religious, and Tribal Institutions at the Sub-State Level.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. https://cnxus.org/the-iraqi-knowledge-sharing-platform/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/The-Landscape-of-Civil-Society-in-Iraq.pdf.

[3] Haddad, Fanar. “Hip hop, poetry and Shia iconography: How Tahrir Square gave birth to a new Iraq.” 9 December 2019. Middle East Eye. https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/iraq-new-political-awareness-and-culture-have-been-formed.

[4] Omran, Rajia et al. “Letter to the Ambassadors of France and Germany in Our Country”. 30 October 2023. Mada Masr. https://www.madamasr.com/ar/2023/10/30/opinion/u/%d8%b1%d8%b3%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a9-%d8%a5%d9%84%d9%89-%d8%b3%d9%81%d9%8a%d8%b1%d9%8a-%d9%81%d8%b1%d9%86%d8%b3%d8%a7-%d9%88%d8%a3%d9%84%d9%85%d8%a7%d9%86%d9%8a%d8%a7-%d9%84%d8%af%d9%89-%d8%a8%d9%84%d8%a7/.

[5] Yassin, Maha. “The Space for Iraqi Climate Activism Is Dangerously Small, and Shrinking”. 30 August 2023. The Century Foundation. https://tcf.org/content/commentary/the-space-for-iraqi-climate-activism-is-dangerously-small-and-shrinking/.