In this May 14 photo, supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr carry his image as they celebrate in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

On May 12, Iraq held parliamentary elections in which a coalition of the Islamist Sadrist movement, led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) secured more seats than any other alliance. It was a shocking victory that left the party of incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — the pre-election favorite — trailing in third place.

The Sadrist-ICP electoral pact seemed to mark a transformation in Iraqi politics as two previously antagonistic groups aligned behind a single political vision. But why do such shifts continue to take analysts by surprise? When dealing with Iraq, a focus on political elites and sectarianism has produced an image of a society incapable of collective action against the political class. As I have found in my research, this obscures wider societal dynamics that suggest a latent potential for broad mobilization and complex strategies of resistance.

The Sadrists and the communists: An unlikely alliance

It might be tempting to regard the Sadrist-communist alliance as a natural alignment of two movements that share social and ideological roots. Sadr’s social base is strongest in former communist strongholds in Baghdad and the south. Ideologically, there has been considerable leftist influence on Iraq’s modern Shiite Islamist movements.

However, these factors do not explain why this alignment did not appear until 2015, or why nobody had predicted its emergence. In fact, competition over shared social and ideological terrain often intensifies political struggles, as in the fierce clash between Shiite Islamist and leftist forces following Iraq’s 1958 revolution.

Moreover, in contrast to these earlier Islamist groups, the Sadrists were, from their inception in the 1990s, nonideological with no clear vision of an Islamic state, constitution or economy. Rather, it was a messianic movement defined by its popular religiosity, ritual-bound Shiite identity and conservative cultural puritanism. It would be misleading to overstate any concrete Marxist ideological influences on the group.

Consequently, the Sadrists were contemned and discounted by Iraq’s liberal elite who form the core of the ICP. Following the 2003 U.S. invasion, the Sadrists were also at war with the returning exiled leadership and anyone who “collaborated” with the occupying forces. This included Hamid Majid Mousa, then secretary general of the ICP, who returned to Iraq in 2003 to take a seat on the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi Governing Council. More broadly, leftists and liberals were targeted by Islamist militias, among whom the Sadrist Mahdi Army was the most powerful, at least pre-2008.

The Sadrist-leftist alliance was not a natural alignment of two groups primed for cooperation. It was only able to overcome its considerable barriers by forging new social ties between previously isolated social strata and developing innovative ideas and narratives to justify their political partnership.

Lessons from the Arab Spring

Iraqi politics is often construed as the politics of elites who strike deals among themselves to divide the spoils of power. The flip side of this coin is a supposed societal weakness in which non-elites are unable to mobilize against the political class. This weakness resides in both the fragmentation of Iraqi society into isolated enclaves divided by sect, ethnicity and region, as well as the dependency of these enclaves on political elites who control access to services and jobs.

A similar notion of societal weakness dominated studies of Egyptian politics before the 2011 revolution. Many thought the various social groups opposing the Mubarak regime were too fragmented to mobilize collectively against the state. The 2011 revolution, which saw an unprecedented degree of cooperation between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, secular-liberals and the trade union movement, shattered this understanding and led social scientists to revise their theories.

This revived an interest in bottom-up politics, social movements and the complex strategies by which civil society resists political domination. This new attention to societal dynamics helped replace the notion of Egypt’s societal weakness with a more nuanced understanding of its latent potential for broad mobilization. Scholarship now recognized that nonelite actors, often on the periphery of social groups, had the capacity, when called upon, to act as bridges between otherwise isolated social domains, facilitating collective action against the state.

The deeper societal roots of the Sadrist-leftist alliance

By contrast, the persistent centrality of elite politics and sectarianism continues to obscure the political significance of similar societal dynamics in Iraq. In 2015, when I began researching Sadrist-leftist cooperation, I was struck by the degree of social and cultural interaction between less senior figures and outside formal institutional or party structures.

The sorts of conversations taking place were not merely pragmatic and strategic discussions among the leadership. They drew a diverse range of actors into cultural dialogues about philosophy, history and the role of religion in politics. Participants told me how these interactions shifted their negative cultural stereotypes of the other side.

I also found that the origins of these interactions went back further than most realized. As early as 2010, Sadr had established new cultural institutions that sought to connect Sadrists with Iraq’s secular cultural elites. Sadr recruited the well-respected academic Saeb Abd al-Hamid to take charge of one such institution. Some of Abd al-Hamid’s cultural projects proved controversial with the Sadrists, such as the participation of unveiled women in theater productions.

While these early efforts faltered under the pressure of internal Sadrist resistance, several of the key intellectuals who later supported the Sadrist-leftist alliance had participated in these nascent shared cultural spaces. For example, the leftist academic Faris Kamal Nadhmi regularly attended lectures and seminars there.

Influenced by those experiences, Nadhmi formulated and published radical new ideas about a potential convergence between the Sadrists and secular-leftist forces. Later, Sadrist political leaders such as Dhia al-Asadi, and senior communists such as Jassim al-Hefli alike would use Nadhmi’s work to justify their political cooperation.

Failure to predict the emergence of the leftist-Islamist alliance that won Iraq’s May elections resulted from a focus on elite politics and sectarian dynamics that obscured these underlying cross-ideological interactions occurring at the societal level. As in Egypt, an image of Iraq’s societal weakness meant that most analyses missed its potential for broader mobilization. Applying the lessons of the Arab Spring to Iraq could help illuminate not only surprising election results but also the complex and innovative strategies of Iraqi civil society that have so far remained hidden from view.

Benedict Robin is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. He can be followed on Twitter @Benrobinz