Nawshirwan Mustafa, one man and two revolutions

In 1975, months away from submitting his PhD dissertation, a young Kurdish student of Vienna University’s doctoral program in International Law approached his supervisor to tell him that he will no longer be able to carry out his research. When the supervisor asked the student about the reasons for not completing his studies, his answer was not quite what a normal PhD student would give. “I am going back to start a revolution,” the student said. His name was Nawshirwan Mustafa. He died on May 19th, 2017. He never got his PhD but kept his word and started not only one revolution but two.

For many, Nawshirwan Mustafa’s name is not the first one that comes to mind when thinking about well-known Kurdish leaders. For most of his lifetime, he preferred to remain as the theoretician, the thinker and the mastermind rather than the face of the movements he led. He was also the most controversial figure among Iraqi Kurdish politicians. No name among Kurdish leaders is as ambiguous, controversial, hated or loved as the name of Nawshirwan Mustafa. For some, he is considered the mastermind behind the civil war both before and after 1991. For others, he is the mastermind of the 1991 uprising which consequently led to the first ever Kurdish autonomous region. While up until his death some saw him as the obstacle in front of an independent Kurdish state, others saw him as the only hope for a democratic Kurdistan where rule of law is above people and leaders. 

With the defeat of the 1974 Kurdish revolution led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, following the Algerian Treaty between Iraq and Iran, the calls for a new approach in Kurdish politics were on rise. Leaving Vienna for good, Nawshirwan Mustafa joined six other Kurdish politicians to start the revolution in 1976. Led by Jalal Talabani, the members of the group were the young Kurdish politicians who had come out under Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s tutelage but were opposed to his way of doing politics. They came from academic and journalistic backgrounds with a strong leftist inclination and rejected turning the Kurdistan Democratic Party into a cult. The group formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan which served as an umbrella for many of Barzani critics and leftist movements. This also marked the start of a long lived bromance between Nawshirwan Mustafa and Jalal Talabani. Talabani became the face of the movement, its pragmatist leader, its top diplomat and its face, while Nawshirwan Mustafa served as its mind, master planner and Talabani’s one and only counsel. 

The ultra-leftists in the PUK didn’t see Jalal Talabani as a comrade, they accepted Nawshirwan Mustafa as the leader though. Nawshirwan Mustafa exercised this influence to turn Marxism in Kurdistan from a purely ideological movement to a more inclusive nationalist approach. He succeeded in bringing about a transformation of leftist ideology in Kurdistan in which nationalist goals such as right to self-determination, autonomy, and preserving Kurdish languages were seen as important as class struggle and the plight of the poor Kurdish villagers. Nawshirwan Mustafa was also very effective in expanding the Kurdish political horizon from autonomy to federalism. A federal Iraq in which Kurds could have their own region was the vision put forward by Nawshirwan Mustafa as an alternative to the old autonomy narrative of the KDP. The KDP stuck to the autonomy option until the Kurdish uprising in 1991.  Nawshirwan Mustafa did not see federalism only as a means to achieve Kurdish rights but as a political framework to empower local populations. He kept this vision alive by arguing for stronger local governments in the Kurdish cities under KRG rule. Some interpreted this as a row lounging for Sulaimani, his birthplace, but it was much more than that. Nawshirwan Mustafa opposed centralist power structures which only led to enabling the ruling families in the KRG to hold on to their tight grip of power. 
Following the Kurdish uprising and the following infamous exodus in 1991, the KDP and the PUK became the main pillars of the autonomous Kurdish region under the protection of the US and allies. From 1991 to 2005, Nawshirwan Mustafa, as the second man in the PUK, went through different stages. At times, he left Kurdistan without prior notice to PUK leaders. He mainly worked on writing projects which led to many memoirs and books on the Kurdish struggle. Not only did his books serve as great first accounts of the whereabouts of the Kurdish political struggle in Iraq, they are also full of criticism, reflections and evaluations. Despite his position in the PUK, his name was not mentioned in any corruption scandal which many of the PUK and KDP leaders were famous for. Being someone who had the least number of bodyguards and an office with no reception alongside his modest clothing and lifestyle had also strengthened his image as ‘not one of the corrupt group.’

Nawshirwan Mustafa had always been known for his critical voice inside the PUK. This was evident in his books. He had also manifested this on many other platforms. However, following the American war in Iraq in 2003 and the regime change, he became even more vocal. Alongside Jalal Talabani, he was serving on the special committee which drafted the Iraqi constitution of 2005 in which Kurds got what they wanted; federalism. However, the democratic constitution in Iraq and the possibility of a similar change in the KRG inspired Nawshirwan Mustafa to go one step further and ask for more radical changes. He was known to be leading a wing in the PUK known as the ‘reformists’. The reformists, not very similar to opposition against Barzani in the  1970s, were this time opposing Jalal Talabani and the increasing influence of his family on the party. They also were critical of the PUK’s “surrender” to the KDP accusing Talabani of going along with the KDP for economic gains.  

The party elections of 2005 in which Nawshirwan Mustafa’s reformist wing lost by a small margin to Jalal Talabani’s faction became the straw which broke camel’s back. Nawshirwan Mustafa withdrew from active politics and then resigned from his position as the deputy to Talabani. He started Wusha (Kurdish for Word) company which claimed to be an intellectual project. However, in 2008, Nawshirwan Mustafa waged a media war against the KDP and the PUK through writing a number of critical articles. This triggered the phase which finally led to the announcement of Change Movement in 2009 which many of the former reformist leaders and other independent intellectuals, academics, and activists joined. Change Movement managed to win 25 seats in the 111 seat-parliament despite the widespread election fraud conducted by both the KDP and PUK. This electoral victory strengthened Nawshirwan Mustafa’s image as the only viable alternative for the ruling parties. Islamists, who were at the periphery up until 2009 and were exercising some form of opposition to the KDP and PUK, were emboldened with Nawshirwan Mustafa’s movement and joined him in four years of strong opposition in the parliament. Nawshirwa Mustafa’s new style of bold and brave opposition also inspired many young Kurds to start street movements against the ruling parties which reached its peak in 2011. For 62 days in row, Kurdish youth in several major Kurdish cities took to the streets asking for a more democratic and transparent KRG.

Since 2009, Nawshirwan Mustafa has come out victorious in all elections conducted. Despite all forms of pressure on him and his movement including firing thousands of Change members from their government positions, he has continued to have strong support among Peshmerga and security forces in the Sulaimani province. Gorran has the most votes in areas under PUK control and has a strong presence in the capital city of Erbil. However, Nawshirwan Mustafa’s influence went beyond his electoral weight. For the Barzani and Talabani families, he was the only real threat on their power grip. For the same exact reason, he represented hope for democratic politics in Kurdistan. 

The complications of Nawshirwan Mustafa’s health came at the same time as the political and economic crisis hit the KRG in 2015. His public appearances were limited to one or two occasions. He spent the last two years of his life in London far from active politics. However, many in Gorran and beyond believed he was working on a plan to break the Kurdish political stalemate. His foes and friends alike had huge expectations from him. Upon his arrival to Sulaimani airport in a private jet days before his death, Kurdish politicians and the public were talking about a major change to come. Given his ambiguous and unexpected way of making decisions, many believed that Nawshirwan Mustafa’s long silence would mean something huge was to come. This belief was based on his past, however, many people including members of his movement were unaware of the serious conditions of his health. 

In the early hours of May 19th, the news of Nawshirwan Mustafa’s death shocked everyone. Except for the KDP who sees his death a sigh of relief, all Kurdish parties and people who support a democratic constitution in KRG are in grief. Many are in disbelief too. 

The young student in Vienna who promised his professor to go back and start a revolution, kept his word. Not only did he start a revolution against Saddam Hussein, but he started two. The second one was against despotism, tribal rule and corruption in the KRG. His first revolution succeeded but we have yet to see the fate of the second one.

This article originally appeared on NRT English