Not long ago, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi was at the top of Iraqi politics and was favoured by the United States and its Western and Arab allies to lead the country through its difficulties, setting it on a new path and offering it a glimmer of hope.
However, in the four years since he assumed office Al-Abadi’s reputation has dwindled as a result of growing domestic discontent because of his failure to start rebuilding the country. Street protests turned into a bloody uprising against his government’s inefficiency and rampant corruption.
Last week, newly elected Iraqi President Barham Salih nominated Al-Abadi’s political rival Adel Abdel-Mahdi as prime minister-designate, ending months of deadlock following inconclusive parliamentary elections in May.
By nominating Abdel-Mahdi, Salih did not only end Al-Abadi’s bid for a second four-year term in office, but also ended his Islamic Dawa Party’s dream of holding onto power after producing three prime ministers since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Since his political bloc ended third in the 12 May vote with only 42 seats in the 329-member parliament, Al-Abadi’s future has remained under a cloud even as the United States escalated its efforts to get him re-elected in the face of strong resistance from Iran and its proxies in Iraq.
The result of the May elections came as a major shock to the United States and Al-Abadi’s supporters, given the status they had bestowed on him as the Iraqi leader who had defeated the Islamic State (IS) terror group and the hopes they had pinned on him to end the sectarianism that has been plaguing the country.
Contrary to such hopes and expectations, the elections reflected the belief among Iraqi voters that Al-Abadi had abysmally failed to rebuild the country following years of political turmoil, civil strife and economic failure.
The outcome of the voting seemed like a fundamental break with the high expectations of Al-Abadi just four years ago. It also indicated how far his backers had failed to understand the voters’ needs and sentiments.
Al-Abadi became Iraq’s prime minister in 2014, replacing incumbent Nouri Al-Maliki after an attempt by the latter to secure a third term in office was turned down under pressure from Washington.
The US had accused Al-Maliki of running a deeply authoritarian and sectarian government that was blamed for the crisis in Iraq.
Both Al-Abadi and Al-Maliki are Shia Muslims, and the country’s top executive post is reserved for a Shia under a power-sharing agreement put in place after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein.
When Al-Abadi was named Iraq’s prime minister, the Western powers, Iraq’s neighbours and the United Nations all lauded his appointment as a promising step forward in efforts to salvage Iraq from a looming breakdown.
Many Western experts drummed up excitement at Al-Abadi’s appointment, seeing him as the man who would be able to turn around the failing policies of Al-Maliki.
Al-Abadi was a low-key figure in the Dawa Party who had spent much of his life living in exile in Britain before returning to Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
He left Iraq for exile shortly after Saddam’s Baath Party came to power in 1968.
Many Iraqis had hoped that the British-educated Al-Abadi, the holder of a PhD in electronic engineering, would be able to bring about drastic changes to Iraq’s dysfunctional political system.
They hoped that Al-Abadi would dump Al-Maliki’s divisive legacy and form an all-inclusive government that would stifle the warlords who control a conglomerate of fiefdoms in Iraq and make way for new political forces to share in decision-making.
After his appointment as prime minister, Al-Abadi promised to change the tone of the government left behind by Al-Maliki and pledged to take the war-torn nation onto a new path of stability, reconciliation and reform.
Al-Abadi presented a six-point programme to the Iraqi parliament to beat back IS and proposed a wide-ranging development plan that included providing basic services and rebuilding Iraq’s ailing public infrastructure.
In his programme, Al-Abadi also promised Iraqis unprecedented changes to rid the government and security forces of officials suspected of corruption, malpractice and incompetence.
However, it soon turned out that Al-Abadi was being plagued with failures across every sector of government, the like of which had never been seen before.
After four years in office, Al-Abadi had failed to solve many of the country’s main problems, such as the lack of a regular power supply and of drinking water and other basic services.
Iraq’s economy, which depends primarily on oil revenues, has faced enormous challenges because of the government’s failure to conduct structural changes that could reduce the country’s dependence on oil and generate more money from other resources.
Millions of Iraqis remain unemployed, while others by and large remain dependent on various government ministries to earn a living. Meanwhile, poor economic policies, bribery and red tape discourage private businesses from providing employment.
Despite its victory over IS, Iraq continues to grapple with daily attacks by IS jihadists who in 2014 overrun many cities and captured huge swathes of land in northern Iraq.
For a nation lacking basic amenities such as power in spite of its huge energy resources and with lingering insurgency crises, the choice seemed easy to many: to wage anti-government protests.
For several weeks last summer, Iraq was roiled by protests in Basra, a city in the country’s south which provides most of its oil but whose residents have neither electricity nor clean water to counter the severe summer heat.
The violent unrest reflected increasing anger at Al-Abadi’s government and threatened to turn into a nationwide uprising before government security forces and militias managed to suppress the protests.
However, the Basra protests underlined the opposition to Al-Abadi’s policies and to his personality as well, notably his inefficiency and weaknesses.
Taken broadly, Al-Abadi’s downfall speaks volumes of the wrath of a growing force in Iraqi politics. The May elections clearly showed that the Iraqi electorate is more concerned with the performance of its politicians than with their sectarian or ethnic affiliations.
It also underscored the malaise of the Iraqi leadership and how weary many Iraqis are of leaders who lack character, competence and honesty.
Even with the naming of a new prime minister and the selection of a new Iraqi leadership, doubts remain about whether a new government will be able to turn the beleaguered nation away from the abyss that threatens its very existence.
Iraq’s post-Saddam leaders have been the targets of frequent criticism for squandering opportunities to rebuild their country into a stable and democratic state. They have shown themselves to be incapable of taking bold initiatives and adopting innovative policies in the past.
As was expected, the recent elections recycled the same corrupt and greedy elites that were empowered by the US-led invasion, putting them back in the seats of power in Baghdad where they are bound to commit the same follies as they did before.
Al-Abadi was no exception to this rule. The way the Americans and other allies boosted him as prime minister was thus a form of insurance to excuse themselves from responsibility for the failure to start rebuilding Iraq following the campaign against IS.
Incompetent leadership is not only the problem of the people who occupy positions in government in Iraq, as it is a reflection of the leadership culture in post-Saddam Iraq as a whole.
In such a culture, poor political leadership will continue to produce the bad governance that is Iraq’s greatest barrier to political and socio-economic development.
Given this reality, Iraq needs transformational leaders with strategic vision, courage, integrity and consensus-building abilities to introduce a new set of political initiatives that will transform Iraq and make it less like a conglomerate of fiefdoms.
Without such a transformation, Iraq will not survive the failures of its leaders. Instead, it will continue to suffer regression because leaders who recognise the challenges before them do not seem to exist.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The rise and fall of Haider Al-Abadi