Eager to end the protracted political crisis in strife-torn Iraq, Iraqi President Barham Salih has appointed a new prime minister to replace Adil Abdul-Mahdi who resigned in November amidst mass anti-government demonstrations.
However, Iraqi protesters who have been calling for sweeping reforms and a government made up of independents who did not serve in previous cabinets, have immediately rejected the nomination of Mohamed Tawfik Allawi seen as a bid by the country’s ruling class to maintain the status quo.
Protesters also accused powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr of betraying the five-month-old uprising after he rushed to welcome Allawi’s nomination and sent his followers to quell the uprising despite earlier promises to support its demands.
Some protests on social media also lashed out at top UN diplomat in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert for quickly praising Allawi’s nomination, pointing to a conspiracy which they claimed had brought together local, regional and international powers to end the unfinished Iraqi revolution.
Allawi is a member of the Shia political elite who returned from exile after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 and served as a MP and communications minister under ex-premier Nouri Al-Maliki, who headed a government widely seen as the most corrupt in post-Saddam Iraq.
Hours before Allawi’s appointment, supporters of Al-Sadr attacked protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the Iraqi uprising, as part of a wide-ranging crackdown aimed at heading off planned protests against the nomination.
Allawi announced his appointment on Saturday shortly before the president’s office released a video showing a grim-faced Salih giving him a letter of nomination without the usual protocol of having the speaker of the parliament and other political leaders present.
Salih had warned earlier that he would choose a prime minister if Iraq’s political parties failed to name a replacement for Abdul-Mahdi by the end of January after the political factions missed a deadline for the nomination leaving the country largely leaderless at a time of deep political crisis.
According to Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, the largest bloc in parliament must nominate a prime minister within 15 days of the premier’s post becoming vacant. That deadline passed many weeks ago.
It is unclear, however, how many lawmakers in the 329-seat parliament have endorsed Allawi’s nomination. He was named as part of a deal between Al-Sadr and rival Iran-backed political groups that jointly control enough seats in the chamber.
In a statement upon accepting the nomination, Allawi praised the protesters who have been out on the streets since October. He promised to keep their demands front and centre in his government’s programme.
“I have decided to speak with you before speaking with anybody else because my power comes from you and without your sacrifices and bravery there would have been no change in the country,” he said in a recorded video.
Echoing the protesters’ demands, Allawi made promises for reform which he said would set the foundations for a new Iraqi state of “freedom, institutions and peace.”
Allawi’s pledges include holding those responsible for the killing of the protesters accountable, banning non-state armed groups, and holding an “early election” which he promised would be free and fair and under UN supervision.
Allawi vowed he would resign if the country’s political blocs attempted to impose candidates for cabinet jobs, and he called on the protesters to continue demonstrating until their demands were met.
Within minutes of his nomination, Allawi was endorsed by Al-Sadr who had earlier ordered his followers to withdraw from the sit-ins blaming the hostile behaviour of the protesters towards his supporters.
“Today will go down in the history of Iraq as the day when the people chose their prime minister and not the political blocs,” Al-Sadr tweeted, implying that Allawi was the protesters’ choice for the post.
“If he needs support to boost his independence, I and the people are ready [to give him that],” wrote the cleric who controls the largest bloc in parliament and a powerful militia.
Al-Sadr said life would now return to normal in the Iraqi cities that had witnessed the anti-government protests. He said the Ministry of Education would reopen schools and punish those students who stayed out of classes.
Most significantly, Al-Sadr ordered his supporters, known as “blue hats” who are members of his Salam Brigades militias, to work closely with the security forces to clear roads and bridges that have been closed by the protesters.
Another high-profile and quick endorsement of Allawi’s appointment came from the United Nations, which has been active for months in brokering and implementing an agreement between the Iraqi players to end the crisis.
Hennis-Plasschaert, officially known as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq, welcomed the designation of Allawi and commended the commitments he made in his first statement as a prime minister-designate which “address many demands of the peaceful protesters.”
Hennis-Plasschaert said Allawi faced “a monumental task – rapid cabinet formation and parliamentary confirmation to press ahead with meaningful reforms addressing popular demands, delivering justice and accountability.”
But the protesters in Baghdad and across southern Iraq remained unconvinced. Within minutes of the announcement of Allawi’s nomination, massive protests broke out with the demonstrators directing their ire towards Al-Sadr.
The protesters said Allawi was not the independent candidate they had wanted and pledged to escalate their movement further until their demands were met.
They continued to gather in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and other places, banging drums, decrying Allawi’s nomination and sealing off bridges and roads with burning tyres.
Some protesters in Baghdad chanted “Muqtada lift your hands, the people do not want you.” Others waved the national flag along with the UN and the European Union flags. “We call on the UN to support and protect the Iraqi protesters,” read signs carried by the protesters.
Meanwhile, Al-Sadr’s “blue hats” supporters engaged in clashes with protesters in Baghdad and several other cities, trying to clear the sit-ins, disperse the protesters and put the lid on the uprising.
For outsiders, it has caused tremendous confusion and disorientation on seeing Al-Sadr turning cynically against the uprising and adopting some ugly tactics to quell the protesters.
Having initially directed his supporters to bolster the uprising and help shield the protesters from attacks by the security forces and militiamen, Al-Sadr is now mobilising his followers to attack the peaceful activists.
Al-Sadr’s goal is crystal clear: by declaring himself to be the “sponsor of the revolution,” he hopes to seize the opportunity and achieve his goal since Saddam’s ouster to be the supreme leader of Iraq’s Shias.
This has put Al-Sadr on a collision course with the protesters and made each side stake out increasingly polarised positions. While the entrenched ruling elite and their militias and the security forces will likely side with Al-Sadr, the peaceful protesters will have to face their fate alone.
It is clear that an explosive situation has been triggered by the nomination of Allawi, and Al-Sadr’s counter-revolution could expand quickly into chaos, threatening civil war in the strife-riven nation.
Given the increasing volatility and the imbalance of power between them and their foes who are intent on crushing the uprising, the protesters are hoping that the international community will come to their rescue, as was evident in placards carrying the UN logo carried by the protesters this week.
Yet, if the Arab Revolutions in 2011 can serve as a lesson, democracy and reforms in Iraq have not been called for by the international community in order to come to the aid of the Iraqi protesters.
Since the beginning of the protests, and apart from rhetorical support for the right to engage in peaceful demonstrations and condemnation of the violence, world reactions to the Iraqi uprising have often been measured, cautious and sometimes even confused and inconsistent.
There are reasons to believe that the political crisis in Iraq does not rank as a high-priority issue on the world agenda, either out of realpolitik, traditional interests, or geostrategic concerns about its consequences for domestic politics or other regional conflicts.
Whatever the reason, the Iraqi protesters, who risk desperation as the country’s corrupt ruling elite and factions linked to pro-Iran militias continue to focus on ending the uprising, must learn one key lesson from history: revolutions do not necessarily go well, and they are sometimes betrayed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.