In an address on public television on February 1st, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi sympathetically appealed directly to anti-government protesters occupying Tahrir Square, aiming to signal the beginning of a new chapter in Iraqi politics. The address came only a couple of hours after Allawi was named Iraq’s Prime Minister-Delegate. 

Allawi was appointed by President Salih after the Iraqi Parliament failed following two months to decide on a new prime minister after the previous PM resigned in November in response to mass unrest. Even after the previous PM, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, resigned on November 29th, mass protests have continued. As of early February, the unrest has left more than 500 people dead and 17,000 injured. 

Protesters React and Resist 

In post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, political power has been shared across sectarian divisions. Certain Iraqi political positions are reserved for representatives of a particular religious or ethnic sect. One of the major grievances expressed in recent protests has been the belief that this system has become a tool for elites to manipulate sectarian alliances, maintaining patronage networks, clientelism, and corruption.

Demonstrators have demanded an end to corruption and greater job opportunities. The protests began in October with demands for the resignation of the then-government and new elections. Additionally, protestors have called for the removal of the political elite that has dominated the political system introduced after the US invasion in 2003. 

Allawi himself is by no means the pure technocrat, unaffiliated with political parties, that many protesters yearn for. He is the country’s former communications minister, having served two terms under former PM Nouri al-Maliki. Allawi has also served as a member of Parliament and is the cousin of former vice president and prime minister, Iyad Allawi. 

While Allawi is no stranger to Iraqi politics, he is not disgraced by the corruption allegations that follow several other Iraqi political figures. In fact, Allawi resigned from his cabinet post in 2012 after accusing al-Maliki of interfering politically in the communications ministry and ignoring widespread government corruption. His complicated legacy has made the impact of his appointment unclear. 

Allawi clearly checks many politics boxes: he has worked with a wide range of political parties, he is educated and secular, and he has the required Shiite Muslim background for the PM position. Despite how these characteristics may have benefited him in more politically stable times, his experience in Iraq’s cabinet is enough to tarnish his reputation for many frustrated protesters.  

What Next?

According to the Iraqi constitution, once Mr. Allawi is sworn in by Parliament in the next session, he will have 30 days to form a new government and put together a cabinet. However, his task is likely to be made more difficult by popular protests and divided public opinion.

Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential leader of one of the biggest Shia blocs in parliament, has demonstrated full support of Allawi. Despite al-Sadr’s calls to clear roads and continue day-to-day life,” protesters continue to turn out in the streets of Tehran. 

However, Iraqis themselves are not the only ones who have a hand in the fate of their country. On February 2nd, Iran offered its full support for Allawi. Iran’s support for Allawi is relatively unsurprising; Iran has deep ties to Shia political parties and militias in Iraq and is likely to support a government that will be sympathetic to Iranian interests. 

Following al-Sadr’s announcement of support for Allawi, al-Sadr’s followers were seen collaborating with security forces and helping to clear blocked roads. Notably, they took over a strategically significant high-rise building that had been occupied by anti-government protesters. Al-Sadr’s followers forced protesters out of the building who had been camping in the building since October, shouting that the anti-government demonstrators haven’t done any good and have ruined the economy.   

Al-Sadr’s followers and staunch anti-government protesters represent diametrically opposed possibilities for the future of Iraqis’ relationship with their government.

Allawi must navigate two spheres of domestic resistance to his nomination. One one hand, he must face the protesters who have already demonstrated their commitment to bringing about lasting political change. On the other hand, he will be up against powerful political establishment actors who are unlikely to take steps against corruption without resistance. 

Allawi’s ability to satisfy political actors will be tested by whether he is able to win a majority of votes in the Council of Representatives to win the premiership. Additionally, though protesters do not have a direct voice in the Iraqi parliament, they have proven to be an informal check on Allawi’s leadership. Otherwise, they may significantly hinder Allawi’s ability to successfully govern. 

Essentially, the protesters may not have a formal vote, but their approval or disapproval of the incoming PM will certainly impact the degree to which the new government stabilizes or collapses. One protester, when speaking about al-Sadr’s followers, aptly synthesized the current polarizing instability at hand, stating: “They will never mix with us…We are here for our homeland, they are blindly following the tweet of one cleric.” 

Edited by Sophia Rafuse.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image via Wikimedia Commons