Spare a thought for Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki! Just as he was putting the finishing touches on an authoritarian edifice in the best Arab tradition, the whole model came crumbling down.
After the expenditure of uncounted billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, Iraqi and US officials boasted that they were finally ‘building democracy’ in post-Saddam Iraq. Instead, Iraqis find themselves trailing far behind their Tunisian and Egyptian brothers on the march to freedom and dignity.
Maliki did everything by the book. He fought terrorists without mercy. He personified power and used all the state’s resources to buy consent. He manipulated a democratic process. He overrode elections to ensure an open-ended reign for his minority party. He set up a parallel security apparatus, bypassing institutions built with much sacrifice. Early this year, feeling emboldened by staying in power despite losing the elections, he mounted a frontal assault on troublesome independent institutions to make sure that he can directly control future elections, the media and money from the country’s commerce.
In this way, in the weeks before the first winds of change started to blow from Tunisia, Iraq seemed to be headed into a period of classic political and security consolidation customary to the region. A clear political winner has risen to offer the familiar Arab bargain - stability and hand outs in exchange for servility and resignation. Iraqis exhausted by eight years of chaos and decades of suffering seemed ready to accept. The fact that Maliki’s political rivals did not offer any more appealing alternative didn’t help. It could have worked too. With US$6 billion worth of oil revenues a month and much more to come, there are enough resources to cover up almost any sins.
Iraq is still far from seeing the kind of popular upheavals sweeping through Yemen or even Syria. No one is calling for regime change in Baghdad (which cannot be said about Sulaymania in Iraqi Kurdistan). Maliki is yet to become a hate figure like Ben Ali or Mubarak. That may change, however, if he continues to misread the message from the streets of Iraqi cities where demonstrations continue every Friday.
So far, the Iraqi government’s reaction to such expressions of protest has been almost identical to that of other Arab regimes, a mixture of belligerence, bribery and brutality. Repeated assertions that Iraq is free and democratic, unlike Tunisia and Egypt only remind Iraqis of the similarities. Attempts to buy off the public through handouts, such as $15 per person bonus, highlight the widening gulf between the rulers and the ruled.
The political system in Iraq is far from being as ossified and brittle as the decades old regimes elsewhere. But it is remarkably rigid though, for a system which is only a few years old. As a friend recently quipped, change is impossible because everyone is already in the government. Iraq continues to be ruled by the same constellation of forces and often individuals who attended the opposition conferences in exile and later formed the much maligned Governing Council (Iraqis used to call its members the 16 horses of the apocalypse). Change within this group, say from Maliki to Allawi or even to the Sadrists is not going to make much of a difference. Herein rests the rigidity of a system which may (on a good day) offer a mechanism for succession but not for meaningful change.
With no option for peaceful and orderly open political change, Iraq remains a candidate for joining the upheaval sweeping through the region. But given its all too recent history and the weakness of state institutions, change in Iraq may end up looking more like Libya than Egypt.
However, Iraqi society and politics has not been hollowed out as Libya’s has by forty years of non-stop personalised dictatorship. Today it is in a unique position, where substantive reform can offer a genuine alternative to upheaval.
In the immediate term there is a need to weed out incompetence and corruption particularly at the top. The current cabinet is shaping up to be ‘Iraq’s worst’ as I was recently told by a group of civic activists. A large number of portfolios were created in order to bring in almost every political group, ethnic community and religious sect into the government. Addressing the acute services crisis with such a large and unruly body of placemen is impossible. This is already evident in the anaemic response to the protests. The government is resigned to face another storm of protests over water and electricity this summer and feels totally incapable of coming up with a solution.
Addressing incompetence and corruption at the top is not only a precondition for better service delivery. It is also essential for relieving the sense of humiliation many Iraqi’s feel at the sight of some officials. A smaller cabinet of recognized technocrats will not only be better equipped but also have more legitimacy in the eyes of the public than most of what is currently masquerading as a government.
Iraqis need to be convinced that the new political system really works, that they can pursue their interests including desire for change through the ballot box and other democratic institutions.
One way this might be achieved is by holding early provincial elections, which could bring in competent and trusted leaders. This could be a real change that contributes to addressing the crises of services in addition to enhancing the systems legitimacy.
There is a need to reverse all measures aimed at hollowing out the system of checks and balances. All security structures need to be brought under the auspices of the relevant ministries and through them under parliamentary oversight. Rather than engaging in legal semantics the Prime Minister needs to do everything to strengthen the independence and legitimacy of the independent institutions as a key to his own legitimacy.
Service delivery and legitimacy are closely intertwined. Only legitimate leadership can make the hard and sometimes unpopular choices necessary for reconstruction. Conversely jobs and services are the key to political stability. Iraq, unlike many of its neighbours has vast resources to deliver both, but it could benefit from technical support to use its resources more effectively. The international community can provide such assistance. But any such support should be made conditional on reversing the backsliding into authoritarianism.