“Demonstrate, chant, protest. This is your right. This is your country". These were the words of Mohammed Allawi to Iraqis in his very first speech as Iraq’s new prime minister-designate, after a popular uprising drove his predecessor Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign in November. Mr Allawi has also promised to shield demonstrators from violence and abuse, draft a new electoral law and stand up to the very ruling elite that has brought him to the cusp of power. Iraqis have heeded his call to take to the streets, but their chants are directed at him as much as the rest of the Iraqi government.
Mr Allawi’s speech, and the developments that have followed, are all too familiar in the present context of the wider Middle East. Fixing the economy, standing up to political parties and corruption are the exact promises that have been made by another newly appointed prime minister, Hezbollah-backed Hassan Diab, to his own people after a popular, anti-establishment uprising forced the resignation of his predecessor in October.
Much like Iraq, Lebanon’s politics are dominated by sectarian parties, which protesters have accused of corruption, foreign backing and economic mismanagement. Yet instead of heeding their demands for better, cleaner leadership, Lebanon’s politicians have chosen to perpetuate a failing system. Hezbollah-allied groups lobbied Mr Diab to appoint a government of technocrats in name only. Much of his new Cabinet is affiliated directly or indirectly to the very sectarian parties that protesters want to see the back of.
There are fears that the same scenario is now unfolding in Iraq, where Tehran-backed militias and parties have controlled political life for nearly two decades. Much like Mr Diab, Mr Allawi was nominated as prime minister after months of opaque, back room talks between powerful parties in Parliament, including populist cleric Muqtada Al Sadr’s Sairoon coalition and its rival, the Fatah alliance led by Hadi Al Amiri. Al Amiri also heads the Badr Organisation, a militia that answers to Iran.
Mr Allawi has also been criticised for being part of this failed system in a number of positions. He served as communications minister in 2006, and again from 2010 to 2012. In short, his candidacy does not mark a total departure from the status quo.
In Iraq, demonstrations have come at a particularly high price. More than 650 protesters have been killed and 17,000 have been wounded since the start of the uprising. Many of them were shot by security forces and Tehran-backed militias, while hundreds others have mysteriously disappeared.
There is no guarantee that Mr Allawi will be able to rein in the Iraqi security forces, much less stop militias from inflicting violence. To encourage Iraqis to keep protesting without taking real steps to meet their demands or to guarantee their safety would be not only politically disingenuous, but also irresponsible. Mr Allawi has an opportunity to prove that his new administration, if confirmed by the Parliament, would be neither of those things.
The people of Iraq are not protesting against the failures of one man. They are protesting against a corrupt system where militia rule has become the norm. Mr Allawi has been given a daunting, yet clear task: to revive the economy, protect the people and to provide ordinary Iraqis with basic services, such as electricity and clean water. Unfortunately, this is a challenge many prime ministers before him have failed to meet.