The political turmoil of Iraq entered a new stage of protests on Sunday, February 2nd, 2020 as the Iraqi president appointed Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to the role of Prime Minister. This appointment was met with anger and frustration by the now veteran protesters, who have occupied several large squares in Iraq’s capital of Baghdad since October. Protests have turned increasingly violent in recent weeks as the security services have escalated their efforts to displace and arrest the protestors.
Unlike the violent anti-American protesters that gained the world’s attention over the New Year, the tens of thousands of anti-Iranian protesters are engaged in occupations and violent clashes with police over what many young people see as a corrupt and inefficient government which failed to provide proper care to its people while being controlled by the opposing behemoths of the U.S. and Iran. Since October, these protestors have occupied Tahrir Square and in November had success in expelling Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi from power after international outrage over his direction for the security forces to violently suppress protestors. These mainly young middle and lower-class protestors have faced massive violence against both themselves and their families, with the Iraqi Human Rights Commission reporting that around 500 people have died as a result of the protests in their four-month existence.
Sunday’s appointment of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, a former communications minister and government insider, resulted from months of internal political arguments and only came to fruition after President Barham Salih gave an ultimatum to the ruling party. On paper, Allawi is the perfect candidate to placate the protesters, having resigned in protest from his role in the Iraqi Ministry of Communications in 2012, due to his distaste of the political interference and the government’s unwillingness to address its inherent corruption. One of his first actions was to promise to meet many of the protestors’ demands stating in a public address: “I promise you that the blood of the demonstrators and our security forces will not go in vain. The aggressors and criminals will be held accountable and will be brought to justice.” Yet despite this rhetoric for change, he is still very much the elite insider that the Protesters have been fighting against. A cousin of former Vice President and Prime Minister Lyad Allawi, Tawfiq Allawi was only appointed after gaining the support of the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who recently retracted his support for the protestors. Instead, the cleric ordered his armed followers to take strategic places away from the core protest movement and establish themselves in ‘the Turkish restaurant’ to force out any protestors who disagreed with Muqtada thus deepening the divide amongst the core protesters and Muqtada’s supporters.
Unfortunately, Allawi’s family ties and his reliance on Muqtada to survive politically has made him a conduit of both the high-level corruption and international interference that the protesters are fighting against. To those protesters who have risked life and livelihood for months, the appointment of a low-level party insider with strong family ties to the former prime minister looks far too much like the ruling party looking after itself. This complete rejection of Allawi’s appointment manifested itself among the protesters around Iraq in a matter of hours after the announcement was made, with protesters in Bagdad, Basra, and Nasiriyah. Aljazeera reported that protesters hung pictures of Allawi with a red X over his face from the bridges around Tahir Square and chanted “Mohammed Allawi is rejected,” while protestors in Nasiriyah burnt tires and took to the streets to show their dismay. This show of public rejection of Allawi is even more indicative of the feelings of the general populous. Given Muqtada’s support of Allawi, it symbolizes a shift in the popular support Muqtada has enjoyed for many years. With Mariam Nael, an 18-year-old protester, stating to the Associated Press news agency that “They [Muqtada’s followers] will never mix with us, We are here for our homeland, they are blindly following the tweet of one Cleric.”
The UN’s top official in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said in a statement that, “[t]he prime minister-designate faces a monumental task”. So it remains to be seen if Allawi can peacefully end the multiple month-long political deadlocks over the protests and control Muqtada’s supporters to prevent more violence and needless loss of life.