Can Mohammed Allawi Succeed in Forming Iraq's Next Government?

EPC | 17 Feb 2020

In a repeat of Adel Abdul-Mahdi's elevation to Iraq's premiership, the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the leader of the pro-Iran Al-Fatah Alliance, Hadi al-Amiri, agreed to nominate former Minister of Communications Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi as a new prime minister. Once Allawi was officially designated by the President of the Republic, Barham Salih, on February 1, 2020, the demonstrations intensified in Baghdad and a number of southern provinces denouncing their ally's, Al-Sadr, departure from the protesters' conditions that the next prime minister must be independent, does not hold two nationalities and has not been a member of any previous government.

This paper sheds light on Allawi's nomination, Al-Sadr's and the protest movement' stances and explores Allawi's ability to form a government.

Designation Formula

After several months of protests that Muqtada al-Sadr supported, the man abandoned his rejection of any attempts designed to ignore the new reality the popular protest movement has created. Not only that, Al-Sadr has joined hands with the leader of the Al-Fatah Alliance, Hadi al-Amiri, under the aegis of Lebanon's Hezbollah whose leader took on a mission, at the behest of Tehran, to fill the void left by the killing of commander of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, and rearrange Iraq affairs by employing his close relationship with the Sadrist movement and pro-Iran Iraqi groups. Hassan Nasrallah succeeded in arranging a meeting between Al-Sadr and a number of Iraqi militia leaders in the Iranian city of Qom, preceded by a meeting between Al-Sadr and Al-Amri. During the meeting, both men were asked to unify ranks and agree on a new prime minister following Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation. They were also asked to form a front resisting the U.S. presence in Iraq. On February 1, 2020, "Independent Arabia" reported, citing special sources, that Mohammad Kawtharani, a Lebanon's Hezbollah leader, and Iranian official Hassan Danai, have supported Allawi's nomination" as an immediate necessity for pro-Iran factions. This came amid concerns over the expiry of the deadline set by the President of the Republic, Barham Salih, and the prospect that Salih might name a figure, loyalty and positions will be unknown.

It seems that the reasons for Hezbollah's support for the nomination of Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi are related to the historical relations that bring together the leaders of the party with the prime minister-designate when he served as minister of communications. At that time, Allawi gave way to Hezbollah-affiliated companies to win lucrative investment and operational contracts marred by corruption and overpricing. These deals were concluded amidst the total complicity of the “Shiite” forces that either earned part of the profits or entered as secondary partners or obtained facilities to launder their money through these projects. These ventures still generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually, especially in the poor-quality, high-cost Internet services sector.

Besides, several observations over Allawi's designation can be noted, including:

  1. Formality-wise: The designation of the new prime minister was not announced in the presence of the heads of the three branches of government or the media. Rather, it was made in a completely different way possibly necessitated by the need to catch up with the deadline the president of the republic has set for political forces to field a candidate or he himself will pick up a candidate.
  2. A Constitutional Violation: Allawi’s designation was a repeat of Abdul-Mahdi’s designation in 2018, when the Iraqi president has once again violated Article (76) of the constitution, which requires him to entrust the candidate of the “largest parliamentary bloc” with forming the new government. Earlier, the president of the republic called on the parliament to determine the largest bloc and then let things go according to the usual unconstitutional agreements.

Allawi: The Reproduction of Adel Abdul-Mahdi

Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi is considered a veteran Iraqi politician despite the fact that he does not adhere to a specific political line as a result of the intellectual transformations he has experienced. Nevertheless, at some stage, he joined the Islamic Dawa Party which was founded by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and left it later on but kept ties with the Islamist parties, especially the "Islamic Supreme Council" led by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. These ties helped Allawi to remain active in the new Iraqi political system since 2005, when he joined Al-Iraqiya List led by Iyad Allawi, and was thereafter elected a member of the parliament for two consecutive terms 2006-2010. He was also appointed minister of communications in the two governments of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki before he was forced to resign due to conflicts with Al-Maliki. He was subsequently accused of squandering public money, a charge that handed him a seven-year prison term. But in 2014, he returned back to Iraq and was cleared of all charges after they were found incorrect.  

On the personality and leadership characteristics level, it appears that Allawi's personality has much resemblance to that of Adel Abdul Mahdi in several aspects, most notably:

  1. A man with knowledge but without concrete achievement in previous years. Although Allawi maintains knowledge of economic matters, telecommunications and information technology, he is not known of any achievement in actual management. In spite of his claims that he made major achievements in the telecommunications sector, which he handled when he was minister of communications during the record-budgets era, mobile phone and Internet service in Iraq is still among the worst in the world. Nor has he been known to possess the ability to make real decisions that would enable him to deter the corrupt and eliminate parallel and deep partisan institutions that are eating away at the country.
  2. His inability to fight back. This was evident in his conflict with former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki when he was minister of communications. In the wake of the dispute, Allawi resigned while he was abroad and refused for years to stand trial and defend himself, except when Haider al-Abadi took office as new prime minister.
  3. The fact that he belongs to the "Shiite" aristocracy. This class has lived in long isolation from the lower classes and marginalized groups, since Iraq turned into a rentier socialist state in the early 1960s, when the margin of political, social and economic work shrank due to the republican regimes' preoccupation with security matters. These regimes forced the members of this class, including those who left the country or lived in isolation at home, to depart completely from the society, and thus lost their political leadership in favor of populist leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr.
  4. His nomination. Allawi was nominated by the same parties that had previously nominated Abdul-Mahdi and later abandoned him. Further, this nomination came according to the same mechanisms that reduced Adel Abdul Mahdi into a "traffic policeman" whose job was limited to organizing power and gain sharing with the least possible collisions between the political parties.

Al-Sadr’s Shifting Positions

The shift in the Sadrist movement’s position came to light soon after the killing of Iran's Qods Force leader Qasim Soleimani and deputy commander of the “Popular Mobilization Forces”, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, on January 3, 2020. The targeting of the two men revealed a total U.S. willingness to confront Tehran until the last stage. This matter placed the Iranian regime in danger and made it grow more fearful that its traditional allies, Nuri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri, could not end the Iraqi crisis and suppress the protests that raised slogans rejecting Iranian influence. Accordingly, Tehran decided to work on an alternative plan that would allow it to deal with the new reality. One of its priorities was to find a way to win over Muqtada Al-Sadr as the most important player in the Iraqi political landscape in a manner that guarantees it to achieve several goals simultaneously:

  1. Utilize Al-Sadr’s popularity and his ability to manage the political scene in Iraq after the resignation of Adel Abdul Mahdi. This is particularly true given Al-Sadr's control of a major bloc in the parliament, "Saairun", and his ability to mobilize a large mass base.
  2. Tehran is unwilling to involve its loyalist factions in publicly suppressing the protests, especially as the protesters grew more hateful of these groups, which mounted campaigns of violence against them. Iran also fears that the U.S. administration, under international support, might seek to employ any uptick in violence against the protesters to reset the current balance of power in Iraq in a manner that threatens Iran's long-standing dominance over the Iraqi decision.
  3. The fact that Al-Sadr is capable of and has countered the U.S. presence in Iraq since 2003 supported by a large popular base that makes any U.S. move to target him personally a risky gamble that would produce a Houthi scenario in Iraq.

Al-Sadr's decision to realign with Iran Tehran soon came into effect when he called for a demonstration on January 24, 2019 to demand the expulsion of foreign forces from the country. This can be considered the first step on the road to diverting the protest movement, especially after a series of attacks on various protest arenas in the evening of the same day by unidentified armed groups, during which tents were burned and protesters were fired upon. Neither Al-Sadr nor his spokesman, Saleh Muhammad Al-Iraqi, responded to the developments on their social media pages. On the contrary, he used a stronger tone critical of the protesters, suggesting in one of his tweets that he is a "bit unhappy with the protesters....and that the country cannot stand further destruction". He then followed this tweet by ordering the "Blue Hats" (a group of the Saraya Al Salam charged with protecting the protests in their first days) to withdraw from Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Al-Sadr completed his sharp turns by giving the green light to storm the square, and control the protests' symbolic icon, the "Turkish Restaurant", by his supporters who carried banners welcoming the new candidate for the Prime Minister position. Two days later, Allawi was entrusted with forming a new government. Al-Sadr hailed the prime minister-designate as the "Iraqis’ choice."

Despite his adoption of a moderate reconciliatory nationalist discourse towards the “Sunnis” and his openness to civil and secular currents by trying to find common ground, Al-Sadr's sacrifice of the many years he spent in improving his image among the Iraq public indicates the magnitude of the stakes he placed on his return to the Iran's embrace. Further, Al-Sadr might be expecting a hefty reward for his pro-Iran recourse no less than Tehran's recognizing him as the leader of the "Shiites" of Iraq, equal to Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and Abdul-Malik al-Houthi in Yemen.

Allawi's Designation and the Protest Movement

The announcement that Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi was entrusted with forming a new government did not help defuse the protests in Iraq, but rather contributed to further escalation. The situation has continued to worsen given an atmosphere of mistrust between the Iraqi public and political blocs. After the official announcement of the new Prime Minister, the demonstrators rejected the candidate, saying he does not represent them, and slamming the political blocs for not listening to them. They also affirmed that any candidate who comes from within the current blocs is totally rejected.

Allawi's attempt to win over the protest movement by declaring his support for the demonstrators to continue their movement, and pledging to achieve their full demands in exchange for their support for any decision he takes against the interests of the political elite, did not succeed. The response was explicit and straightforward by the majority of the protesters, especially those with no ideological affiliation, who voiced total rejection of the PM's designation scenario and threatened to escalate the protest movement. This is what happened, as the southern provinces of Iraq witnessed a school and university student strike. The developments prompted the leader of the Sadrist movement to ask the "Saraya Al Salam" disguised under the name "Blue Hats" to suppress the demonstrations under the pretext of securing them from the infiltrators and saboteurs. This caused a sharp division that damaged the common ground between the two parties, especially after videos leaked showing the violent attacks by Al-Sadr's supporters against the protesters. This violence was widely considered part of the price that Sadr had to pay for Iran in exchange for being recognized as the most important actor in shaping the future of Iraq's political process.

On the other hand, the protesters insist on their position, as the clash with the "Blue Hats", has seemingly freed them from the restrictions of field partnership with the Sadrists, and gave their movement further thrust and dynamism based mainly on the sacrifices they have made over the past four months. The student unions played a key role in increasing the momentum of the protest, especially the "Baghdad Student Union", which agreed to organize a one-million demonstration on Sunday of each week to compensate for the fluctuation in the number of demonstrators. This brings the protests back to the fore in a way that is impossible to suppress by the political forces. It also gives the protesters the space they need to see the results that the Prime Minister-designate can achieve, the form of government he will lead, the extent of his ability to get out of the pressure of political parties and head towards early elections.

The Cabinet and Partisan Competition

It seems that the deadlock in the political process has not ended after the appointment of Allawi, due to the escalation of disputes between political forces over power. The appointed Prime Minister, in turn, has not announced the mechanisms that he will adopt in choosing his cabinet members. Accordingly, conflicts emerged between the political parties on several levels, including:

  1. At the level of “Shiite” forces, there are two camps. The first is represented in the supporters of the prime minister-designate, Al-Fatah and “Saairun”. However, concerns have started to appear among the Al-Amiri-led Fatah Allaince over the possibility that Al-Sadr might take full control of the government by bagging a number of ministries under the title of independent technocrats. Al-Amiri and his allies also fear that Al-Sadr will support Allawi in naming the rest of the ministers with reports that five of them will be London-based friends of Allawi, in order to give the government the appearance of being independent and not subject to political parties' influence denounced by the protesters. Certainly, this trajectory will not satisfy the "Al-Fatah" Alliance that agreed to Allawi in exchange for retaining its positions in the resigned government. The second camp includes the "Islamic Dawa" party and its extensions within the Al-Binaa Alliance, and the "State of Law" coalition, whose leader, Nuri al-Maliki, expressed his dissatisfaction with Amri's unilateralism in naming the candidate for the prime minister position, without taking his opinion. In a statement, Al-Maliki said: "It is not part of the nomination scenario and has nothing to do with the election of a person who does not comply with the conditions agreed upon by the Iraqis." It seems that the position of the State of Law coalition stems from old personal disputes between Allawi and Maliki during the second term of the latter. On the other hand, former Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi's "Victory" alliance said: "it is not a party to choosing the candidate who must gain the people's trust." A number of other forces, the most important of which is the "Al-Hikma" movement, which continue to monitor the government formation paths without taking a specific position, also voiced reservations. This may mean that these parties can reject Allawi's cabinet if he does not take their needs and interests into account.
  2. Sunni powers. Although Allawi’s designation has received the blessing of some Sunni groups, especially the “National Axis” Alliance led by Khamis al-Khanjar and the “Salvation and Development” Front led by Osama al-Nujaifi, there have been opposing positions. Sunni figures opposing Allawi’s designation include House Speaker Muhammad al-Halbousi, who is coming under threats by Shiite politician Izzat Shabandar who has been attempting to break up the "the Iraqi Forces Alliance" coalition supporting the former and to attract leaders from the coalition to the next government. This prompted the prominent figure in the "the Iraqi Forces Alliance" and leader of the Iraqi People’s Coalition, Ahmed Abdullah al-Jubouri, to announce his intention not to vote for the Allawi government. Al-Jubouri said in a statement: “The mechanism by which the Prime Minister-designate, Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi, was nominated, has proven its failure and inability to form a strong and harmonious government team. The government decision has been affected by the two blocs that agreed to nominate him." Clearly, Al-Jubouri was implying that the monopoly practiced by the two largest Shiite blocs should be met with allowing the "Sunni" forces to nominate their ministers in the next cabinet. At the same time, leaders of the Salvation and Development, namely Osama al-Nujaifi, continue to blast Al-Halbousi's efforts to secure part of the Sunni share in the next government, saying: “The Sunnis, who demand Allawi’s government to give them a share, in fact demand their share of corruption and personal benefits.”
  3. The Kurds. It is clear that the Kurdish parties do not care about people as much as they care about their political interests and the right to nominate their representatives in the government of Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi. This was clearly expressed by leading figure of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Hoshyar Zebari, who said in press statements that: "The Kurds are an essential component and they have constitutional rights, and they must be represented in a balanced manner. No names should be imposed on us under the pretext of independents and technocrats without consulting with the [Kurdistan] region." Among their demands was to keep Finance Minister Fouad Hussein in the next government.

Allawi's Government: Possible Future Scenarios

First Scenario: Allawi's Success in Forming a New Government

This scenario assumes that Prime Minister-designate Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi succeeds in forming an independent government that works to implement part of the demands of the demonstrators, and that it enjoys the support of the silent majority, which is beginning to show more signs of concern that the protests will continue for an unknown period. A number of considerations support this scenario, most notably:

  1. The fact that Allawi's designation was sponsored by powerful groups in the parliament and reflected internal and external political balances, especially the Iranian blessing and the U.S. welcome. This may contribute to enhancing the chances of reaching comprises that help the new government, which has become the political system's last chance to escape the economic and social crises.
  2. The international support that Allawi received. In this regard, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said in an official statement: "The pledges mentioned in the Prime Minister-designate statement meet many of the demands of peaceful protesters, and this is an encouraging indication."
  3. The fact that Iran needs to calm the situation in Iraq in light of the vacuum left by the killing of Qasim Soleimani. In this context, Iran has pushed its allies to give Allawi a wider decision-making margin and allow him to take down some corrupt figures. Iran is also seeking to reduce the PMF's public interference in security and political affairs.
  4. The fact that the protest movement lost some momentum under the pressure of the Sadrists, who kept no secret in their plans to end the demonstrations. This gives the demonstrators some space to crystallize a new vision after Muqtada al-Sadr was taken out of the protest movement. This of course will need time given the protest movement's lack of a single leadership.

Second Scenario: Allawi’s Failure to Form a New Government

This scenario assumes that the next government of Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi will not succeed because of the heavy burden left by previous governments. Among the reasons underlying this scenario are Iranian hegemony over the security and political decisions, and the U.S. administration’s pressures that threaten to take punitive measures if the Iraqi government fails to prevent Tehran from using Iraq as an outlet to circumvent U.S. economic sanctions, along with a number of considerations, most notably:

  1. The dispute over the makeup of the next government might prevent it from securing the parliament's confidence. This dispute is raging between the advocates of a technocratic government and those who support a technocratic-political government, in what could be a repeat of Adel Abdul Mahdi's cabinet formation, which took a long time before it was endorsed by the parliament. This was clearly expressed by the jihadist aide to the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, "Abu Duaa Kazem al-Issawi," who, during press remarks on February 9, threatened the prime minister-designate by saying: "We will turn Iraq into hell and bring him down [the prime minister-designate] in three days if he nominates ministers belonging to the political forces".
  2. The “Kurdish” and “Sunni” parties, who seem apathetic towards the protest movement, which they believe, is the outcome of an internal Shiite conflict, continue to demand their share of ministerial positions as the only way to participate in decision-making. These demands will be an obstacle in the negotiations over government formation. This is particularly true given the ongoing disputes over the leadership of parliamentary committees, special positions, setting an acceptable date for early elections, the ability of the Independent High Electoral Commission to organize the snap vote and the oil and gas law. More importantly, another thorny issue is the delayed endorsement of the 2020 budget law, which involves a number of outstanding issues between Baghdad and Irbil regarding Kurdish oil revenues, taxes and customs fees.
  3. The Prime Minister-designate remains hostage to the political blocs. This is something that Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi warned of in his letter to his successor when he said: "I am afraid that what happened to me will happen to you that your government will be a victim of sharp political division, as well as the dishonorable struggle over positions." Accordingly, its remains possible that Allawi might step down and apologize for not being able to form a government. 
  4. The relationship between the Sadrist movement and armed factions is beset by major ideological differences that cannot be overcome, especially as Muqtada Al-Sadr has repeatedly called for a government   of independents and technocrats. At the same time, political factions and forces consider participation in the government an essential tool in enhancing their political influence and securing self-financing by exploiting state resources. In addition, the rapprochement between the two sides [Sadrist movement and armed factions] was necessitated by concerns that the U.S. will continue the assassinations. Nevertheless, this last consideration is temporary and as soon as it ceases to exist, previous tension and rivalry between the parties will come to the fore again.


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