Saddam Hussein may have been overthrown in 2003, but the dawn of more representative government in Iraq has not inoculated the country from the popular unrest now sweeping through the Arab world. Over the past month, demonstrations protesting the woeful lack of services and widespread corruption have taken place throughout the country. These culminated in a violent “day of rage” in a number of Iraqi cities, including one in Baghdad on February 25 that left more than 20 protesters dead.

These protests have not reached the scale of those witnessed in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and demonstrators have not demanded regime change per se. Nonetheless, the tight security measures taken to contain the “day of rage” protests in Baghdad -- including blocking access to the city and putting a tight military cordon around Tahrir Square, the focal point of the demonstrations -- and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts to link the unrest to al Qaeda and Baathist provocateurs suggest that his government is rattled. And with good cause, because if Baghdad cannot respond effectively to popular demands, the current government’s political survival is no less at stake than those in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis.

Although there is undoubtedly an element of contagion influencing events in Iraq, which began with small demonstrations in Baghdad led by intellectuals and professionals, the protests there are driven by local grievances. Popular anger at the persistent lack of services -- especially electricity -- has been rising steadily over the past few years. Demonstrations protesting power shortages occurred in Basra last summer, expressing a frustration common to Iraqis across the country; some parts of Baghdad, for example, received around two hours of electricity per day from the national grid in early February. Iraqis also share growing resentment toward pervasive government corruption, a factor that has been particularly important in driving demonstrations against the regional administration in Kurdistan. Iraq ranked 175 out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s 2010 corruption index. Meanwhile, there is broad resentment of the high salaries and generous benefits that public officials have granted themselves, especially given the government’s apparent ineptitude.

None of these grievances is new; Iraqis have complained about poor services and unresponsive government since the U.S. invasion in 2003. But in the bloody, chaotic years that followed Hussein’s fall, security was the biggest popular concern. Now that levels of violence have diminished, Iraqis’ patience with their government’s inadequacies is wearing thin.

Iraq’s leaders were slow to recognize this simmering popular frustration. In the early days of unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Iraqi officials were blasé and almost smug, lecturing their Arab counterparts on the need for democratic government and dismissing the chances of similar disturbances in Iraq. The warnings that were issued over the risk of domestic turbulence had a clear political bent and seemed to be aimed more at casting aspersions on Maliki’s leadership than anything else.

Consequently, Baghdad was caught unawares when protests did break out in the capital and in cities such as Mosul in early February, and its initial response was rather panicked. Following a now well-trodden path, Maliki announced on February 5 that he would not seek reelection for a third term, only for his official spokesman to claim a day later that the prime minister had been misquoted. Maliki, his cabinet ministers, and members of the Council of Representatives also discussed slashing their salaries. As a temporary measure to compensate for the poor state of services, the government pledged free electricity for approximately one million of Iraq’s poorest families. Maliki also promised that every person would be given 15,000 dinars (roughly $13) as compensation for deficiencies in the national ration card system, a program to supply basic foodstuffs that was first introduced by Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s, when Iraq was under international sanctions.

Faced with continuing protests, the government followed up with a slew of other initiatives, including shifting spending priorities in the 2011 budget. The state will double its spending on the national ration card and increase capital spending on infrastructure projects at the expense of current spending (although its room for maneuver is limited, as the latter is dedicated mostly to salaries and wages). Most government officials have escaped salary reductions for the moment, but the prime minister, president, and speaker of the Iraqi parliament will assume 20 percent pay cuts. To address energy concerns, Maliki separately announced that factories will be removed from the national electricity grid between May and September to divert more power to households, and he has proposed a plan to distribute small generators to villages to supplement patchy national distribution.

These proposals have yet to mollify the protesters. And although the initiatives look good on paper, the government faces a steep challenge in implementing them. Twenty years of war, sanctions, and invasion have hamstrung the fledgling Iraqi government. Maliki must confront a debilitating set of political and administrative weaknesses that severely undermines his government’s capacity to design and implement policy. Maliki himself has been the first to acknowledge that his new cabinet, much like its predecessor, sacrifices effectiveness for political inclusiveness. All the main parties and blocs in the Council of Representatives are represented in the new government -- including Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya party, which narrowly defeated Maliki in last year’s elections -- largely because the factions feared being marginalized in opposition. But they have not committed to a common program, and political differences among them remain stark. Maliki may have secured his post by outmaneuvering his opponents, but his actions merely increased their distrust of him -- and, in some cases, their determination to weaken and even unseat him.

Compounding these political problems is the diminished capability of Iraq’s public service ministries. The overall quality of the country’s civil servants has steadily deteriorated over the past eight years. Although violence and de-Baathification have taken a toll, time itself is an enemy. Iraq’s most capable technocrats -- many of whom came from the last generation to be educated abroad in the mid-1980s -- have passed retirement age. Many of the current senior civil servants are simply out of their depth, having suffered through years of isolation under sanctions and having been promoted rapidly, as a result of political connections or the need to fill the leadership vacuum. Moreover, they are forced to operate in ministries that -- particularly in the case of service branches -- have become political fiefdoms serving party or constituency interests rather than the country at large. Such provincialism results in little or no coordination between ministries and undermines the capacity for broad strategic planning and implementation -- both of which are necessary to solve the country’s infrastructure and services deficits.

None of this is to suggest that Iraq is on the brink of collapse. With continued oil revenues -- conservatively estimated at around $70 billion this year but liable to rise if crude oil prices remain at their current elevated levels -- the government will retain a powerful means of increasing social spending and, more important, protecting the crucial patronage networks relied on by various ruling parties to preserve their influence. At the very least, these funds will help the government maintain the status quo.

But the threats posed by the protest should not be underestimated. It is possible that the shock of the protests, combined with the impending loss of the safety net that U.S. troops have provided for the past eight years, will force Iraq’s leaders to assume greater responsibility. This shift would not immediately change conditions on the ground, but it could improve the government’s administrative capacity and nudge it toward more realistic and manageable policies to address Iraq’s social and infrastructure challenges.

Or, more worringly, Iraq’s dearth of administrative and technocratic capabilities could remain an obstacle to implementing even small-scale government initiatives. Worse still, Maliki’s rivals may begin to try to take political advantage of the current protests. Leaders from across the political spectrum sense the opportunity, and some, Iraqiya, are already hinting at a parliamentary vote of no confidence against the prime minister. The Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s call last week for his followers to give the government a six-month grace period in which to improve services seemed to provide Maliki with some respite, especially as the Sadrists are a key government ally, representing some of the poorest and potentially most disruptive parts of Iraqi society. But even this reprieve has been temporary. Sadr and his lieutenants have joined a chorus of attacks on the prime minister sung in recent days by many of the other major parties. The fact remains that Maliki has made a host of enemies among rival political blocs over the past five years, all of whom would be happy to see him fall.

Consequently, unless conditions improve in Iraq, Maliki may face the unpalatable choice of allowing himself to be replaced or clinging to power through authoritarian means. It is by no means clear that he will choose the former. As he showed during the nine months of painful negotiations over government formation last year, he will not yield power easily, and his reaction to the recent “day of rage” was a reminder of his authoritarian streak. In the time-honored fashion of Arab strongmen, the prime minister has sought to establish personal control over Iraq’s security services over the past few years, and his instinctual response to the latest crisis has been to consider further centralizing his control by establishing overseers for each ministry based in his office and appointing special representatives in the ministries themselves.

Such actions would have a corrosive impact on the country’s representative politics. Iraqis have already shown unmistakable signs of disillusionment with the new order. Voter participation has dropped over the last five years -- official turnout fell from 79.6 percent in 2005 to 62.4 percent last year -- and many of those who did vote in last year’s general elections expressed their frustration with business-as-usual politics through a clear anti-incumbency vote for Allawi’s Iraqiya party. The fact that incumbents -- Maliki chief among them -- were largely able to protect their power and prerogatives simply widened the chasm between Iraq’s rulers and its ruled. The Maliki government’s failure to respond effectively to the latest protests will expand that gap further. An Egypt- or Tunisia-style revolution is not in the cards for Iraq -- at least not yet. But if Iraqis are forced to endure another hot summer without sufficient electricity supplies, protests will continue and pressure on the government will grow. Worse yet, the Iraqi people may lose faith altogether in electoral politics, which would put not just Maliki’s future at risk but also the stability of the entire post-2003 political order.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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  • RAAD ALKADIRI is a Partner at PFC Energy. He was Assistant Private Secretary to the United Kingdom Special Representative to Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and Political Adviser to the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Iraq from 2006 to 2007. The views expressed here are his own.
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