Egypt's Shockwaves Hit Iraq

Two-months after Iraq formed a government following a record breaking period of coalition-building, demonstrators took to the streets in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces. In northern Baghdad protestors complained about the government's inability to mend the roads, provide electricity, as well as overcrowded schools and hospitals. In Diwaniyah some 700 stone throwing protestors were dispersed by shots fired in the air, and in Najaf police broke up what the authorities called an 'illegal demonstration'.

Prime Minister Maliki's reaction to the shockwaves emanating from events in Cairo was stunning. For a leader whose personal ambitions were a huge part of logjam around forming a government, the decision to rule himself out of running for further office in addition to cutting his $350,000 salary in half was a bolt from the blue. Maliki is also seeking to make a constitutional change to ensure a two-term limit to the office of the Prime Minister.

There can be little doubt that Maliki's authoritarian-lite mode of rule is threatened by the unleashing of people power in Cairo. Following the various disturbances the Iraqi government announced that they would be canceling the planned purchase of 18 US made F-16 fighter planes in favor of allocating the money to improving food rationing for the poor. Maliki would no doubt have seen amongst the enduring images from Egypt the contrast between the frustrated poverty of much of Cairo's population and the multimillion dollar M1 Abraham tanks that stood impotently by on the margins of Liberation square.

While I endorse the view that politics in the 'new Iraq' are a hybrid of Lebanon's sectarian system accelerated by its massive overreliance on oil, what's interesting is whether or not the model that Iraq's Western midwives had in mind was far more like the one under so much pressure in Egypt.

Indeed, although both Iraq's electoral process and coalition politics are far more open that those of Egypt, the strategy of building a massive security apparatus whose primary role is internal security has strong parallels with the tottering government in Cairo. In addition the government in Baghdad's attempt to concentrate power, which has not corresponded to more effective service delivery, has been a steady process since 2003. The country still hosts regular large scale and deadly bomb attacks (27 people were blown up last Saturday). Iraq expert Reidar Visser recently commented on the top heavy nature of government, writing that "there are signs that Iraqis are already calling for "better services" but until they also start calling for "fewer vice-presidents" their revolution is likely to remain a frustrated one". Concern over Maliki's steady hording of state power was raised again prior to events in Egypt, when according to McClatchy news; in response to a request by the prime minister, Iraq's Federal Supreme Court ruled last month that several important government bodies -- including the central bank, the electoral commission and the top anti-corruption council -- fall under the authority of the Cabinet, which Maliki heads.

Considering the West's stable and enduring relationship with Mubarak's Egypt, building a similar state in Iraq was an obvious strategy. Despite talking the good talk when it comes to human rights abuses in Syria and Iran, when it comes to US/UK traditional allies there is an obvious preference for security over the uncertainties associated with democratic freedoms. Hence both the West's toleration and active support of Mubarak that lasted for some thirty years. It is therefore somewhat surprising to see Western leaders rushing to capture the populist mode surrounding the events by clamping down on Mubarak's western investments, while they stood idle when he committed the original looting. Nobody better embodied the Janus nature of the West's response to Egypt than Quartet representative Tony Blair who said last week that Mubarak was "immensely courageous and a force for good" before changing his tune following his departure in describing the event as a "pivotal moment for democracy in the Middle East".

Meanwhile commenting on events in Egypt British Foreign Minister William Hague explained that "over the last few weeks we have witnessed events of a truly historic nature in the region, including changes of government in Tunisia and Egypt and widespread calls for greater economic development and political participation. I visited Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates last week to discuss the situation with our partners in the region." Interestingly considering the amount of blood and treasure that Britain has invested in it, Iraq was not on the itinerary for what I would describe as a tour that was more a search for relevance rather than any substantive push of a distinctive British position.

Perhaps after spending the last eight years arguing for improved mechanisms of security in Iraq the Foreign Secretary finds it hard to comment on Iraq's current democracy and government efficiency deficit? Indeed, talk of democracy is seldom heard by Western powers that are looking to close the bloody chapter of history that was the attempt to bring democracy to Iraq. Nevertheless events in Egypt were, if nothing else, a testimony to Western irrelevance. They are also a reminder of how different things could have been in 2003 if instead of attacking Saddam's state infrastructure regime change had been sought by supporting Iraq's people.