Mourners chant anti-government slogans while carrying the coffin of Abdul Salam Fathi, whose family said was killed in a protest, during his funeral in Basra, Iraq. With brackish water pouring from the taps, failing city services and soaring unemployment, the southern Iraqi city has seen weeks of violent protests. (Nabil al-Jurani/AP)

Summer protests have become a yearly ritual for Iraq, but the past few weeks were particularly intense. In Basra, young people came out in the thousands to protest declining standards of living. Protesters set government buildings, political party headquarters and the Iranian consulate on fire. Fifteen protesters and several security officers were killed, with many more wounded. A curfew is now in place, protest leaders claim they have received death threats, and two lawyers who offered to defend arrested protesters were assassinated in drive-by shootings.

As the violence intensified last week, state institutions reacted as they usually do. The parliament organized an emergency session, the prime minister offered to intervene directly, and many have called for aggressive prosecutions by anti-corruption courts. All of these approaches have been attempted in the past, often by the same people who are suggesting them now, and are likely to fizzle in the same way they did in the past.

There are no short-term solutions that will satisfy the protesters’ demands. But if catastrophe is to be avoided the next time electricity and water systems break down, Iraq’s government will have to do more.

Calls for a technocratic government

Inevitably, events in Basra affect negotiations surrounding Iraq’s next government. With a view to marking a break with the past, some of the country’s leading political and religious forces have resurrected the call for a technocratic government formed by sectoral experts (e.g. the minister of health should be someone with expertise in the health industry), independent of all political groups.

This suggested approach is premised on the assumption that the reason successive Iraqi governments were so ineffectual is because corrupt and incompetent ministers ruled. A technocratic government would therefore resolve this situation by replacing those ministers with independent experts.

There are many reasons to be worried about technocratic governments. There is absolutely no guarantee that they will resolve the issue of self-interest. In Iraq’s constitutional system, the scope for government action is limited by the annual budget law, which has to be approved by parliament. If an independent government were formed, it would immediately come into conflict with self-interest in parliament, which is a fight it would almost certainly lose. Over the years, past governments have included a few competent ministers, most of whom were ruthlessly marginalized whenever they complained too enthusiastically about corruption or government inaction.

Independents can be just as corrupt as political party members. Whoever joins the next government will still operate within the same anti-corruption framework, which is woefully inadequate. Independents could easily make the most of it by enriching themselves or may find it impossible to control corruption by others.

Proponents of a technocratic government will also have enormous difficulty finding competent administrators, mainly because so few Iraqis have any successful experience in managing organizations as unwieldy as government ministries. The tendency to cite academics — who have no relevant experience — as possible candidates for ministerial positions shows the depth of the challenge.

A technocratic government can be just as internally incoherent as all of Iraq’s post-2003 governments. Ministers in all post-2003 governments have never agreed to a coherent strategic plan, do not accept joint liability for failure and are always prepared to undermine each other. Last Saturday, parliament organized an emergency session where all of these negative tendencies were in full display. On live television, government ministers and senior officials from the same political alliances angrily accused each other of negligence.

A technocratic government will be defined by these same dynamics, precisely because there is no group of experts-in-waiting that has developed a convincing government program that has the support of parliament or of the wider public. The idea that a government composed of experts will suddenly agree to a plan of action and work effectively together, smacks of yet another mediocre attempt to resolve Iraq’s problems through wishful thinking.

Looking ahead

Protesters are demanding a convincing government plan to improve standards of living. A serious effort to remedy Basra’s situation will require a long consultative process involving think tanks, government departments, auditors and many others. That process will lead to the type of detailed agreement that is currently required, and of the type of individual who has the skills necessary to oversee the implementation of a national reform effort.

There is good reason to expect that such an effort will not be undertaken. Past government coalition programs were embarrassing in their lack of detail, and consisted of one or two pages of bullet points.

Iraq’s ruling elites have grown complacent, despite the overwhelming challenges that the country faces. There are many explanations for this, including the fact that many senior officials (some say 80 percent) keep their families and personal interests outside Iraq, to such an extent that they are not affected by the deterioration of services. Nothing stops dual citizens from high office or maintaining foreign bank accounts or properties. And officials often eschew Iraqi public services, sending their children to foreign schools and  seeking treatment in foreign hospitals to benefit from the types of services not available to ordinary Iraqis. It is no surprise therefore that government officials have not taken Basra’s situation seriously — many are simply not personally affected.

Ultimately, the prerequisite for a lasting solution to this crisis is good faith, which is in short supply in Iraq. But the wheels of insurrection are turning with increasing vigor, so whatever action is decided upon will have to bring real improvements to ordinary people, and soon.

Zaid Al-Ali is the senior adviser on constitution building in the Arab region for International IDEA, and is the author of the Struggle for Iraq’s Future.