Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Iranianization of Iraq

By: Ali Rawaf

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, many actions were taken to make the country more conservative. The new government at the time cracked down on Cinemas, theatres, music halls. The Khomeini government also shut down liquor stores, bars, and social clubs, all of which used to run freely under the Shah. I see similar actions being taken today in Iraq.  Previously, I have written about the Iranian influence in Iraq in politics. I have been reading news about several changes in the social aspects of the Iraqi community, ones that I link to a religious Iranian influence projected to change the structure of our society.

Today, a few Parliament Members who represent minorities showed their objection to a recent decision taken by local authorities to shut down social clubs, bars, and some restaurants that serve alcohol. Kenna, a Parliament Member who represent the Christians in Iraq said the decision punishes the Christian minority unjustly, “Just because a few people who are not supposed to drink go to those social clubs and drink alcohol, those social clubs shouldn’t be closed,” said Kenna criticizing the recent law. Another Member, Mehma Khalil who represents the Yezidi ethnicity in Iraq said the law will drive minorities out of Iraq, “Many minorities run such businesses […] these venues are sources of income to many of these people.”

The reality is Iraq used to be known in the Middle East for alcohol. Iraq’s secular society used to receive Saudis and Kuwaitis who cross the border to come drink in their venues. Shutting down these venues will not only have a negative impact on the society by driving communities out of the country, it will also be one more factor that is detrimental to the economy. Even when Saddam Hussein tightened social norms* to win tribal support in the early 90’s, liquor stores and bars were still open.

Babylon Festival Hall, Oct 2010. Picture by al-Arabyia
In 2004, Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army cracked down on theatres, music halls, and video/CD stores in the south. The southern region is known for its prominence in the field of entertainment, especially music. In October, Iraqis celebrated the Babylon Festival, an annual festival where famous musicians and actors perform. This year music was banned in the Festival because it coincided with one Imam's birthday. The ban, as al-Arabyia puts it, “[left] most of the performers hailing all the way from Algeria, Azerbaijan, Denmark, Finland, Iran and Russia swaggering around the ruins of Babylon.

This is frustrating because the toppling of Saddam’s statue was a symbol to many Iraqis that there will be more freedoms, not less. We also hoped that the government wouldn’t align itself with religious factions and religious ideologies. All of this begs the question, if the government will decide what you drink to what one should listen, where do we draw the line? And when will the people of Iraq speak out?

*The Washington Post article that is linked in the blog talk about Abu Nawas. Abu Nawas is one of Baghdad’s most famous streets. It is filled with sea food restaurants, night clubs, bars, and music halls. The street faced some difficulties during Saddam Hussein’s era but not to the extent that it is facing today. In February of 2009, the street was reopened after the US funded efforts to restore it. Soon after, the Iraqi local authorities cracked down on all of these venues, putting down hopes of restoring night life to Baghdad. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Iraq Government Formation Sets a Bad Precedence for a Democracy

By: Ali Rawaf

It would have been great if I could start this blog by congratulating my people about the formation of the government. But unfortunately, what they portray to be the conclusion of a record_breaking and tumultuous eight months of negotiations is nothing but a magnified picture of the disarray of Iraqi politics that has been ongoing and will continue to take place in this government.

Iraqi politicians pay little attention to the fact that what early governments do in new democracies, sets precedence for future governments. The power-sharing deal on which the parties agree will only institutionalize the sectarianism and the division of the current Iraqi society. The presidency to the Kurdish Talabani, PM post for Maliki, a Shiite, and the parliament Speaker position was given to Nujeifi, a prominent Sunni leader in al-Iraqyia. The perceived amount of power vested in each position is supposed to reflect the percentage of population each sect posses. Sounds silly but sadly, it's true. This kind of power-sharing pays little attention to anything about any candidate other than his sect. So forget having professionals in government as long as they meet the sect requirement. Progressively, politicians elevated the rhetoric about sectarianism in respect to the positions in the new government. Maliki was the first when he told reporters that despite the wishes of having an nonsectarian political race, sectarianism will continue to dominate the process. Kurdish MP's said that the Presidency is a Kurdish right despite the elections results. This is similar to what happened in 2005 and 2006 and exactly how Maliki won his first term. The Parliament also agreed to establish A National Strategic Council which is presumed to be given to Allawi, the head of the Iraqyiah List. The latter position is supposed to check on the PM's powers, it will also have executive powers over security, economy, and foreign policy. Allawi is a secular Shiite.

While you might think that a power-sharing deal such as the one Iraqis figured out would bring about what Allawi calls "Devolution of power," it can tremendously stall the political process. Each of  these positions don't have clearly defined powers but each of them is supposed to have some sort of a check on each other. If there are four, heads to a government, how long will it take them to make a consensus on a certain issue? I predict very long, knowing that it took them 8 months to come up with this fragile deal.

Allawi's new council, under which the PM will serve as a member, will be very inefficient. Any decision made by the council has to win a vote of an absolute plurality and 80% of the vote in Parliament. Allawi is frustrated. I would too, how can you get 80% of a sectarian parliament to agree on a piece of legislation when they couldn't agree on making a simple majority to form a government for 8 months?

Arguably, it is good to have a long period of deliberation when introducing a legislation. But in a country that is desperately in need of rapid government actions to bring about basic services such as water, electricity, this kind of government dynamics can be a little early.

Above the Law
Before the elections, key members of al-Iraqiyah List were prohibited from running in the election by a Parliamentary commission responsible for running de-Baathification, a program set to oust former members of Saddam Hussein's party and his regime. The program goes after all kinds of public servants and even college professors. Part of the pact the party leaders signed to reach the agreement was the exclusion of key politicians in al-Iraqyia from the de-Baathification program and awarding them with positions in the government, after the elections. To be fair, some of these members were de-Baathified with no evidence. This tells other public servants, who were unjustly ousted from office due to the de-Baathification program, that politicians are simply above the law. This is another example of a bad precedence for a new democracy.

The Will of the Voters
When I voted, I voted for change. Many Iraqis did the same. Iraqis were fed up with the sectarian orientation of the former government. The US President said "the government of Iraq will be inclusive and representative." I beg to differ. Having a Shiite, a Kurd, and a Sunni hold key positions in the government doesn't make it representative of the will of the people. What we have in Iraq today is similar to what we had in the past four years, a bad government and a dwindling hope in the future of democracy in Iraq.