On Wednesday, January 25th, EPIC Director Erik Gustafson and I attended an extraordinary program at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) exploring what brings young people together in Iraq and the region, and the role youth are playing in creating social change. Titled Next Generation of Peacebuilding and Social Change in the Arab World, the program featured a special screening of Salam Shabab; a groundbreaking reality TV series about young Iraqi peacebuilders, followed by a fascinating panel discussion with the show’s creators and producers who shared a behind-the-scenes look at what went into developing the show’s concept and creating the series, highlights of their experience working with young Iraqi contestants from different parts of Iraq, and the series’ impact on contestants and studio audiences. The event concluded with an inspiring panel of celebrated social and political activists from across the Middle East and a live performance by the Iraqi pop band UTN1.
As a fan of the show, I was particularly interested in the Production Q&A. The speakers not only shared their experiences working with the youth but also their dreams and goals for the show. It was inspirational to hear the show’s producer, Hussam Hadi, elaborate on their goal of showcasing real kids with whom the audience can identify that speak their feelings honestly in a way the audience can learn from.
The show’s creators describe Salam Shabab as an experiment. They wanted to research the impact of team building exercises on Iraqi children’s sense of self esteem, self awareness, and self expression. They also wanted to develop the children’s personal responsibility and decision making, self efficacy, and an understanding of their common humanity. They exhaustively researched how the participants grew, testing them both before and after their participation in the project. As a result of all their hard work, the youths not only developed those skills, they also enjoyed themselves.
The audience seemed particularly interested in how the boys and girls interacted with one another, if there was tension or an unwillingness to work together between boys and girls. Mr. Hadi assured us that, once they got away from their parents, the kids on the show were absolutely normal 15 year-olds. They interacted well and made friends with each other without consideration of ethnicity, sect, or gender. In fact, the winners from last year who became the Ambassadors of Peace to the Iraqi Parliament were a mixed gender team and included a Sunni, a Shi’ite, and a Christian.
Moderated by professor of Arab media Adel Iskandar of Georgetown University, the second panel discussion focused on “Youth and the Arab Spring”, featuring celebrated activist and blogger Rami Nakhla, the head of foreign relations office for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Twitter VIP with over 45,000 followers (@MARYAMALKHAWAJA) Maryam Alkhawaja, and former lead singer for UTN1 Hassam al-Faluji. These dynamic panelists discussed the aspirations of young people in their homelands, the role of youth and social media in creating social change, and the importance of continued youth involvement in creating a more inclusive political culture both during and after revolutionary change. The panelists pointed out that the youth across the Middle East are too often perceived as a burden – rather than an asset – by their governments. The governing mentality is to control, limit and even bar young people’s involvement in politics and community affairs. Here are some other insights that these remarkable activists shared.
On Social Media and the Government:
The world is getting smaller because of social media. People are also becoming more informed. Music and art is becoming more accessible, both of which are big motivators for action and inspire change. (Hassan al Faluji)
In Bahrain, the youth are dependent on social media because they are largely ignored by the larger media. The youth always reach for the impossible, no offense to the older people… The worst mistake the government made was turning half of their citizens into activists and the other half into reporters. (Maryam Alkhawaja)
In Syria, people used the media to meet, the uprising was leaderless in beginning. Social media made it possible to coordinate. Regions formed committees that continue to this day. Seen as link between social media and the people, because the government’s control was crushing other outlets. (Rami Nakhla)
On the revolutions in Egypt, one year later:
Revolutions started out of dignity. We hated the fear, we couldn’t live with it anymore. Politics was a forbidden topic. We knew something was wrong but we didn’t know what. The uprisings gave the Syrian people hope, as did the overthrow of the Tunisian president. The Syrian people are deeply wounded today, we can never go back to the way things used to be. We have a responsibility to them. (Rami Nakhla)
For me, it’s all about dignity. That’s why [the uprising] has continued despite the crackdowns. There was a mind shift: they were too afraid to speak about politics but not anymore. Once the fear barrier was broken, there was no going back. Now, it’s like, if they think it, they write it down and hold to up. (Maryam Alkhawaja)
Fighting for a dream gives your life meaning. Keep fighting no matter what. Social media keeps the dream alive, unfortunately occassionaly the media has a double standard. (Hassan al Faluji)
Leaders brainwashed their people to make their enemies traitors. Many Syrians take bad words and turn them into jokes. (Rami Nakhla)
Joke about it. I have been called an Israeli spy, a CIA spy, and an Iranian spy, so I joke about it by saying that there are a lot of governments out there that owe me money. (Maryam Alkhawaja)
Art and music can help overcome: music echos the revolution and gives more power to the people. (Hassan al Faluji)
A final message to all Arab youth:
“Do not believe anyone but Google. Six years ago when the Syrian leader died I cried my eyes out. Several years after that I learned from Google that he had tortured and murdered thousands of people. Never believe anything until you check it yourself.” (Rami Nakhla)
One word: unity. The governments are very good at uniting and standing against their people, therefore we cannot allow ourselves to be divided. (Maryam Alkhawaja)
We all deserve the same chances, everything is possible in this world. (Hassan al Faluji)
This Saturday, provincial council elections will be held in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Early balloting has already taken place for Iraqi prisoners, hospital patients, and nearly 600,000 members of Iraq’s security forces.
Voting in the three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government — Irbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah — will take place later this year. Voting in the disputed province of Tamim (Kirkuk) is postponed indefinitely.
Throughout the rest of the country, some 14,400 candidates representing over 400 political entities are contesting 440 provincial council seats. Each provincial council will comprise 25 seats plus one additional seat per 200,000 people in the province.
The largest province by population, Baghdad, will have 57 council members. The other 13 participating provinces will have an average number of 30 council members. Unlike Iraq’s previous provincial elections in January 2005, the candidates are no longer faceless. They are reaching out to the grassroots, holding rallies and candidate forums, and responding to constituent demands for jobs and the provision of essential services. Public anger over perceived corruption and mismanagement by Baghdad’s ruling parties is expected to drive high voter turnout to the polls. Yet despite such public perceptions and desire for new leadership, the ruling parties are expected to perform well.
Voter registration reached 4.6 million before the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC) decided to allow anyone over the age of 18 to vote. Thus as many as 17.2 million eligible voters could potentially turn out to the polls (although actual turnout will likely be closer to 10 million).
The IHEC is working to ensure voting rights for an estimated 2.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), establishing special polling stations throughout the country. Even in Iraqi Kurdistan where provincial elections are not scheduled to take place until later this year, 41 special polling stations have been set up for IDPs.
The IHEC has opened a total of 42,000 polling stations — approximately one polling station for every 400 eligible voters — in almost 7,000 locations. To reduce the incidence of fraud, each voter will be assigned to only one polling station. The IHEC has launched a voter education campaign, set up a toll-free information hotline, and posted a “poll station locater” on their website to help voters find their designated polling station.
Will the year of the ballot lead to a year of change in Iraq? Indeed, most Iraqis are dissatisfied with Iraq’s ruling parties. Common complaints include sectarian bias, corruption, and underperformance. According to a January 2009 nationwide poll of Iraqis conducted by NDI, only 34% of respondents expressed positive feelings toward the Council of Representatives. Another measure of public support for change: more than 75% of the 14,000-plus candidates and 400-plus political parties registered by the IHEC are new.
FROM CLOSED PARTY LISTS TO PARTIAL OPEN PARTY LISTS & CANDIDATES
Each provincial council will comprise 25 seats plus one additional seat per 200,000 people in the province. The largest province by population, Baghdad, will have 57 council members. The other 13 participating provinces will have an average number of 30 council members.
In January 2005, a closed-list system was used in the provincial elections. That meant that voters cast ballots for party lists, not candidates. The parties then decided which of their own candidates would fill the seats they had won. In the midst of growing violence, many Iraqis voted for the list that represented their ethnic or religious identity, contributing to an institutionalization of sectarian divisions. This time both party lists and individual candidates are listed, and issue politics are ascendant over sectarianism. Moreover, thanks to improving security in some areas of Iraq, candidates are less afraid of being publicly visible. Their faces can be seen on campaign posters covering blast walls and buildings, and they are reaching out directly to would-be constituents (see “This Time, Iraqis Hear and See Candidates” by Timothy Williams and Suadad al-Salhy, New York Times, 1/6/09).
Responding to a public backlash against the sectarianism that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007, most political parties and candidates are not defining themselves in sectarian terms. Aamer Madhani of USA Today reports: “The election campaign that is coming to a close in Iraq might be most notable for the relative absence of two words: ‘Shiite’ and ‘Sunni.’” Instead, candidates are focusing on constituent demands for jobs, improved public services, and solutions to other issues.Kim Gamel and Hamza Hendawi of the Scotsman report: “Candidates in this month’s Iraqi provincial elections are answering questions from voters and debating issues ranging from housing shortages to the need for foreign investment. This style of campaigning is new to Iraq, where candidates for the first time feel safe enough to canvass for votes and focus on grass-roots issues.”
REASONS FOR CONCERN
During the year of the ballot box, addressing the following concerns will help further a consolidation of Iraq’s democracy rather than it’s unraveling.
First, although less of a factor than in previous elections, political violence remains a wild card. Since late December, five candidates and one campaign manager have been assassinated. In late December, Mowaffaq al-Hamdani, a candidate with the Sunni Arab “Iraq for Us” party list, was shot dead in a café in the northern city of Mosul. On January 16th, Haitham al-Husseini, a leading candidate of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, was killed by armed gunmen in Babil province. On January 18th in Qayara south of Mosul, a suicide bomber killed Sheikh Hassan Zaidan al-Luhaibi, the campaign manager of Saleh al-Mutlaq’s National Dialogue Front in the northern provinces of Nineveh and Salahuddin. Rival political parties are suspected in all three of these attacks, yet no one has been charged with a crime.
[Updated on 1/30/09] On Thursday, three candidates running for provincial council seats were assassinated (see “Three Sunni Candidates Slain Days Before Elections” by Zaid Sabah and Qais Mizher, Washington Post, 1/30/09). In Mosul (Ninewa), gunmen killed Hazim Salim al-Zaidi, a former Iraqi army officer who was running on the “National Unity List” of independent Sunni candidates in Mosul, near his home. In the town of Mandali in Diyala province, Abbas Farhan, a candidate with the secular “National Movement of Reform and Development” party, was seized by armed assailants along with his brother and a cousin. Their bodies were later found nearby riddled with bullets. In Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighborhood, Omar Farouq al-Ani, a candidate with the Iraqi Islamic Party led by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he stepped from his home.
Second, there are no provisions for Iraqi refugees who remain outside Iraq to vote.Beth Ferris of Brookings writes: “This means that close to 10% of Iraq’s population will be disenfranchised.”
Third, without strong independent oversight, we could see a recurrence of voter intimidation and voting irregularities in some areas, especially in the Ninevah Plain region of Ninewa province (to the north and west of the city Mosul). The Ninevah Plain is home to large communities of Assyrian, Yezidi, Shabak, and Turkoman minorities. The U.S. Department of State’s 2005 Human Rights Country Report for Iraq states: In the January (2005) elections, many of the mostly non-Muslim residents on the Nineveh Plain were unable to vote. Some polling places did not open, ballot boxes were not delivered, and incidents of voter fraud and intimidation occurred. These problems resulted from administrative breakdowns on voting day and the refusal of Kurdish security forces to allow ballot boxes to pass to predominantly Christian villages.
Fourth, without a political party law, there are no restrictions on foreign funding. In fact, candidates and parties are not even required to divulge their funding sources. Given Iraq’s geography and what’s a stake — both economically and geo-politically — money is pouring in from Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other foreign governments. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) led by Sayyed Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was founded in Tehran in 1982 (under a different name) and continues to receive considerable funding from Iran. The Iraqi National Accord of Ayad Allawi has received support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as well as covert assistance from Western intelligence agencies. The Iraqi Islamic Party of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi reportedly receives funding from Turkey, suggested by al-Hashimi’s regular trips to Istanbul. The U.S. military has funded tribal leaders who are running for office (see “Iraq Election Highlights Ascendancy of Tribes” by Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, 1/25/09).
Ideally, elections ought to be determined by “one person, one vote” and the candidate’s ability to mobilize volunteers and generate financial contributions from the electorate. In turn, that can strengthen the ties that bind elected officials to their constituents, enhancing the legitimacy and accountability of the government. Foreign funding can distort election outcomes to reflect the will of foreign capitols rather than the will of the people, and make elected officials answerable to foreign interests rather than their own constituents. As noted by Musings On Iraq, it can also create an unfair playing field for aspiring leaders: “While it’s often been repeated that over 14,000 candidates are running in the upcoming election, few of these newcomers can compete with the [Islamic] Supreme Council’s two satellite TV channels, dozens of local channels and newspapers, five women’s organization, three student groups, and over 1,000 offices in the south.”
Fifth, there have been scattered reports of vote-buying and other campaign violations. Common allegations and reported incidences include: promising land and jobs in exchange for votes; using gifts (phone cards being a popular choice) and cash payments to buy votes; arresting and intimidating opponents; posting campaign posters on government buildings; using religious figures to promote a candidate or party; and the use of Iraqi government money by Iraqi officials to campaign.
Finally and perhaps most significant, the current one-time provincial elections law favors Baghdad-backed big parties over newer, smaller ones. This might discourage voter turnout among Iraqis who are afraid their votes won’t count.
Under a unique ‘open-list proportional representation’ system to be used for the first time in Iraq, a voter can choose to cast their ballot for either an individual candidate or a party list. However, if a voter chooses to cast a ballot for an individual candidate, they must correctly mark the candidate’s corresponding party “list” affiliation or the ballot is considered invalid.
Under Iraq’s revised open-list structure, votes will be tallied and awarded according to the percentage of the votes a candidate receives. “If there are forty seats at stake, you have to get one-fortieth of the votes” in a given province to win one seat, Sam Parker [an Iraq analyst with the United States Institute of Peace] explains. This threshold of votes is known as the “electoral divider” in the provincial elections law. The rub, Parker says, is that if a candidate does not reach the electoral divider threshold, “you don’t get a seat, period.” And because of the disorganized and fractious nature of the emerging political landscape in Iraq, Parker says there are likely to be “a whole lot of wasted votes, people [in small or unknown parties] who don’t reach the threshold and don’t get seats.”
After the initial votes are tallied, some seats could be unfilled because larger parties might not tally 100 percent of the vote and smaller parties might not win enough votes to push them over the election threshold. These unfilled seats will be doled out on a proportional basis to the parties that won seats during the initial allocation. If, for instance, Prime Minister Maliki’s Dawa Party wins 40 percent of the seats in the initial round of vote counting in Basra, Dawa will then be awarded 40 percent of the empty seats. While legal, Parker says the result “is going to look unfair” to smaller parties that might claim they didn’t have enough time, or resources, to properly campaign for votes [READ MORE].
Aamer Madhani of USA Today reports: “Bahaa al-Araji, a Shiite legislator who is overseeing two lists, estimates that 1 million Iraqis will not see any of the candidates they vote for get a legislative seat. That could result in some unrest, al-Araji said. “After the election, it could be a very dark time in Iraq.””
THE BOTTOM LINE
The outcome of this week’s provincial elections will favor large, well-established parties over smaller newcomers, while helping to boost representation of Sunni Arabs who had largely boycotted Iraq’s previous provincial elections in 2005.
Later this year, Iraq’s citizens will have additional opportunities to decide their future and promote new leaders from the local to national level. Within six months of voting for provincial councils, Iraqis will return to the ballot box to vote for municipal and district councils. A national referendum on the security agreement with the United States is scheduled for July. The three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government — Irbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah — will hold provincial elections later this year. And finally, national parliamentary elections are scheduled for December.
While ballots are chosen over bullets and politics shift from sectarian divisions to real issues like jobs and the provision of essential services, the U.S. and international community should not take these developments for granted. Improvements in security remain fragile and reversible. Beyond elections, enormous challenges remain from resolving conflict in Kirkuk to increasing Iraqi government capacity for meetings the needs of the population. But with appropriate support — especially through the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and other civilian agencies — the Obama administration has an opportunity to help consolidate Iraq’s democracy and long-term stability.
As we informed you yesterday, the emergency spending bill is being debated on the floor of the house as this entry is being written. Many of you have already taken action and contacted their elected representatives urging them to support the bill. We want to express our gratitude to those peacebuilders whose support and dedication are significant parts of our efforts to help vulnerable Iraqi refugees.
In addition to the bill being debated right now, we also want to report that the deadline for the bill might extend until June 15 (Latest: Members of the House voted on the bill on Thursday, May 15). This development provides extra time to ensure that your voices as concerned constituents are loudly and clearly heard by members of the house.
We urgently need you to call your Representative RIGHT NOW via the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 225-3121. Tell them:
Time is running out for many of Iraq’s most vulnerable civilians and refugees. Millions of Iraqis across the region are finding themselves in desperate need of basic humanitarian assistance, including food, health care and education.
One of the amendments to the emergency spending bill under consideration would provide an additional $1 billion in lifesaving humanitarian assistance for FY 2008 and FY 2009 to assist Iraqis and other victims of conflict ($675 million for refugees and $400 million for internally displaced persons and other vulnerable civilians). It would provide another $250 million in bilateral assistance to Jordan to help Iraqi refugees and alleviate the strain on national systems.
The emergency spending bill is the fastest and only available means to address unmet humanitarian needs in Iraq and the region for FY 2008.
The passage of the bill will demonstrate to the world that the U.S. is doing its part in helping the Iraqi refugees and as a result will improve the worldwide image of the United States.
We are very pleased with the responses we have received from you so if you have time, drop us a note about how it went or leave a comment on this blog.
Thank you for taking action on behalf of vulnerable Iraqis and their families.
Photo credit: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she thinks a compromise is likely. (Ken Cedeno – Bloomberg News)
To experts and historians, the Iraq Refugee Crisis is unprecedented. With well over 4 million Iraqis either internally displaced or forced to leave the country, the tales of horror and suffering are countless. As one Iraqi woman put it:
“If someone could describe what it is like to live in hell you would understand, than the world would understand what it is like to live in Baghdad. Every time somebody goes out you wonder if he or she will return. Every time a girl goes out you do not know if she will return or if she will be abducted, raped or murdered. It is like in hell.”
For Iraqis, living in hell does not end when some of them seek refugee in neighboring countries. Many of them live in harsh conditions and faced by lack of legal status, work permits, and international support, they are heavily dependent on their own savings for financial support. In order to change this reality, Iraqis seek to relocate to other countries where they could enjoy better lives. One of the most popular destinations is Sweden. Getting to Sweden is not easy and once an Iraqi decides to get out of hell, hell will become paradise. Sadly, it is a paradise for smugglers not the Iraqi refugees. It is a paradise because it is a $300 million dollars industry for the smugglers.
EPIC came across a report that details the difficult journey of vulnerable and desperate Iraqi refugees from Syria to Sweden. The report was produced by the Kaliber radio show, an investigative journalism program on Swedish Radio. According to the report, the cost of smuggling one person is around $12000-15000 and despite this large amount of money, the refugees go through life-threatening experiences to reach their dream destination. Looking back at his experience, one refugee said “If I knew that the way would be so difficult, I would never have had taken this way. I might as well have got killed home in Iraq.“
We find this report appalling and we invite you to join us in calling for increased support for the Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries and inside Iraq as well. The need for supporting these refugees is fiercely urgent as discussed by prominent Iraq scholars and NGO representatives during the Iraq Action Days.
You could help end such horrible stories by calling your Congress members and urging them to provide more support for vulnerable Iraqis and by supporting EPIC’s work.
Together we can make the vulnerable be in paradise before they go through hell.
>Yesterday viet vet said… “Does anyone remember a place called Viet Nam?” While I have never been to a place called Vietnam, I feel close to it.
My dad served two tours in Vietnam (1967 and 1970). He retired a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps. Although my brothers and I continued the family tradition of military service, it was not until recently that my dad and I began sharing
A place called Vietnam was also a topic of conversation this morning on NPR. Morning Edition’s Renee Montagne interviewed Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) about his family’s military tradition and about serving, even in conflicts they don’t support. Webb, a Vietnam veteran, was elected last November as a leading critic of the U.S. war in Iraq. His son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jimmy Webb, just returned from a 9-month tour with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, in Anbar, Iraq. Here’s an excerpt:
Webb: …whatever the politics of a war are, for people who believe in their country, and who are willing to step forward and take those risks because they believe in their country. It sounds intellectually odd, but emotionally it’s correct.
Montagne: How do you reconcile that as a person in uniform and actually fighting?
Webb: You know, I got that same question from a young Marine a few years ago when I visited Quantico. His question to me was, “I don’t believe in this what we’re doing. I don’t think it’s the right way to go. What do I do when one of my Marines asks me that question?” And I said I’ll give you the same answer that I used to give myself during Vietnam. And that is that the war isn’t going to go away whether or not you or I like it — we’re talking as young second lieutenants, not as senators here — and, given that, my instincts, my responsibilities are to do the job and to get as many people back as I can. And that’s really the duty of a young military leader.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports the Senator is proud of his son’s service and that of his son’s unit. “What they did has kind of become the hallmark for how to operate out of Anbar province,” said Webb.
I expect Senator Webb and his son will have a very interesting conversation over the weekend, and I anticipate they will both learn a lot from each other as my dad and I continue to learn from each other as we share what we know about America’s experience in Iraq and a place called Vietnam. Thanks viet vet for your national service and for lobbing a damn good question into the fray.