Iraq’s New Prime Minister Struggles to complete formation of his Cabinet

The Prime Minister of Iraq, Adel Abdul Mahdi was sworn in on 24 October. This came after months of political indecision and the largest protests Iraq has seen in a decade. To restate the current position: Adel Abdul Mahdi fills the position of Prime Minister, whilst Barham Salih holds the presidency and Mohamed al-Halbousi, the role of speaker. Since 2003, these positions have been held by a Shia, a Kurd and a Sunni respectively. The Prime Minister’s first task was to select the heads of 22 ministries. On 24th October, 14 of these were given the vote of confidence by parliament. However, eight remain to be appointed.

Who is the New Prime Minister?

Like the President and Speaker, Abdul Mahdi is a well respected politician. At 76, he has a lot of experience in Iraqi politics; formerly holding the roles of Minister of Finance and Minister of Oil.  He is also a relatively independent candidate. Not having a particularly strong social base, may weaken Abdul Mahdi’s power in the role. Although, Iraq needs a capable and independent leader who can unite the country internally whilst juggling the opposing needs of the US and Iran.

Who has been appointed? Which positions are left to go?

The 14 ministers given the vote of confidence were:

  1. Minister of Agriculture: Saleh al-Hassani
  2. Minister of Communication: Naim al-Rubaye
  3. Minister of Electricity: Luay al-Khatteeb
  4. Minister of Finance: Fuad Hussein
  5. Minister of Foreign Affairs: Mohammed Ali al-Hakeem
  6. Minister of Health: Alaa al-Alwani
  7. Minister of Housing and Reconstruction: Bangin Rekani
  8. Minister of Industry: Salih Abdullah Jabouri
  9. Minister of Labour and Social Affairs: Bassem al-Rubaye
  10. Minister of Oil: Thamir Ghadhban
  11. Minister of Trade: Mohammed Hashim
  12. Minister of Transport: Abdullah Luaibi
  13. Minister of Water Resources: Jamal al-Adili
  14. Minister of Youth and Sports: Ahmed Riyadh

There were some major criticisms of the new cabinet from different groups. These include, for example, the absence of Turkman and female representation. Parliament will reconvene at a later date to vote for the eight unappointed positions. These include the key roles of Minister of Defence and Minister of the Interior, both of which will be filled by Abdul-Mahdi until they are decided. Those appointed thus far arguably indicate a weakening of Barzani’s influence and a shift towards Iran plus of course a strengthening of the influence of Muqtada Al-Sadr. It also is a reminder if one were needed that the Dawa Party is at a crossroads and must now reform or collapse. That said, the Ministers of Electricity and Oil are decent dependable people and this new government should be given a chance.

What Next for Iraq?

The recent developments have signalled a major step forward, in a country marred by political turmoil since it’s elections in May. However, there is still a lot to be done to solve Iraq’s corruption, unemployment and public utility problems.

The first step to solving these will be to finalise the remaining cabinet positions.

Kurdistan elections – the final results

Weeks after the Kurdistan Region held parliamentary elections on September 30, the election commission has published official results:
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) achieved 688,070 votes, giving it a big lead over its rivals, securing 45 seats in the 111-seat parliament – leaving it 12 seats shy of an outright majority. The party will therefore need to enter a coalition agreement to form a government.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) came in second with 319,219 votes, securing 21 seats. This marks an improvement on its 2013 result of 18 seats.

The Change Movement (Gorran) was pushed into third place with 186,903 votes, securing just 12 seats – down from 24 in the last parliament.

New Generation got 127,115 votes, securing eight seats.

Komal seven seats.

The joint Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)-Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) Reform List won five seats. When the KIU ran alone in 2013, it secured 10.

The leftist Modern coalition one seat.

The Communist Party, as part of the Azadi List, secured one seat.

The Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), which officially boycotted the election, failed to secure a seat.

Of the 11 seats reserved for the Kurdistan Region’s minority groups, the Turkmen secured five, the Christians five, and the Armenians one. No seats are reserved for the Yezidis.

Among the Turkmen parties, the Turkmen Development Party secured two seats, the Nation List one, the Turkmen Reform party one, and the Turkmen Front one.

Among the Christian parties, the Rafidain List secured one seat, the Assyrian Syriac Chaldean Popular Council one, and the National Union Coalition three.

An Armenian independent secured one seat.

The election commission also published figures detailing which candidates secured the most votes for each list:

Qubad Talabani, head of the PUK list, won 182,000. Shaswar Abdulwahid, head of New Generation, won 106, 289. Ali Hama Salih, head of the Gorran list, won 81,934. Hemin Hawrami, head of the KDP list, won 47,000.

The election commission had delayed the announcement of official results while it investigated several allegations of fraud.

The commission decided to annul the results of 96 polling stations, voiding around 119,000 votes. The majority of annulled ballots were in Erbil province.
A number of opposition parties threatened to boycott the next parliament if the preliminary results were approved by the commission. There are no substantial differences between the preliminary results and official figures.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) issued a statement following the results urging people – in the interests of public safety –not to shoot firearms into the air in celebration.

Summarised Breakdown of seats by party:

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – 45 seats
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – 21 seats
Gorran – 12 seats
New Generation – 8 seats
Komal – 7 seats
Reform List – 5 seats
Modern Coalition – 1 seat
Azadi List – 1 seat

11 minority quota seats as follows:

Turkmen:

Turkmen Development Party – 2
Nation List – 1
Turkmen Reform party – 1
Turkmen Front – 1

Christian:

Rafidain List – 1
Assyrian Syriac Chaldean Popular Council – 1
National Union Coalition – 3

Armenian:

Independent – 1

Iraq’s New President: A Technocrat?

After months of political deadlock, water contamination, and rising protests, earlier this month, Barham Salih was elected as Iraq’s new President.

Who is he?

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) candidate Salih holds good experience in government, having served both as the deputy prime minister of Iraq and the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He is also a good diplomat, and has proved himself capable of keeping amicable relations with the both the US and Iran.

Despite starting his political career in the PUK, Salih left in 2017 to form the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) and campaign against corruption. However, he recently abandoned his new party and came back to the PUK in order to get PUK backing for his bid to stand for President.

Can he unify Iraq?

Political fragmentation, growing protests, and huge infrastructure issues will make it hard for Barham Salih to do much to help unite Iraq. With tensions between the PUK and KDP rising up to his election, and the issue of a Kurdish independence set to come up again in the future, it seems unclear how he will even unify Kurdistan, let alone Iraq as a whole.

However, he may be a good choice for the protestors in Basra. Barham Salih has been known to heavily criticise government failures, therefore he will look to be a strong candidate in the eyes of the disenfranchised. Although, his credibility when it comes to sticking to his morals may have been dented by what many see as his “calculated” move back to the PUK.

But perhaps his technocratic attitude is what Iraq needs. With MP’s more free to vote than usual, Salih’s election appears to have come more as a result of his credentials rather than his social base. This bodes well for Iraq, as strong technocratic leaders are needed to take on the huge tasks of reducing systemic corruption, rebuilding infrastructure and keeping actors inside and outside of Iraq happy.

However, Barham Salih’s ability to do these things will be limited as his Presidential role is less powerful than that of the Prime Minister. Either way, his election is a huge step forward from months of political deadlock.

Next in the series, the new prime minister: Adil Abdul al-Mahdi.

The Kurdish Regional Parliament – the unofficial results

Though the official results have yet to be announced, the NCF has the Unofficial results for the 111-member Kurdistan Parliament (11 reserved for minorities) and they are as listed below by party, number of votes, and number of seats:

  1. KDP 738,698 votes: 45 seats
  2. PUK 343,883 votes: 21 seats
  3. Gorran 195,553 votes: 12 seats
  4. New Generation 120,324 votes: 8 seats
  5. KIG (Komal) The Kurdistan Islamic Group: 113,928 votes: 7 seats
  6. KIU-KIM (Kurdistan Islamic Union-Kurdistan Islamic Movement) 83,562 votes: 5 seats
  7. CDJ (The Coalition for Democracy and Justice) (formerly Barham Salih’s party): 1 seat
  8. Communist: 1 seat
  9. Minorities: 11 seats

Once again, it’s not baseball or football with clear rules. Sometimes they play by the rules, and sometimes they make them up as they go along.

At the regional level, the KDP came out on top with 45 of 111 regional parliament seats. Eleven seats are for minorities – Christians, Armenians, Turkmens – most of whom would likely support the KDP. Along with these seats, plus Socialist and Communist seats, and possibly one or more Islamist seats, the KDP is in a good position to form a majority government without the PUK, Gorran, New Generation, and Islamist parties. But that’s unlikely to happen.

In Iraq, managing divisions is the essential game. Iraq is not a failed state. It’s not a state. It’s just a failure. Managing divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been reasonably successful. Otherwise, the Region would have flown apart and disassembled in chaos years ago. At the end of the day, there are only two political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – KDP and Anti-KDP, with the Anti-KDP divided into factions.

So, we are likely to see efforts toward a consensus coalition regional government, which will be difficult given the perceived “treachery” by each side of the other.

Turnout in the regional parliamentary election was relatively low for the Kurdistan region, only about 60%. There is a sense that if another independence referendum were to be held today, the turnout would increase by about 20 points.

An interesting bright spot is that a top vote-getter was a well-known and much-liked non-politician who drives a ramshackle car and did little if any campaigning. Unlike candidates who littered the roadways with posters, he had none. He is known for conversing with youth in the marketplace, a singer and sometime TV personality, humble and simple.

The ramshackle car driver is Jalal Parishan (parishan means ‘desperate’; in his case, something to do with a lost love). Though the final results have yet to be announced officially, he received the third highest number of votes among dozens of candidates.

al-Halbousi: A Good Choice for Iraq?

After months of political deadlock, Iraq has finally taken the key step of electing its Speaker and President, with a Prime Minister-designate also named. On Tuesday, the Iraqi parliament elected Barham Salih as President and shortly after he asked Adil Abdul-Mahdi to be Prime Minister. This comes two weeks after electing their speaker as Mohamed al-Halbousi.

Since 2003 the roles of President, Prime Minister and Speaker have been unofficially held by a Kurd, a Shiite and a Sunni respectively. Having struggled with a political stalemate since the elections in May, Iraq can now finally move forward toward naming its cabinet ministers and forming a parliament. This comes as a big step on the road to rebuilding a country devastated by three years of war with the Islamic State. In this, the first is a series, the NCF will focus o n the elected speaker, Mohammed Rikan Hadeed al-Halbousi, exploring the run-up to his election, his background and what his appointment might mean for the future of Iraq.

The Run up to al-Halbousi’s Appointment

In May’s parliamentary election, the Saairun political group, which is popular amongst many of Iraq’s poor and led by the prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, came in first with 54 seats. In second, with 48 seats came Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah Alliance. This group is one which has the tacit support of Iran and whose members are largely drawn from the paramilitary groups who were crucial in the victory against ISIL. In third and fourth came Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance (42), a group with tacit US backing, and Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (25). Both of the latter are, by and large, factions that have evolved from the Islamic Dawa Party, which has ruled Iraq for the last three terms.

After the election, the opposing Fatah Alliance and the Saairun each tried to separately form coalitions with the Victory Alliance, The State of Law Coalition, the Kurdish parties and others.

However, amid growing protests about government corruption and a growing water shortage crisis, the influential Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani called for change. He demanded that Iraq needed a new leadership stating he would not support “politicians who have been in authority in the past years”. This greatly diminished the chances of the Dawa based Victory Alliance and the State of Law Coalition. This forced Sairoon and Fatah to come together, and on Sept 15th the Fatah nominee al-Halbousi was elected speaker, with al-Sadr’s candidate Hassam Karim as first deputy.

Who is he?

At 37, al-Halbousi is the youngest speaker in Iraq’s history. He trained as a civil engineer, then went into the construction business. In 2014 he was elected to parliament and headed the parliamentary finance committee from 2016 until 2017 when he became governor of Anbar province.

In the May elections, al-Halbousi headed the ‘Anbar is Our Identity’ alliance. In fact al-Halbousi has a good relationship with Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri and was initially nominated by their Al-Binna’a alliance.

Internationally he has amicable relations with the US and was involved in many US contracts during their period of hegemony in Iraq. However, his connection to Iran is stronger. When elected he immediately cemented these ties by denouncing US sanctions on Iran and inviting Iran’s speaker to Iraq. But not before first exchanging invitations with the Speaker of the Parliament in pro-US Kuwait so as to indicate his neutrality.

What Does His Election Mean for Iraq?

With growing anti-establishment protests over corrupt rule, the Iraqi people are demanding a change. At 37, al-Halbousi seems to represent this change. Whether al-Halbousi is clean of corruption himself is debatable. There were even rumours that he had in part bought his post as Speaker by making questionable deals with other MPs, and though Sunni himself, not all the Sunni MPs support him. However, a fresh face is nonetheless welcomed by the Iraqi people.

He seems to be quite up to the vital task of keeping amicable relations with both the US and Iran. He also represents the much needed coming together of a country politically split and devastated by war. He looks to be a good candidate to take a united Iraq in a more positive direction.

The Great Mosque of al-Nuri: a symbol of IS occupation

A deeply sad sight: The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was reduced to rubble during the Battle of Mosul in 2017. Here it is today, just a year after the liberation, photographed by NCF member and war artist, George Butler, who is currently in Mosul. The mosque had stood on this site for almost 850 years and its leaning, 45-metre tall minaret, al-Hadba’ (“the hunchback”) had been a famed landmark for many centuries.

It was more recently where Daesh’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood during Friday prayer on 4th July 2014 to declare the formation of a new “caliphate”, after Islamic State (IS) seized the city just weeks previously. Following its demolition in June 2017, Iraqi government forces claimed they had found evidence to suggest that the mosque may have been deliberately blown up by IS, a gesture described as their “declaration of defeat”, by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.

With Mosul having been wrested from IS control in July 2017, the Mosque is now a symbol for the destruction of the city and its rich heritage both during and in the aftermath of the Daesh occupation.

In April of this year, the United Arab Emirates pledged over $50 million to help rebuild the Mosque and other nearby sites, in conjunction with UNESCO, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and Iraq’s culture ministry. This will take at least five years, the initial project focused on clearing the rubble on site and surveying for future rebuilding.

In time, the al-Nuri Mosque may be restored to a semblance of its former magnificence. But for now, it seems a long way off.

Image by George Butler

Iraq’s Elections: Is an Inclusive Iraq Possible?

The political bloc led by populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr has beat out candidates to win Iraq’s first parliamentary election since the Baghdad government’s victory over ISIS. Despite which, Moqtada Al-Sadr will not become prime minister as he did not run for a seat; but he will have a significant role in the formation of the new government.

However, Moqtada Al-Sadr may have a difficult time drawing support from Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. His followers have previously been accused of running death squads in Sunni majority areas and engaging in sectarian violence. Discontent amongst the Sunni population had been growing ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The successive governments of Nouri Al-Maliki and Haider Al-Abadi offered little in the way of protection and support for Sunnis in Iraq. When this is coupled with state marginalisation, lack of employment opportunities and an extremely low standard of living, discontent is understandable.

In order to appeal to the fragmented and fractured Iraqi society, Al-Sadr has sought to rebrand himself as a force for peace in a country that still bears fresh wounds from the war with ISIS.

One example of this is Al-Sadr reaching out to regional Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. In doing so, Al-Sadr has effectively distanced himself from Iran.

Iran, the pre-eminent Shi’ite power in the Middle East, wields considerable influence in Iraq and had previously publicly stated that they would not allow a bloc run by Al-Sadr to govern. Tehran had made it perfectly clear that Moqtada Al-Sadr was not their man, viewing him as a threat. Yet, despite Al-Sadr beating Iran’s favoured candidates, it is unlikely that any coalition formed by Al-Sadr will be without political groups that are aligned with Iran.

For many years, all Iraq has known is senseless violence, death, and destruction. The people of Iraq deserve a chance at peace more than anyone. Al-Sadr’s call for all Iraqis, inclusive of Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and other minority groups, to come together and rebuild Iraq is commendable. We can only hope this does not fall on deaf ears.

Iraq’s Innocent Children – When will their Suffering End?

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 on the 6th of March 2018, Children in Armed Conflict.

Mr President. The bi-product of armed conflict is often devastation to the lives of innocent children, whether during conflict, or in the aftermath. Whilst travelling in Iraq in late 2017 the Next Century Foundation was given alarming reports of the treatment of the families of ISIS fighters. We have heard similar reports from Northern Syria.

In both locations there are camps in which the families of ISIS fighters are being detained. The families were detained without warning, and given no reason for or information about the duration of their detention at these camps. Many of these families have had their identity documents confiscated meaning a definite inability to leave. Likewise, there have been reports of the destruction of civilian property, and of villages and of the removal of livestock owned by those who are now in these camps. This has been corroborated by satellite imagery obtained by Human Rights Watch. By early 2018, over 200 families had been placed in these camps in Iraq over several weeks with 220 such displaced individuals arriving at the camp near Daquq, South of Kirkuk, Iraq, the most prominent of these camps. Children are of course amongst these numbers and there are young children and infants that are growing up in these camps. The imprisonment of women and children who have committed no offense is illegal and the Next Century Foundation wishes to express its concern over the situation as there has been no fair reason presented for the holding of these people or for their treatment. Having declared victory against ISIS, Iraq should be investigating these prison camps and rectifying the situation in order to work towards a better future for these Iraqi people and those children who are part of Iraq’s future. The continued use of these ‘prison camps’ and the current treatment of these many families could potentially be regarded as a war crime, in view of the fact that these families could be considered forcibly displaced.

This issue is not exclusive to Iraq. In northern Syria there are four Kurdish-run camps in which around 800 families from approximately 40 different countries are being held because of their alleged association with Islamic State fighters. Whilst there is the possibility that many of these families do indeed have fathers, sons or brothers who have fought or are fighting for ISIS, collective punishment is illegal. There is no reason to punish those who have done nothing wrong. There has also been little assistance given by the home nations of these families to address this problem, thus far only Russia and Indonesia have worked with Kurdish authorities to have their nationals repatriated.

In these circumstances, it really is the innocent women and children who are suffering. Their detention in such camps, and the treatment they endure, is abhorrent. The young children who have been forced out of their homes and are now living in these conditions are experiencing the fallout of a conflict that is not theirs. It is a necessity for both Iraq and the international community to respond and take action.

Freedom of Religion in Iraq and Bahrain

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 on 2nd March 2018, the special report on Freedom of Religion:

Mr President. Freedom of Religion is one of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and is a basic pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Middle East is riven by a sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Islam, the consequences of which have been dire. Levels of hatred in this internecine strife have now reached unprecedented heights.

The Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Bahrain are two nations on the faultline of this disturbing rift and both have national elections this year.

The Iraq elections are unlikely to generate full participation from the Sunni community. If the majority of the Sunni community were to boycott these elections out of a sense of vengeful resentment of the Iraq central government it would be a grave error.  New Sunni politicians untainted by the past are emerging in areas like Anbar province. It would be wrong to disempower them at a time when their voices should be heard.

Bahrain’s elections will be held later this year and as in 2014, the Islamic Republic of Iran is likely to put pressure on Bahrain’s Shiite community leaders to encourage the non-participation of the Shiite community as a whole in the forthcoming elections.  This nonparticipation serves no purpose other than to weaken the voice of that community. It is essential that Bahrain’s Shiites participate fully in the forthcoming elections. Thank you.

Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf

 

Systemic corruption does not deserve our tacit consent

The 19th century British politician, Lord Acton, averred that ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Over the last 150 or so years, this axiom on the link between power and corruption has proven time and again to be a highly perceptive comment on the darker side of human nature. From Nixon to Castro to Mugabe, there are countless instances of world leaders who subordinated the well-being of their people to the fulfilment their own self-interest. And while corruption is a widespread phenomenon, ranging from public service to private enterprise, from an individual to an international scale, it is at its most indefensible when committed by those acting in an official capacity for personal gain. Fostering a lack of accountability, transparency and good faith in government, corruption represents one of the single biggest threats to the well-being of a country.

When corruption is systemic, and corrupt practices are rewarded with wealth, power and impunity, then people are drawn into public service for the wrong reasons. Indeed, if there is a culture of impunity, then corruption represents a low-risk, high-reward means of advancing both you career standing and your personal fortune.

The numbers bear witness to the predominance of corruption throughout the world. Some sixty countries in the world are plagued by systemic corruption.  China and India, countries with populations of over a billion, are constantly battling systemic corruption.

Corruption is so inexcusable that it ought to be addressed head-on with comprehensive reform. And governments recognise that. And that is far less likely to be forthcoming if the common man and woman think that the personal motives of ruling officials are being prioritised over their own wellbeing. Which explains why it is very common for countries to task specialised anti-corruption committees with addressing the issue. However, when the problem is so entrenched and all-pervasive, these committees often merely act as a smokescreen. Take the example of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, who admitted having run a state-sponsored doping program for Russian athletes. Or Mishan Al-Jabourri, the head of the Iraqi anti-corruption committee, who brazenly admitted in February of last year that ‘everybody is corrupt, from the top to the bottom, including me’. It is disheartening that those tasked with rooting out corruption are engaged in the very same malpractices. Further, it shows that governments are often content with merely being seen to address corruption, rather than doing so in practice.

So what can realistically be done? It is plainly clear that this is a deeply rooted and highly complex problem, a problem whose exact character varies from country to country, but whose defining traits are universal. Effective reforms are reliant on political will. It is imperative that key political actors display credible intent to attack corruption at a systemic level. Those very same people who have acquired power and money in an imperfect system must be willing to use their influence to foster a new, meritocratic culture from the top down. On the other hand, there is the risk that the powerful in society, those with an incentive to maintain the status quo, will mobilise powerful forces to protect their own vested interests. Indeed, countless reformers with the most honourable intentions have failed out of an inability to neutralise resistance. Investigative bodies must be entirely independent and free from interference by the government or the judiciary system.

Corruption is something about which we cannot afford, in good conscience, to be defeatist. Corruption runs contrary to all that is humanly decent. It undermines democracy, it precludes meritocracy and it allows the few to steal from the many. Any attempt to fight corruption, however imperfect, is better than none.

A Recipe for a United Iraq?

‘Iraq is like a glass of water. Once you break the glass, how do you collect the water again?’ The words are those of a young girl from Mosul, a survivor of that city’s period under the control of so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS). For the past three decades, Iraq has experienced every form of armed conflict you could think of, leaving state institutions weak and dysfunctional and large areas of the country in ruins. Since the 2003 Iraq war, and the ensuing years of unrest culminating in the three-year struggle against ISIS, Iraq has not seen a moment of peace.

As ISIS is being driven out of Iraq’s towns and villages, the country still faces challenges not dissimilar to those that contributed to the creation of ISIS in the first place. These include:

  • The ethno-sectarian adversarial relationship between Iraq’s central government and Kurdistan’s regional government, and between that selfsame predominantly Shi’a government, with its ideologically motivated Shi’a militias, and the disenfranchised Sunni population.
  • The extreme lack of transparency that helps rank Iraq among the world’s top five for corruption.
  • Conflicting external pressures from the US and the various regional players, foremost amongst which is Iran.

These three lingering interconnected challenges have created fertile soil for terrorist groups to flourish, and remain an obstacle to any dream of a united Iraq.

Claims of victory over ISIS should not be exaggerated. The country has been here before. Triumphalist policies employed by then Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, from 2006 onward, in his attempt to defeat Al Qaeda (AQ) in Iraq, proved counterproductive and led to the rebirth of Al Qaeda as ISIS. Although the persistence of the challenge does not necessarily mean that history will repeat itself, in order to avoid another catastrophic situation, it is crucial to approach this challenge in a different and more constructive manner.

A high price was paid for the defeat of ISIS, particularly in majority Sunni areas, but this victory has also brought hope and has created a space in which the Iraqi people could yet unite. The challenges run deep, however. The 2018 national elections are approaching, the outcome of which depends on these interconnected challenges and will determine the stability of Iraq over the coming decade. The political landscape of Iraq today is dominated by two camps: those who support Iran, and the self-styled Iraqi nationalists.

Rival to the current Prime Minister in the upcoming elections is the former Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, who still retains strong support among Shi’a segments of society and most certainly falls into the pro-Iran camp. In Iraq, most of the blame for the destructive period that saw the creation and rapid growth of ISIS should be pinned on Al Maliki; whereas, much of the credit for the victory over ISIS should be given to Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. That said Al Abadi and his Iraq Army couldn’t have done it without the help of the Popular Mobilization Force and their allies the Iranian Quds Force, the US Air Force and the array of coalition warplanes that took to the skies at their side, and the Kurds.

The Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a coalition of some sixty predominantly Shi’a militias, many of whom are Iran backed, has become the dominant fighting force in the country, largely due to its role in the battle against ISIS. Some of the Shi’a militias are Iraqi nationalists, but most of the powerful ones are openly pro-Iran and have a documented record of sectarian violence, which was arguably one of the main elements fueling the rise of ISIS in the first place. Qasem Sulaimani, Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, was the first to declare the defeat of ISIS and he did so in a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This move underscores the hold Iran has over Iraq, and highlights Iran’s intention to maintain and to further this influence.

In an attempt to contain the PMF, Iraq’s parliament passed a law in late 2016 allowing the inclusion of the PMF as part of Iraq’s regular armed forces. However, the militias’ ethnosectarian base, their evident loyalty to Iran and their recent emboldening will arguably undermine the democratic process in Iraq.

The major Shi’a militias, including the Badr Organisation as well as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), have announced their intention to create a unified bloc in the coming elections. Although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has banned militia leaders from running for both parliamentary and provincial office, a number of PMF political affiliates have registered for the elections.

Prime Minister Al Abadi’s move to restrain the militias represents just one dimension in his struggle to tackle sectarianism, repression and corruption as well as Iraq’s vulnerability to external influence.

A new anti-corruption campaign has been launched which could arguably be as much of a challenge as the fight against ISIS. The Prime Minister had the backing of Iraq’s highest religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in his earlier attempt to tackle corruption in 2016.  Since the formation of the PMF was fuelled by a religious edict (Fatwa) from Ayatollah al-Sistani in 2014, perhaps another Fatwa could foster the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of militia members. That would be a strong step towards reestablishing national unity but would require the right circumstances.

Because of the commitment of Prime Minister Al Abadi to the union of the country, there may yet be hope to establish a strongly nationalist Iraq government that includes Shi’as, Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups. The greatest counterweight to the challenges facing Iraq today is to enhance the Iraq national identity.

And there is every chance to do just that given the set of  circumstances that are now in place.

The Kurds have been forced to work for a fair power-sharing arrangement. Although the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took control over much of the disputed territories after the 2003 US invasion, and subsequently during the battle against ISIS, they have now lost all of their gains in the aftermath of their abortive bid for independence. The KRG has had to fall back on a campaign to promote stronger and more effective federalism. This new approach is reflected in:

  1. Their effective acceptance of the court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of the recent independence referendum and,
  2. Their retreat when faced with the PMF’s advance into the disputed territories after the referendum.

The Sunnis in Iraq are exhausted and every sectarian Sunni card has been exploited and played. After the 2003 US invasion, despite a promising start under Iyad Allawi’s premiership, the subsequent rise to power of Nouri Al Maliki heralded what became, from a Sunni perspective, a repressive Shi’a government. Ordinary Sunnis were ready to welcome anyone as a savior. So ISIS took control, then when the people learned of ISIS’s true intentions, it was too late for them to do anything about it.

The success of the Global Coalition against ISIS depended on a decisive force, destroying and killing everything that stood in its way. The fight against ISIS took the status of the Sunni majority areas from zero to negative, to a political no-man’s land. Sunnis in Iraq are moving toward what is called new Sunni realism. In this dire situation, Sunnis won’t give up their identity, but their hope is for a better future for themselves, their children and their country as a nation.

It is not only the Sunnis and the Kurds who want a united Iraq. The Shi’a population is also suffering from the lack of goods and services under the rule of  a supposedly Shi’a-dominated government. Rates of poverty and unemployment are at their highest in majority Shi’a provinces just as they are everywhere else. Between 2003 and 2013, mostly Nouri Al Maliki’s tenure, not a single new hospital or power plant was built despite the spending of $500 billion in public funds. A number of prominent Shi’a clerics have blamed the enduring failure of state institutions on corruption and the damaging influence of external powers, particularly Iran. Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr,  an Iraqi nationalist who opposes Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, inspired a number of protests by Shi’a groups in Baghdad last year.

So, back to the question; if you break the glass, how do you collect the water? Iraq needs a functional, transparent, and inclusive government.  And the international community, particularly the Global Coalition against ISIS, has to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq with the same enthusiasm as it did in the fight against ISIS. As Dr. William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation stated, it is a moral and honorable obligation to at least ‘divert Western aid money to post-conflict Iraq and to specifically use it to construct social housing in areas we [the West] have bombed in the past two to three years.’ A stable, prosperous, and, more importantly, united Iraq, is in the interest of the region and the world.