A Mosul book cafe raises political awareness in the run-up to Iraq elections

Election hopefuls are using Mosul’s Book Forum cafe to reverse the trend of political apathy among the Iraqi youth. Just 4 years ago, the city served as the capital of Daesh’s brutal caliphate. (AFP)
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Election hopefuls are using Mosul’s Book Forum cafe to reverse the trend of political apathy among the Iraqi youth. Just 4 years ago, the city served as the capital of Daesh’s brutal caliphate. (AFP)
Election hopefuls are using Mosul’s Book Forum cafe to reverse the trend of political apathy among the Iraqi youth. Just 4 years ago, the city served as the capital of Daesh’s brutal caliphate. (AFP)
2 / 3
Election hopefuls are using Mosul’s Book Forum cafe to reverse the trend of political apathy among the Iraqi youth. Just 4 years ago, the city served as the capital of Daesh’s brutal caliphate. (AFP)
Election hopefuls are using Mosul’s Book Forum cafe to reverse the trend of political apathy among the Iraqi youth. Just 4 years ago, the city served as the capital of Daesh’s brutal caliphate. (AFP)
3 / 3
Election hopefuls are using Mosul’s Book Forum cafe to reverse the trend of political apathy among the Iraqi youth. Just 4 years ago, the city served as the capital of Daesh’s brutal caliphate. (AFP)
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Updated 10 October 2021

A Mosul book cafe raises political awareness in the run-up to Iraq elections

A Mosul book cafe raises political awareness in the run-up to Iraq elections
  • Book Forum becomes focal point for political debate before Oct. 10 parliamentary elections
  • The Khutwa Club is helping young Iraqi men and women turn their idealism into action

MOSUL, Iraq/BOGOTA, Colombia: Taking a seat at the top table in Mosul’s Book Forum cafe one evening in September, political blogger Saad Amer introduced his two guest speakers, both independent candidates running in Iraq’s Oct. 10 parliamentary elections.

This was the fifth such event organized by the Khutwa Club, a debating society that meets regularly at the northern city’s popular cafe — its foremost cultural and literary venue.

Since Mosul was retaken from Daesh extremists in 2017, the cafe has become a popular and widely celebrated hub for young activists, academics, journalists and students to share ideas.

In a country where politics is dominated by armed groups and where critics are often murdered with impunity, the Khutwa Club’s success in motivating a mostly apathetic youth is a remarkable feat in itself.

“There is a huge gap between citizens and the political system in Iraq,” Harith Yaseen Abdulqader, the Book Forum’s co-founder, told Arab News during a Khutwa Club event.

“Our goal is to help people look in-depth at the Iraqi political system and how to spread awareness among the people so that they can choose the best candidate for them, to understand the electoral program of the candidates, and understand the gaps in their programs.”

Political education is at the core of the Khutwa Club’s mission. In 2003, after decades of Baathist rule, the US and other Western powers installed a democratic system in Baghdad modelled on their own time-honored institutions.

The tenets of Western-style democracy were alien to many Iraqis, who for centuries had conducted their affairs along tribal and religious lines. Foreign powers, armed groups and corrupt individuals soon took advantage of the situation, fashioning a system that was democratic in name only.




The Khutwa Club offers independent candidates a platform to discuss their programs ahead of Iraq’s parliamentary election. (Meethak Al-Khatib for Arab News)

“The goal of this club is to educate citizens about common political terms, aspects and ideas,” Abdulqader said. “Perhaps a citizen doesn’t know what liberalism is, what civic politics is, or what political Islam is, or the difference between the ruling parties and the Islamist parties.”

There is certainly a thirst for such ideas among Iraq’s swelling ranks of jobless educated youth. Fed up with the country’s ruling elite, young Iraqis marched in their hundreds of thousands in cities across the country in October 2019, demanding the overthrow of the post-2003 order.


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Although the protests secured the resignation of then-prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the movement soon fizzled out with the onset of the global pandemic and under savage attack by pro-government militias.

Crucially, without a defined political leadership heading the movement, Iraq’s young protesters were unable to translate their energy and idealism into an electoral force capable of making their demands a reality. 

By offering discussions on political literacy and participation, the Khutwa Club and others like it might be the very platforms to make that transition possible.




Hosted by the Book Forum cafe, the Khutwa Club offers young Iraqis lessons on political literacy and participation. (Meethak Al-Khatib for Arab News)

“Maybe what we do here will open horizons for people who want to run for election in the future,” said Abdulqader. 

“We encourage young people to engage in politics. We are trying to create new young political faces with a large support base and with an understanding of the Iraqi political process. Maybe we can be the supporters for these young people if they decided to run for election.

“For more than 17 years we have seen the same political faces. They did not offer anything new. They still made the same fake promises. We need to focus on new faces, especially the young ones. There is a difference between the mentality of a 70-year-old politician and a 35-year-old.”




Election hopeful Asil Al-Agha says independent candidates are unlikely to succeed without a party machine behind them. (Meethak Al-Khatib for Arab News)

Seated in the audience is Obadiah Muhammad, a 22-year-old law student and one of the club’s regular attendees. He is grateful for the opportunity to hear from local candidates running on an independent ticket.

“Mosul suffers from the dominance of big political parties,” Muhammad told Arab News. “I wanted to come today to support independent candidates, to hear what they have to say, to see if I agree with them or not.”

The Khutwa Club is unique in providing a platform for candidates who would otherwise be drowned out by the dominant parties.

“The club offers an environment to exchange opinions and challenges its guests,” Muhammad said. “We did not have such a place before in Mosul and I see it as something extraordinary.”

Mosul, situated in Iraq’s Sunni-majority northwest, was not always so tolerant of political expression. Between 2014 and 2017, when the city was the capital of Daesh’s self-styled caliphate, free speech and democratic participation were brutally suppressed.




Daesh militants brutally suppressed free speech and democratic participation during their three-year rule in parts of Iraq and Syria, with Mosul as their capital. (File photo)

Even before the militants seized control, the city was anything but a bastion of free speech. Saad Amer, the political blogger chairing that evening’s Khutwa Club debate, remembers only too well how dangerous speaking out could be.

“Political thought was forbidden before 2014. Mosul had been controlled by Al-Qaeda since 2009. According to my memory, no one could speak of politics, or discuss secular or liberal ideas. Everyone was afraid,” the 28-year-old told Arab News on the meeting’s fringes.

“Everyone, including me, was just trying to keep up with life here, and when election day came, we would go to vote for a party from our ethnicity to protect us and our rights.

“After 2017, there was a sort of revolution that happened in Mosul. Young people started to feel more of a sense of freedom and more space for free speech, to speak our minds and discuss our thoughts in public.”

Even now, though, the Khutwa Club and its guests face occasional intimidation from forces that thrive in Iraq’s murky political environment.




An electoral banner hangs on the wall of a damaged building in Iraq's second city of Mosul on Oct. 3, 2021, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections. (AFP)

“We do sometimes receive threats from certain political parties and some armed groups, but we always find a way to get around this and solve it,” Amer said. “Some of these threats include harsh language, not only for the club but also for the political opinions we have and our criticism of political parties.”

The independent candidates on the podium make a convincing case for a cleaner, fairer and more transparent system in Iraq, doing away with corruption, armed groups and foreign interference. But without a powerful party machinery to back them up, few stand a chance of entering parliament or effecting meaningful change once there.

Asil Al-Agha, 41, is one of the few female candidates standing for election in Mosul. A former member of Nineveh’s provincial council, running on an Iraq Renaissance and Peace Bloc ticket, Al-Agha has proven her mettle as a skilled campaigner, but is all too aware that she must operate within the confines of an imperfect system.

“A big proportion of people here are suffering from poverty and lack of jobs,” she told Arab News at her office near Mosul’s university campus. “Politicians will take advantage of this, promising jobs and money to buy votes.”




An electoral banner hangs on the wall of a damaged building in Iraq's second city of Mosul  on October 3, 2021, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.(AFP)

Al-Agha added: “One of the things that people suffer with here is bureaucratic red tape and corruption in state departments, where citizens are exploited and forced to pay bribes. To say nothing about health. We do not have government hospitals that provide the necessary treatment and good care.

“Even if I made it to Baghdad, it would be very difficult to work on these issues. I have to be strong and have a powerful political alliance where they can pressure others so we can get our rights. A lonely politician can’t get anything done alone. This is why I am running with a party, not independently.”

Iraq’s 2018 election, the first since the defeat of Daesh, saw the country’s lowest-ever turnout. Given the precarious health of Iraqi democracy, change from within may be the best and only hope for educated young Iraqis disillusioned by the failures of the October 2019 revolution.

“We believe that the only way to achieve change is to enter political work and participate in the elections to choose good people to run the government,” said Amer, closing the Khutwa Club event.

“This is the only available option.”

________________________

Twitter: @meethak55 and @RobertPEdwards 


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BEIRUT: Six members of a pro-government militia were killed Wednesday in an arms depot blast in the central Syrian province of Hama, a war monitor reported.
Seven other members of the National Defense Forces militia were wounded in the blast, the cause of which remains largely unclear, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.


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Updated 20 October 2021

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KUWAIT: Kuwait’s ruling emir on Wednesday paved the way for an amnesty pardoning dissidents that has been a major condition of opposition lawmakers to end a months-long standoff with the appointed government that has paralyzed legislative work.
Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah tasked the parliament speaker, the prime minister and the head of the supreme judicial council to recommend the conditions and terms of the amnesty ahead of it being issued by decree, Sheikh Nawaf’s office said.


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Updated 20 October 2021

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AMMAN: At least 11 civilians died on Wednesday in a Syrian army shelling of residential areas of rebel-held Ariha city, witnesses and rescue workers said.
The shelling from Syrian army outposts, which came shortly after a roadside bomb killed at least 13 military personnel in Damascus, fell on residential areas in the city in Idlib province.
Among the casualties were several school children, witnesses and medical workers in the opposition enclave said.


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Updated 20 October 2021

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DAMASCUS: A bomb attack on an army bus in Damascus killed at least 13 people Wednesday in the bloodiest such attack in years, the SANA state news agency reported.
“A terrorist bombing using two explosive devices targeted a passing bus” on a key bridge in the capital, the news agency said, reporting an initial casualty toll of 13 dead and three wounded.
Images released by SANA showed a burning bus and what it said was a bomb squad defusing a third device that had been planted in the same area.
Damascus had been mostly spared such violence in recent years, especially since troops and allied militia retook the last significant rebel bastion near the capital in 2018.


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Updated 20 October 2021

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
  • Civil society members stage a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show ‘solidarity with the judiciary’

BEIRUT: Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 port explosion, resumed investigations on Tuesday after being notified by the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation of its second decision to reject the request submitted by the defendant in the case of MP Ali Hassan Khalil.

Normal service resumed at the Justice Palace in Beirut after a long vacation. The Lebanese army guarding roads leading to the palace and Ain Remaneh, which was the arena of bloody events on Thursday, over protests to dismiss Bitar from the case. The repercussions of these events have affected the political scene, its parties and the people.

Civil society activists under the auspices of the “Lebanese Opposition Front” staged a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show “solidarity with the Judiciary carrying out its national duties and support for Judge Bitar to face the threats.”

Speaking on behalf of the protestors, activist Dr. Ziad Abdel Samad said: “A free and sovereign state cannot exist without a legitimate authority, judiciary and justice.”

Abdel Samad urged “the defendants to appear before Judge Bitar, because the innocent normally show up and defend themselves instead of resorting to threats.”

“We have reached this low point today because of a ruling elite allied with the Hezbollah statelet, protected by illegal arms.

“They want to dismiss Judge Bitar in all arbitrary ways and threats because he has come so close to the truth after they managed to dismiss the former judge, hiding behind their immunities because they know they are involved in the crime.”

Abdel Samad claimed that “those making threats are involved in the crime.”

Regarding the Tayouneh events that took place last week, he said: “They took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully, as they claimed, but they almost got us into a new civil war as a result of the hatred and conspiracies against Lebanon.”

Lawyer May Al-Khansa, known for her affiliation with Hezbollah, submitted a report at the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation against the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, Judge Bitar and “all those who appear in the investigation to be involved, accomplices or partners in crimes of terrorism and terrorism funding, undermining the state’s authority, inciting a strife, and other crimes against the law and the Lebanese Constitution.”

Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday night waged an unprecedented campaign of accusations and incitement against the Lebanese Forces party and its leader.    

Nasrallah accused them of being “the biggest threat for the presence of Christians in Lebanon” and said they were “forming alliances with Daesh.”

In a clear threat to Geagea and his party, Nasrallah bragged in his speech of having “100,000 trained fighters,” calling on Christians to “stand against this murderer.”

Nasrallah accused Bitar of “carrying out a foreign agenda targeting Hezbollah in the Beirut port crime” and of “being supported by embassies and authorities, turning him into a dictator.”

During the parliamentary session on Tuesday, no contact was made between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces. However, a handshake was spotted between the Lebanese Forces’ MP Pierre Abu Assi and the Amal Movement’s MP Hani Kobeissi.

Minister of Culture Mohammed Mortada, who represents Hezbollah, said “Hezbollah’s ministers will attend the ministerial session if Prime Minister Najib Mikati calls for one, but the justice minister and the judiciary must find a solution to the issue of lack of trust in Bitar.”

Several calls were made on Monday night between different political groups to prevent escalation and calm the situation.

Efforts are being made to reach a settlement that allows Bitar to keep his position and for defendants in the Beirut port case — who are former ministers and MPs — to be referred to the Supreme Judicial Council for prosecution.

Elsewhere, parliament dropped the proposal of a women’s quota ensuring female participation through  a minimum of 26 seats.

It passed a move to allow expats to vote for the 128 MPs and dropped the decision to allocate six additional seats representing them.

The parliament’s decision angered Gebran Bassil, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc. Following the parliamentary session, Bassil referred to “a political game in the matter of expats’ right to vote, which we will not allow to happen.”