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MOSUL, Iraq / BOGOTA, Colombia: Taking a seat at the head table at the Mosul Book Forum café one evening in September, political blogger Saad Amer introduced his two guest speakers, both independent candidates in the October 10 legislative elections. in Iraq.

It was the fifth such event hosted by the Khutwa Club, a debate society that meets regularly in the popular café in the northern city, its main cultural and literary venue.

Since Mosul was taken over 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 are dominated by armed groups and critics are often murdered with impunity, the Khutwa Club’s success in motivating a mostly apathetic youth is a remarkable achievement in itself.

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

“Our goal is to help people deepen the Iraqi political system and educate the people so that they can choose the best candidate for them, understand the candidates’ election platform and understand the shortcomings of their programs.”

Political education is at the heart of the mission of the Khutwa Club. In 2003, after decades of Baathist rule, the United States and other Western powers installed a democratic system in Baghdad modeled on their own centuries-old institutions.

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

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

The Khutwa Club provides a platform for independent candidates to discuss their agendas ahead of the legislative elections in Iraq. (Meethak Al-Khatib for Arab News)

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

Although the protests secured the resignation of then Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the movement quickly ran out of steam with the onset of the global pandemic and under fierce attacks from pro-government militias.

Above all, without a defined political leadership at the head of the movement, the young Iraqi demonstrators were unable to translate their energy and idealism into an electoral force capable of making their demands a reality.

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

Hosted by the Book Forum café, the Khutwa club offers young Iraqis courses in literacy and political participation. (Meethak Al-Khatib for Arab News)

“Maybe what we’re doing here will open up horizons for people who want to run for office in the future,” Abdulqader said.

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

“For over 17 years we have seen the same political faces. They didn’t come up with anything new. They always made the same false promises. We need to focus on new faces, especially younger ones. There is a difference between the mentality of a 70 year old politician and that of a 35 year old man.

Election hopeful Asil Al-Agha said independent candidates likely wouldn’t succeed without a party machine behind them. (Meethak Al-Khatib for Arab News)

Sitting in the audience is Obadiah Muhammad, a 22-year-old law student and one of the club’s regulars. He is grateful to have the opportunity to hear local candidates come forward on an independent ticket.

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

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

“The club provides an environment for exchanging opinions and challenging its guests,” said Muhammad. “We didn’t have such a place before in Mosul and I see it as something extraordinary.”

Mosul, located in the predominantly Sunni northwest of Iraq, has not always been so tolerant of political expression. Between 2014 and 2017, when the city was the capital of the so-called Daesh caliphate, freedom of expression and democratic participation were brutally suppressed.

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

Even before the activists took control, the city was anything but a bastion of free speech. Saad Amer, the political blogger who chaired the Khutwa Club debate that evening, remembers all too well how dangerous it can be to speak out.

“Political thought was banned before 2014. Mosul had been controlled by Al-Qaeda since 2009. From memory, no one could talk about politics, nor discuss secular or liberal ideas. Everyone was scared, ”the 28-year-old told Arab News on the sidelines of the meeting.

“Everyone, including me, was just trying to keep up with the pace of life here, and on election day we were going to vote for a party of our ethnicity to protect ourselves and our rights.

“After 2017, there was a kind of revolution that happened in Mosul. Young people began to feel more of a sense of freedom and more space for free speech, to express our opinion and discuss our thoughts in public.

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

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

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

Independent candidates on the podium plead for a cleaner, fairer and more transparent system in Iraq, removing corruption, armed groups and foreign interference. But without a powerful party apparatus to back them up, few have a chance to enter parliament or make a meaningful change while there.

Asil Al-Agha, 41, is one of the few candidates running for election in Mosul. Former member of the provincial council of Nineveh, candidate for the Iraq Renaissance and Peace Bloc, Al-Agha has a proven track record as a skilled activist, but is all too aware that she must operate within the confines of a system. imperfect.

“Much of the people here suffer from poverty and lack of jobs,” she told Arab News from her office near the Mosul university campus. “Politicians will take advantage, promising jobs and money to buy votes.”

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

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

“Even if I got 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 put pressure on others so that we can get our rights. A lonely politician cannot do anything alone. This is why I present myself with a party, not independently.

The Iraqi elections of 2018, the first since the defeat of Daesh, recorded the lowest turnout on record in the country. Given the precarious health of Iraqi democracy, change from within may be the best and only hope for educated Iraqi youth disillusioned by the failures of the October 2019 revolution.

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

“This is the only option available.”


Twitter: @ meethak55 and @RobertPEdwards

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