Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Keeping the politicians honest in Baghdad

Despite the continued machinations of Iraq's political elite over forming a new government now 8 months after last March's parliamentary elections, civil society continues to flourish and grow in Iraq. While civil society organizations are not going to be able to solve Iraq's myriad problems, it is important not to focus only on Iraq's political elite, however important. The Iraqi populace has been very active in using blogs, the media, and a wide variety of organizations. Women's rights organizations, student groups, conflict resolution organizations, blogs, labor organizations, artistic groups, and professional and business associations point to a rich social network. Unfortunately, the media in the West (and the Middle East) tend to focus excessively on elites, not realizing that democracy in Iraq will not work unless the citizenry at large is committed to that end.

Most recently, a large number of civil society organziations filed a suit in Iraqi courts to force Iraq's newly elected parliamentarians to begin work to confront the country's many pressing needs (see al-Hayat, Nov. 16, 2010). These organizations were furious that the newly elected members of the Council of Deputies were earning salaries of $11,000 per month but had, at the time the suit was filed earlier this fall, had met only once and then for less than a half hour. In addition, delegates who do not live in Baghdad receive $6000 per month stipend to cover local living expenses.

The suit that was filed demanded that the delegates return almost $40 million that represented salary that they had already received from their election to the time that the suit was filed 7 months after the election. According to Huda Adwar, president of the Iraqi NGO, al-Amal, the suit's aim was to protect Iraq's public wealth (al-mal al-'amm) and prevent its misuse. While the suit was not the reason for the parliament's finally beginning its work this past November, certainly the publicity generated by the suit placed great pressure on the new delegates who were well aware of public anger, especially in light of continued unemployment and lack of government services, to get the parliament moving. That the delegates were receiving what are very high salaries compared to national average, while the bulk of the populace is suffering from economic deprivation, was galling to Iraqis.

Some criticism was directed at the civil society organizations because they filed their suit in the wrong court. Constitutional lawyer, the attorney Tariq Harb, said the suit should have been filed in the Higher Administrative Court rather than the Karrada Municipal Court. Nevertheless, the use of courts to try and influence the government shows a level of sophistication that is lacking in most Arab countries. That Iraqis are resorting to the courts represents a step forward in strengthening the rule of law in Iraq.

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