An Iraqi girl stands in the doorway of a house as an US soldier patrols in Mosul in 2005. Photograph: Andrea Comas/Reuters
Monday, September 19, 2011
Will It Really Be A Spring For The Arabs?
As a humans rights campaigner I should be happy about events in the Middle East. As an Iraqi, I am very pessimistic
By Peter Kandela
Colleagues and friends are rather surprised by my lack of enthusiasm for the Arab spring. They expect a human rights campaigner like me with almost 40 years of experience to be over the moon at the changes taking place throughout the Middle East. The problem is that however much I long for democratic change in the region, I cannot help but see the situation though the prism of my Iraqi experience, and on a personal level this leaves me pessimistic.
I was born in Mosul in the north of Iraq. My family lived in the old Christian quarter of the city and we played an active part in the Christian community until we moved to Baghdad when I was eight.
There we lived in a much more mixed area with neighbours of various sects, denominations and nationalities. We children all played together and, although I was aware of differences, we went in and out of each others' houses without distinction. Of course I remember the coups, the overthrow of monarchy in 1958, troops on the streets, and being kept indoors while martial music played on the radio. I learned that adults looked over their shoulders and shut the doors before talking politics; but then I left it all behind at the age of 17 to take up a scholarship to study medicine in India.
It was in India that I discovered the joy of freedom of speech, and I began to write articles and speak out without fear. So, when I arrived in London in 1972 to start work as a hospital doctor in Mansfield, it was with a passion for all the big words: freedom, justice and democracy. Since then, I have observed from a distance what has happened to Iraq under successive oppressive regimes. I had to wait for a British passport before being able to visit and even then, I had to time my visits to avoid the wars, first with Iran and then Kuwait. Even so, I was so happy to see my family again, and revisit the places of my childhood. Quite a few of my medical colleagues were planning to buy houses in their country of origin, ready for retirement, and I nursed a private dream to buy back the old family house in Mosul.
And then came the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I opposed it unequivocally at the time, but still cheered when the statue of Saddam Hussein was hauled down. Inwardly, I desperately hoped that Tony Blair's rhetoric was right and I was wrong.
Well, Iraq does now have a constitutional democracy, with a parliament regularly in session (within Baghdad's heavily guarded green zone, of course), and yet for the Iraqi people, life has deteriorated dreadfully. Security remains a major problem. Kidnapping, corruption, suicide bombing and general lawlessness all continue, major religious groupings mainly live in closed neighbourhood and minorities like the Christians have largely been forced out of the country. Reluctantly, all my close relatives, except one sister, have fled abroad in fear of their lives.
Then there is the more insidious form of fear, which accompanies poverty and lawlessness. A recent feature on the Iraqi website Aljeeran showed the very large numbers of women and children forced to beg on the streets, and highlighted their sexual vulnerability. This is an entirely new phenomenon in Iraq.
The right to security is paramount, but what about the right to clean water and power? Most people have given up on the expectation of a regular electricity supply. Those who can afford it have generators.
The water supply is similarly feeble. It is suggested that neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Iran are taking more than their share, and the government is too weak to deal with the problem.
The right to healthcare and education has been seriously undermined by security problems, and by the fact that so many professional workers have fled the violence and kidnapping. I recently read that the status of Iraqi universities has severely declined since 2003.
So why does the situation in Iraq leave me pessimistic about the Arab spring? Of course the situations are different, mainly because the overthrow of dictators has been forced (and fought for), from within rather than imposed from outside. As a human rights campaigner, I look at Tunisia, Egypt and Libya with huge admiration for the bravery and idealism of the people who stated the whole thing (even though the "victory" the Libyan's achieved came with considerable help from Nato). But I fear for the prospects of all these countries if the changes are not accompanied by social, political and economic stability.
I am not a political scientist and can't make judgments and predictions about each of these states, but in Iraq the original joy at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was gradually replaced by disbelief at the disintegration of the country. For five, six, seven years my family and friends still thought that their children would have a future there. I always assumed that I would one day be able to return to my homeland in safety and maybe spend a few months at a time in Mosul, the city of my birth. Now I have had to accept that this will never happen. "Do not go to Baghdad unless you have to" is the advice, and do not go to "Mosul at all because it is a lawless ruin".
I hope and pray that the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will do far better than we did.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 18/09/2011- Peter Kandela is a general practitioner in Surrey, UK