Impressions from Basra
When it comes to electoral politics, Basra is indicative of what’s happening on the provincial level: voters are choosing local candidates that they are comfortable with. In Baghdad, the big names dominate politics, and thus the local voter’s attention would be drawn to names such as Maliki, Ja’afari, Allawi,…etc. But in Basra and elsewhere, these big names don’t feature on the campaign materials seen on the streets, so the voter is compelled to look into the backgrounds of the individual candidates rather than any broader political leanings.
For example, candidate no. 1 on the Iraqi National Alliance slate is Uday Awwad Kadhim, a 33-year-old Sadrist who has almost no standing on a national level. But he’s known in Basra City as a competent and hardworking electrical engineer throughout the time he served as an overseer of the province’s electrical grid. The subtext, of course, is that he would give more electricity to ‘those from ‘Amara’, a reference to the migrants from ‘Amara (Maysan) province who populate the slums of Khamsa Meel, Gzeizeh, Hayyaniyah and other such neighborhoods that form the bulwark of Sadrist support in Basra. He was arrested in the aftermath of Maliki’s clampdown on the Mahdi Army in March 2008.
Whereas candidate no. 1 on Maliki’s slate is Safa’ Eddin al-Safi, the current Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and the acting Minister of Trade. He’s an ‘old Basran’, which means he’s not from ‘Amara, or Nassiriya or any other province. But he’s characterized as the guy who misspent the 100 million dollars that Maliki had assigned to Basra after Operation Charge of the Knights. He doesn’t seem popular, but even though he’s disliked, I’d still wager that Maliki’s slate is still stronger the INA’s in the province. However, the choice of al-Safi as no. 1 must have cost Maliki some votes.
Maliki had been in Basra for a quick visit, and his whole spiel was laying the cornerstone for the new port in Fao, which is supposed to be built by an Italian company on a tract of land that is 1.5 million m2 on the side of Khor Abdullah, thus giving Iraq a deep water port. Such a port would change the economic dynamics of the Middle East, rivaling Dubai’s. The cornerstone reads, “The same hand that signed Saddam’s execution warrant will be the hand that rebuilds Iraq,” alluding to Maliki’s role in hanging the dictator.
The INA’s candidate no. 2 is secular MP (formerly with Allawi) Wa’il Abdel-Latif. His proposal for a separate federal entity in Basra failed primarily because the top clerics in Najaf opposed it, under the pretext that this would weaken and divide the Shias. He’s not too popular either. However, no. 7 is Amer al-Fayyez, the chief of the Banu ‘Amer, which is the main body of the Sheikhi sect, a marginal offshoot from mainstream Shi’ism, who has his own constituency in the province (…Al-Fayez received 24,000 votes in the provincial council elections). The Sheikhis, immigrants for the most part from Eastern Arabia some 200 years ago, have taken to voting as a bloc for one of their candidates, and it was smart politics on the INA’s part to bring them along onto their slate.
Bolani is relying on tribal names, yet one of his prime candidates, Sheikh Muzahim al-Kana’an of the Banu Tamim (…the Tamimis consider themselves ‘Old Basra’), was de-Ba’athified. Muzahim’s nephew replaced him on the slate (as candidate no. 2). Bolani spent four days in Basra, and a day in Zubair. He stayed at the new Mannawi Basha Hotel, where the lobby was crammed full of tribal headdresses. There was plenty of gripe on the street over his convoy of 68 vehicles. What’s interesting is that voters resent how public officials use public resources, like government cars and security, to advance their campaigns, with many voices demanding that Bolani reimburse the state for what he’s using.
Although the Fadhila Party is running as part of the INA, I didn’t see any indication from any of the INA’s candidates that they are using their Fadhila association as a positive. It seems that the Fadhila folks, only recently the top power in Basra, are ashamed of this association, since it was tainted with accusations of corruption and general thuggery. I got a kick out of watching the former governor, Muhammad Mussabih al-Wa’ili, skulking around in the Mannawi Basha lobby, trying to seem important. It is incredible that he’s not behind bars already; it just means he’s too smart for local law enforcement. The legacy of corruption that Fadhila has left behind in the local government won’t be easy to contain.
It’s difficult to tell whether Allawi has a significant standing in Basra, even though some of his candidates do. For example, one of his candidates is from the Albu Darraj (…from ‘Amara) some of whom are wealthy businessmen at the moment, and also vote as a tribal bloc. The Basran elite may vote for Allawi by way of voting anti-Islamist, but they are few in number. Allawi would get a portion of the Sunni vote in the province too.
The Communists seem to be better organized in Basra than in Baghdad, probably owing to their history with the families of dock workers in the 50s and 60s. Their campaign is far more visible, with young guys handing out leaflets at traffic choke points, than in the capital.
One of the weirdest things I saw was a ‘flex’ for Mithal al-Alusi in the severely depressed and run-down neighborhood of Old Basra. It’s in an alleyway where there aren’t any campaign materials, all on its own, in a place where one wouldn’t expect to see something like it. The fact that it’s there, flanked as it where by nearby Shia houses of worship, and hasn’t been defaced or torn down is an indication that al-Alusi has some support there. However, al-Alusi isn’t fielding any well-known candidates in the province, and his no. 1 candidate on his slate, Ali al-Musawi, identifies himself solely on campaign posters as “The political consultant of Mithal al-Alusi”—not very significant as a selling point on a political resume.
And then, of course, there are votes for looks: the chief beneficiary seems to be Faten Abdel-Rahman, no. 4 on the little-known ‘Advocates for Justice’ bloc. She’s pretty and I heard a number of guys saying that they would vote for her just to be able to see a nice face on TV for the next four years.
In the mixed Shia-Sunni Fao Peninsula, voters are mindful of local candidates such as Walid al-Sharifi (no. 21 on Maliki’s slate), or Zainab Sadiq Ja’afar (no. 43 on the INA’s slate). At least here, votes would cross sectarian lines, with Sunnis preferring a local boy (or girl) versus a candidate who isn’t from Fao.
Basra is decrepit beyond description; as I travelled around, the one thing that went through my mind is that local government should be ashamed of itself for leaving things as they are over the last seven years. The Saddam era hit Basra especially hard, yet even so, one would have expected more to be done since Saddam’s overthrow. The Brits take some responsibility for the mismanagement, and nothing says that clearer than the state of disrepair and dirtiness of the British Cemetery, where they buried their WWI dead. If the Brits couldn’t get that done (…compare it to the extremely well-kept one in Alexandria), then how would they be expected to have fixed Basra’s other mammoth problems. Incidentally, the prevalent conspiracy theory is that the Brits purposely mismanaged and damaged Basra on behalf of their Gulf allies, so that Basra would not emerge as an economic rival to the ports of Kuwait, Dubai and elsewhere.
A new law assigned one dollar from every barrel of oil for the province. That adds up to about a billion dollars for Basra in 2010. But it still isn’t clear who gets to spend it. The local provincial council is split between Maliki’s people, who want a stronger role for the central government, and those who want Basra to go its own way in running its affairs. One dollar per barrel sets the precedent for 30 dollars a barrel one day. Basra should have the right to demand a much larger share of the wealth that emanates from its soil. But the Saddam years smashed the province’s self-confidence, and a marked impression that I got was how cowed the local government was vis-à-vis Baghdad, even though the law could be interpreted to give them far greater powers, powers that they are too wary to exercise.
However, one person for watch out for is Sheikh Ahmed al-Sulaiti, the deputy head of the provincial council, who may eventually lead the drive to demand more autonomy for Basra. He’s combative, and even a tad bit extremist (…he’s a fan of Hezbollah, and even resembles a thinner version of Hassan Nasrallah). But he’s garnering a reputation as a no-nonsense anti-corruption crusader, who wants much of Basra’s money to stay within his province.
I’d like to make a point about Iraq-Iran relations in Basra, since at one point there were outlandish accusations made in the Arab press, repeated by Western commentators, that Farsi replaced Arabic as the lingua franca in the city. Basra is equidistant from Isfahan as it is from Baghdad. Basrans consider Arabic-speaking Ahvaz (Khuzistan Province) as part of their territorial continuity, and what has happened is that trade, smuggling and family relations (…some tribes straddle both sides of the border), have been re-activated, to the consternation of Iraqi and Iranian authorities that would rather tax and monitor such movement. There was an Iranian trade expo in Basra while I was there. It was a small event, showcasing cars, trucks, rock salt, foodstuff and bricks, but it was curious thing to watch two cultures colliding. The language of interaction was English, and on their off-time, Iraqis and Iranians didn’t mix. Basra has definitely not been in sucked into Iran’s sphere of influence; if anything, Basra has created its own sphere of influence and sucked into it the neighboring Arabic-speaking parts of Iran.
All in all, I’m beginning to think that on the provincial level, more voters will choose individual candidates rather than slates. In Baghdad, it would be the inverse of that, since the slates are identified by the big names running. Some Western commentators have deemed the Iraqi elections to be marred and besmirched already, but they would have said so anyway had it been cloudy on Election Day. I was personally surprised at how engaged Iraqis in Basra were in the political debate. Whether they intend to vote or not, individual Basrans—barbers, fishermen, government workers, businessmen—have taken a political position in the wider debate. It’s a sign of maturity, and it’s way beyond what is available elsewhere in the region. No one considers himself or herself a second-class citizen. Actually, their sense of entitlement is astronomical and unrealistic; it’s not where it is supposed to be (…responsibilities versus rights), but it is a start. The key words are awareness and debate, and both are available in huge supply.