Workers and Iraq
The situation in Iraq demands an openhanded approach if relations between Iraqis and other Arab peoples, especially Egyptians, are not to sour. And while there are many, and important, reasons why any legal recognition of the American occupation be avoided this does not mean that international efforts aimed at helping Iraqis regain their sovereignty and independence should grind to a halt. Occupying troops must withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible and leave the Iraqis to take care of themselves and, given the complexity of the current situation, this clearly requires intensive outside efforts.
We cannot stand by as spectators, severing our ties with the Iraqi people while we wait for their liberation and the departure of American forces which is, in any case, unlikely to happen soon. Rather, it is incumbent upon Arab parties to find ways to open channels of interaction without lending legitimacy or support to the American occupation.
Against which backdrop objections by the Egyptian Labour Ministry regarding workers going to Iraq appear incomprehensible. According to government newspapers several thousand Egyptian workers, contracted by Kuwaiti and American companies to work as security personnel, doctors, engineers and technicians, have been prevented from taking up their posts.
Some view such contracts as facilitating the occupation. In reality they will help alleviate many of the difficulties the Iraqi people face daily. And it is better for Egyptians, or other Arab nationals, to be hired for such jobs rather than Poles, Hungarians, Koreans and Bulgarians filling the vacancies.
If there are security risks involved there is always the option of seeking conditions and guarantees to ensure the safety of Egyptian workers. And we should bear in mind that the Egyptian authorities happily permitted workers to travel while Saddam was in power while preventing them to work towards the worthy cause of reconstituting a government of Iraq by Iraqis.
The need for stability in Iraq has been highlighted by the recent and bloody attacks on the UN headquarters and Friday's assassination of the Shi'ite leader Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim. Yet this cannot be the exclusive criterion or concern when assessing whether or not Egyptian workers be allowed to travel to, and work in, Iraq. Certainly, it is a matter to be taken into consideration that, according to international reports the main thoroughfares, from Baghdad to Basra and in other parts of Iraq, remain sufficiently unsafe for insurance companies to continue to exact high premiums to insure the lives of people who work in Iraq. It is not, though, the only matter to be taken into consideration.
Many observers believe that security in Iraq will not be achieved until the UN is given a mandate to supervise the phase of political transition. This is something the American administration seems belatedly to be beginning to comprehend as the occupying forces increasingly loose their grip on Iraq and violence and terrorism escalate under the rule of Paul Bremer.
The hesitation of the Egyptian authorities on this issue, though, regardless of the reservations expressed, is far from helpful. Surely it would be far wiser to allow workers to decide for themselves what they want to do after taking the security assessment of the Egyptian authorities into account. It would then be incumbent upon the government to advise on the dangers and the consequent insurance necessary in particular locations, as is common practice around the globe.