Out of the loop
Iraqis in Egypt are distressed by their exclusion from Sunday's national vote, reports Mustafa El-Menshawy
The defunct office of the Iraq News Agency in downtown Cairo recently came to life -- then turned quiet again. The venue was to have been used as a makeshift centre to register eligible voters for Iraq's upcoming elections as a symbolic gesture. However, Egyptian authorities decided they would have none of it and shut the office down.
On 17 January a voluntary committee had started to use the premises for Sunday's vote. But a member of the committee, which includes four activists driven out of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, was ordered by Egyptian police to close down the office. Orders were followed; the office was duly closed on 20 January.
"A security body asked us to close down and leave the office claiming we have no licence to use it as a polling station," Taleb Murad, one of the committee members, told Al- Ahram Weekly.
An official at the Ministry of Interior denied that security reasons were behind the shutdown but declined to elaborate. Informed sources said the small office could have been shut down because of fears it would be too crowded, and nerves would be too frayed, on polling day. There are about 6,000 Iraqis living in Egypt.
The committee dismissed police claims that they did not get permission to hold the vote. "We got clearance from Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiar Zibari in person to turn the news agency into a polling station," said a member of the committee on condition of anonymity. Zibari was visiting Cairo last week when he received complaints from a number of Iraqis that they would be deprived of voting in their homeland's first elections in 50 years.
The complaint was delivered after the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) -- which is monitoring the Iraqi vote outside the country -- decided that only 14 countries would be eligible for Iraqis to cast their ballots. Egypt was not on the list, the Geneva-based organisation arguing the rough cut-off line for selecting the designated countries was a population of 10,000 Iraqi citizens in each of them.
"While it is recognised that there are Iraqi citizens in areas outside these countries, due to the short timeframe given to conduct the elections, only a limited operation was deemed feasible," Darren Boisvert, a media officer of the IOM programme, told the Weekly from Amman.
That was sad news for many in the Iraqi community in Egypt, many of whom were forced out of Iraq when Saddam was in power. "It is unfair that we are excluded from the first free elections to be held in our homeland in 50 years," Faisal Fikri, a 41-year-old journalist, said. A former member of the Arab Nationalist Party in Iraq, Fikri was forced out of the country in 1968, the same year Saddam's Baath Party came to power, detaining and assassinating many of his colleagues. Fikri has been living in Egypt since.
"To hold free and fair polls in a country long dominated by one party is a historic moment," he said.
Despite the closure decision and exclusion from the IOM's list of countries, the committee of Iraqi activists has remained defiant. A symbolic registration and vote will be held in the garden of the Iraqi Embassy.
Iraqi Embassy officials said it would host the vote on Friday. The ballots will even be counted and sent to Amman, the IOM's headquarters. "We are not sure the results would be accepted," a spokesperson for the embassy said.
IOM officials have reiterated they would not recognise the results from the undesignated countries. The organisation says Iraqis residing in countries other than the 14 identified for the operation -- estimated at one million -- could travel at their own expense to register and vote there. However, it admitted, such participation is difficult due to the distances involved and travel movement restrictions across international borders.
Indeed, no African or Asian country was on the IOM list. "That means Iraqis in countries like Libya, where there are 30,000 Iraqis, and Algeria, home to 20,000, are deprived of the vote," said Fikri.
"Although we and the voters are well aware the votes could not be counted by the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq, it is still our duty to get the voice of the community heard," said Murad, a 30-year-old resident of Cairo, after he was expelled and stripped of his nationality under the Saddam regime because he was a member of the Faili minority.
The committee expects a low turnout in Cairo on the day of the vote, citing the lack of an awareness campaign or an appropriate means of communication with the rest of the Iraqi community. The organisers expect only 300 Iraqis to cast ballots.
For Iraqi expatriates there is a feeling of apathy as many left the country either to escape Saddam's brutality or the anarchy created after the US-led invasion in March 2003. Two people interviewed by the Weekly said they were eager to vote, while the third gave an absolute no.
"I will never go to polls as long as I don't even know the names of the candidates, let alone their platforms, and as long as my country is still occupied by foreign forces," Salwa Azzab, an Iraqi asylum-seeker in Cairo, said.
Azzab was forced out of her hometown of Dorra near Baghdad after her house was shelled and set ablaze by American forces eight months ago.
"How can I choose my favourite candidates even in a symbolic election?" Azzab asked. "I do not trust the polls; as Iraq is still under occupation and my family members are killed every day by the occupiers."
Iraqi voters are to elect the 275 members of the transitional assembly, which will appoint an interim government and draft a constitution for the war-scarred country. Many Iraqis hope the vote will be a step on the road to the withdrawal of US forces and restoring stability to the oil-rich country.
In all, some 7,000 candidates are competing in the elections. Some of them could not press the flesh in Iraq and come out in person at public rallies because of the lack of security.