Saturday, October 09, 2004

The Josef Brodsky of the Editorial Page

Constantin Gurdgiev, TCD economics lecturer and director of Open Republic has written some excellent opinion pieces recently, including this account of the invention of the iso-phone ("a service that can be described as a meeting of the telephone and the flotation tank" - who'd have thought it?) by the Media Lab Europe in Dublin.

Both of these links came via the extensive and useful archives maintained by Mark Humphreys of DCU. I like to think that I read a lot and integrate it, but Mark beats me hands down!

This article from the Sunday Independent of 4th July 2004
is probably the best account of the difficult reconstruction of Iraq that I've read all year.

Freedom is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant's name and your mouth's saliva is sweeter than Persian Pie, and though your brain is wrung tight as the horn of a ram, nothing drops from your pale-blue eye.

THESE words belong to a man who knew the value and responsibility of real freedom: by 1976, the date attributed to this poem, Joseph Brodsky had been through a Soviet show trial, labour camp and forced exile. A far cry from the venomous spite piled upon Iraqi history by the well-fed, nothing-to-fear pundits of doom and gloom greeting last week's handover of power in Baghdad with epithets like "ex-CIA", "marshall [sic] law" and "a year of wasted opportunities".

The journalists who put quotation marks around "liberation" in 2003 are failing to see the reality - Iraq did regain its independence, on June 28, and the Iraqi people are on the path to erasing their tyrant's name.

To be precise, the road from serfdom is long and arduous. Yet the Iraqis are learning their freedom - as of June 2004, 68 per cent of them express confidence in the interim government, 73 per cent approve of the new Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, and 84 per cent support the new President, Ghazi Yawar. And up to 80 per cent of population believe that the new government, army and police forces will have a positive impact on the country. (Incidentally, these numbers are well above the approval ratings for the EU, yet the anti-Coalition pundits are not questioning Brussels' legitimacy.) Far from fearing martial law, 76 per cent of Iraqis feel freer to express their political views in public today than at any time before the liberation, while more than 80 per cent feel freer to exercise their religious beliefs.

So let us get other records straight. Drawing, as before, on the hard facts from the Brookings Institution, Gallup Polls and other sources, can we conclude that 2004 was "a year of wasted opportunities"? Magic mushrooms aside, no.

On March 8, the Iraqi Governing Council approved the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) that will serve as the country's interim constitution between now and the 2005 elections, which 67 per cent of the Iraqi population expect to be free and fair. Unprecedented for the region, it guarantees freedom of religion and speech, rights to organise political parties, to demonstrate, to strike, to receive a fair trial. It prohibits discrimination based on gender, nationality, religion or origin.

To back it up, today more than 600 Iraqi judges preside over more than 500 courts independent from Governing Council and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). More than 170 newspapers and 70 radio stations operate throughout Iraq. Few of these rights are enjoyed by the people living under the regimes, such as the PLO, benignly overlooked by our press and subsidised by the EU.

The Governing Council and CPA have "wasted" a year on delivering millions of metric tons of food and products in Iraq, opening the country's 240 hospitals and more than 1,200 clinics. In a "wasted year", the Iraqi healthcare budget was US$950m - a 74-fold increase on 2002. More than 90 per cent of Iraqi children received immunisations, and doctors' salaries are now at least eight times what they were under Saddam.

The Council and CPA opened all 22 universities, 43 technical colleges, as well as over 90 per cent of the primary and secondary schools. The Coalition refurbished 3,900 schools and provided 58,500 teaching and 1.5 million student kits. Teachers earn up to 25 times their former salaries. Under the new regime that our grey cardinals of doom dismiss as the invaders' puppet, women's centres offering training and education opened throughout the country.

As of today, water delivery has been nearly doubled on the pre-war levels, electricity generation is at over 95 per cent of the pre-war capacity, while over 1.2 million phones are operating in the country - a 46 per cent rise on 2002. The national unemployment rate in April-May 2004 was 28-45 per cent, relative to 50-60 per cent in 2003. CPA alone created 435,000 jobs, while reinvigorated lending and a strengthening currency contributed to a significant increase in entrepreneurial activity.

The truth demands that we do not overlook the difficulties. In the absence of law enforcement, Iraq's progress is hampered by the continued violence against people and property. Since 2003, the most dangerous kinds of violence from Iraqi public perspective were (in order of decreasing importance): sectarian war, suicide bombers, explosive devices and street crime. In terms of private concerns, the priority is different: street crime, explosive devices, military actions and suicide bombers.

All said, over the last 12 months, 1,771 Iraqi civilians died due to acts of insurgents and Coalition forces - a homicide rate that falls below that of some OECD countries. Furthermore, despite claims of CPA unpopularity, 76 per cent do not believe their lives were made worse by the Coalition and 85 per cent feel safer with CPA in place.

These figures tell the real stories of Iraq. This is a learning curve. Transition to democracy in the Soviet Union taught us that in a society opening up to pluralism and freedom of press, scandalous facts temporarily take hold of the nation's perception of reality: learning about freedom does make your brain "tight as the horn of a ram".

So let us set the record straight - on June 28, Iraq rejoined the world community as a sovereign state, but it will take time before the Iraqis taste their Persian pie of prosperity and generations before they erase Saddam Hussein from their memory. I doubt our zealots of anti-Americanism ever will.

Constantin T Gurdgiev is a lecturer and research associate at TCD. He is also a director of the Open Republic Institute, Dublin.