From the moment that the guns were silenced in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, some young locals have been doing voluntary work, trying to rebuild the city and their lives after three years ruled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
Now they are taking an even more courageous step: They are starting to get into local politics.
We want to talk about reality and to be ready to take practical steps that can bring a positive change to Iraqi society.
Recently in a forested neighbourhood in Mosul, around 150 young men gathered in a hall surrounded by eucalyptus trees. It was not a picnic nor a party but a political forum organized by the young men of Mosul themselves.
A platform had been set up for speakers and several young men, in formal suits and ties, gave speeches. There were no old men in the crowd, no grey hair.
One of the speakers was particularly notable. Ali Ajwan is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Bayan in Erbil and he offered himself as a candidate for the position of governor of Ninawa, the province of which Mosul is the capital.
“The opportunity for young people to take up posts in politics in Mosul is ripe,” Ajwan said, as he paced back and forth on the stage. “Especially after the positive experiences of the voluntary work that was done after Mosul was liberated. The youth have been able to bring back life to the city, where the government has failed.”
It is true that the young people of Mosul remain frustrated about the way that the central government has dealt with the city after the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group was pushed out. But what makes them even more comfortable with the thought of entering politics is the fact that the situation in the city is more secure now for politicians, than it has been in years.
Before the IS group took control of Mosul, their forerunner, Al Qaeda in Iraq, made life dangerous in the city. Now it feels to many of the young men as though neither extremist organization is overtly present here anymore. This gives a new sense of freedom; people feel as though they can move around without fear of assassination or abduction.
That is why more young people are wanting to take a political stand, Ajwan explains on stage.
General elections are due to be held in Iraq on May 12 and there are just over 200 political parties registered to compete in them. This makes the small gathering in Mosul feel like a drop in the ocean.
“When I found out that many more young people were motivated to participate in elections, I decided to start a new forum on Facebook,” says Omar al-Salim, a 31-year-old local, who is the initiator of the Ninawa Youth Political Forum. “We have established a code of ethics that all of the young candidates planning to run in future elections must sign,” he told NIQASH.
Al-Salim says they are starting small but he can imagine that, by the next elections, the Forum could even have become a political party in its own right, or perhaps a lobby group of some kind.
“We don’t need the same slogans that we keep hearing repeated by our politicians,” says Fahad al-Yousef, another young activist who plans to stand for office in the upcoming elections. “They have become consumer goods made for campaigning. Instead we want to talk about reality and to be ready to take practical steps that can bring a positive change to Iraqi society.”
For al-Yousef the meeting had made him feel particularly optimistic. “It is just wonderful that we have gone beyond writing comments on Facebook, and beyond just being critical of the existing administration,” he enthused. “This is the first practical step toward the change many young people in this province want to see.”
The would-be politicians are well aware of their weaknesses, especially when compared to the big budgets and the experience that many of their older competitors in the upcoming elections bring. “We are weak and we don’t have the funds or the experience,” Ajwan told his audience. “But we will become strong.”
Currently the best known political parties in Ninawa are two Sunni Muslim-led parties, one headed by the al-Nujaifi brothers and another led by former Iraqi defence minister, Khaled al-Obeidi. Then there are also the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The young men at this hopeful meeting will most likely choose one of these larger blocs to campaign with.
After the meeting finished, Ajwan and the other aspiring MPs gathered some donations from attendees and then stood together for a picture before they all went their separate ways. The young men smiled and flashed victory signs. They felt sure this was a historic moment worth recording.