“My honourable retired brother. Please contribute part of your income to help Iraq’s Members of Parliament. If you do this, you will doubtless be rewarded generously by God.”
This is one of the sentences on a large banner hanging in central Baghdad, on Mutanabi Street. The banner was apparently “part of a charitable drive to help Baghdad’s politicians”, that was launched by a group of Iraqi pensioners in response to the recent parliamentary vote on what has been called the Unified Retirement Law. This law was supposed to replace an earlier one that sparked nationwide protests because of the amount of money MPs and other civil servants were eligible to receive, even if they only did the job for a short period of time.
After much protesting and an October 2013 ruling by the Federal Supreme Court that the pension law was unjust, a special task force was formed to come up with a new law, the Unified Retirement Law. This was done and there were certainly some changes in the new law that would benefit ordinary Iraqis. However the law still contained some problematic clauses which caused further protesting and debate. Despite this, Parliament passed the new retirement law intact on February 3 – even though many MPs said they didn’t support it when they clearly voted for it.
Article 37 has been especially controversial because, despite promises to change the law, this clause gives government officials special dispensation that will, most likely, mean they still get what – in average Iraqi terms – are hefty pension payouts. As website Al Monitor wrote earlier this month: “All in all, the law is fair for the majority of the Iraqi people. That doesn’t mean condoning the law’s unfair clauses.”
And it seems that the locals in Baghdad are far from condoning the “unfair clauses”. But civil society activists and even ordinary Iraqis are getting desperate. Serious political debate doesn’t seem to be getting them anywhere. Which is why they’ve found a new way of expressing their anger and disillusionment: with satire.
“The politicians in this country ignore the opinions on the Iraqi street,” one of the campaign’s organizers, Diaa al-Shammari, told NIQASH. “When we speak to them seriously, they reply with trivial statements that show how cynical they are about the Iraqi people. That’s why we have decided to respond to their cynicism with our sarcasm.”
It’s just one, small way of making a difference and expressing all the anger that the Iraqi people feel, al-Shammari adds.
Baghdad local, Jabar Sahm al-Sudani, often comes to Mutanabi Street, a thoroughfare legendary for its booksellers and as a place where local intellectuals discuss current affairs and philosophy. Al-Sudani is a pensioner and he laughs when he sees the campaign’s humorous banners; he even donated IQD250 (around 20 US cents) to the campaign.
“This is much better than shouting and screaming,” al-Sudani said loudly.
The campaign to “help the Iraqi MPs” was the brainchild of a group of older Iraqis, most of them retired, who often meet on Mutanabi Street. They decided to donate all the small change in their pockets to the MPs’ campaign because, they say, “now we have proof that the MPs are emptying the Iraqi people’s pockets of everything”.
“We can tell them they’ve left us with nothing,” one of the other organizers, Ali Abed, told NIQASH. “Basically we’re doing this because MPs just don’t; care about the ordinary people at all. On Friday,” he added happily, “we’re going to collect old shoes and clothes so we can donate these to the poor parliamentarians too.”
The organizers believe that Iraqis have learned this method of satirical protest from things they have seen happening in other countries – for instance the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US which has made fun of big business in that country.
Writer and journalist, Hadi Jalo Marei, who is also the chairman of the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, a Baghdad-based media rights organization, was also there. Marei thinks the use of satire in this case is an expression of the ordinary people’s frustrations.
“These campaigns might have some impact on the government,” Marei speculated. “But I don’t imagine they’ll bring about any radical solutions to the country’s problems. They do help people express their frustrations though and give them some hope.”
“The politicians have been very deceitful and they’ve passed a law in a very rude way,” another well known journalist Mazen al-Zaidi said. “This is the people’s way of showing how dissatisfied they are with their politicians’ performance.”
Al-Zaidi added that he hoped campaigns like this might lift protestors’ spirits and make everyone else more aware of the problems in Baghdad’s Parliament, so they could vote for better options in the upcoming general elections. .
A lot of people donated money to the campaign for Iraq’s MPs. But one of the passers-by wanted to do a little more: he attached an IQD 1,000 bank note to one of the banners. It was his way of expressing the anger and suffering of the many ordinary Iraqis whose government never seems to get anything done for them, only for themselves.