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The Takeaway: Sunni ‘awakening’ is a big story from Iraq’s elections

Also: Press freedom under threat in Tunisia; Sisi backs Saied emergency measures; Palestinian video game banned in Israel; Syrian opposition considers merger in Idlib; Egypt praised for restoring Jewish synagogue; all in less than 1,300 words!
Employees of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission conduct a manual count of votes following the parliamentary elections in Baghdad's Green Zone area on Oct. 13, 2021.

Hot Take: Iraq’s Sunnis stake their claim


Iraq’s election surprise. Iraqis went to the polls on Oct. 10 to elect the 329 members of the Council of Representatives (parliament). One of the big headlines from the election has been the gains for the Iraqi Sunni community, which make up about 22%, or approximately 9 million, of Iraq’s estimated 40 million population. Thirteen years after the United States deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, an Arab Sunni, Iraq’s Sunnis are finally positioned to take their claim to Iraq’s political future.

The first awakening. Following Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, Iraq’s Sunnis mostly abstained from politics and suffered at times under the sectarian post-Saddam governments, as well as attacks by rogue Shiite sectarian militias. A sense of disenfranchisement among Sunnis was compounded by a "de-Baathification" movement which uprooted many professional and educated Sunnis from their jobs, as well as from leadership positions in the military, which was disbanded by US decree. By 2007, Iraq was reeling from sectarian violence and Al-Qaeda terrorism. To quell the violence, US President George W. Bush added 20,000 forces to the over 130,000 US troops already in Iraq. Key to the strategy for stemming the violence were the Iraqi Arab Sunni forces who fought alongside the US, a trend referred to as the Sunni "awakening" or the "Sons of Iraq."

A second awakening. The elections this week showed that the Sunnis are emerging as a more cohesive political force. Mohammad Halbousi, the Sunni speaker of parliament and leader of the Taqadom (Progress) Party, has received, according to the latest tally, 37 seats, second only to the Sadrists, led by populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which so far has 72 seats (these numbers could change). Taqadom received only six seats in the 2018 elections. If Halbousi can unite with his Sunni political rival, Khamis al-Kanjar, leader of the Azem (Arab Project) Party, which received 12 seats, then Iraq's Sunnis could control as many as 50 of the 329 seats. 

Here is the latest tally (subject to change):

  • 72 -Sadrist Coalition
  • 37 -Taqadom 
  • 35 -State of Law (Party of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki)
  • 33 -Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani
  • 21 -Fatah – ‘Conquest Alliance’ linked to Popular Mobilization Units with links to Iran
  • 16 Patriotic Union of Kurdistan 
  • 12 Azem - Khanjar
  • 37 Independents - Mix
  • 66 Other smaller parties

What it means. The Iraq High Electoral Commission will certify the final results within two weeks. Then the politicking begins. Top posts are assigned within communities. The key posts are president (reserved for a Kurd, currently held by Barham Salih), prime minister (reserved for a Shiite, currently held by Mustafa al-Kadhimi), and speaker of the parliament (reserved for an Arab Sunni, held by Halbousi). Halbousi’s strong performance has him well-placed to return as speaker.

Read more: Shelly Kittleson provides unmatched reporting from Iraq on the social, political, and security trends in Iraq’s Sunni communities, including this piece on the Halbousi-Kanjar campaign. Also check out the latest from Iraq by Mustafa Sadoun and Ali Mamouri, and our podcast this week with Ken Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute.  


From our regional correspondents:


1. Press freedom under threat in Tunisia 

Tunisia’s journalist union is warning that press freedoms are eroding in the turbulent North African country amid a heightened campaign of arrests and prosecutions. Earlier this month, the Tunisian judiciary sentenced four people to prison, including a female journalist, on spying charges. Mohamed Ali Ltifi explains that most of the targeted journalists and activists are opposed to Tunisian President Kais Saied, who in July sacked the Cabinet and suspended parliament in a move his critics called a coup. But as the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists has documented, press freedom was on the decline well before Saied’s announcement. In what the journalists’ union said was a three-year high, more than 200 Tunisian journalists were attacked from May 2020 to April 2021. 


2. Sisi backs Saied’s seizure of power 

In a phone call last week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Saied that Saied's recent actions, including suspending Parliament, “will bring about stability.” Enhada, Tunisia’s largest political party, is considered an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt. Our correspondent in Egypt notes that Egypt was the first country inspired by Tunisia’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011, and “now Tunisia seems to be learning a lesson from Egypt in combating political Islam.”


3. Palestinian video game sparks controversy  

A popular new video game that lets users play as a Palestinian fighter from the Gaza Strip has angered some Israelis who say the game encourages the killing of Jews. Following a request from Israel’s justice minister, YouTube made the game unavailable in Israel. The makers of “Fursan al-Aqsa: The Knights of the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” point out that the on-screen fighter only attacks Israeli military positions, not civilians. Mai Abu Hasaneen spoke with the game’s creator, Nidal Nijm, a 37-year-old Brazilian of Palestinian origin. Nijm said he hopes the game can combat a common video game cliche that often portrays Arabs and Muslims as terrorists.


4. Will Syria’s opposition forces merge in Idlib?

Speculation is heating up in Syrian opposition media outlets that the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) will merge with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the US-designated terrorist organization that controls Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. Last month, the commander of the SNA-affiliated Sultan Suleiman Shah Division said he was ready to reach an understanding with the powerful jihadist group. An HTS leader, meanwhile, told Sultan al-Kanj that his group “is getting closer to the SNA factions, and there is high-level coordination between the two parties in all military and security fields.” Despite the apparent thaw, an SNA leader in Idlib cautioned that any potential merger will take time. 


5. Syrian opposition leader visits DC, warns against US withdrawal

Salem al-Meslet, president of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group, was in Washington last week. During an interview with Elizabeth Hagedorn, Meslet said that recent Biden administration sanctions on hardline SNA faction Ahrar al-Shariqa have “created a model for other groups to stay in line” and said his coalition supports any effort to investigate potential human rights violations. He also warned that a pullout of US troops from Syria would enable the Syrian government and its backers, saying a “withdrawal from Syria today or in the near future would mean we’re back to square one.”


One Cool Thing: Egypt’s award-winning synagogue restoration


Egypt is being praised for its recent restoration of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Engineering News-Record, a US-based construction magazine, recently gave the North African country its top renovation award to commend a three-year-long restoration of Egypt's oldest synagogue. The two-story Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, which reopened to the public in January 2020, is seen as a point of pride among a tiny Egyptian Jewish community nearing extinction. George Mikhail reports on how Egypt is using the newly renovated synagogue and other Jewish sites to promote tourism. 


What We’re Reading: Tunisia’s shaky economic future


Tunisia’s economic outlook “remains highly uncertain,” the World Bank says. The bank attributes the sluggish economy and mounting public debt to both the coronavirus pandemic’s escalation in mid-2021 and recent political events. The volatile situation has drawn comparisons to Lebanon, where political gridlock contributed to the country’s economic collapse. Read the World Bank’s latest outlook for Tunisia here. 


What We’re Listening To: How Israel became a cyber leader


Ben Caspit interviews Eviatar Matania, a professor at Tel Aviv University who helped develop Israel’s cyber capabilities. “Israel is a real player, not just per capita, but in absolute numbers,” Matania says. Some figures to drive home his point: Israel attracts over 30 percent of global cyber investments, and an estimated one-third of all unicorn startups belong to Israelis. For more on what makes Israel a cyber leader, listen to Caspit’s podcast here. 

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