â€śEvery morning I get up and thank God that he never made me an expert on the Middle East,â€ť a famous journalist once remarked to me. That was pretty much my view, too. As a journalist and later as a politician, I generally steered a wide circle around matters Middle Eastern for the very good reason that reform seemed a lost cause. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Arab spring have changed that.Â A narrow window has opened in countries with little or no living memory of democracy and which in most cases do not have properly functioning parliaments.Â For this reason I recently found myself on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea at a conference organised by Global Partners for MPs from Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Object of exercise: to share insights and experiences of parliament with particular reference to the standards expected of elected representatives and the level of service they should be expected to offer their constituents. The participants were for the most part sophisticated, capable politicians, whose skills would see them easily adapt to life in a well-established parliament such as Westminster, Ottawa or Paris, but alas a wide gulf separates those worlds. Iraqi MPs, with the notable exception of those from Kurdistan, are mainly confined to the so-called Green Zone, the heavily fortified administrative bloc in the centre of Baghdad.Â He or she can only venture out with armed bodyguards and even then the risks are high.Â Only recently an Iraqi MP attending a function outside the Green Zone was embraced by a stranger who sung Godâ€™s praises â€“ and then blew them both to smithereens.Â One cannot but admire people who put themselves up for election in these circumstances. Egypt remains in turmoil.Â Parliamentary elections are due in the coming months, but already there is talk of an opposition boycott.Â Â Citizens have unrealistic expectations of what they can expect from their MPs â€“ decades of pent up demands have suddenly been unleashed and one task of any elected representative will be to dampen expectations. And Jordan is trying to establish parliamentary democracy in a very tough neighbourhood.Â Syria, Iraq and Israel are its immediate neighbours. None of these countries have a long-term history of multi-party democracy or governments that can be held to account.Â The concept of a loyal opposition is unknown. All of which suggests that the learning curve will be steep, progress will be slow and there are likely to be disappointments along the way.Â Hopefully, however, a few seeds were sown which, in due course, may turn into green shoots. Chris Mullin is a former minister. He was a British member of parliament from 1987 to 2010Â Â Â
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â€śHabibi, can I smoke here?â€ť None of us knew the answer to the old womanâ€™s question. Unlike most of Western Europe, certain countries in the Middle East seem to positively encourage smoking indoors. We didnâ€™t know the view of Baghdad airport. One of us turned to an airport official, sitting idly outside one of the many single-room offices in the building to check. â€śItâ€™s illegal, but you can do it if youâ€™re discreet.â€ť The womanâ€™s family suggested she go and smoke in the toilet. She declined, but the conversation then turned to morality - not of whether it was right to break the rules, but whether smoking was morally acceptable. The general conclusion seemed to be that it was - and in that case the formal airport rules were largely irrelevant. Its this sort of logic that is informing much of Iraqi politics at the moment. In the absence of norms and precedents, the early years of any new democratic politics are always characterised by a fight over how the rules should be interpreted. Argument tends to revolve around whatâ€™s right, rather than by what the constitution says. With all sides claiming that their version of the truth is the definitive one. With no common agreement about what the Iraqi constitution means, Prime Minister, parliament and ministries have been engaged in a relentless series of tussles about the respective powers of their institutions in recent months. In parliament, Speaker Nujaifi is pushing parliamentâ€™s prerogatives to call ministers in to be questioned. Individual ministries are resisting. One committeeâ€™s attempt to conduct a ministerial hearing resulted in the minister storming out, telling the committee that he had come to tell them how to do their job, not to be asked questions. In May the Supreme Court weighed in, with a ruling that in order to question any minister, parliament needed evidence that the minister had breached the constitution. Turning the logic of parliamentary scrutiny on its head, the decision means that parliament is unable to ask ministers for information about their work - only to accuse them of constitutional violations once they have evidence. This battle widened during the spring into an attempt to remove Prime Minister Maliki, with opposition parties trying to find enough MPs to force a vote of no confidence. In retaliation, MPs loyal to the PM have sought to find ways of removing Speaker Nujaifi, and the Prime Minister has talked about forcing early elections. None of this seems likely to happen in the near future, but the political scuffles seems set to continue, with both sides trying to make life as difficult as possible for the other. Perhaps the most farcical skirmish in this battle came at the end of June when, apparently at Malikiâ€™s behest, the blast walls protecting parliament were removed, thus exposing the building to direct attack from the Red Zone. With impeccable timing this was one day before parliament was due to return after a monthâ€™s recess â€“ and attempt to unseat the PM. In the event, parliament had another three days off, much to the delight of many staff, before the walls were put back up - with the security measures around the parliament tighter than they were beforehand. Although the tone of politics may seem petty and counterproductive, there are significant political issues at stake. The way the constitution and parliamentary procedures are interpreted now, will shape how Iraqi politics works for some time to come. Once precedents are laid, they are very difficult to pull up. All sides realise the importance of determining how government works in practice. It is a battle over how power is exercised, and by whom. The process may be messy, but it is inevitable. All mature democracies went through similar phases, often over decades. One story from the US Congress in the nineteenth century describes how the Speaker was punched by one member, guns were drawn and the plenary session degenerated into a free-for-all brawl. By comparison with Western Europe and North America, Iraqâ€™s attempts to establish democratic processes are remarkably swift. Patterns will establish themselves, but until they do, argument is likely to be characterised by emotion and different views of whatâ€™s right, rather than rules. Back at the airport, a different official provides us with another metaphor for Iraqâ€™s politics. Asked why one passenger was being ushered to the front of the static and seemingly endless check-in queues, he responded with a blank look and drily stated, â€śAku Asbaab.â€ť That is, simply, â€śthere are reasonsâ€ť. Its difficult to argue with that sort of logic.