BY CLINTON DICK
Four Harvard Law School students participated in a video conference on Tuesday with four students at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. The 90-minute session, which took place in Morgan Courtroom in Austin Hall, focused on issues of post-war reconstruction in Iraq. The dialogue progressed with each side posing questions that the other attempted to answer, with some on both sides offering perspectives that were as distant as the actual physical gulf that was temporarily bridged by technology.
“It is amazing this is happening,” said Dr. Amr Shalakany from the classroom at AUC, “Hopefully this will be a great conversation and we will realize we share more than we [actually think],” Shalakany took no real part in the discussion, leaving the substantive issues to be worked out by the students.
Prof. Henry Steiner, who served a similar role at HLS, said something similar, adding in his jovial style that “this may launch TV careers.” Human Rights Program Assistant Anne Dwojeski said the idea for this style of exchange “arose last spring when Prof. Henry Steiner served as a visiting professor at AUC” and that “HRP hopes to develop a regular series of exchanges with students at universities throughout the world on major issues in human rights and international law.”
After a brief introduction of the eight students, which revealed impressive backgrounds in international studies as well as actual experiences working and living in war-torn regions, the students immediately started posing questions.
Nema Milaninia, an AUC student who was born in Iran but was raised in the United States, asked her HLS counterparts to describe “what you would like to see versus what you think will actually happen [in Iraq].”
One-L Kaveh Shahrooz, who was also born in Iran and has memories of the Iran-Iraq war, responded, “I think everyone would like to see a democratic Iraq. I don’t think anyone would like to see the occupation continue for longer than it needs to.” Additionally, he said that ethnic and women rights must be respected. “I don’t know if we are on [that path currently],” he conceded.
Three-L Tanya Monforte agreed, saying “We need to leave the place better off than we found it.”
Jasmine Moussa, who was born in Ireland and currently attends AUC, picked up on both Monforte’s and Shahrooz’s points. “In the short [term] we have to deal with the security situation and then we can deal with political stability,” she said. “When you talk about having democracy in Iraq . . . you have the perception in the Arab world that what the U.S. wants” is a government that will “kiss and make up with Israel” and will provide the U.S. with bases in the Middle East.
“To what extent is that in conformity with democracy in Iraq?” Moussa asked.
Mohammed Helal, who graduated from AUC, phrased Moussa’s question differently. “What kind of democracy are we really talking about?” he asked. “I would rather see a stable Iraq than a democratic Iraq. . . . If you have a civil war in Iraq this will open the gates of Hell in the Middle East” in that the fighting could carry over into other countries.
Other students had similar concerns, especially if the current uprising by Shiites spreads from the extremists groups loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr to the moderate groups. Three-L Donovan Rinker-Morris worried that Iraq will turn into Lebanon, where, after the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982, and though at first some residents preferred the Israeli army as opposed to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the situation soon turned explosive. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, though fighting still continues between Israel and Hezbollah over the disputed Shebaa Farms, which are still retained by Israel.
“My biggest fear is Iraq turns into the situation in Lebanon,” Rinker-Morris said. “I’m dramatically afraid that is what U.S. policy will lead to.”
He took issue with Helal’s comments that stability more than democracy is what the Iraqi people need. He said, “I’m not sure an Iraq without democratic [representation will lead to stability]. The tradition in Iraq has been to set up a king [or an authoritarian leader] and that approach has not worked particularly well.”
Regardless of the ultimate composition of an Iraqi government, Heba Fatma Morajef said “it can’t be underestimated for this region . . . how occupation is this great evil and” it channels how the U.S. is seen in the region. “Some role for the international community” must be implemented, he continued, “before the rest of the region can view the regime there as legitimate.”
Most of those involved agreed, but even more important seemed how to institutionalize a civil society and democratic government in a country not used to either. Three-L Owen Alterman voiced his thoughts: There are two major things that can be done, he began. “[Institute] a real freedom of the press, and I believe the U.S. has done a good job on this.” Alterman pointed to the proliferation of newspapers after the occupation and the sales of satellite dishes, which allows Iraqis to watch outside news networks. “Of course they closed al-Sadr’s newspaper and they seemed like a terrible mistake,” he continued. Second, attempt to create a civil society.
“At the end of the day it really is going to be up to the people of Iraq to decide and we will have to see how that goes.”