Monday, April 26, 2010

british arabs and the 6 may general and local elections

Arab engagement in the British general and local elections
Susannah Tarbush
[Arabic version published in Al-Hayat on 26 April 2010]

Despite the growing presence of Arabs in Britain, their participation within the mainstream political system, whether as activists or candidates, has not been very apparent.

Now, in the general election to be held on 6 May, there is the very real prospect that for the first time ever a candidate of Arab origin will be elected as an MP in the British Parliament. He is 30-year-old Bassam Mahfouz [pictured above], who is standing as the Labour candidate for the West London seat of Ealing Central and Acton.

Mahfouz says that if he is elected he will help integrate Lebanese and other Arabs in Britain into political life. He wants “to ensure that an Arab voice is heard in the British Parliament.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Al-Hayat: “Year by year British Arabs are getting more involved, more committed and above all more influential in British politics. It is a slow process but having Arab candidates such as Bassam Mahfouz in winnable seats is terrific.

Doyle adds: “CAABU will be aiming to build on this and remind all our British Arab friends that they too could do this and make a difference. The talent is there. We just have to make it count.”

Al-Hayat recently highlighted (in an article of 30 March) the fact that Iraqi-born Kurdish businessman Nadhim Zahawi is almost certain to be elected as the Conservative MP for the English town of Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace of playwright William Shakespeare.

Another candidate of Iraqi origin standing in the general election is Anood al-Samerai [pictured], who is the Liberal Democrat candidate in the constituency of Ilford South in north-east London. Al-Samerai lived in Kuwait until the age of 10 with her British mother and Iraqi father, then moved to London as a result of the first Gulf war of 1991.

Al-Samerai has served as an elected councillor in the London Borough of Southwark, and since 2004 she has managed the constituency office of the Liberal Democrat MP, Simon Hughes.

It is probable that Ilford South will be retained for Labour by Mike Gapes, who has been the Labour MP there since 1992. In the 2005 general election he was re-elected with a nearly 50 per cent share of the vote. The Liberal Democrats were in third place with only a fifth of the votes.

The Liberal Democrat Party was the only one of the main three parties to vote against the invasion of Iraq. Its policy on this and on the Israel-Palestine conflict is in tune with many Arab and other voters.

The Liberal Democrat Party is usually some way behind the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, in general elections results, but it is of increased importance in this election given that it is probable that there will be a “hung parliament” with no one party having the overall majority. The party’s position in opinion polls soared after the excellent performance of its leader Nick Clegg in the first-ever televised debate between the three main party leaders.

There is little accurate information about the Arabs in Britain, which is one reason they are relatively “invisible”. There has been much government emphasis on encouraging the engagement of British Muslims in mainstream politics since, and the Arab identity tends to be submerged within this larger category.

Obviously the overall category “British Muslim” does include many of Arab origin. But the Arabs have an identity distinct from the bulk of British Muslims. By far the majority of British Muslims come from the Indian sub-continent countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. There are cultural and social differences between them and the Arabs. British Arabs tend to be secular minded, and there are many Christians among them.

Since 1997 four Muslim MPs have been elected, none of them of Arab origin. And from 1998 several Muslims have been appointed to the House of Lords – but there is still no Arab Lord in the House.

Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi [pictured] , the co-founder and chairman of London-based Arab Media Watch, thinks Arab political participation will improve after the 2011 census when for the first time the census questionnaire’s section on ethnicity will include the category “Arab” as a choice. Previously, Arabs were included only within the broad term of “Other”.

The 2011 census “will help greatly in terms of community development” Nashashibi says. He points out that there is much uncertainty over the number of Arabs in Britain: some estimates put the figure at half a million while other estimates are considerably higher.

The census will make it possible for the first time to have a picture of the number and distribution of Arabs in parliamentary constituencies, and in boroughs. This will aid in the targeting of Arab voters, and in their voting choices, giving them greater voting power.

Despite the apparent lack of Arab participation in the mainstream political process, in reality a growing number of British Arabs have become active in local democracy, campaigning for parties and standing as candidates.

One pioneer of Arab involvement in British local democracy is the Palestinian-Armenian businessman Ghassan Karian, who in 2002 became the first Arab in Britain to be elected as a mayor.
Born in Beirut, Karian came to London at the age of eight. His father, the well-known cartoonist George Karian, had been the cartoonist of Al-Hayat newspaper in Beirut, and in London George worked for Ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

Ghassan Karian was first elected as a Labour councillor in the West London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham in 1994, at the age of only 21, and he served as a councillor for 12 years. In 2002 his fellow councillors elected him as mayor of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Karian recognises that there is some overlap between the Arabs and Muslim communities, but says “there is a distinctive Arab voice that needs to be heard”.

On 6 May, the day of the general election, local elections will be held for councils in the 32 boroughs of London, and in some other parts of Britain. Each London borough is divided into areas called “wards”, and each ward elects three councillors to represent it on the borough council.

The Arab candidates include Atallah Said [pictured] who was born in Palestine in 1947 and grew up in Beirut and Qatar. He is standing as a Labour candidate in the ward of East Acton in the Borough of Ealing. There is clearly a big potential Arab vote in Ealing, and Said thinks there may be as many as 3,000 Arabs in his ward alone. But he says the problem is to get Arabs to actually go and vote. He stood in the 2006 local elections, and lost by only 50 votes.

Said joined the Labour Party in 1997, and in 2000 founded the Arab Labour Group in 2000, and is also the founder of the British Arabs Association which was launched in May last year at a reception attended by Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

The British Arabs Association recently held a reception in the Priory Community Centre in Acton attended by more than 200 people including Bassam Mahfouz and some of the Arab candidates in the local elections, as well as Arab ambassadors, and Andrew Slaughter, the outgoing Labour MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush. Slaughter is now standing for the Hammersmith seat.

The Colville ward of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in West London includes part of Portobello Road with its famous street market, and is near the largest Moroccan community in Britain. The ward’s three Labour candidates [pictured] include Amir Akrif, whose father is originally from Algeria but moved to Morocco during the war of independence before coming to Britain.

Akhrif studied at the London School of Economics, and worked for several years for the outgoing local Labour MP Karen Buck. He is the trustee on two youth charities in the area, and says his main political interests are housing, child deprivation and education.

The other two Labour candidates are Beinazir Lasharie and Dez O’Neill. Beinazir’s father Mushtaq was a supporter of the former Pakistani president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and named his daughter after Bhutto’s daughter Benazir.

Akhrif is not the only candidate of Algerian origin to be standing in Colville ward. Samia Bentayeb [pictured with fellow candidates], who has lived in the UK for 17 years, is among the three Conservative candidates. While deeply involved in work with the local community, Bentayeb keeps closely in touch with her Algerian roots for example advising British companies visiting Algeria. She has also written a book on Algeria.

It is still so unusual for a Briton originally from an Arab country to be elected as a councillor that when they succeed this becomes news. This was the case when in 2006 Mouna Hamitouche became the first Algerian-born person to be elected as a councillor in the UK. She was elected as a Labour councillor in the north London borough of Islington, and is hoping to keep her seat in the forthcoming election. When Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika visited Britain in June 2006, Hamitouche was invited to meet him at the House of Commons, in recognition of her achievement in being elected. [picture shows Hamitouche with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his wife Sarah, and the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, Emily Thornberry].

Several Britons of Moroccan origin are standing in the local elections. Abdeslam El Idrissi El Amrani is standing for Labour in the ward of Catford South in the borough of Lewisham in south-east London. El Amrani has since 1983 been the director of trade services at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce

Amrani joined the Labour Party in 1994, attracted by the ideas of New Labour under its then new leader Tony Blair. He served as a councillor in Lewisham from 1998 to 2006, when he lost his seat. He has been active in Labour politics in numerous ways, having been for example the treasurer of the local party, and was once shortlisted as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Kensington and Chelsea.

Another Labour candidate of Moroccan background is Aicha Less, who joined the Labour Party 14 years ago. She is standing in the Little Venice ward of the borough of Westminster, a ward which is part of London’s Arab area around Edgware Road. Less was born in London and grew up in the Little Venice area. Her Arabic language is particularly useful to her in communicating with the area’s many Arab and Kurdish residents.

Another Moroccan, Fatima Mourad, is standing for the Conservatives in the Westminster Borough ward of Church Street around Edgware Road. Until recently Mourad was a Labour voter but she says she is “now proud to call myself a Conservative”.

There is much social deprivation and problems of drug abuse and prostitution in the area. Mourad works for Al-Hasaninya, a support group for Moroccan women and says: “Young mums tell me they can’t afford to work because, after tax, they will take home less than their [social security] benefits.” She asserts that “life for many of the poorest in Westminster North has got worse over the last 13 years of Labour Government.”

The candidates standing against Mourad include Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Gharib Abdel-Hamid, a candidate for Labour. Abdel-Hamid has lived in Britain since 1973 and is the founder and chair of the Anglo Egyptian Society, a charity based in Harrow Road which provides legal and other services to the Arabic-speaking community and others.

The Somalis in Britain are a fast growing group, and are said to be Britain’s largest refugee community. Somali community leaders are making efforts to integrate the community in British society and politics. Abdiwali Mohamud joined the Liberal Democrats ten years ago and is standing for the party in the Kentish Town ward of the borough of Camden in central and north London.

Asked why he chose the Liberal Democrats, he declares: “I am Somali, I am Arab, I am a Muslim – so I cannot be Labour, as I am against the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.” He adds: “I believe in the politics of liberalism and am a staunch believer in human rights.” He sees things the Liberal Democrats as upholding values that “have been eroded in new Labour.”

Mohamud says 17 Somali candidates are standing in the local elections. Eight of them met recently in the studios of the Somali TV channel Universal TV for a televised discussion with an audience

The Somali candidates include Awale Olad, the former chair of Somali Youth Development and Resource Centre (SYDRC) who is standing for Labour in the in Holborn and Covent Garden ward of Camden. In the impoverished borough of Tower Hamlets in East London, where many Somalis live, Somali woman Asha Affi is standing for the Respect Party in East India and Lansbury ward.

Bassam Mahfouz
Will Bassam Mahfouz [pictured below at a recent meeting of candidates organised by West London Palestine Solidarity Campaign] succeed in the 6 May general election in becoming the first-ever Briton of Arab origin to win a seat in the British parliament? The answer partly depends on whether, and how, the many Lebanese, Arab and Muslim voters in his constituency of Ealing Central and Acton in West London use their vote.

The seat is one of the closest “three way marginals” in Britain, in which the three main parties are almost equal in support. This makes it all the more important for those Lebanese, Arab and other voters who support Mahfouz to make the effort to go and vote.

Bassam has lived in Ealing for 25 years. His father Hafez Mahfouz, who originates from Marjayoun, is the managing editor of Al-Hawadess magazine. His late mother Enaam, who passed away from cancer five years ago, was a teacher of English and Arabic who opened her own Saturday school in West London.

Mahfouz spent his earliest years in Kuwait, where his father worked for Dar Assayed. The family came to live in London when he was four. He is married and has a baby son, Alexander.

Mahfouz was interested in politics from a young age, and it was the desire to help people and make a difference that led him to join the Labour Party at the age of only 17. He became involved in local campaigns, while keeping an interest in national and international issues.
Three years ago, in competition with 50 other contestants, he was selected by the Labour Party as the official candidate for Ealing Central and Acton. His candidacy offers Arabs in Britain the first real opportunity to elect the first British MP of Arab origin, and Mahfouz says it “has enthused many who have previously disengaged in the political process to become involved.” Many young Arabs and Lebanese “have found out about my campaign and become encouraged to get involved.”

As a senior Ealing councillor Mahfouz has been heavily involved in local campaigns, and has served as the council’s Shadow Cabinet member for Environment, Climate Change & Transport. He has also been a strong advocate of the Lebanese and Arab cause, for example speaking out and meeting the then Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006.

He has also spoken out against the atrocities in Palestine, supporting the aims of, and speaking at meetings of, organisations such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU).

Mahfouz says: “Coming from Marjayoun, I know first hand what Israeli occupation means and that we as Arabs, a free and intelligent people, will never stand for such atrocities.”
He recalls: “Watching the massacre at Qana in 1996 had a profound effect on my wanting to get involved in politics to ensure I could do whatever was in my power to make sure history did not repeat itself. I joined the million other people who marched against going to war in Iraq.”

Mahfouz adds: “I see many Arabs are passionate about politics, mainly that of the Middle East, and become involved when they see injustice... we need to turn that into real political involvement, and as an Arab MP in Westminster I could act as a focal point to encourage further integration in Britain’s political system.”

Mahfouz knows that Arabs also have concerns about many local issues, and says: “When I speak to them about politics, it is often about the key issues at stake in the forthcoming election: securing the economic recovery, and supporting a good education and world-class national health system (NHS) for all, as well as tackling crime with more police on the streets.” In addition, “policies such as protecting our aid budget will mean a real difference to the people living in areas such as Palestine.”

Regarding the Lebanese he says: “Everywhere around the world, Lebanese are known for having great restaurants, and for being great businessmen and excellent doctors. We are highly integrated in society, but the passion we have for politics is one area into which we yet have to be integrated. I want to change that, and to ensure the Arab voice is heard in the British parliament.”

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