Thursday, June 17, 2010

number of elected representatives of mideast origin increases in britain


Mixed results in the British general and local elections for candidates of Middle Eastern origin
by
Susannah Tarbush
[original of article that appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat 17 June 2010]

When the first weekly “questions to the prime minister” session of the new British parliament was held in the House of Commons on 2 June, among the few MPs chosen to ask a question was the new Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, Nadhim Zahawi [pictured top].

Zahawi (43), who was born in Iraq in 1967, made history in the general election of May 6 by becoming the first person born in an Arab League country, and the first Kurd, to be elected as an MP.

Zahawi asked the new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron: “Was the prime minister surprised that so many people in the public sector earn more than he does?”

Zahawi was referring to the new coalition government’s publication of public sector salaries, as part of its policy of transparency. The figures showed that as many as 172 top civil servants each earns more, in some cases much more, than the £ 142,000 annual salary of the Prime Minister.

Cameron replied that the publication of the figures is good for democracy and accountability and will help to control public spending. “There will be pressure to keep top pay levels down,” Cameron said. He added it is possible that the new government will restrict the salary of those at the top of a public sector organisation to a multiple of no more than 20 times as much as the salary of those at the bottom of the organisation.

Zahawi’s constituency of Stratford-upon-Avon is the English town in which the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare was born in 1564. The seat is a safe Conservative seat, and the Conservative share of the vote rose in the election to 51.6 per cent, from 49.2 per cent in the 2005 election.

Before the election, Zahawi was best known as the co-founder in 2000 of the highly successful market research and opinion poll company YouGov in 2000, whose operations now extend from Britain to Middle East, Scandinavia, Central Europe and the USA.

Zahawi was one of a number of candidates with roots in the Middle East or North Africa who stood in the general elections of May 6 or in the local elections held on the same day in London and many other places in England.

One of the Arab candidates who was elected as a councillor in the local elections, Algerian Mouna Hamitouche, has since then been elected by her fellow councillors to serve as the Mayor of the North London borough of Islington for 2010/11. She is the first Arab woman, and the first Algerian, to be a mayor in the UK.

“Being the first Arab woman to hold the office of Councillor and now Mayor makes me hugely proud of the values we hold here in the UK for tolerance, respect and equality,” Hamitouche [pictured in her mayoral robes] told Al-Hayat.

Hamitouche first became a councillor in the 2006 local elections when she was elected for Labour in the Barnsbury “ward” (ie electoral district) in the borough of Islington. At that time she had the distinction of being the first Algerian, and the first Arab woman, to be elected as a councillor in the UK.

Several candidates with roots in an Arab League member country stood as parliamentary candidates in the general election. They included Labour politician Mark Hendrick (52), who was re-elected as Labour MP for the northern English constituency of Preston. Hendrick, who was born in northern England, is half-Somali and served as a member of the European Parliament before first being elected for Preston in a by-election in 2000.

Beirut-born Bassam Mahfouz (30), who stood for Labour in the newly-created West London constituency of Ealing Central and Acton, had a good chance of being elected as an MP. The constituency was regarded as one of the closest three-way marginals in the country, in which the three main parties were very close. After a vigorous election campaign he was in the end beaten into second place by the Conservative candidate Angie Bray. She got 38 per cent of the vote, while Mahfouz got 30.1 per cent, pushing the Liberal Democrat candidate John Ball into third place.

Bassam’s journalist father Hafez Mahfouz is originally from the town of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon. The family moved to London when Bassam was four years old and he joined the Labour Party at the age of 17. He has for a number of years been a councillor on the council of the borough of Ealing.

As well as standing in the general election on May 6 Mahfouz [pictured] stood in the local elections, and was re-elected as a councillor in the Northolt West End ward of Ealing. Labour did well in the local elections in Ealing, and seized control of the council from the Conservatives. Mahfouz is now a member of the Ealing Council Cabinet, in which he has responsibility for Transport and Environment.

Two women with Arab roots stood as parliamentary candidates for the Liberal Democrats. Anood Al-Samerai , the daughter of an Iraqi father and British mother, stood for the party in the constituency of Ilford South in north-east London which is traditionally a safe Labour seat. Al-Samerai came third, but she also stood in the local elections in which she was
re-elected as a councillor in the Riverside ward of Southwark, where she has already been a councillor for some years. More than that, Al-Samerai was chosen as leader of the Liberal Democrats group of 25 councillors on Southwark council.

Layla Moran [pictured], the daughter of a Palestinian mother and English father, stood for the Liberal Democrats in Battersea, London, at the age of only 27. Like Al-Samerai, she came third.

Even though Mahfouz, Al-Samerai and Moran were not elected, it is encouraging that young British Arabs are now being selected as parliamentary candidates for the main British political parties. Their experience gained through being candidates will be invaluable to their political futures – and it should anyway be remembered many of the biggest names in British politics lost in at least one general election early in their parliamentary careers.

In the local elections, there was a marked increase in the number of elected councillors with roots in Arab League countries, even if the number is still modest. Most of the Arab candidates in the local elections stood for Labour, although there were some exceptions.

In contrast to its performance in the general election, Labour did well in the local elections in London, increasing the number of boroughs it controls by eight, to a total of 17 boroughs. The Conservatives control 11 boroughs and the Liberal Democrats two, while two boroughs are not under the control of any one party.

The chairman and founder of the British Arabs Association [Rabita Al-Arab Al-Britianiyeen] Atallah Said [pictured], who was born in Palestine in 1947, was for the first time elected as a Labour councillor in the May 6 elections, in the East Actor ward of Ealing. He notes that Ealing Council now has three Arab councillors, all of them from Labour – him, Bassam Mahfouz, and the Somali councillor Abdullah Ahmed Gulaid who represents Acton Central ward.

Atallah joined the Labour Party in 1997 and in 2000 founded the Arab Labour Group. Despite the defeat of the Labour government in the general election, Atallah remains an optimist about the party’s future, and declares: “Well be back!”

He chairs the Arab Labour Group, and Mahfouz is the secretary. The vice chairman is Abdessalem El Idrissi El Amrani (known as “Skip Amrani”) who is of Moroccan origin and who was elected on May 6 as a Labour councillor in Catford South ward of the borough of Lewisham in south-east London. El-Amrani is the director of trade services at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce. He first served as a councillor from 1998, but lost his seat in the 2006 local elections.

Last year Atallah founded the British Arabs Association as “a forum for British Arabs to promote integration and promote domestic issues which are of wide concern to the community.” The Association was launched at a reception [pictured] at which the guest of honour was the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband.


The British Arabs Association is to hold a reception on 8 July to celebrate its first anniversary, at which Miliband, who is now the front runner in the contest to become new Labour leader, will again be the main guest. The other guests will include Arab councillors elected last month.

Among the new Arab councillors is energetic Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Gharib Abdel-Hamid, who is thought to Britain’s first-ever Egyptian councillor. He was elected for Labour in the Church Street ward of the borough of Westminster. The Church Street ward is located around Edgware Road, the street in central London famed for its many Arab restaurants, cafes, newspaper shops, apartments and small businesses.

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 gives legal and other services to the local community, whether Arabic speaking or not.

At least seven Somalis have been elected as councillors. The upheavals in Somalia have led to a large influx of Somalis into Britain in recent years, many of them as refugees. It is striking that they are keen to participate in local politics, and it was estimated that around 17 Somali candidates stood in the latest local elections.

The newly-elected Somalis almost all stood for Labour in London boroughs. As well as Abdullah Ahmed Gulaid in Ealing, they include Abdifatah Aden in the borough of Brent, Adbul Mohamed in Southwark and Ahmed Adam Omer in Tower Hamlets. Outside London, Asad Osman is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Ardwick ward, Manchester.

Awale Olad [pictured below] has been elected as a Labour councillor in the Holborn and Covent Garden ward of the borough of Camden at the age of only 25. Born in Mogadishu, he came to England in 1992 at the age of seven. He lives in Holborn, where he went to a local school.

Camden is an area of high Somali concentration. Olad estimates there are between 4,000 and 6,000 Somalis in Camden, although “you can never be sure without a proper census” , of whom 2.500 are registered to vote.

But Olad makes it clear that he wants to help all communities in his ward, and not particularly the Somali one. For example he is currently a volunteer football coach to the 8th Holborn Scouts. “Not a single Somali in sight – but I hope to inspire the kids who turn up every Thursday evening to be good citizens, show kindness, respect, and give up their free time for charitable causes. Charity is very important for me.”

He has been chairman of the Somali Youth Development Resource Centre which started in 2000, and for which he first started to do volunteer work with young people after he had finished university.

A major reason he has always supported Labour is the benefits it has provided to those who are less well off. This includes the Education Maintenance Allowance “which took huge financial burdens off my mother and helped me greatly at school. It may have even saved my education.” He says the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would not dream of giving such incentives.

He joined the Labour Party in 2005 but did not become a party activist until after the 2006 local elections when Labour lost control of Camden Council to a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition which “deployed the worst assault on public services, housing, education and the third sector [ie non- governmental organisations], that this borough has ever seen. It mobilised me – it made me want to stand up and fight back – it made me a Labour councillor. And their temporary stewardship came to a swift end.” (Labour regained control of the council in the May elections).

Asked about the fact that there are now at least seven Somali councillors in Britain, and about the apparent keenness of Somalis to get involved in British politics, Olad says:
“I never stood to just be part of a small contingent of Somali councillors. I stood because I felt the injustice locally and wanted to fight for what I believe in. But if seven councillors of Somali origin will inspire the Somali community to engage with local and national politics, even though I sincerely do believe that Somalis, like other communities, are politically active and aware of current affairs; then that can only be a good thing. But do it for the right reasons – do it because you want to represent everyone and not just a minority of people, and have a vision.”

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