Business has never been so good for Iraq’s printers as the runup to the March 7 election, but the boom has its own headaches in a country short on printing presses and rife with religious sensitivities.
“In two weeks, I’ve pocketed what I would normally make in six months,” says Omar Hamid, owner of the Al-Sima printing press in central Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabi neighborhood.
“I’m very happy with democracy. If it were up to me, we would have elections every year,” the 31-year-old adds with a smile.
The parliamentary election is likely to generate around US$10 million for the country’s 500-odd printing press owners, including US$6 million for the 150 or so in Baghdad alone, printers say.
Demand has been so high since the campaign kicked off on Feb. 12 that Hamid has temporarily suspended printing calendars, books and office supplies, normally the mainstay of his business.
“I’ve been printing campaign materials for 50 candidates across the political spectrum,” he says.
It is a far cry from the last parliamentary elections, in 2005, when rampant sectarian violence meant taking on certain clients could jeopardise a printer’s safety.
Hamid recalls how he only printed campaign materials for Sunni candidates because Sunni armed groups controlled the neighborhood, a situation that was common at the time.
From 2005 to 2007, despite the US military presence, armed groups effectively ruled Baghdad and the capital’s historic center was in the hands of Sunni rebels and al-Qaeda. Those who disobeyed them faced almost certain death.
The country’s printers are now experiencing difficulties of another kind.
“I am under pressure because the candidates waited until the last minute,” Hamid says, almost shouting over the din of his printing presses. “They wanted to know their rank on their party list and be sure that they were not barred from running because of links to the Baath party.”
He was referring to a controversial decision by the Justice and Accountability Committee to bar 456 candidates with alleged links to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.
Close to Hamid’s printing shop, the Al-Qama graphic design firm is also hard at work. While large political parties have produced their own campaign posters, smaller groups and individual candidates often give the job to businesses like Al-Qama.
Aamer Ajami, who co-owns the company with his three brothers, says a candidate recently entered Al-Qama’s offices with nothing but a photograph and a pile of cash.
“He gave us carte blanche with just one request ... that we find photos of a school or a hospital and say on the posters that he built it,” says 31-year-old Ajami, who learned graphic design in Jordan.
That level of responsibility has led to problems.
A Shiite candidate, Sheikh Hussein Salman al-Maraabi, refused an Al-Qama delivery because it showed a woman dressed in black, as a sign of mourning, with her bare hands raised in the air.
“He said to us ‘We are Muslims, how dare you print pictures of women whose hands are not covered in gloves,’” Ajami says.
Sunni candidates, meanwhile, have their own concerns.
The National Concord Front forbids female candidates from publishing their photos, and Ajami’s younger brother Khaled says for one of them, Faiza Ahmed, he replaced her picture with that of a craggy-faced farmer.