Linux in Iraq: Still a Wounded Country

A few months ago, we wrote a story about the newly formed Iraqi Linux Users Group, ILUG (http://www.iraqilug.org). Their goals were as far reaching as their spirit and optimism were high. After months of war and strife within their country, how has this band of open source warriors fared? We caught up with two of the members, Bassam Hassan and Ashraf Hasson, to talk to them about the current state of affairs in the country, what they’ve experienced in the past year, and what they’re looking to do and need in order to move on.


Note: the original article and follow up can be found in December’s edition of Plug In Magazine:

http://www.developershed.com/download.php?page=11&file=plugin/PIM_200412.pdf


1) What’s the overall status of the Iraqi software market now? How has it advanced in the past year?

Bassam: Iraq hasn’t had a software market in the formal sense in the past 20 years under the former [Hussein] regime. After the war things began to change — although slowly — and we witnessed the birth of a new era in Iraqi history.

Currently, the Iraqi software market depends almost entirely on the communication industry in both the public and private domains. The demand for both IT services and IT expertise has dramatically increased in the past year, especially in the field of telecommunication. Hitherto, however, the state of anarchy in Iraq is impeding the developmental process of this burgeoning market and prevents it from reaching a mature state. In any event, the advancements in the IT sector in the past year were almost exclusively in the communication domain in terms of establishing mobile phone services, ISPs, and networking consultations businesses in general.

Ashraf: This is a good question. The answer is directly related to how businessmen view software in their businesses. In terms of developing dedicated software that serves businesses in certain aspects, things haven’t reached far, and there has been hardly any advance, if any. Nevertheless, the private sector is aware of the lack of software benefits in their establishments and projects, so are mostly depending on the cracked software solutions. Only few companies and institutes, whether private or governmental, are seeking to license their software.

In terms of software firms, I have not heard of any software company that is creating solutions that are dedicated to certain tasks other than using and customizing ready-made packages to do the work. I would describe the overall status as slowly advancing.

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2) When we reported on this, new copyright laws were being put in place. Some feared that these would be DMCA-style regulations. How far along is that process and what have been some notable developments? (Have proprietary companies started to crack down on pirated software yet?)

Bassam: Yes, I heard these rumors myself. We took time to verify the information and we found that there are no such regulations in Iraq. From my experience, I can confidently state that such regulations won’t be in effect for another 15 years minimum, so there are no reasons for such fears in this regard.

Regarding the copyright laws issue, the copyright laws have been carefully designed and implemented, but not thoroughly enforced. It boils down to this: the governmental constitutions and agencies are currently obligated by the new Iraqi laws to comply with the stringent copyright regulations inside the governmental ministries and institutes. Unfortunately, proprietary software companies took advantage of this to create a monopoly-like lock on the software market. What is currently happening is that we are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for installing and maintaining proprietary software in the newly established governmental entities and ministries.

However, the hope is still present out there in the private sector which is constantly flourishing. Because of the fact that Iraqi population has used pirated software for decades, since this social phenomena is still present today, it’s almost impossible to find a person in Iraq who has used a computer and hasn’t used pirated software. Even we (the ILUG) use pirated software occasionally, not because we like to do it, but simply because we can’t afford to pay for proprietary software with such deteriorated economy and individual income. That is why we, as founders of the ILUG, are almost certain that the Iraqi population will find the concept of open source more acceptable when considering the current demands of the Iraqi software market.

I’m making this conclusion because people here are used to the idea of paying money for consultation and services like system installation, maintenance and upgrading, but not for the software itself. Iraqis will prefer open source because it’s free. (When I say free, I mean free of charge, not ‘free as in freedom’ like Richard Stallman is fond of saying.)

Ashraf: Proprietary companies are already ahead in the game as they have most (if not all) of their products floating the local market. Migrating a business from one layout to another is not something easy to work out, hence the DMCA-like regulations being a threat. But I think the government is not very focused on software law right now, instead focusing more on the main constitution itself, especially with the current events. Anyhow, I think wise people would choose Open Source when it comes down to it. A few rumors are floating around saying that the government is planning its own network infrastructure based on rigid systems like the Open Source ones. Nothing is certain yet, though.

3) Has there been any help from foreign military personnel in your efforts to spread the open source message?

Bassam: Yes, we got some help from few military personnel who supplied books and other educational resources to our group. They’ve also provided us with small contributions to help us get a constant Internet connection, which is extremely expensive here in Iraq. But frankly speaking, we anticipated much more assistance from many influencing and powerful military personnel who were mentoring and acknowledging our work and activities. Sadly, the security situation has been a major obstacle to their good will.

Ashraf: Yes, there have been some good intentions and help in certain areas where help was possible. Nevertheless, this couldn’t be done in public due to security reasons, and wasn’t continued, for the same reasons.

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4) What have been your biggest challenges in implementing Linux and open source-based solutions within the universities and government agencies? What about within the private sector?

Bassam: The biggest challenges were found in the process of convincing the management staff (namely the “decision makers”) about the effectiveness of implementing open source technologies in Iraqi universities and governmental agencies, especially considering the fact that most, if not all, are loyal Windows users.

Arranging for events like Linux seminars and install-fests was fairly demanding in terms of financial resources and manpower needed, and the indifference from the decision makers put a huge burden on our shoulders to put on these events, forcing us to use our own private financial resources to arrange for these events. This negatively affected on the extent and frequency of our activities.

Ashraf: Putting security aside, all challenges were equally big. Linux is a demanding system, but a very rewarding one too. Some challenges faced included: the language factor, old high school and university style curriculums that don’t involve computers, lack of computer and software awareness, power surges, limited resources and funding to backup our plans in spreading the Open Source…the list goes on.

5) Have US restrictions on cryptographic software had any effect in your efforts?

Bassam: No, as far as I know.

Ashraf: Luckily, since Linux and open source software is not restricted to the US, we were able to download some Linux distros and software, so that didn’t really affect our efforts.

6) As of now, have software costs played any sort of role in government decision making? To your knowledge, has the government started implementing Linux solutions yet?

Bassam: Costs contribute to a great extent in the government’s decision making, but this will vary according to whom you ask, and according to the time of the day. The governmental officials in the interim government didn’t approve any long term plans for the IT sector in this country so it’s more like peer to peer direct decentralized contact between the governmental officials and the companies’ representatives. I can say that the considerations for approving contracts and bids are questionable, and to some extent fishy.

As far as I know, Unix-like operating systems like Linux are nowadays utilized in the server side technologies in some but not all of the rehabilitation projects of the governmental entities. Microsoft has lock on most of these projects because of its reputation, and because of the familiarity of the currently existing technical staff with Microsoft technologies.

Ashraf: I don’t know how the government judges the way how it should seek software solutions, whether based on cost or efficiency or both. But it is certain that the government would like most if not all of its establishments and facilities to be independent enough to not be trapped in the proprietary spider net.

{mospagebreak title=About the LUG}

7) What seems to be the distribution of choice?

Bassam: Again, this will vary but considering that most IT personnel, even the most highly trained ones, prefer to work in user friendly environments, I can say that Mandrake Linux seems to be the distribution of choice because it’s easy to install and configure, and is also it’s reliable.

Ashraf: This is not something that can really be answered, but we always offer either Mandrake Move or Knoppix Live CDs when demonstrating what Linux can do. Many come back asking for Mandrake Linux and Red Hat, too.

8) How many regular members do you now have in your LUG, both local and international?

Bassam: Inside Iraq there are 3 founders and outside Iraq there are 4 founders. There are about 10 active members inside Iraq and many members in our mailing list and discussion forum. However, internationally, there are many regular members of our group. 

9) What are your biggest needs at this time?

Bassam: Our group currently requires a formal training from one of the Linux distributors or Open Source companies. Most of the active members inside Iraq are just a bunch of hobbyists and technology enthusiasts, all self-taught (and self-motivated!). Even though some of us have certificates in networking in addition to our Bachelors or Masters degrees, we all share the same problem of lacking formal Linux certification from one of the major Linux players in the market. We need such certificates to corroborate our technical position and to provide us with an official identity which will facilitate the mutual communication with our peers in the prospective IT companies. 

10) Who have been the main helpers and contributors in and to the LUG?

Bassam: First, it’s Nabil and Hakeem who founded this group and tirelessly maintain our website and mailing list. Inside Iraq, we have some people from the US army who assisted us in taking our initial steps in forming the group. Mr. Ashraf T. who is the president of the IOSO (Iraqi Open Source Organization) and a founder of the group worked day and night to establish our group and to provide support for us from both local and international NGOs. Without him, I don’t think that we would reach this far, really.

11) If there are any other messages you would like to give our audience, feel free to share them with us.

Ashraf: We are still new and don’t have that much experience in Linux yet. Please visit us at our site, http://www.iraqilug.org. We still need some help in many issues and could use yours.

Bassam: I just want to say one thing:

Iraq was and still is a wounded country. It suffered from dictatorship and monopolistic technological stagnation for years, especially when I perceived the enormous advantages of free market.

Our organization exists to ensure that there will no longer be a technology monopoly in Iraq. We are determined on establishing a strong, firm, and consistent IT business based on open source technologies, namely Linux. It will take time, it will take dedication but all of us hold a profound sense of personal responsibility. That’s why we have survived so far. However, we are totally aware that we can’t do it alone and that’s why we seek your contribution.

If you would like to find out more about the Iraqi Linux Users Group, or would like to help by way of donation of money and resources, please visit http://www.iraqilug.org to find out more.

Dev Shed would like to thank Ashraf and Bassam for taking the time to speak with us and we wish them all the best.

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