A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Rise of the Sultan in Turkey is a Setback to Middle East Democracy

Turkey nearly underwent a complete democratic reversal in last week. In the early hours of the attempted coup last Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used an unlikely tool to galvanize his supporters when he launched a FaceTime appeal to all Turks to descend to the streets. The Turkish people heeded Erdogan's call, showing a great deal of maturity and courage in facing the military and defeating the coup. A successful coup would have been devastating to Turkey, but an unhinged post-coup Erdogan is equally detrimental, not only to Turkey, but to the whole region’s democratic progress.

The failed military putsch against democratically elected Erdoğan is a stark example that old autocratic habits die-hard in the Middle East. The coup unmasked the reality of modern day Turkey, which has long dealt with military incursions in civilian affairs which lasted until the Turkish military memorandum of 1997, which prompted the resignation of then Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. But Turkey’s path towards democratic progress has been dealt a serious blow despite the failure of the generals in toppling the AKP leader.

When Erdoğan came to power in 2003, Turkey and the rest of the world looked at the Turkish experience as a model for Islamic democratic rule, that maybe the Kemalist secular principles could coexist with the AKP’s Islamist ethos, and that a secular-Islamist synthesis was possible under robust legal and institutional mechanisms. Erdoğan’s popularity was all the more enviable when he presided over an impressive economic growth. In the Muslim world, Erdoğan became the symbol for democratic renewal under an overtly Islamist banner and a populist pan-Islamic leader who has been a staunch critic of Israel, the rallying cry for all Arab and pan-Islamic demagogues. Erdoğan’s opposition to Sisi’s coup in Egypt, and the brutal regime of Assad made him a champion for many in the Arab world. Erdogan has also been so successful among Muslims in advancing a religious discourse that he was even compared to medieval Muslim ruler, Salah Eddine (Saladin) who conquered Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Erdoğan’s pan-Islamic popularity remained unchanged even when he started displaying a penchant towards autocratic rule. In the years preceding the coup, Erdoğan launched a relentless campaign against his opponents within the confines of Turkish democratic institutions, orchestrating sham trials known as Balyoz (Sledgehammer) whereby hundreds of high ranking officers were jailed and/or removed from the military. Using the parliamentary majority of the AKP, he steered the country towards an executive presidential system and was elected president in 2014. Erdoğan repressed all who dared to oppose his sultanistic ambitions in Turkey and appeared truly to be the only game in town. Indeed, in his interview with al-Jazeera Tuesday, Erdoğan revealed that he was utterly surprised when he first heard of the coup from his brother-in-law as he was vacationing in Marmaris. Some say he was always expecting this coup; but was not sure when this attempt would take place.

But in his state citadel, Erdoğan has always harbored a not so secret fear of one formidable opponent, a former ally turned nemesis, the Muslim preacher and scholar Fethullah Gülen. Gülen, who fled Turkey in 1999, and is in the US in a self-imposed exile, is the spiritual leader of an order that runs several organizations and some 146 charter schools in the US. The Hizmet-Gülen movement is largely known for its interfaith message of peace and tolerance around the world. But his supporters in senior bureaucratic and judicial positions in Turkey are said to constitute “a parallel structure” aiming to depose Erdogan’s government.
In the days after the failed coup, Erdoğan has notably singled out Fethullah Gülen as the main culprit behind the coup, and has started what amount to a purge of the court system and the police force, in addition to almost one-third of the military establishment.

Thousands of military officers, security officers, judges, police officers have been arrested. Erdoğan has just declared a state of emergency for three months, his government suspended its adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, and has issued a travel ban against all academics
Erdoğan’s post-coup plan is to dismantle whatever little democratic gains Turkey achieved in the past. The failed coup and Erdogan’s popularity have given him a “carte blanche” to mold the Turkish State in his image, cleanse the political establishment of the “parallel structure”, and tame the military once and for all. The scope of the purge will be devastating for Erdogan’s opponents in the state institutions, and Gülen will have to fight the narrative that he was behind a coup that most Turks, even the anti-Erdoğan crowd, opposed.

Beyond Turkey, Erdoğan’s revanchism is a setback to the cause of democratic progress in the region. Arab liberals have almost unanimously extolled the Turkish president and justified his post-coup policies. Facebook status updates and Twitter posts have almost all endorsed Erdoğan providing various rationale for his attempts at eroding Turkish democracy, ironically in the name of democratic legitimacy and street popularity. Commitment to principles of the rule of law, individual freedom, and the liberty of the press that Arab liberals so arduously fought for are deemphasized right now. In their blind support of Erdoğan, Arab liberals’ and democracy activists’ commitment to democratic principles has largely taken a backseat to retribution.

But the jubilant statements about Erdoğan and the triumph of the will of the people mask a bitter reality that Erdoğan has charted an autocratic course that will be almost as devastating to Turkish democracy as a military junta would have been. Erdoğan still has time to reverse some of his reprisals and to promote legal, measured means for prosecuting coup plotters. The failed coup should not be a “gift from God”, as Erdoğan let slip in his first appearance after the coup in Istanbul, to settle score with rivals and opponents.

The path to democracy is fraught with uncertainties, but most democratic transitions in the context of Latin America and Eastern Europe in the last two decades of the 20th century came through negotiated pacts within the political elite. This assumes that the elite class is inclusive even of those that are diametrically opposed ideologically to prevalent political or social views. The whole sale purge of Erdoğan’s rivals bodes ill for the institutional progress of Turkey and the region. Turkey used to be a model for the region, perhaps now, we should look for another model elsewhere. Maybe Tunisia still holds some of that hope for a Middle Eastern democracy.




The Orlando Attacks: A Muslim-American Response

For the majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world the holy month of Ramadan is one for spiritual renewal, reflection, and peace. In Morocco, where I am observing this holy month, the long day of fast is a reminder of the plight of those in society who are less fortunate, and for whom fasting is a daily reality. But for some inspired by radical violent causes, it is a call to arms where violence carries more reward in accordance to the fossilized interpretations of the minority cult of death that is ISIS. Last month, ISIS firebrand preacher and chief social media recruiter, Muhammad al-Adnani, released a video calling on other self-proclaimed jihadists “to make it a month of calamity everywhere for non-believers . . . especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America.” In the U.S., one “lone wolf” in Orlando took heed of this deadly call and committed one of the worst acts of violence in the history of the US.

Like many Muslims in America, I was hoping against all hope that the perpetrator was not a Muslim. Not because a mass shooting perpetrated by a non-Muslim assailant would have made the tragedy less horrific, but because as a Muslim in America, I am fully aware of what ensues in collectivization discourses and abject depictions of all Muslim and Islam, as it is the case for a certain presidential candidate.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Muslim Americans have become a “doormat minority” for politicians pandering to the lowest common denominator of bigoted voters. Any politicians wanting to score points with the far right has to excoriate Muslims as a political rite of passage. Islamophobia is the new norm in US political and media discourse. Facile stereotypes of the faith and its practitioners are replete in US shows, and Hollywood portrayals. Even uber liberal Bill Maher did not disappoint as he engaged in one of his usual hate-filled and uninformed rants against Islam and Muslims in his HBO show. Muslims have become accustomed to defining their faith in terms of what it is not, instead of what it is. So when the name of the Orlando shooter was revealed, a sudden drop in our collective guts as Muslims was immediate. Not another act of murder in our name and in the name of our religion.

In their own ways, 9/11 shook many Muslim-Americans out of its abeyance, and have since engaged in every day acts of resistance against these assaults on their faith. These include education, outreach, interfaith dialogue, and rejection of those amongst us who hold extremist Islamist views. Muslims continue to reject radical binaries and tackle literalist, extremist interpretations of Islamic texts, in particular, passages in the Qur’an and Hadith, on war, apostasy, and violence, which must be subjected to new, unequivocal interpretations to fit the modern social and political realities of Muslim-minority states.

In this vein, the Muslim-American leadership has been swift in its condemnation of the Orlando attacks on the LGBTQI community. Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations exhibited sagacious leadership when he declared that “For many years, members of the LGBTQI. community have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community against any acts of hate crimes, Islamophobia, marginalization, and discrimination. Today we stand with them shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “The liberation of the American Muslim community is profoundly linked to the liberation of other minorities—blacks, Latinos, gays, Jews, and every other community. We cannot fight injustice against some groups and not against others. Homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia—we cannot dismantle one without the other.”

Awad is correct that the fight for equality and acceptance is a common collective struggle, and discourses of homophobia are as dangerous and destructive as those of Islamophobia. He is also spot-on in his unambiguous denunciation of ISIS ideology and violence: “You do not speak for us,” he said. “You do not represent us. You are an aberration. You are outlaws.” He went on, “They don’t speak for our faith. They claim to, but 1.7 billion people are united in rejecting their extremism and their acts of senseless violence.”

The cancer of radical Islamism gnawing at the fabric of Islam is alive and perniciously well, and has yet again reached the US shores. The two are not mutually exclusive. ISIS-inspired attacks have targeted a number of countries around the world, especially as the terrorist outfit’s Manichean war on the “gray zone” of cross-cultural and civilizational dialogue continues unabated even as they are ceding territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s losses on the battle ground in the Middle East has pushed it to shift its strategy towards exporting violence into western cities. The threat of ISIS ideology is evident in the self-radicalization of assailants. The fact that Mateen frequented that same gay club, and may have been on gay dating applications does not mean he couldn’t have been self-radicalized. Self-radicalization and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive. Some of the Belgium terrorists also patronized gay clubs, bars and such. There is no evidence that ISIS directed the Orlando attack, but Mateen did call and pledge allegiance to ISIS, and one can be a gay, Muslim, deranged, ISIS sympathizer all at the same time.

But this is not an issue of radicalism alone, especially in the US where lone wolf attacks are especially devastating because of lax gun control laws. In the United States, the death rate from gun homicides, including mass shootings like Orlando, is about 31 per million people — that is 27 people shot dead every day of the year. The US eclipses other western industrialized democracies in gun-related fatalities so much that the odds of being killed by a gun in Japan are similar to being struck by lightning in the U.S. Easy access to semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons has wreaked much havoc on US society, as politicians continue to shirk responsibility to enact even tougher laws on gun sales.

President Obama’s multiple passionate calls for Congress to remedy the issue have largely been thwarted by the gun lobby, and a segment of the population that views any gun control regulations tantamount to disarmament. The fact is that tougher gun control laws would have probably prevented Omar Mateen from walking into a store, while on the FBI radar, and purchase a deadly AR-15 assault rifle. In any other society, that is cause for alarm and a definition of madness, but in the US, some are myopic and prefer to speak about radical Islamism only, when the FBI estimates that 90% of attacks in the US since 1980 have been conducted by non-Muslims.

Back in Morocco, confusion and frustration are manifold, and some even paid tribute to the victims of the Orlando shooting. In the capital city of Rabat, Moroccan activists took part in a vigil holding signs that reads: “Homophobia kills!”  When I told my own mother about the attacks and that they were committed by a Muslim, she briskly interrupted: “No, he is not a Muslim.”  Her powerful rejection of Omar Mateen and his violent act was further consecrated when I went to perform the Taraweeh prayers later that night. During the prayers observed in Ramadan only, the imam of my neighborhood mosque recited a Quranic verse that is as poignant as it is timely given the Orlando hate crime: "Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind."(Qur’an, 5:32) These are the values and true message of Islam that are lost on the minority extremists in the US and ISIS alike.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Death in the Polisario Front

The death of the Polisario Front leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz, in Algeria last week has brought renewed attention to the conflict of the Western Sahara. While some may hope for some overture in the conflict, his demise will not usher in a grand shift in the Polisario Front’s hardline rejectionist strategy for Sahrawi independence. An uncompromising strategy that is shaped in Algiers rather than in the Polisario Front’s camps in Tindouf, Algeria. The future leadership of the Polisario Front, which will be elected after the perfunctory mourning period, will continue the Front’s military and political reliance on Algeria as an integral party in the stalemated conflict.

Mohamed Abdelaziz, a native of Marrakech, Morocco, had been secretary general of the Polisario Front since 1976, a year after Morocco annexed the contested territory of the Western Sahara from Spanish colonial administration. During Abdelaziz’s leadership, the Polisario Front pursued an obdurate secessionist campaign for independence, fighting a guerilla warfare from 1975 until 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire with the aim of establishing a referendum for self-determination. Almost three decades later, no such plebiscite has taken place and the conflict has effectively descended into a regional quagmire. Despite many UN attempts to negotiate a comprehensive settlement to the conflict, all parties continue to advance their own intransigent claims.

With Abdelaziz at the helm of the Polisario Front, the separatist movement’s biggest achievement has undoubtedly been the high profile international attention this little known conflict has continued to garner. Abdelaziz’s public relations approach has framed the conflict in colonial terms, as the Polisario, somewhat successfully cast the Moroccan annexation and subsequent rule over the Western Sahara as a foreign colonial occupation in violation of self-determination principles. In so doing, it managed to deemphasize the historical and cultural roots that link the region to Moroccan territorial claims. The success of this discourse of occupation was recently on display during the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s visit to the Sahrawi camps. As the Secretary General toured the camps, he recklessly and most undiplomatically, called Morocco’s control of the territory “an occupation” much to the furore of Morocco.

The Polisario increasingly capitalized on nongovernmental organizations’ scathing reports of Moroccan human rights violations in the territory to frame the conflict as a struggle against authoritarianism. Abdelaziz even courted the support of celebrities like Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who made a documentary film, “Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony," on the Western Sahara that claims to shed light on the Moroccan control of the territory and abuses of human rights. The documentary, probably wouldn’t have caught anyone’s attention, including a high-level congressional viewing, if it were not the project of the Hollywood A-lister and Oscar-winning actor.

Beyond the use of public relations and the media, Abdelaziz has rejected any proposals calling for anyting short of full independence of the territory, even when Morocco compromised in its position and offered a plan for Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty in 2007. The plan has US, France and Spain's support, but the Polisario and its patron, Algeria, have rejected the plan as a mere Moroccan attempt to legitimize its de facto control of the territory. The talks between the two parties (some say three parties including Algeria) to work on confidence-building measures have led nowhere over the last few years, and change in leadership of the Polisario will likely not result in any breakthrough in the polisario rejectionist position, that primarily centers around the right of the Sahrawis to self-determination. Such principle, while affirmed by international norms, is unlikely to yield any practical comprehensive solution to the conflict.

Modern conception of self-determination could grant people in the Western Sahara a choice for autonomy and sovereignty. However, it does not lay down the parameters of defining such people. A simple theoretical discussion on the evolution of the norm of self-determination leaves us with the contentious question of who is entitled to take part in deciding the future of the Western Sahara through the UN sponsored referendum. To be sure, the dizzying number of UN resolutions, as the Western Sahara conflict shows, fail to demarcate the contours within which an identity exists, while clearly positing the right of self-determination as sine qua non to self-governance. However, such conceptualization of the Western Sahara case also reflects the United Nations’ lack of historical considerations of the territory, which could have enriched its understanding of the complex identity issues that are at stake for all parties involved in the conflict.

The application of self-determination also discounts historical relationships of allegiance that existed between Moroccan sultans and leading Sahrawi tribes. These allegiance rapports were recognized in the International Court of Justice’s famous advisory opinion in 1975. Boundaries of the territory itself are colonial creations and were drawn with no respect for existing nomadic tribes that roamed the whole Saharan and Sahel regions. Self-determination of peoples, in the Western Sahara (as demarcated now), legitimizes colonial structures that were imposed in the first place. In other words, the United Nations’ attempt to implement the referendum for self-determination in the Western Sahara is based on colonial imposed demarcations of the region, and as such, it cannot result in an adequate resolution to the conflict.

In addition to identity and historical factors, the fight over the Western Sahara is mostly beset by regional and international factors. Past non-interventionist strategies followed by major international powers and lack of international urgency of the issue contributed to prolonging the conflict. Only targeted pressure and active diplomatic engagement from the United States, France or the European community as a block can provide a window of hope in the resolution of the dispute, and a much needed relief to the plight of the thousands of Sahrawis in the camps of Tindouf.

Most importantly, the nature of inter-Maghrebi politics, especially, the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria has fueled the conflict and has exacerbated the situation in the territory. Domestic issues have further fomented this rivalry namely the role of the military in Algeria, and its hard line strategy vis-à-vis the conflict in the Western Sahara. While Morocco has offered a slight compromise with the autonomy plan, there is still mass domestic support for the “Moroccanity” of the Western Sahara and the territorial integrity of Morocco.


The passing of the long time leader of the Polisario Front, Mohamed Abdelaziz, won’t do much to alter this complex web of realities. The next leader of the Polisario will still take major cues from “Le Pouvoir” up in Algiers, while any prospects of regional integration and cooperation necessary to face the security challenges in north Africa and the Sahel region will continue to stall.