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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Status of Human Rights in the Polisario Front Camps

Human Rights Watch has released a recent report on the status of human rights in the Polisario-run comps in Tindouf, Algeria. In the report, the human rights vanguard organization lists a series of human rights violations by the Polisario Front in the areas of judicial rights, freedom of speech, and some cases of slavery-like practices:
"While the Polisario tolerates some speech and demonstrations critical of its governance, Human Rights Watch heard credible allegations that authorities harassed some critics for speaking out. In addition, the rights of some civilians tried before military courts have been abridged, and slavery-like practices continue to exist in isolated cases."
The Human Rights organization issued some recommendations both to the Polisario Front and the Algerian government:
"The Polisario Front should end military court jurisdiction over civilians and redouble its efforts to eradicate all vestiges of slavery, Human Rights Watch said. The Front should ensure that camp residents are free to challenge its policies and leadership peacefully and to advocate options other than independence for Western Sahara. Algeria should publicly acknowledge its legal responsibility for ensuring respect for the rights of everyone on its territory, including residents of the Polisario-run refugee camps."
The 94-page report, "Off the Radar: Human Rights in the Tindouf Refugee Camps,"comes out amidst mounting pressure, especially on Morocco for human rights violations in the Western Sahara. In a previous article, I was, and remain, critical of the narrow approach to the conflict solely in terms of the authoritarian nature of the Moroccan state and its human rights violations in the territory. Then and now, the issue is one of self-determination and an identity conflict that should take in to consideration the historical claims to the territory by Morocco.

In the absence of UN human rights monitoring, the report by Human Rights Watch is one of the few reliable source the internal community has about the status of human rights in the disputed territory. It provides a much needed look at the conditions of the Sahrawis living under Polisario rule, and offers some balance to the one-sided focus on Moroccan autocratic violations.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Firebrand Rapper Arrested in Morocco...Again.

Morocco’s revolutionary rapper, Mou’ad Belghouat, is arrested again. After a year in jail for fictitious charges, El Haqed (the Indignant) was arrested Sunday outside Mohammed V Stadium where his favorite Raja de Casablanca football club was to play arguably one of its important matches of the season. Like any football fan in Casablanca, El Haqed, with his brother and friends, was strolling into the stadium when he was arrested by police officers for scalping tickets in the black market. This is hardly an offense in any world stadiums, and is a vindictive trumped-up charge to settle scores with a virulent critic of the regime and state.

The circumstances of his arrest are not still fully clear. Moroccan activist Zineb Belmkaddem provides one of the best accounts thus far on this latest episode of state brutality against the Kingdom’s fiercest rapper. Belmkaddem spoke with El Haqed’s brother, Hamza Belghouat, who was arrested as well, taken to the police station, allegedly beaten, and released Sunday night. Belmkaddem writes:

“As soon as he [El Haqed] got to the gates with his brother and his friends, police approached them and immediately targeted Mouad [ElHaqed]. One officer made it clear that he needed to settle something with him. Police then accused him of buying tickets from the black market, and proceeded to beat him and his brother into submission when he objected and denied their allegations. They cuffed him shortly after and took both brothers, while allowing their other friends with the same regular tickets to run. “It looked as though it was premeditated, they acted as if they’d already planned to brutally assault us both at first, arrest us, take our belongings, beat us some more, then keep Mouad in custody”. Hamza continued to describe the situation as an appalling and humiliating experience: “They hurt him badly in his hands, I saw the marks… they dragged us into one of those blue police vans and beat us even more. The aftertaste is always horrible. They insulted us and attacked us for five hours during the interrogation. It was so humiliating. They took my smartphone, then took us to the 15th (name of one of the police stations in Casablanca). They then kept my things, let me go, and kept Mouad locked up”.
El Haqed released his second album a couple of months ago, entitled “Walou” (nothing), in which he decries a state of despair and futility living under current political and economic conditions in Morocco. In the Album, El Haqed criticizes in familiar themes to his past songs, notably his incendiary “Klab ad-Dawla” (Dogs of the State), the state of social injustice, corruption, and hopelessness rampant among the youth.  In the song “Walou”, El Haqed advances an almost nihilistic view of Morocco where there is larger state of worthlessness of all existing political and social structures:

“Walou...(nothing)..No culture, no art, no creativity, no writers, no society, no associations, no parties..dumb down, dumb down the people”

Since the release of his album, El Haqed is said to have been waiting for the state’s retaliation, and it is hardly a surprise that the forces of order would seek the most repugnant ways to silence an artist in his quest to express the frustrations of many of his generation.

Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once said: “Censorship is advertising paid for by the government.”  Harassment of El Haqed will certainly further highlight his songs and lyrics. His latest album “Walou”, available in its entirety on YouTube, will garner much wider appeal and viewership now that he is prosecuted by the state. Authoritarian states still do not fathom that muzzling dissident voices only amplify their message in the most poignant manner. It also provides a focal point for increased protests and opposition to state authority. The latest arrest of El Haqed further highlights the setbacks that Morocco has undergone since the passage of the much-heralded new constitution of July 2011. A constitution that was promulgated after the initial sparks of the Arab uprisings, and supposedly guarantee freedom of speech, including artistic expression, and journalistic independence.

The Moroccan authorities have effectively lost the compass in recent months clamping down on all vestiges of individual freedom, especially those that are critical of its structures and policies. Journalist and fierce critic of the state, Ali Anouzla, is still in prison waiting for trial for ludicrous charges of supporting terrorist groups. The state is flexing its muscles after the failure of the protest movement to mount a significant challenge to the regime. Increased state confidence is palpable in its unjust and shameful treatment of dissident voices. The State ought to tackle real issues of concern to Moroccans, the same issues that are treated in El Haqed’s lyrical diatribes, and Anouzla’s incisive columns. Instead, the authorities seek to silence, the bearers of those messages.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Interview on Libya on Al-Jazeera English

This is my short commentary on Libya on Al-Jazeera English. I basically argue that Libya's current situation is precarious given the lack of central governmental authority, and schism between the western/eastern parts of the country over power and economic resources highlighted by the issue of the "Morning Glory" Tanker. 


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Morocco's Lobbying for Authoritarianism and the Western Sahara

Several recent articles on Morocco advance the kingdom’s lobbying efforts in D.C. as a main catalyst for both  US complacency towards the kingdom’s authoritarian edifice, and tacit support for Morocco’s general aims in the Western Sahara. In a Foreign Policy piece, the authors review a litany of lobbying strategies Morocco has employed to sway US policy makers into supporting Morocco’s claims in the Western Sahara conflict. According to the article, Morocco has lavished some $20 million on PR and interest group firms, which have been active in making the case for the kingdom in its fight to maintain control over the Western Sahara. The article contends that the kingdom's lobbying firms in Washington D.C. have spent that sum on the national legislatures, the executive branch, and journalists:

 Altogether, since 2007 the kingdom has spent roughly $20 million lobbying policymakers and soliciting sympathetic coverage from journalists in the United States on all issues, including Western Sahara. In 2009, it lobbied members of Congress, the executive branch and journalists more than any other Arab country -- more than twice as much as Egypt, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for government accountability and transparency.

In another article on Morocco's lobby efforts in the U.S. entitled, derisively, "The Arab Exception", Ahmed Benchemsi attributes the U.S. tolerance of Morocco's authoritarianism to strategic irrelevance and relativism among U.S. foreign policy circles. Quoting a conversation with a US foreign policy expert, Benchemsi writes: "Still, the main reason behind U.S. tolerance for Morocco’s serious shortcomings might be more cynical—and more painful for the kingdom to accept. As a U.S. foreign policy specialist put it to me bluntly: “Morocco benefits from a combination of relativism—whatever happens there is less tragic than the Mideast’s bloody ordeals—and irrelevance. Since there is no real interest at stake, there is no reason to scratch under Morocco’s surface.” Who has time for that in D.C. anyway?"

The latest attention to Morocco’s lobbying efforts in the US are not, on face value, nefarious because various foreign countries are in constant competition to cajole US affections. For every lobbying attempt by Morocco, Algeria, and the POLISARIO, no matter how modest in comparison to Morocco's, are courting their own machines of pressure in the US and Europe. According to a 2011 report by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, Morocco is the leading Arab country in lobbying operations in the US with 653 contacts, followed by the U.A.E (407 contacts), and Egypt (306 contacts). Morocco's regional foe and other shadow party to the Western Sahara conflict, Algeria. had only 50 contacts.

Despite all of the exorbitant sums of money spent on lobbying, Morocco's political lobbying proxies are actually under performing, amidst a marked international shift towards the right of self-determination of Sahrawi people in the region. Such shift is the result of tremendous pressure group activity on Capitol Hill, accentuated by the high profile lobbying efforts, for instance, of Hollywood's own Javier Bardem and the congressional screening he organized for his documentary: "Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony", which documents plight of Sahrawi people in the territory. Similarly, Morocco's lobbyists couldn't prevent the Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights from publishing a scathing report on the status of human rights and Moroccan violations of individual freedoms in the Western Sahara.

Morocco's attempt to court friendly attention in Washingtonm, D.C., while financially costly, is not as successful as the Foreign Policy article contends. Nor are they the greatest impediment to democratic progress in the Kingdom as Benchemsi contends. Far from excusing Morocco’s authoritarian system and the fortification of the autocratic state in the kingdom, lobbying is only an epiphenomenal factor in the explanation. Morocco’s edifice of authoritarianism is located more in domestic variables of state manipulation, limited cosmetic reforms that amount to nothing but discursive attempts to pacify societal angst, and the distribution of patronage among state and society elite.those are more proximate causes for the current state of authoritarianism in the kingdom, even in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, fledgling protest movements, and a new watered-down constitution.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The King's Speech: Mohammed VI takes on Human Rights Groups

 Morocco celebrated the 38th anniversary of the "Green March," which commemorates Morocco's annexation of the Western Sahara in 1975 after Spanish withdrawal of the territory. As it is customary, the king of Morocco delivers a speech usually underlining Morocco's position towards the territory and celebrating the kingdom's development projects for the benefits of the Sahrawi people. Wednesday's speech, however, was different as the king went on the offensive against non-governmental organizations' reports on Morocco's human rights violations in the Western Sahara.

Mohammed VI speech comes at a critical time where Morocco is under tremendous scrutiny for its human rights abuses in the Western Sahara, and the attempt by some groups to link human rights issues to the overarching question of self-determination in the territory. In an earlier piece to Muftah, I argued that the conflict is far more complex to be reduced to regime type or claims of human rights abuses. The tenuous nexus between self-determination and the authoritarian nature of the Moroccan state do not advance our understanding of the conflict, nor contribute to a conceptual disaggregation of the various variables and factors hindering a resolution to the problem of self-determination in the territory.

In the "Green March" speech, the king condemned what he perceived as the attempt by some NGOs to "use some isolated incidents to undermine [Morocco's] image and trivialize its human rights and development achievements." In a thinly veiled reference to Algeria, Mohammed VI charged that this "unfair treatment of Morocco" is principally due to the attempt by "rivals (Algeria) that squander the resources of a brotherly people, who is not concerned with this conflict, to buy the voices and positions of anti-Moroccan organizations."  The sovereign's criticism is at its most vociferous when he comparatively points to the plight of human rights abuses in the POLISARIO-controlled camps in Tindouf, Algeria. 

The king's speech comes at a pivotal time in the history of the conflict where the POLISARIO Front has recently been successful in its international public relations campaign to shed more light on the conflict and the plight of the Sahrawi people in the camps in Algeria. The POLISARIO campaign has received high level support, notably from Hollywood A-list actor Javier Bardem whose documentary: "Sons of the Cloud: The Last Colony" has made the rounds of film festivals and governmental hallways capped by a high level viewing in the US Congress. Meanwhile, Morocco's diplomacy is still plagued by endemic incompetence, and its use of traditional forms of lobbying mainly on capitol hill in the United States.

The speech is also a strong indication that Morocco's position is firm when it comes to its commitment to  a comprehensive political solution within the confines of its 2007 proposal for Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.  To that end, Mohammed VI reiterated the kingdom's stance seeking  a "final political solution to the artificial conflict over our territorial integrity, within the framework of our autonomy initiative which has been recognized for its seriousness, credibility and realistic spirit."

The speech is surely going to draw the ire of both the POLISARIO and Algeria, and it is the latest episode in the rhetorical war between the three parties to the conflict over the Western Sahara. Meanwhile, any movement towards a semblance of constructive negotiations remains elusive.

Friday, September 20, 2013

What Vladimir Putin Didn't Say About Libya.

*A Version of this article was published on Muftah

Vladimir Putin’s bold New York Times op-ed piece is a calculated step by the “bear-wrestling” Russian president to reassert his country’s power at the international level.

After publicizing an improbable eleventh-hour plan to disarm Syria of chemical weapons to halt U.S. strikes, Putin penned a public rebuke of the U.S. government. In an article titled, Plea for Caution, Putin publicly chided the United States for its recent military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rebuked the true basis for its military adventures, namely, the much-vaunted “US exceptionalism.”

While Putin’s writing style is terse and direct, his op-ed contains various false and misleading claims. These include Putin’s insistence he was motivated by democratic values and international norms in proposing the disarmament plan.

In fact, Putin’s intervention in the Syrian crisis is a calculated geopolitical move that seeks to reinvent Russia as a super power in the international arena, and major power broker in the Middle East.

Putin also harps on the usual themes of Islamist extremism in the Syrian civil war, as well as radical Islamist abuses against civilians, while ignoring the equally violent and atrocious violations committed by the Syrian regime for the last two years.

But what is perhaps Putin’s most blatant misrepresentation is his attempt to paint NATO’s intervention in the 2011 Libyan conflict as leaving the country worse off.

Putin’s article presents Libya as a country “divided into tribes and clans,” thanks to NATO’s intervention. Contrary to Putin’s claims, however, it is the Libyan experience that demonstrates the positive impact that international intervention in Syria could bring. It is also a reminder of the role Russia has played in ensuring that no such benefit would be realized by the Syrian people.

It is true that, since Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime fell in October 2011, Libya has effectively become a nation of various tribes and clans, and that, at times, this has created various security issues for the North African state’s nascent political system.

But, what Putin failed to mention in his article is that however imperfect the Libyan experience is now, ordinary Libyans are much better off today than during Ghaddafi’s four-decade dictatorship.

Post-Ghaddafi Libya has avoided large-scale civil strife and is slowly moving toward a system of governance that in due time will likely ensure security and order. Libyans currently enjoy a great deal of freedom, particularly when compared to their experiences under Ghaddafi’s regime.

For the most part, the people of Libya remain grateful to the United States and the international community for the military intervention, which greatly degraded Ghaddafi’s forces and precipitated the fall of the country’s authoritarian government.

Libyans are cautiously optimistic about their nascent political experiment, and cognizant that acts of violence and terrorism, which are largely perpetrated by foreign radical factions, are growing pains for their infant country.

Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) has made marked strides toward democracy despite security challenges; the GNC still has no standing military and relies on a fickle mercenary militia force made up of former rebels.

The GNC, along with the current government led by Prime Minister Ali Zidan, has had an unsurprisingly tough time building a new political system after decades of institutional void, amid rising political overreach by Islamist groups.

But, not all is gloom and doom in Libya. The country is still engaged in a slow process of constitution drafting, and is pursuing a National Dialogue initiative that, if successful, will further the country’s democratic transition. Libyan civil society is more vibrant than ever, with various groups and organizations pursuing their particular conceptions of the public good.

Libya is certainly undergoing a tumultuous time, but this might well be a necessary part of the process of birthing a new state and society based on the rule of law and civil rights. Every step forward, no matter how unstable and slow it may be, is viewed by many as a step away from the country’s dark political past.

Unfortunately, at this point, a Libyan-style intervention in Syria might not be possible for several reasons. Libya had a relatively unified opposition in the form of the National Transition Council and a leadership figure in Mustapha Abdul Jalil who managed to rally all Libyans factions behind the cause of fighting Ghaddafi. Syria lacks such leadership, as well as a cohesive opposition amid the thousands of rebel groups, domestic and foreign, that are actively fighting on the ground. Other obstacles to intervention relate to the nature of the U.S.-Russian rivalry in the region as Russia is determined to back its Syrian ally and challenge US historical dominance in the Middle East. Other obstacles are traceable to Russia’s obstructionist posture in the United Nations amidst Russian continuous refusal of any UN Sec Council resolutions on Syria.

While Putin is unfortunately correct in his assessment of Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya has enjoyed monumental institutional achievements since Ghaddafi’s fall.

Libya is arguably one of the hopeful stories of the Arab uprisings, a country in transition that merits international help, in areas such as military training, economic development, institutional building, and conflict resolution, and is far from a cautionary tale for international intervention.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Is Assad Nearing a Libyan Moment?

Now that Obama’s “redline” has been crossed for the second time, the world is holding its breath for a likely military strike against Syria.
Alleged government use of chemical weapons in the early morning hours of August 21st in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus, could be a game changer in the protracted Syrian civil war.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Obama has maintained that use of chemical weapons would change the U.S. “calculus” for intervention in Syria.

On August 30, Obama announced that he will be seeking congressional approval for any military strike on Syria. Obama is shifting responsibility to Congress and the American people after he boxed himself into an arbitrary redline. In the absence of an international coalition, a UNSC resolution, and the UK parliament’s rejection of any British involvement in military action, Obama is trying to save face and his credibility by pursuing the constitutional path on war making, not because he has so much regard for the document for the Constitution didn't stop US intervening in Libya, but because geo-strategic variables are different this time, the president had to adapt and played this so cunningly.

While the United States is unlikely to commit any ground troops amidst general domestic wariness for another war, surgical missile attacks and air strikes against Syrian military facilities may yet be possible.
These incursions may further the heretofore unachieved dream of Syrian rebels to topple President Bashar al-Assad, and draw Syria closer toward a “Libyan moment.”

However, as things currently stand, Obama is far from committed to a sustained course of action in Syria, making it likely that Assad will still be in fighting shape when it is all said and done.
Understandably, the use of chemical weapons is a major fault line in the conflict, since the transport and security of these products is of paramount importance to the international community. Syria reportedly has hundreds of tons of sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agents. If these were to fall into the hands of radical non-state actors, the region could head toward a catastrophic scenario.

Syria continues to be a hotbed for various extremist Islamist groups, which in the event of state collapse may find themselves in control of a huge stockpile of conventional and non-conventional weapons.
Beyond the security concerns, there are humanitarian imperatives at stake, as well. The use of chemical weapons is the ultimate crime against humanity, as is the continued massacre of thousands of Syrians.
More than 100,000 Syrians have perished in the conflict and the international community has provided nothing but perfunctory condemnation. Western reluctance to intervene in Syria has done little but prolong the burgeoning civil war.

Assad’s latest alleged use of chemical weapons could be an indication of his increasing despair in the face of the mounting strength of rebel factions all around Damascus.

Alternatively, it could indicate a new found confidence as his forces, with the help of Hezbollah and the international backing of Russia and China, further consolidate their hold against rebel advances.
By gassing his own people, Assad could also be testing Obama’s “redline”, hoping that the international community will split on the appropriate means to respond to chemical weapons use.

This standoff within the international community could drag on for weeks while Assad’s forces break the will and resolve of the rebels.

But Assad may have misread Obama’s will to enforce his “redline,” which could well prove to be a grave miscalculation on the part of the Syrian president.

As currently imagined, the U.S. military response will be far from sufficient to end the conflict in Syria, amounting to little more than knee-jerk measures against Assad’s transgression of a fault line set by Obama many months ago.

Aimed against select pro-Assad targets, the strikes may help degrade the air and ground capabilities of Syrian government forces. These, however, will be nothing more than a slap on the Syrian president’s wrist.

In the past, this brand of delimited strikes has not served U.S. interests well.

The one exception was the Libya intervention, where a more viable opposition in the form of the Libyan National Transitional Council and wider support among the international community gave the strikes a durability that ultimately led to the toppling of Muammar Ghaddafi.

But, Russia and China felt they were duped in the Libyan case, as the United States went beyond the UN mandate to enforce a no fly zone and actively engaged in supporting opposition efforts at regime change.

Since then, Russia has dug in its heels about possible intervention in Syria. At the same time, the United States has increasingly felt the need to reassert its power in the region, even if this must come through limited, non-committal military action.  

Short of sustained and decisive international military support, Syria’s rebels appear unable to topple Assad. Without international intervention, the country may split into two parallel de facto regions of influence – one controlled by the rebels, and one controlled by the Assad regime.

While strikes would degrade the Syrian government’s military, they will only significantly alter the dynamics of the protracted civil war if sustained and coupled with other decisive military action against Assad's conventional and non-conventional military capabilities.

Only in this case could Syria experience a Libyan moment for its dictator.

In the absence of an international framework, President Obama must clearly articulate what the objectives of a military strike against Syria would be.

The Assad regime has shown utter contempt and disregard for the Syrian people, shelling and now gassing at will in an attempt to punish those who dare defy the president’s dictatorial rule.

Obama has pigeonholed the United States into a military strike, as the country’s credibility and geostrategic prestige risk further deterioration in the region. But reluctant military action is not the solution. The United States should instead work to engage all parties, with the help of Russia and China, to force a negotiated settlement and invest in humanitarian aid to rebuild a devastated Syria.