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

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Open Letter to President Obama

Several academics have drafted an open letter to President Obama urging him to stand behind the social protests in Egypt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. The text of the letter can be found here and here.

An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

January 30, 2010

Dear President Obama:

As political scientists and historians who have studied the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, we the undersigned believe you have a chance to move beyond rhetoric to support the democratic movement sweeping over Egypt. As citizens, we expect our president to uphold those values.

For thirty years, our government has spent billions of dollars to help build and sustain the system the Egyptian people are now trying to dismantle. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Egypt and around the world have spoken. We believe their message is bold and clear: Mubarak should resign from office and allow Egyptians to establish a new government free of his and his family’s influence. It is also clear to us that if you seek, as you said Friday “political, social, and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” your administration should publicly acknowledge those reforms will not be advanced by Mubarak or any of his adjutants.

There is another lesson from this crisis, a lesson not for the Egyptian government but for our own. In order for the United States to stand with the Egyptian people it must approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy. On Friday you rightly said that “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away,” For that reason we urge your administration to seize this chance, turn away from the policies that brought us here, and embark on a new course toward peace, democracy and prosperity for the people of the Middle East. And we call on you to undertake a comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt and all other societies of the region.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Arab Awakening Sweeping Through the Middle East

Tunisia has decidedly inspired the Arab street and the wind of freedom is moving east. As Tunisians labor through their post-uprising political experiment, Egyptian street has erupted in all corners of the country from Cairo to Suez demanding en end to Hosni Mubarak's 29-year autocratic rule. But unlike Ben 'Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak has decided to ride out this wave of demonstrations, plunging the whole country in a complete media blackout with no Internet.

After four days of deafening silence, a frail but defiant Mubarak appeared on national TV to sack his government, pledging to "fulfill his presidential duties" towards the Egyptian people for order and security. Mubarak's speech is unlikely to quench Egyptians' thirst for regime change. Many contend such change resides in the military, which will have to forego its privileges and economic interests to appease the Egyptian street.

There is a feeling that an Arab awakening is taking place. This does not appear motivated by any one coherent ideological perspective or by external forces. The Islamist discourse didn't feature in the Tunisian uprising, nor is it prominent in the Egyptian "days of wrath." Instead, what we have are angry citizens disenchanted with despotic kakistocratic systems and bleak socio-economic prospects.

One tend to forget that Islamism is less of a force in Tunisia today due to years of state repression. Most importantly, Tunisia is an exception among the Arab states in its institutional and social secular character, first rooted by Habib Bourguiba after the independence from France in 1956. In Egypt, cradle of modern political Islam, a free post-Mubarak system will undoubtedly feature a strong presence for the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the most organized political group in the country.

Henceforth, the tendency, even the jubilation among some to declare Islamism obsolete is premature and wrong. Similarly, dismissing the hitherto resilient Arab authoritarian state as a house of card susceptible to devastating mass street level revolutions is also misguided. If there is one thing that the Arab regimes have perfected throughout the years is the ability to reinvent their autocratic structures and placate new challenges to their authority. Alas, much to the chagrin of those of us longing for democratic transition in the Arab world.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Taste of Freedom in Tunisia

Tunisians are reaping the benefits of their mass uprising. Der Spiegel ran a story on Tunisians' new found freedoms of expression, association and speech. This is nothing short of miraculous. In the span of a month, Tunisia went from one the most tightly-controlled countries in the world, second only to China in online censorship, to a bastion of civil liberties. Apparently, Bourguiba avenue in Tunis has now turned into a free speech zone, where Tunisians come freely to discuss politics, each establishing their own "speakers' corner."

Everyone in the Arab world is inspired by the valiant Tunisian uprising and almost all aspire to recreate that example in their own authoritarian milieu. However, what is the likelihood of a spillover effect? a domino effect of sorts? We've heard of several self-immolation attempts and protests in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. This blogger is cautiously optimistic. The factors behind the Tunisian case are unique resulting from a highly educated middle class, military reversal against Ben 'Ali and a state-society contest fomented by social media outlets.

In the days leading to Ben 'Ali's demise, Twitter was abuzz with up-to-date tweets on all things Tunisia. Following twitter accounts of Takriz, Nawaat and some Tunisian friends, we were captivated by the turn of unfolding events. Tunisians took the streets to protest a despot and his mafia-style family. Despite initial sheepish concessions from Ben 'Ali, Tunisian bloggers and activists maintained the pace of the uprising through constant tweets. Even after the collapse of the police state of Ben 'Ali, Twitter continues to play a major role in the post-uprising debates on the future trajectory of the country. Some of these accounts are from primary sources. Case in point is former dissident blogger Slim Amamou, current minister of sport and youth, who live-tweeted in the midst of the ministerial cabinet meetings.

While the Tunisian case shows how new technology can be utilized to wage cyber-revolutions to buttress social street protests. This is particularly important in the absence of a clear-cut revolutionary leadership structure. Framing the grievances against the regime was largely performed on the Internet, blogosphere, facebook and twitter accounts. This is the new frontier for most of Arab regimes in their continuous efforts to curb access to social media. This is not to say that technology solely brought down the regime, for I believe the army's principled stance against the bloodshed and the inability of Ben 'Ali to effectively reinvent his authoritarian regime relying more on political management instead of pure coercion and violence. This is not bemoaning the fall of the police state of Ben 'Ali (I was among the first bloggers to celebrate it), but questions of success and failure of the Arab street have to be conceptualized in comparison to other seemingly similar cases in the region. Ultimately, the revolt is a testament to the resilience of the Tunisian people, who set the example for all Arabs fed up with the their regimes' transgressions.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A New Government in Tunisia: Reinventing the "Old Regime"?

Tunisia announces its new "national unity" government amid continuing disorder and insecurity. Over the weekend, the military clashed with Former president Ben 'Ali's security forces, notably around the Carthage presidential palace. The role of the current government headed by interim president Fouad Mebezaa and prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, former "Mr. Oui Oui" in Ben `Ali's state, is to oversee the upcoming elections in 60 days. Mebezaa, the former speaker of the parliament, is a 70 year-old technocrat, who served in different functions under both Bourguiba and Ben `Ali.

As Tunisia maneuvers through its "Jasmine Revolution," questions still remain as to the future trajectory of the country. Can this government provide a peaceful transition towards democratic governance, and a truly all inclusive political system? Already many complain about Ben `Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally's control of the government, with notable cosmetic changes. Minor cabinet portfolios were bestowed upon the opposition. Ahmed Najib Chebbi of the Democratic Progressive Party is entrusted with the Ministry of Regional and Local Development, Moustapah ben Ja'afar of the Democratic Forum for Work and Freedom as Minister of Health, and Ahmed Ibrahim of the Ettajdid Movement is at the helm of the Ministry of the Ministry of Higher Education.

However, the key ministries of the Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs are still held by former Ben `Ali ministers. Moreover, Prime Minister Ghannouchi admitted on French TV that he still maintains phone contact with the "deposed" president. So far, it seems that the pillars of the regime are not completely destroyed and there is a clear attempt to reproduce the ancien régime.

Some have already leveled charges against external powers (Libya, France and even Israel) that seek to abort this social revolt. The role of the military is also still unclear as it attempts to pacify the Tunisian street. Its future position behind the scenes is key to a true democratic shift in Tunisia and to maintain a clear distinction between civilian and military lines of authority. Let's not forget the sudanese uprising that took down Ja'afar Numeiri, to later degenerate into a military dictatorship.

The "Jasmine Revolution" has sparked a lot of debate as to its nature and factors behind it. Some dubbed it a "twitter" or "wikileaks" revolution, but the truth is that it was a spontaneous popular uprising against a thuggish police state that has long abused and violated its own people. The social uprising has triggered hopes of an "Arab spring" of democracy. It has also engendered fear in many Arab capitals, which have so far maintained a deafening silence in reaction to it. Except for Libyan leader Mu'amar Qaddafi, who condemned the Tunisians for toppling Ben `Ali, lamenting wikileaks, facebook and twitter for fomenting the uprising.

There is still a long road towards democratic transition in Tunisia. History has shown that the early days of any revolution are key in determining the future path of the political system. So far, the new government looks more as reconciliatory attempt from the old, still existing regime to perpetuate itself and reinvent it in a new façade calling for democratic change. The Tunisian people behind the remarkable revolution ought to stand steadfast and stop nothing short of a complete removal of all relics of Ben `Ali's regime.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ben 'Ali is OUT!

Unbelieavable news from Tunsia as president Ben 'Ali has left the country this morning towards an unknown destination. Twitter has been buzzing with information, mostly unconfirmed at this point, that Ben 'Ali was refused landing in Paris, and is on his way to Saudi Arabia. This came a day after Ben 'Ali speech, in which he promised major political concessions, namely stepping down after 2014. The speech was followed by some faux pro-regime demonstrations.

The remarkable and unprecedented popular uprising, dubbed as the Jasmin Revolt, is on the brink of becoming the first ever social uprising to topple an autocratic Arab regime. One can imagine that Arab dictators are in a state of high alert, especially as there early unconfirmed twitter reports of riots in Libya. More information to come..stay tuned.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Maghreb in Turmoil

The Maghreb continues to erupt under the yoke of authoritarian rule with riots in both Tunisia and Algeria. The thuggish regime of Ben `Ali has entered in an open confrontation with defenseless protesters using live ammunitions and killing dozens of citizens (some 30 people were killed so far). Tunisians have shown no signs of stopping the uprising fomented by a deep seething sense of frustration, lack of hope and injustice. Today, protesters were filmed burning the picture of Ben`Ali.

Ben`Ali is surely not capitulating either. In today's televised address, he vowed socio-economic changes and a ten-year tax break for businesses of 10+ employees. The aging autocrat also laughably called on political parties and institutions to increase their efforts to address the grievances of the citizens. Ben 'Ali stopped short of addressing the political significance and reverberations of the uprising. Ignoring how the riots are emblematic of a deep political and institutional inertia resulting from years of mismanagement, nepotism and corruption. Ben 'Ali also condemned in the strongest terms the "masked gangs" of protesters that assaulted and looted public property in acts of "terrorism."

Ben`Ali is correct that some protesters are masked, but that is to protect their identities from the violence and retribution of his police state. Similarly, the only acts of terrorism were perpetrated by the forces of Ben `Ali killing scores of peaceful citizens,

Algeria's protests, erroneously dubbed as "food riots," are the culmination of years of small scale skirmishes between the corrupt Algerian ruling elite and an increasingly disenchanted population with the failure of the state as an agent of redistribution of resources. In this vein, Algeria's riots are similar in motives to those in Tunisia. The increases in food prices in Algeria or the self-immolation of Tunisian unemployed youth are only immediate causes for the protests. The underlying factors are corruption, institutional decay and state neglect of the basic socio-economic services of its citizens (for an excellent piece on Algeria and Tunisia's riots, read Hugh Roberts on the Middle East Channel)

While Tunisians and Algerians are rioting in direct confrontation with the state, the rest of the Arab world and its dictatorships are trembling in their thrones and are on high alert. The protests could well be contagious and escalate across borders to the rest of the Arab street long subdued under years of neglect and violence.

Monday, January 3, 2011

POLISARIO and AQIM: a Marriage of Convenience?

A recent article in Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel puts forth some bold allegations on a purported association between POLISARIO front and AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The article bases the reports on accounts obtained from recent arrested members of the POLISARIO in Morocco, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania. According to the piece by Alison Lake:
Recent arrests of Polisario members by the governments of Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania give credence to the unlikely link between an Islamist group and Marxist nationalists. Maj. Gen. Abdeljebbar Azzaoui, Morocco's director of intelligence and counterterrorism, alleged some 75 arrests by Morocco, Mauritania, and Mali of Polisario members involved in al Qaeda operations. He said the Moroccan government works closely with these two countries and shares a list of captives. On Oct. 30 Morocco's Interior Ministry announced its capture of a supposedly al Qaeda-linked terrorist cell, the "Saharawi Jihad Front," headed by a Polisario supporter.
If true, these allegations could be a devastating blow to the irrendentist rebel group, which has been touting claims of human rights and universal principles of freedom in their fight for the secession of the Western Sahara. One certainly should be suspicious of any claims made under duress and with so much at stake.