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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Libya's Nero

As the noose tightens on Gaddafi, the dictator has resorted to unparalleled levels of violence. With massive defections in the ranks of the civilian and military authority, Gaddafi's Jamahiriyya has all but crumbled around Tripoli. Still in charge from Bab al-'Aziziyya, the megalomaniac is as unpredictable as Nero or Caligula were. In his speech yesterday from the Green Square, Gaddafi called on his supporters to go out: "sing, dance and get ready." This is not a man who will go down without a fight. It is clear that his sons are also behind the arrogant and murderous defiance of the regime. In an interview with CNN Turk, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi pledged that the Gaddafi clan has three plans and each one of them involve living and dying in Libya. Seif has also dismissed any reports of thousands of causalities, and foreign mercenaries roaming the streets of Tripoli and neighboring cities randomly killing innocent Libyans.

It is only a matter of time before Gaddafi either flees the country or is dragged down from his feet by throngs of angry jubilant crowds. Especially as the UN Security Council unanimously voted to impose sanctions on Gaddafi, his sons and associates, and to refer the matter to a war crimes tribunal. However, in the absence of some form of foreign intervention, Gaddafi's demise won't happen without a massive tally of casualties. The international community has always been slow to respond to humanitarian crises. This should not go down as another Bosnia or Rwanda. Calls for humanitarian interventions, severe economic and military sanctions, and a no-fly zone over Libya are multiple. The last two options should garner consensus, but with every minute that passes, more innocent Libyans lose their lives at the hands of Gaddafi's mercenaries and murderous revolutionary committees. The US is working to master an international coalition against Libya, but their initial hesitance has been disastrous.

In the event of the likely demise of Gaddafi, Libya faces a monumental task of building the institutional foundations of a new state from an absolute scratch. At least Tunisia and Egypt has some existing institutions that with reform could engage in some form of democratic transition. In Libya, there is a complete institutional void. There is hardly any institutions, and where they exist, they are inchoate and partially formed. Libya does not have a constitution and all laws are promulgated through revolutionary committees and annual popular congresses. Gaddafi has veto power over all decisions, not as a president, but a leader of the revolution. However, this is slightly premature and should not deter from a complete focus on toppling a dictator who for 41 years, has squandered Libyan resources and violated his own people.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Arab Uprising: Whose Turn Is It Now?

The reverberations of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, which toppled two of the longest-ruling Arab dictators, continue to be felt throughout the Middle East. In Yemen, Iran, Bahrain and Libya, demonstrations are calling for political and economic reforms. Bahraini protesters have been brutally suppressed by security forces, killing two protesters, and even firing on funeral processions in the first two days of the protests. In Libya and with a complete media blackout, the police has been clashing with protesters for days and reportedly using foreign mercenaries to repress the rioters killing a reported 80 people in three days (The footage here is from Benghazi).

Morocco has a date with planned demonstrations on February 20th, amid recent reports that the youth movement behind it has withdrawn from the protest over disagreements with the Islamists of Justice and Charity. There are also divisions among some organizers of the protesters as three original founders of the movement called for the cancellation of the demonstrations because of what they perceived as foreign interference with the movement. Nonetheless, several human rights and activist organizations have joined the Feb 20 movement. Even the king's cousin Hicham has come out in support of the planned protests. the protest organizers are calling for sweeping constitutional changes, reducing the scope of monarchical powers, dissolving the parliament and sacking he government (see some of their slogans in Arabic).

Morocco has to be concerned about the events in the Arab world and of course it does share some of the socio-economic woes of many in the region, in terms of unemployment, poverty and the rising cost of basic commodities. However, Morocco's case may prove different from the mass-protests and uprisings that toppled dictators in Egypt in Tunisia. This does not mean we won’t see protests and demonstrations in the kingdom, but those, I suspect will be smaller in scale than what we saw in Tunisia and Egypt.

First of all, the nature and style of government in Morocco is different that in the Arab republican states, where political legitimacy is lacking. The Moroccan monarchy is largely popular and entrenched in the socio-cultural foundations of the country., so much so that in Morocco we can actually talk about two layers of political authority that help set the monarchy as regime and political order above the political fray, and one that is capable of deflecting all criticism towards the state government led by the prime minister. This is not surprising then that the small protests we’ve seen so far in Morocco, notably in Fes, Tangier have largely been demanding for the king to sack his government and away from any calls of regime change.

Another factor is that maybe M6’s early reforms proved key in deflecting some of the anger we see in the Arab world today. As he established one of the first truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the atrocities of years of lead and compensate victims of those years of state violence. The king also to introduce some small scale political reforms inviting vast array of political parties to partake in relatively open elections, and empowering a relatively viable civil society, which brought about significant policy changes to some social issues: women issues and Amazigh. However, there have been recent setbacks especially in the spaces allotted to the press, with the incarceration and economic asphyxiation of major independent newspapers and magazines. This is where the challenge for the country lies ahead. Allowing a modicum for freedom of expression outside state intimidation, retaliation and undergoing constitutional changes to reduce the scope of political powers of the monarchy.

February 2011 may go down in history as the most tumultuous month in the annals of Arab political history. These are truly historical times for the Middle East, and when the dust settles, we may come to see the region in a radically different new prism.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ahead of Algeria's "Day of Rage"

Algerian university students have already launched a general and indefinite strike ahead of the planned February 12 protests. It is difficult to prognosticate with great deal of accuracy about where the Algerian protests will go and it seems more and more analysts are cautions not to fall in the trap of over-generalization, expecting a domino-effect of sorts in the Arab world. Andrew Lebovich's excellent piece in today Middle East Channel on Foreign Policy predicts small-scale protests, but nothing à la Tunisian/Egyptian scenarios.

Already the Syrian "days of rage" last week didn't amount to anything significant. Syria is probably not ready yet for a mass uprising in a country where the Assad cult personality has managed to depoliticize Syrian society, and the security (mukhabarat) system has maintained a close grip on all socio-political activities in Syria's bunker state. However in a surprise but calculated move to keep tabs on potential irevolutionaries, Syria has lifted the ban on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.

As events unfold in Tunisia and Egypt, Arab autocrats must all be concerned about the state of their republics and kingdoms. The Arab street has broken the shackles of fear towards their governments. No longer are Arabs lacking in bravery in their demands towards better governance, rule of law and individual freedoms. Years of economic deprivation and political decay are now under microscopic examination around the world. The pressure is on the tyrants to reform. It is not surprising that many are in a race to offer preventive cosmetic changes.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Arab Winter Uprising

The Arab world is undergoing a remarkable winter uprising. Unlike, the social revolutions of yesteryear, which were framed in the context of radical ideologies against a socio-economic elite, the revolts in the Arab street lack a clear ideological foundation and are spontaneous uprisings against the excesses of the state, lack of good governance, rule of law and accountability. The common denominator between Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan is the inability of their regimes to promulgate real meaningful political and economic reforms. Politically, Arab authoritarian states feature the same menu of political manipulation featuring electoral engineering, limited space for opposition politics, and violations of individual civil liberties.

Economically, Arab autocrats in a bid to tighten control over the political system built an elaborate kleptocratic and clientelistic system that have siphoned off billions of dollars to the ruling elite and its state and social allies. It is not surprising then that the uprisings are largely led by disenchanted unemployed or under-employed youth. The IMF, for instance, estimates that Egypt needs approximately 10 million jobs, roughly 12% of its population. The numbers are even higher in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon.

With protests scheduled in Syria (Feb.4-5), Algeria (Feb. 12) and Libya (Feb.17), Arab leaders are scrambling to engage in impromptu "reforms." King Abdullah of Jordan sacked the government for lack of economic and political progress, and Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he won't be seeking reelection amidst protests in Sana'a. These knee-jerk decisions won't probably make a difference to the Arab street. We've already seen clear determination with the Egyptians that anything short of the complete ouster of the Mubarak regime is unacceptable.

The octogenarian has been stalling amidst local and international calls for a regime change. One thing is sure, Mubarak has started a power transition after declaring he will step down in September and his appointment of Omar Suleiman, former head of the intelligence services, as his VP for the first time in 30 years. He has also unleashed his thugs in Tahrir Square to intimidate and crack down on the protesters. All are acts of a desperate man cognizant of the fact that his days are numbered at the helm of the largest Arab country.

In all likelihood, we won't see a true transition to democratic (good) governance in Egypt, as the military has simply no vested interest in giving up its socio-economic privileges. The events in Tahrir today speak volumes about the complicity of the military in keeping more of the same regime structure intact. As we speak, the military is calling on the protesters to go back home. This is radically different from the Tunisian case where the military and General Ammar made a decision to back the Tunisian street, since the army has traditionally been apolitical and on the margin of political institutions. The short term future in Egypt bears continuous strikes and social mobilization efforts to sustain the pressure on the regime.

Finally, the US needs to better prepare and position itself for an eventual change of the guards in the Middle East. Behind the scenes, the US ought to exercise more pressure on all Arab regimes to undergo real, not cosmetic political reforms. This is a momentous opportunity for the US to appeal to the Arab street after decades of disastrous foreign policy in the region. In public, the US has to stand by the Arab street and engage channels of communication with all forces of the opposition, including the Islamists.

Any real democratic change in the Middle East won't be complete without a full Islamist participation. Setting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or An-Nahda in Tunisia as scarecrows is dishonest and showcases the US continuous failure to accurately appraise political Islam. Being the most organized political force in Egypt dictates that the Muslim Brotherhood might have a larger role in any potential post-Mubarak, but freer Egypt. Inclusion of democratic Islamists will make them stakeholders in the political system and showcases their diversity as nationalist, liberal, entrepreneurial movement, and yes with an Islamic reference seeking a better future for Egypt. The US and domestic forces in the Arab world need not indulge in this mainstream "Ikhwanophobia," for as long as Islamist groups and parties are willing to abide by legal norms, their participation in the future of the Arab Middle East should be encouraged.