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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

O Maghreb: Where Art Thou in US Foreign Policy?

The Maghreb has long been a region forgotten, and detached from the rest of Middle East in US foreign policy making. The closest we came to hearing about the Maghreb or Sahel regions, albeit in passing, was during the third presidential debate between Romney and Obama. Recent events in the past few months have made it a necessity for the US to integrate the region in its regional assessment. The ever-changing nature of state-society relations in the region in the context of the Arab revolt; and the increasing threat of extremist Islamist influence in the southern borders of the Maghreb along the Sahel region, are two crucial strategic concerns for the US.

The political challenges facing the Maghreb region reflect the current Arab plight of the persistence of authoritarianism, economic backwardness and the rise of radical Islamism. Each of the five countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania) feature a set of authoritarian challenges that have to be incorporated in a general “Democracy Agenda” that the US has to pursue now, more than ever in the context of the Arab street movement for change. A cursory look at each of the Maghreb states reveals tremendous challenges for US foreign policy making.

Algeria is beset by an autocratic state dominated by the military, state security services, and rampant corrupt clientelistic political elite.  Although the regime has survived the civil strife of the 1990s, the state never fully addressed the causes behind the Islamist insurgency, namely the prevalence of patrimonial practices and the lack of political accountability. The state in Algeria also tightened its control of political contestation as it banned the Islamist group the Islamist Salvation Front (FIS) and has curtailed the space for political participation for other opposition parties.

Morocco, like Algeria, features the same strategies of state political manipulation and stagnant reform agenda. State strategies have resulted in the relative ineffectiveness of proposed political reforms and the weakening of the major political opposition groups in the kingdom. The two main Islamist movements of Justice and Development (PJD) and Justice and Charity share a highly popular agenda of social, political and economic reforms. Despite the PJD electoral success in last November’s elections, it has since morphed into a loyal palace party functioning at the whim of the king’s vast executive prerogatives. Gone are the days where the PJD, formerly the largest Islamist opposition party in the Moroccan parliament, pursued a policy of political dissent seeking governmental accountability and transparency.

The passage of the new constitution did little to guarantee a steady movement towards democratic progress in Morocco. The space for freedom of expression and the press in the kingdom is ever so limited, as various journalists are driven to bankruptcy or to flee the country from legal prosecution. Moreover, peaceful activists of the Feb. 20 movement are facing the brunt of state repression. In the past few weeks, several key members of the movement have been arrested and handed draconian prison sentences.

While Morocco and Algeria still languish under the yoke authoritarian rule, Tunisia, Libya has each in differing ways toppled their despots, but still face important challenges. The announcement of the general elections in Tunisia next June will certainly be a test for the consolidation of peaceful contestation of power. The last few months have seen a stark division between the Islamist camp led by the ruling government of Ennahda, and the secularists led by the ceremonial president Moncef Marzouki. Tunisia’s predicament lies in the ability of Ennahda to tame, or perhaps distance itself from Salafi groups that long for a return to strict Islamic laws in politics and society.

A year after the historical elections in Tunisia, the Ennahda-led government’s record is mixed. A recent Amnesty International report decried the failure of the government to “fully outlaw discrimination against women,” the disproportionate, “unnecessary and excessive force” used by security forces, and the lack of a fully functional and independent judiciary. The report came amid fervent protests after the death of opposition politician Lotfi Nakdh in clashes between pro-and anti-government supporters.

 Libya is perhaps more of concern as the central government in Tripoli has little influence over the rest of the country. The murder of US Ambassador crystallizes the creeping lawlessness in Libya. With the tribes of Bani Walid still in revolt, and the general lack of security, Libya’s path towards political and societal progress may still be a function of the ability of state to extend its central control. Toppling Qaddafi has come at a dire cost for the region. Spillover arms and ammunitions have found their way to northern Mail where “al-Qaedist” Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and Ansar ad-Dine have taken effective control of the area and imposed stricter interpretation of Shari’a law.

Finally, Mauritania is firmly under the control of a military junta, which staged two coups since 2005. The second putsch of August 6th, 2008 put a stop to the promising civilian presidency of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. Elected through fair and free elections, Abdallahi showed deep commitment to democratic reforms. Soon his ambitions would clash with the military that toppled Abdallahi amidst economic hardship and increasing social unrest. Needless to say, the future of political reforms in the country is ambiguous at this point, amidst the “accidental” shooting of its current strong man Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Given the current political climate, US foreign policy needs to address the political challenges facing the Maghreb region, in the contest of a vibrant “freedom agenda” that would promote meaningful reforms. The new U.S. administration needs to further press for good governance, rule of law and accountability in order to increase the scope of individual and group liberties. The relevance of the region to US foreign policy is intrinsically linked to a successful resolution of the Western Sahara conflict, which continues to stand as an albatross for regional cooperation. Furthermore, The region cannot be ignored by the International community especially within the context of the threat of terrorism in the Maghreb and the Sahel regions. Terrorist acts have increased in the Maghreb generally since 9/11, but especially after the collapses of Qaddafi’s regime and Malian central governmental control over the north of the country.

The US has thus far exerted no urgency in the Maghreb or Sahel regions as Iran’s nuclear ambitions continues to be the cause célèbre for US foreign policy. It is incumbent upon the U.S. to logistically assist the countries in the region in combatting the threat of radical militant Islamism. Joint US-Maghrebi exercises on counter-terrorism tactics could greatly help reduce or neutralize the threat of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the region. Economically, the U.S. should also seek engagement of the region through a broader Maghreb-US-EU partnership that would further economic growth and political reforms.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Violent Attack in Libya: A test for all Muslims

Like many around the world I woke up today to the sad news of the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, three of his staffers and ten Libyan security guards who battled to protect the US Consulate in Benghazi last night. The savage attack was reportedly in reaction to the leaked movie called "Innocence of Muslims" released in the US about the Prophet of Islam Mohammed. I watched the leaked 10-minute segment of the video, and I was shocked, not only at the offensive content portraying the prophet as a pedophile, homosexual and a philanderer, but also at the low quality of the production, and the poor acting performance.  The video, at least in my mind, was clearly leaked right before the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, maybe in an attempt to inflame the passion of the irrational and fanatic few. The same kind of radical Muslims that took to the streets during the Danish cartoon furore and pastor Terry Jones' threat to stage a Quran burning event. So far, there is still wide confusion about the source of the video, since the early reports of an Israeli-American filmmaker were deemed untrue.

No matter what the movie’s content is, the reaction that it elicited was equally as offensive and savage. Egyptian mobs stormed the courtyard of the US embassy in Cairo, tore the US flag and erected an Islamic flag. Discontent continues to foment in Egypt today in clashes with security forces, amid a deafening silence from the Egyptian government, and Islamist president Mohamed Morsy. However, the more heinous attack occurred next door in Libya last night, where armed gangs of about 100 people reportedly launched a barbaric offensive on the US consulate.  Once again, Muslims around the world are at a loss of words, trying to defend the peacefulness of their religion. We, as Muslims, have to stand steadfast against the cancer of extremism and the fossilized modes of thinking that have gnawed at the core of our societies. Acts of violence only perpetuates the pre-conceived ideas and stereotypes that Islam is a religion of war, and Muslims as radical fanatics thirsty for blood at the slightest act of provocation.

The Prophet of Islam himself was a peaceful, rational, and a patient individual, who preached temperance and condemned acts of foolish anger. I am not a religious scholar, but I was taught early on about well-known hadiths (Prophet’s deeds and sayings), in which he proclaimed that: "The strong man is not the one who can overpower others; rather, the strong man is the one who controls himself when he gets angry." Where are these extremists from the prophet’s teachings? And does the prophet need their protection from every little incitment? These acts that solely seek to inflame the passions of Muslims are a true test for all of us to channel our angst towards displaying a positive view of Islam. 

Muslims continue to define their religion in terms of what it is not, instead of focusing on reaching out to other faiths and traditions to build the foundations for true inter-cultural dialogue. Others have engaged in the facile trope of blaming all the ills of the Middle East and the Muslim world on United States foreign policy. There are indeed too many shortcomings of a myopic US foreign policy in the region with its double standards, moral relativism and narrow focus on geo-strategic interests. However, we, Muslims, have to look inward and take action against the increasing, worrisome trend of extremism. Failing to educate and emancipate our own in the name of religion, while engaging in acts of abject violence to prove the virility of Islam does harm to Muslims and the religion we espouse.

This religion of peace has been bastardized to suit the purpose of those that resist and fear change. Contextualization of texts is blasphemous, adapting Quranic and Hadithic teachings to modern day realities is apostasy, and granting some basic individual and group freedoms is un-Islamic. People have not fought despots to succumb to the tyranny of the fanatically religious and misguided few. They've transgressed the limits of God and they are the blasphemers as they continue to spew hatred and sow the seeds of discord in Muslim land.

Ambassador Stevens was optimistic about the future of Libya, where he traveled with relatively little security. He interacted with average Libyans, and was integral to the US and NATO mission during the rebels’ push to topple Gaddafi. Libyans were and are grateful for the US, France and the UK for their assistance in their liberation. Ambassador Stevens would have been particularly pleased to see the many Libyans that took to the streets today in Tripoli and Benghazi to condemn the terrorist attack on the US consulate. Friends in Libya are all ashamed and unnecessarily apologetic about the vile attack on the consulate. They have demanded, along with other Libyans, stricter response from their government against armed extremist groups in their midst. Libya still struggles with internal issues of security and order, as many violent extremist groups are trying to hijack Libya’s path towards political progress. Now more than ever, Libya needs more assistance to steady its course towards a transition to democratic rule. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Stephen Zunes’ Statement about Morocco, Israel, & the Western Sahara.

*This article appeared in Muftah on September 10, 2012.

In a recent interview for Al Jazeera English with Mark LeVine, Professor Stephen Zunes provides a scathing critique of Morocco as an occupying force in the Western Sahara. Zunes, a well-respected scholar of international relations, goes so far as to compare Morocco’s 1975 annexation of the Western Sahara to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Zunes declares:

"Morocco, like Israel, is in violation of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice regarding their occupation. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally moved tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory. Morocco, like Israel, engages in gross and systematic human rights abuses in the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally built a separation wall through the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, relies on the United States and other Western support to maintain the occupation by rendering the UN powerless to enforce international law. Morocco, like Israel, is able to maintain the occupation in part through the support of multinational corporations."

While a number of those claims are factual, Zunes’ statement is also deceptively one-sided, simplistic, and fails to account for the political and historical dimensions of the conflict.

The Western Sahara has been the subject of controversy, international litigation, and bellicose conflict since 1975 when Spanish colonial forces left the territory. The territory was thereafter divided into two, with one part controlled by Morocco and the other by Mauritania.

Immediately after Spanish decolonization, a rebel Sahrawi group in the camps of Tindouf in Algeria led by the POLISARIO (Spanish acronym for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) and supported by the Algerian government, declared the territory's independence and unilaterally proclaimed the establishment of the Sahraoui Arab Democratic Republic.

After Mauritania's withdrawal from the territory, Morocco quickly assumed control over the southern part of the Western Sahara. A decade of violence ensued, lasting most of the 1980s, between the POLISARIO and Moroccan forces. The conflict ended in 1991 with an UN-brokered cease-fire and a planned UN-sponsored referendum for self-determination, which has yet to take place.

As Zunes states, it is true that the UN has labeled Morocco an occupying force in the Western Sahara. It is also true that, during the long years of military conflict with the POLISARIO, Morocco built a fortified defensive wall called “berm” in the region.

However, in his interview, Zunes never mentions Algeria's influence over the conflict or its consistent rejectionist stance toward any solution to the stand off. Algeria has been the POLISARIO's principal benefactor since the beginning of the conflict in 1975, and has maintained a closed grip on the POLISARIO camps in Tindouf.

While talk of the referendum has diminished because of Morocco's plans to grant autonomy (though not independence) to the Sahrawi region, Zunes squarely blames Morocco for the referendum's failure. This allegation is misleading, and, again, fails to provide an accurate picture of the process.

Moroccan opposition to the referendum centers on two issues: the difficulty in determining voter eligibility, and Morocco's historical ties to the region.

The concept of self-determination has long dominated discourses on the Western Sahara conflict. As such, the conflict's resolution has depended on identifying who qualifies as Sahrawi, and is, thereby, eligible to vote in the referendum.

Modern theories on self-determination lack the basic parameters for defining a "people" entitled to self-determination or autonomy. As with most conflicts, the dizzying number of UN resolutions on the Western Sahara conflict fail to demarcate the contours of identity, while clearly positing self-determination as a sine qua non to self-governance.

This approach to the Western Sahara also reflects the UN's lack of historical knowledge about the territory. Such knowledge could have enriched its understanding of the complex identity issues at stake for all parties to the conflict.

Historically, the Western Sahara was not demarcated and may local tribes paid allegiance to different powers. Sahrawi tribes, which had their own internal governance structure, led an autonomous life and paid allegiance to the central authority of the Makhzen, or monarchy, in Morocco.

This power-sharing structure is similar to what Morocco is offering the Western Sahara today - under the autonomy plan, the region's residents would pay allegiance to the Moroccan king while leading an autonomous life within their tribes.

In his interview, Zunes refers to the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) advisory opinion, which sought to determine whether the Western Sahara was “terra nullius” (no man’s land) during Spanish colonization. On October 16, 1975, the Court rendered its opinion, finding no evidence “of any ties of territorial sovereignty” between the Western Sahara and either Morocco or Mauritania. It found, however, that there were “indications of a legal tie of allegiance between the Moroccan Sultan (King) and some of the tribes in the territory.” It is on this basis that Morocco annexed the territory, albeit unlawfully according to the UN.

Zunes provides scant detail on the ICJ's decision and its historical context. Indeed, the interplay of power within the Makhzen between bled al-makhzen (territories firmly under state control in terms of rule and taxation) and bled es-Siba (territories paying allegiance to the Moroccan Sultan, but not necessarily paying taxes) is often de-emphasized both by analysts of the conflict and referendum advocates in the international community.

In North Africa, territorial boundaries are colonial creations, which were drawn with no respect for the nomadic tribes that roamed sub-Saharan region. The UN referendum seeks to define the Western Sahara based on colonially imposed demarcations of the region. What Zunes and other analysts fails to understand is that Moroccan opposition to this approach lies in its complete disregard for the Makhzen's historical ties to the Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara conflict will remain a contentious issue in the Maghreb region, especially in the absence of strong international pressure, Morocco's intransigence regarding its historical ties to the region, and Algeria's realpolitik, rejectionist posture. Arguments about Moroccan occupation of the territory, while valid from the point of view of international law, do not do justice to the intricate issues of identity, sovereignty, and history that define the conflict. In order to resolve the Western Sahara standoff, negotiators must reconcile these issues with the geopolitical aspirations of the involved parties.