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

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Year After: The February 20 Protest Movement in Morocco

*This article was written for Jadaliyya (an independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute) and can be accessed here.

On the one-year anniversary of the February 20 protest movement in Morocco, (henceforth referred to as Feb. 20), the kingdom boasts relatively meager political progress. Despite the much-vaunted reforms and constitutional changes, Morocco has reinvigorated its state edifice, managed to outmaneuver an inexperienced Feb. 20 protest movement, and engaged in a crackdown on freedom of the press and speech. In the last couple of weeks, the regime has arrested three Moroccans for crimes against his majesty’s person and “defaming Morocco’s sacred values.” In a country where the monarch is inviolable, the use of cartoons depicting the king is considered an outrage to a symbol of the country.

More importantly, a year after the initial mass protests, we need to assess the record of the movement in terms of appeal and success in Morocco. The Feb. 20 movement has undoubtedly sparked a national discussion for institutional changes, but fell short in exercising enough pressure for deeper structural changes to both the political system dominated by the king, and a system of crony-capitalism that has for decades crippled the national economy. The new constitution is an impressive exercise in state management of dissent. Groundbreaking only in its style and cosmetic in terms of real effective change, the constitution allows for greater executive power for the Prime Minister, but falls short in tackling the vast discretionary powers of the monarchy.

The constitution does not address aspects of direly needed reforms. Kleptocracy and nepotism are endemic in the Moroccan administration and economy. No matter how inchoate institutional reforms are, they have to be complemented with stringent, implementable guarantees against abuse of power, corruption, and inequality of the laws. Individual freedom and liberty of the press are guaranteed in the constitution, but have to be safeguarded from the arbitrary abuses of the state. The result is the same maladies of yesteryear: a regime suffering from institutional schizophrenia, promoting inconsequential reforms, and tightening its grip on power and individual freedom.

Even the much-publicized electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party is hardly revolutionary, and is in fact out of sync with the ambitions of millions of Moroccans longing for democratic progress. The elections featured the same panoply of state engineering as past elections. In the absence of rigorous laws against corruption and fraud, one can expect the same old violations. Moroccans abroad were also barred from voting, the electoral districts were drawn arbitrarily to favor pro-palace parties, and some thirty-one parties from different ideological and non-ideological strands saturated the electoral scene. This inevitably bars any one party from gaining an outright majority in the 395-seat parliament. In such an environment, elections have brought minimal political progress to Morocco and are yet another tool for the regime to control the public discourse in the middle of turbulent times for the Middle East and North Africa region. The elections also served to legitimize the cosmetic constitutional changes of July 2011 as the regime sits unchallenged, uncontested, and jubilant.

The success of the regime so far is also a function of the weakness of the protest movement in Morocco. From the very first protests, the movement was beset by reports of infighting, as three founding members called for the cancellation of the demonstrations because of what they perceived as foreign interference with the movement. The movement lacks organization and popular appeal. I was at the movement's post-referendum protests in Marrakech, and the number of protesters was negligible. The results of the referendum have dealt the movement a major blow. It may not prove to be a fatal one, but it has severely restricted the movement’s ability to mount a significant challenge to the edifice of the state in Morocco.

The movement for reform in Morocco has to regroup and recast its message in more strategic ways, focusing on what can be achieved in the short versus long term. Any attempt, or perceived attempt, of reproach for the monarchical institution has to be carefully calibrated, in order to reflect the duality in the modern Moroccan state between the ‘Alaoui monarchical regime and the institutions of the government. The monarchy has been an institution above the political fray, of course, with total control over the travails of the political scene.

The Feb. 20 movement must, at this point, strive for cohesion and build the foundations for an autonomous visionary leadership away from widely perceived "puppet" relationships with the left or the right in Morocco. If this movement is a reflection of the youth movements elsewhere in the Arab world, it has to distance itself from old political and civil society organizations. Most of all, it has to polish its image and message and diversify its sources of information dissemination. Reliance on social media as a sole means of organization may prove limited given the state’s capacity to intercept and manipulate social media massages.

Social media has been crucial as a form of coordination for the Arab protest movements that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, while destabilizing others. Social media significantly increased the geographical reach of social movements and cemented members to each other. However, that same form of organization reduces the cost of participation and can limit the effectiveness of collective action. A movement that relies solely on media activism will inevitably face a greater dilemma of message control and member commitment. Additionally, such movements face the constant dual state response of censorship and propaganda. Social media isolates the movement from the majority non-users of its technological tools. In a country where the majority of population is illiterate, this creates a fundamental problem for the protest movement’s appeal. A mixture of strategies between social media and on the ground mobilization could prove more effective in re-branding the Feb. 20 movement, not just as a channel for disenchanted youth, but as a national movement for socioeconomic and political change.

The Feb. 20 movement is at a loss for a genuine strategy of contestation that provides an alternative challenge to the state discourse of socio-political reforms. Despite continued demonstrations and sit-ins, the movement is dwindling in numbers and has degenerated into unorganized gatherings of popular grievances. Some have suggested the evolution of the Feb. 20 protest movement into a political party; however, that will still not be successful. In the absence of a vibrant political party scene in the country, a new party will simply drown in the current fragmented and carefully managed party system. Instead of party politics, Feb. 20 has to re-organize as a social movement and identify a source for mobilization. As a movement with disruptive potential, its leadership, if any, needs to identify ways to generate and sustain organized mass action with new forms of diffusion and organization.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Time for Diplomacy is Over in Syria

Marc Lynch has written an important piece on the Syrian conflict, in which he opposes the arming of the so called Free Syrian Army. Decrying what he terms as a bandwagon for arming the fighters, Lynch raises some pertinent questions on the usefulness of such undertaking. While I do understand the reservations against the action, I find myself joining this “bandwagon,” and arguing for the empowerment of the opposition movement through military and logistical means.

Granted the leadership and anatomy of such movement is still unclear, it is incumbent upon the international community to engage the opposition in an attempt to identify some viable leadership. Similarly, fears of reprisal by the regime, as Marc Lynch contends, are moot at this point as the Assad killing squads have already escalated their onslaught on civilians. Faced with the current state of affairs, it is immoral to sit idly by while hundreds of innocent Syrians are massacred especially as all avenues for diplomacy and tough sanctions have yielded no results.

Over the last couple of months, the intensity of the carnage has increased and there is no doubt that the Assad regime is now indiscriminately shelling civilian neighborhoods. In his final note from Syria, US ambassador Robert Ford provided satellite images that confirm the presence of mortars and artillery in residential neighborhoods. These are crimes against humanity that have been committed with impunity and little regard for international norms. In the absence of a clear plan to stop the bloodshed and to topple Assad, the international community has no options but to take concrete steps to provide material support for the opposition in Syria.

Even the Arab protocol that called for a Syrian army withdrawal from civilian neighborhood, and a complete cessation of the onslaught was met with the regime’s defiant refusal. But we cannot reply on the Arab League and its corrupt membership of dictatorial states to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people (despite the strong criticism from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia). In an ideal world in which international norms prevail, the massacre of Syrian civilians will be subject to the international norm of responsibility to protect. Under this principle, the international community has a duty to intervene to put an end to state-sponsored mass atrocities against their own people. These include war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

While I tentatively support the arming of the FSA, this can only be of last resort and after we identify its leadership if that exists. It may be an act of desperation, but at this point it is the only option the international community has. The intervention in Libya worked because we could early on identify a somewhat coherent leadership within the Transitional National Council. We may never be able to do so in the case of Syria, but supporting those communities that are most directly under threat from the Syrian state is paramount.

To that end, I find myself in support of the latest Senate bipartisan plan to provide support for the opposition in Syria. The world can no longer watch while a minority regime is engaged in a systematic annihilation of its own people. These actions are not without precedent. In 1999, The United States exerted pressure and facilitated an active plan by NATO to help protect the Kosovars against Serbian ethnic cleansing. In 2011, NATO came to the rescue of the Libyan rebels under regime’s threat of reprisal. In Syria, 6000 people have been killed so far, and many more will join them if there is not a decisive plan that includes building a wider consensus in the region and international about the imperative of the responsibility to protect the Syrian people.