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

Thursday, June 14, 2012

On Morocco's Supposed Reforms

*This article is originally written for and appeared in Muftah today.

While Morocco continues to be hailed as a model for democratic reform and an exception to the Arab tempest of change, several indictors point to the fossilized and increasingly repressive behavior of the state. The Moroccan government has longed reveled in a myopic and contradictory strategy of institutional and constitutional manipulation. A recent article in the Washington Post exposes these flagrant contradictions in the form of regime promotion of the multi-million dollar music festival, “Mawazine,” starring the likes of Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, versus its unjust imprisonment of Moroccan rapper Mouad Belghouat, aka “El 7aqed” (the indignant). El 7aqed was indicted and sentenced on May 11 to a year in jail on charges of contempt against public servants for his fiery anti-police song “Dogs of the State.”

Perhaps in a similar vain to the American rap group NWA in the 1990s, El 7aqed sought to express widely held indignation about police corruption in Morocco. Unlike the United States though, freedom of expression is severely limited in the kingdom and El 7aqed’s lyrics were deemed offensive to the state.

El 7aqed’s case is but one example of the state’s purposeful policy of promoting an environment of social activism and freedom of expression, buttressed by cosmetic constitutional reforms, while at the same time, undermining those same rights through summary indictments and unfair sentences.  This is a calculated strategy meant to show the limits of freedom of the press and expression, and to define the contours of tolerated speech.

This strategy was particularly evident in the case of Moroccan journalist, Rachid Nini, who was arrested and sentenced on charges of "offense against national and citizens' security." The vagueness of the charge thinly masks the true nature of the indictment against Nini, who was rounded up for his critical stances against the government and, at times, vociferous comments about immorality and venality in Moroccan politics.

Morocco's attempt to shed the relics of its past limitations on associational and informational freedom has long been beset by unease toward the press' increasing criticism of the state. However, if the country is to achieve genuine democratic reform, freedom of the press must be one of the main elements of current debate in Morocco. Reforms can only start at the altar of the press, which is a watchdog for the travails of state-society negotiations.

The Moroccan government cannot claim reform and change on one hand, while continuing to brutalize society on the other. Democracy does not work without the rule of law and individual freedoms. Both precepts have been  violated in the case of El 7aqed and Rachid Nini. The repression against theses individuals and their work has only refocused attention on the state’s shortcomings in managing an increasingly volatile social and political milieu rife with indignation and dissent.

Several people I have spoken to in Morocco maintain that the recent constitutional reforms, enacted in July 2011, are useless without the political will to implement them, especially those articles dealing with individual and group liberties and the rule of law. The last six months of Islamist-led government have seen slight, but largely inconsequential changes, and, even then, mostly in tone, rather than tenor. For instance, while the Islamist Minister of Justice, Mustapha ar-Ramid, pledged greater reforms and independence of the justice system, judicial progress has thus far been absent from politically motivated cases.

During a recent workshop I conducted for some 25 social activists in the Marrakech region, I was struck by the determination and enthusiasm evinced by young Moroccan activists. Committed in their desire for democratic reforms, they  all expressed frustration at the state’s lack of political will to partner and promote socio-political projects. For the Moroccan government, social activism is only an additional venue to exert its vast control. By drowning civil society with thousands of associations and organizations, the state has attempted to limit the lobbying potential of activists, and has inserted key pro-state associations that feign independence while tacitly promoting regime interests.

Morocco is dominated by a carefully-engineered political system, where every structure, institution, and organization plays a particular role in advancing “makhzen” power.[1] The regime has managed an increasingly fragmented political party scene and devised what political scientist Ellen Lust has termed a “divided structure of contestation” that allows selected political opponents to take part in the political system, while excluding others. These structures condition relations between the government and opposition groups, dictate the rules of the game within the formal political system, and help state agents infiltrate Moroccan political electoral contests and civil society organization to create new allies for the regime.

Civil society has been successful over the years in bringing about many policy changes in the areas of human rights, family law, and gender equality. The state has, however, been able to co-opt and set the boundaries for activism on such issues. Women's rights, human rights and democratic reforms are but a few examples of the state's attempt to redefine the main points of contention during electoral contests and within civil society. Furthermore, the state has sought to fully integrate these discourses in the apparatus of the state. For instance, institutionalization of women rights discourse has occurred through the creation of the blue ribbon Cell for the Integration of Women in Development (CIFD), which was entrusted with the task of reforming the Moudawana (family code).

The slight Islamist electoral victory last November, the cosmetic constitutional changes of July 2011, and the semblance of a vibrant civil society serve to legitimize the Moroccan system, but undermine democratic progress in a country that stand as an exception to the vast popular changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa region. Until there are meaningful and thorough reforms to the core structure of Makhzenite power and its feudal control over the kingdom’s economic sectors, democratic progress will remain elusive in Morocco, a mere illusion touted in international forums as a model for other Arab states.

[1] Makhzen refers to the state apparatus made of the monarchy and the political elite in control of the state and economy in Morocco

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Aftermath of the Legislative Elections in Algeria: Women Made History and Hopes for True Change

Many thanks to Algerian journalist and blogger Kamel Mansari, who was kind enough to contribute a guest post to Maghreb Blog on last month's legislative elections in Algeria. 

Aftermath of the Legislative Elections in Algeria: Women Made History and Hopes for True Change
By Kamel Mansari*
ALGIERS -- A young man sits inside a crowded cafe here on a recent Thursday afternoon, watching Al Jazeera sports channel’s broadcast of a football  match between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, the semi-final of the European Champions’ league. He focuses on the plasma TV on the top of a counter where the waiter puts ashtrays to be emptied, before returning back to the packed and noisy tables. Kareem is mostly watching this match to admire the magic touches of his favorite French star, Franck Ribery, the Bayern’s player who embraced Islam and who is married to an Algerian.

In his early 20s, Kareem Mokhtari abandoned school five years ago and often sneaks into the cafe to find refuge. He is part of the unemployed masses of young people in Algeria, who watch football to escape their daily constraints and frustrations in Bab el-Oued, a district of the capital Algiers that was an Islamist stronghold in the 1990s. Dozens of civilians, including journalists, were killed in the district during that decade. While he is still watching his favorite player, the official Algerian TV channels broadcast the opening session of the newly elected parliament. Kareem has no idea what is going on the other side of the channels. The cafe owner knows that football is the air his clients breath besides cigarette smoke.

On May10, legislative elections were held in Algeria, and the turnout was low. Some 42 per cent of the voters showed up at the polls, according to the official figures. Kareem is among the thousands of young people who did not turn out to vote because they do not trust the politicians. Polls have shown young Algerians do not believe that elections could bring changes to their daily life. They still dream of leaving the country, but the economic crises in Europe or Canada and elsewhere in the West have frozen their will to leave.
“I did not vote. I don’t believe elections could ever change my life,” says Kareem while sipping his “goudron” a local name for a short espresso.  “Most of the members of the Parliament hone in on their own interests and future carriers”, Kareem says. Nepotism still happens in Algeria, with family members or friends of influential people receiving high-paying government jobs. “Nepotism and corruption still represent a huge obstacle to local development, and the government does little to fight it”, said Faycal Mataoui, a journalist at El Watan, one of the largest French-language newspapers in Algeria.

The government has taken on many huge projects such an East-West highway that cost US$20 billion, but the projects did not help the unemployment rate. Oil-rich Algeria is home to 36 million inhabitants. The country has US$300 billion in its coffers from oil production, but still 12 per cent are unemployed. The government tries to give loans to young people but most of the money is “hijacked by influential groups or given to people who are not unemployed.” Says Mataoui.

No Algeria Spring
Abdenour Ziani assumes that government loans attract greedy people, mafia groups or are spent on small businesses that do not generate high employment.
“The government has not been convincing during the past four years, that is why most of the Algerians hesitate to vote,” says Abdennour, who operates a retail shop in El Harrach, one of the most populous areas of Algiers. “Algeria has a pretty good chance to be a leading country in North Africa during a time where neighbouring countries are subject to turmoil in the aftermath of the Arab spring”, he said.

The Algerian Prime-Minister Ahmed Ouyahia admitted for the first time, on June 2nd, that Mafia money is controlling the biggest investments, a situation that may cause troubles in the country. The “Arab spring” did not knock at Algeria’s door. It has happened, indeed, years before in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. On October 1988, riotous demonstrations and disturbances by Algerian youth led to the fall of the country's single-party system and the introduction of democratic and economic reform. But, in January 1992, the Army cancelled parliamentary elections that the Islamic salvation Front, an Islamist party, seemed set to win, paving the way to an unprecedented violence. Some 150,000 are believed to have been killed in a decade of violence.

The violence and chaos of the 1990s has left Algerians traumatic about echoing the upheavals in other Arab countries  “What happened during the 1990’s freezes hell. Algerians are upset but no one wants to revisit the tormenting years”, said Naim Zaidi, Professor of political science at the University of Algiers.

In the meantime, debates were heating up on Facebook between supporters of the soft democratic changes and the sceptics. A fan page called “vote or no vote”, created by a group of activists is receiving a deluge of comments. Khaled Merouani, an Algerian who is managing the page, says he is amazed by the number of visitors it attracts. “I was overwhelmed by the nature of the comments. Some were inflammatory against the government and against some public figures. I had to delete some in the beginning after some criticism, but now I am convinced the debate is healthy,” he said.

Many facebookers are accusing the president Abdel’aziz Bouteflika of not having the guts to make the right decisions to fight corruption and others simply believe he has done a great job by getting Algeria back to a stable situation. Last April, Bouteflika ensured that the country would go into further democratic reforms that includes authorizing private owned TV channels.  
Islamist Disillusion
In May’s election pro-government parties FLN and RND won the majority of the seats in the elections, but the opposition rejected the results saying the votes were rigged. Algeria's ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) has won 220 seats out of 462 seats. The National Democratic Rally (RND) placed second with 68 seats in the National People's Assembly, while the Islamist Alliance of Green Algeria came third with 48 seats. The Socialist Forces Front won 21 seats, followed closely by the Workers' Party with 20. Independent candidates took 19 seats, while the Algerian National Front and the Justice and Development Party won nine and seven seats respectively. The Islamists who ran a large campaign were the big losers. They were promising a sweeping victory in line with what happened in Tunisia, Morocco; but say there was huge electoral fraud in the voting. 
The local and parliament elections usually do not attract the voters the way a presidential election does. Most of them support Bouteflika but do not trust the parties. Bouteflika, 75, has been in office since 1999 and was re-elected twice, in 2004 and 2009.  He is believed to be sick since December 2005 when he had a stomach surgery in a military hospital in Paris. Bouteflika is expected to quit in 2014.

Women were the big winners. Some 146 women, a record number, were elected to the parliament. The proportion of women elected is higher than that in France, the United States or any other country in the West. Compared to other countries in the MENA region, women in Algeria are more active in policy through parties or local NGOs. Women electoral victory is believed to be an unexpected evolution in a country that is 99 per cent Muslim.
But many Algerians like Kareem still hold out hopes that real changes occur when they are provided with jobs and housing opportunities that are becoming rare in Algeria.

*Kamel Mansari is the editor-in-chief at Le Jeune Independent and prior to that he was deputy editor-in-chief at Ech-chorouk Arabic daily newspaper, and a reporter at the newswire service Algeria press service. He is also a TV correspondent and writes in Arabic, English and French for various international newspapers and websites.  He is also a journalism and multimedia strategist and trainer.