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

Friday, November 8, 2013

The King's Speech: Mohammed VI takes on Human Rights Groups

 Morocco celebrated the 38th anniversary of the "Green March," which commemorates Morocco's annexation of the Western Sahara in 1975 after Spanish withdrawal of the territory. As it is customary, the king of Morocco delivers a speech usually underlining Morocco's position towards the territory and celebrating the kingdom's development projects for the benefits of the Sahrawi people. Wednesday's speech, however, was different as the king went on the offensive against non-governmental organizations' reports on Morocco's human rights violations in the Western Sahara.

Mohammed VI speech comes at a critical time where Morocco is under tremendous scrutiny for its human rights abuses in the Western Sahara, and the attempt by some groups to link human rights issues to the overarching question of self-determination in the territory. In an earlier piece to Muftah, I argued that the conflict is far more complex to be reduced to regime type or claims of human rights abuses. The tenuous nexus between self-determination and the authoritarian nature of the Moroccan state do not advance our understanding of the conflict, nor contribute to a conceptual disaggregation of the various variables and factors hindering a resolution to the problem of self-determination in the territory.

In the "Green March" speech, the king condemned what he perceived as the attempt by some NGOs to "use some isolated incidents to undermine [Morocco's] image and trivialize its human rights and development achievements." In a thinly veiled reference to Algeria, Mohammed VI charged that this "unfair treatment of Morocco" is principally due to the attempt by "rivals (Algeria) that squander the resources of a brotherly people, who is not concerned with this conflict, to buy the voices and positions of anti-Moroccan organizations."  The sovereign's criticism is at its most vociferous when he comparatively points to the plight of human rights abuses in the POLISARIO-controlled camps in Tindouf, Algeria. 

The king's speech comes at a pivotal time in the history of the conflict where the POLISARIO Front has recently been successful in its international public relations campaign to shed more light on the conflict and the plight of the Sahrawi people in the camps in Algeria. The POLISARIO campaign has received high level support, notably from Hollywood A-list actor Javier Bardem whose documentary: "Sons of the Cloud: The Last Colony" has made the rounds of film festivals and governmental hallways capped by a high level viewing in the US Congress. Meanwhile, Morocco's diplomacy is still plagued by endemic incompetence, and its use of traditional forms of lobbying mainly on capitol hill in the United States.

The speech is also a strong indication that Morocco's position is firm when it comes to its commitment to  a comprehensive political solution within the confines of its 2007 proposal for Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.  To that end, Mohammed VI reiterated the kingdom's stance seeking  a "final political solution to the artificial conflict over our territorial integrity, within the framework of our autonomy initiative which has been recognized for its seriousness, credibility and realistic spirit."

The speech is surely going to draw the ire of both the POLISARIO and Algeria, and it is the latest episode in the rhetorical war between the three parties to the conflict over the Western Sahara. Meanwhile, any movement towards a semblance of constructive negotiations remains elusive.

Friday, September 20, 2013

What Vladimir Putin Didn't Say About Libya.

*A Version of this article was published on Muftah

Vladimir Putin’s bold New York Times op-ed piece is a calculated step by the “bear-wrestling” Russian president to reassert his country’s power at the international level.

After publicizing an improbable eleventh-hour plan to disarm Syria of chemical weapons to halt U.S. strikes, Putin penned a public rebuke of the U.S. government. In an article titled, Plea for Caution, Putin publicly chided the United States for its recent military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rebuked the true basis for its military adventures, namely, the much-vaunted “US exceptionalism.”

While Putin’s writing style is terse and direct, his op-ed contains various false and misleading claims. These include Putin’s insistence he was motivated by democratic values and international norms in proposing the disarmament plan.

In fact, Putin’s intervention in the Syrian crisis is a calculated geopolitical move that seeks to reinvent Russia as a super power in the international arena, and major power broker in the Middle East.

Putin also harps on the usual themes of Islamist extremism in the Syrian civil war, as well as radical Islamist abuses against civilians, while ignoring the equally violent and atrocious violations committed by the Syrian regime for the last two years.

But what is perhaps Putin’s most blatant misrepresentation is his attempt to paint NATO’s intervention in the 2011 Libyan conflict as leaving the country worse off.

Putin’s article presents Libya as a country “divided into tribes and clans,” thanks to NATO’s intervention. Contrary to Putin’s claims, however, it is the Libyan experience that demonstrates the positive impact that international intervention in Syria could bring. It is also a reminder of the role Russia has played in ensuring that no such benefit would be realized by the Syrian people.

It is true that, since Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime fell in October 2011, Libya has effectively become a nation of various tribes and clans, and that, at times, this has created various security issues for the North African state’s nascent political system.

But, what Putin failed to mention in his article is that however imperfect the Libyan experience is now, ordinary Libyans are much better off today than during Ghaddafi’s four-decade dictatorship.

Post-Ghaddafi Libya has avoided large-scale civil strife and is slowly moving toward a system of governance that in due time will likely ensure security and order. Libyans currently enjoy a great deal of freedom, particularly when compared to their experiences under Ghaddafi’s regime.

For the most part, the people of Libya remain grateful to the United States and the international community for the military intervention, which greatly degraded Ghaddafi’s forces and precipitated the fall of the country’s authoritarian government.

Libyans are cautiously optimistic about their nascent political experiment, and cognizant that acts of violence and terrorism, which are largely perpetrated by foreign radical factions, are growing pains for their infant country.

Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) has made marked strides toward democracy despite security challenges; the GNC still has no standing military and relies on a fickle mercenary militia force made up of former rebels.

The GNC, along with the current government led by Prime Minister Ali Zidan, has had an unsurprisingly tough time building a new political system after decades of institutional void, amid rising political overreach by Islamist groups.

But, not all is gloom and doom in Libya. The country is still engaged in a slow process of constitution drafting, and is pursuing a National Dialogue initiative that, if successful, will further the country’s democratic transition. Libyan civil society is more vibrant than ever, with various groups and organizations pursuing their particular conceptions of the public good.

Libya is certainly undergoing a tumultuous time, but this might well be a necessary part of the process of birthing a new state and society based on the rule of law and civil rights. Every step forward, no matter how unstable and slow it may be, is viewed by many as a step away from the country’s dark political past.

Unfortunately, at this point, a Libyan-style intervention in Syria might not be possible for several reasons. Libya had a relatively unified opposition in the form of the National Transition Council and a leadership figure in Mustapha Abdul Jalil who managed to rally all Libyans factions behind the cause of fighting Ghaddafi. Syria lacks such leadership, as well as a cohesive opposition amid the thousands of rebel groups, domestic and foreign, that are actively fighting on the ground. Other obstacles to intervention relate to the nature of the U.S.-Russian rivalry in the region as Russia is determined to back its Syrian ally and challenge US historical dominance in the Middle East. Other obstacles are traceable to Russia’s obstructionist posture in the United Nations amidst Russian continuous refusal of any UN Sec Council resolutions on Syria.

While Putin is unfortunately correct in his assessment of Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya has enjoyed monumental institutional achievements since Ghaddafi’s fall.

Libya is arguably one of the hopeful stories of the Arab uprisings, a country in transition that merits international help, in areas such as military training, economic development, institutional building, and conflict resolution, and is far from a cautionary tale for international intervention.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Is Assad Nearing a Libyan Moment?

Now that Obama’s “redline” has been crossed for the second time, the world is holding its breath for a likely military strike against Syria.
Alleged government use of chemical weapons in the early morning hours of August 21st in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus, could be a game changer in the protracted Syrian civil war.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Obama has maintained that use of chemical weapons would change the U.S. “calculus” for intervention in Syria.

On August 30, Obama announced that he will be seeking congressional approval for any military strike on Syria. Obama is shifting responsibility to Congress and the American people after he boxed himself into an arbitrary redline. In the absence of an international coalition, a UNSC resolution, and the UK parliament’s rejection of any British involvement in military action, Obama is trying to save face and his credibility by pursuing the constitutional path on war making, not because he has so much regard for the document for the Constitution didn't stop US intervening in Libya, but because geo-strategic variables are different this time, the president had to adapt and played this so cunningly.

While the United States is unlikely to commit any ground troops amidst general domestic wariness for another war, surgical missile attacks and air strikes against Syrian military facilities may yet be possible.
These incursions may further the heretofore unachieved dream of Syrian rebels to topple President Bashar al-Assad, and draw Syria closer toward a “Libyan moment.”

However, as things currently stand, Obama is far from committed to a sustained course of action in Syria, making it likely that Assad will still be in fighting shape when it is all said and done.
Understandably, the use of chemical weapons is a major fault line in the conflict, since the transport and security of these products is of paramount importance to the international community. Syria reportedly has hundreds of tons of sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agents. If these were to fall into the hands of radical non-state actors, the region could head toward a catastrophic scenario.

Syria continues to be a hotbed for various extremist Islamist groups, which in the event of state collapse may find themselves in control of a huge stockpile of conventional and non-conventional weapons.
Beyond the security concerns, there are humanitarian imperatives at stake, as well. The use of chemical weapons is the ultimate crime against humanity, as is the continued massacre of thousands of Syrians.
More than 100,000 Syrians have perished in the conflict and the international community has provided nothing but perfunctory condemnation. Western reluctance to intervene in Syria has done little but prolong the burgeoning civil war.

Assad’s latest alleged use of chemical weapons could be an indication of his increasing despair in the face of the mounting strength of rebel factions all around Damascus.

Alternatively, it could indicate a new found confidence as his forces, with the help of Hezbollah and the international backing of Russia and China, further consolidate their hold against rebel advances.
By gassing his own people, Assad could also be testing Obama’s “redline”, hoping that the international community will split on the appropriate means to respond to chemical weapons use.

This standoff within the international community could drag on for weeks while Assad’s forces break the will and resolve of the rebels.

But Assad may have misread Obama’s will to enforce his “redline,” which could well prove to be a grave miscalculation on the part of the Syrian president.

As currently imagined, the U.S. military response will be far from sufficient to end the conflict in Syria, amounting to little more than knee-jerk measures against Assad’s transgression of a fault line set by Obama many months ago.

Aimed against select pro-Assad targets, the strikes may help degrade the air and ground capabilities of Syrian government forces. These, however, will be nothing more than a slap on the Syrian president’s wrist.

In the past, this brand of delimited strikes has not served U.S. interests well.

The one exception was the Libya intervention, where a more viable opposition in the form of the Libyan National Transitional Council and wider support among the international community gave the strikes a durability that ultimately led to the toppling of Muammar Ghaddafi.

But, Russia and China felt they were duped in the Libyan case, as the United States went beyond the UN mandate to enforce a no fly zone and actively engaged in supporting opposition efforts at regime change.

Since then, Russia has dug in its heels about possible intervention in Syria. At the same time, the United States has increasingly felt the need to reassert its power in the region, even if this must come through limited, non-committal military action.  

Short of sustained and decisive international military support, Syria’s rebels appear unable to topple Assad. Without international intervention, the country may split into two parallel de facto regions of influence – one controlled by the rebels, and one controlled by the Assad regime.

While strikes would degrade the Syrian government’s military, they will only significantly alter the dynamics of the protracted civil war if sustained and coupled with other decisive military action against Assad's conventional and non-conventional military capabilities.

Only in this case could Syria experience a Libyan moment for its dictator.

In the absence of an international framework, President Obama must clearly articulate what the objectives of a military strike against Syria would be.

The Assad regime has shown utter contempt and disregard for the Syrian people, shelling and now gassing at will in an attempt to punish those who dare defy the president’s dictatorial rule.

Obama has pigeonholed the United States into a military strike, as the country’s credibility and geostrategic prestige risk further deterioration in the region. But reluctant military action is not the solution. The United States should instead work to engage all parties, with the help of Russia and China, to force a negotiated settlement and invest in humanitarian aid to rebuild a devastated Syria.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Interview for al-Jazeera English on Egypt.

This is a short interview I did for al-Jazeera English on Egypt...(Not on the Maghreb for a change).

Monday, June 10, 2013

Erdogan’s Visit to Morocco and the Curious Absence of the King

 *(This article originally appeared in Muftah on Sunday, June 9, 2013)

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan just can’t get a break these days.

The beleaguered, but defiant PM did not let recent demonstrations in several parts of Turkey derail his plans for a North African tour early this past week.

First stop in his Maghreb visit was Morocco, where he was received by his counterpart Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, who has long sought to model his Islamist party, the Justice and Development party (PJD) along the lines of Erdogan’s AKP government.

This was supposed to be an important trip for both Turkey and Morocco, and a crowning moment for Benkirane’s government.

Any visit from such an important state delegation is almost always granted a royal séance with His Majesty, King Mohammed VI. This was particularly expected in this instance, after Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Saad Eddine al-Othmani promised his Turkish counterparts that the king would in fact meet with Erdogan.

To everyone’s surprise and Benkirane’s embarrassment, the king did not visit with Erdogan during his abbreviated one-day stay in Morocco. King Mohammed VI was not even in the country, having been in France since May for undisclosed reasons.

The palace-coopted business association confédération générale des entreprises du Maroc (CGEM) also boycotted Erdogan’s visit, refusing to meet with the Turkish prime minister.

Erdogan is said to have been royally angry at the cold reception he received in Morocco and with the king’s failure to meet him. A photo op between Erdogan and Benkriane is telling, showing a tense Erdogan and an uneasy Benkirane, who is perhaps diffusing the situation and making excuses for his majesty’s absence.

On the next leg of his trip, Erdogan visited Algeria where he was again snubbed, this time by President Abel‘Aziz Bouteflika, who coincidentally was also in France at the time.

In Morocco, Erdogan’s visit amplified discussions about the whereabouts of the country’s sovereign. Was the king avoiding Erdogan for political reasons? Was it an assiduous move by the palace to embarrass its embattled PJD-led government? Or was the king simply unavailable to meet foreign dignitaries for reasons beyond anyone’s control?

In addition to domestic political reasons, rumors have been swirling about the king’s long hiatus. Some suggest that the king is “gravelyill” and probably receiving medical treatment in his chateau in Betz, France. The king’s medical status is a sensitive state issue, about which mere speculation could lead to judicial prosecution. IdrissChahtane, the editor of the Moroccan weekly news publication al-Misha’al, was sentenced to a year in prison in 2009 for a story about the king’s health.

Neverthless, speculation about the king’s trips abroad is always rife. Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla wrote an excellent editorial in the independent Moroccan news website Lakome on the king’s recent absence.

Anouzla calculated that between January and June 2013, the king has been abroad for 57 days, none of which has been publicly disclosed by the palace. Nor did the king formally empower any other branch of government to run state affairs in his absence.

Morocco’s monarch, unlike heads of state in other countries, is under no obligation to disclose his official business or holiday calendar. The Ministry of Palaces and Protocol and the king’s palace staff serve at his pleasure, and are not subject to any legislative or judicial oversight. The king’s movement and related expenses are confidential and are beyond any form of accountability. His absence is nothing new to the average Moroccan - most do not even know when he is and is not in the country.

Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that the king’s failure to meet with Erdogan was a major embarrassment for Benkirane and an insult to one of Morocco’s important trading partners. Since the two countries entered into a Free Trade Agreement in 2006, annual bilateral trade has steadily grown reaching over US$1 billion in 2011,

Despite the on-going protests in Turkey, Erdogan continues to be among the most popular figures in the Middle East and North Africa region. The palace knew this visit could have been a crowning moment for Benkirane’s government, and may have wanted to minimize its importance to undermine any political dividends that could accrue to the PJD.

The PJD government has scrambled to dismiss negative reports about the Erdogan trip, arguing that the visit was a resounding “success.” These days, the PJD is in need of any sort of political victory, as a schism created within its parliamentary coalition by the Istiqlal party continues to fester. The Istiqlal’s mercurial Secretary General Hamid Shabat, announced in May that his party will be withdrawing from the government coalition with PJD because of differences over planned socio-economic reform policies of the PJD government. The monarch long seen as the arbiter within a tightly controlled political environment in Morocco, intervened personally from his vacation in France to convince Shabat to stay put until his return.

Shabat and Istiqlal have been calling for greater power within the PJD-led government, and this could be part of a strategy to force the PJD to reshuffle the government with more ministerial portfolios given to the Istiqlal. This political crisis also highlights the palace’s role in diffusing fabricated tension in the Moroccan fragmented party scene. Even away from the country, the king remains firmly in control of all the levers of power, as even Shabat is said to be waiting for royal instructions about his party’s withdrawal. That is whenever the king comes back from his long hiatus, which seems to have caused quite the stir.

Abdallah Bouanou, the head of the PJD in parliament, stated that the reasons for cancelation of the royal meeting with Erdogan are unknown. There is no doubt that PJD is not privy to reasons for the royal absence, but it is difficult to fathom that within the edifice of a supposed modern state, the highest echelons of political power have no clue as to the cause for such poor diplomatic planning.

We may never know the true reasons for this fiasco, but the fact remains that Erdogan’s visit came and went without the usual pomp and circumstance accorded to foreign dignitaries of his stature. No red carpet was laid out before the royal palace, and that has definitely left a bad taste in Erdogan’s mouth as he continues to fight his own battles at home in Turkey.

As for the king of Morocco, reports suggest that he will go to Turkey on an official visit in the near future, perhaps in an effort to make amends for the “snub”, and personally offer polite excuses his own subjects in Morocco may never hear about.