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

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tunisia's Latest Political Success

Tunisia has passed yet another test on the long road to democratic consolidation. The election on Baji Caid Essebsi as the first freely elected president of Tunisia comes at the heels of his party’s legislative victory last month. Indeed, these have been two glorious months for Essebsi’s Nida’ Tounes, and for Tunisians’ path towards setting democratic, peaceful transition of power amidst the abysmal failure of the Arab uprisings. In purely democratic fashion, The 88 year-old Essebsi received a concession from former interim president Moncef Marzouki, and pledged to be inclusionary of the different political movements in Tunisia.

Essebsi’s majoritarian victory is not one of democracy against Islamism as some may suggest. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and such dichotomy is reductionist and essentialist. Islamists are not monolithic and most of them are committed to democratic principles. Essebsi and Nida’ Tounes’s electoral triumph (Essebsi's 55.68% to, interim president, Moncef Marzouki’s 44.32%) is simply a statement of whom the Tunisians electorate entrust at this particular juncture with the colossal task of economic and political development in the country.

Nida’ Tounes and Essebsi now control both the executive and legislative branches of government. This presents tremendous challenges for the secular octogenarian Essebsi, and his secular party to deliver where the defeated Islamist Ennahda failed. In particular, Tunisia’s new leadership has now a complete mandate to tackle security issues and reinvigorate the flailing economy. Furthermore, Essebsi, a former interior minister in the repressive Bourguiba era, and speaker of the parliament during Ben Ali’s autocratic state, is now a legitimate custodian of this transition, and has to work to further entrench democratic political practices and governance.

While free, fair, and competitive, last week’s elections do not signal that democracy is the “only game in town” in Tunisia yet. Tunisia’s institutions must be imbued with mechanisms for inter-institutional accountability, especially when it comes to building an independent judiciary. Without such strong foundations for horizontal accountability and rule of law, Tunisia’s nascent political experiment will never fully succeed as a truly democratic state, and could risk devolving into more of a Latin American model of delegative democracies, whereby electorally-chosen presidents ushered in a tradition strong presidentialist systems, and wielding greater power than other branches of government, amidst absent patterns of representation. Tunisia must steer away from South American presidencialismo, and institute a genuine system of institutional checks and balances.

Tunisia has so far shown great attitudinal and constitutional proclivity towards the democratic process. Tunisians increasingly believe that political change must be performed within democratic parameters. Government and non-government forces have shown, even with the Islamists of Ennahda, that the resolution of political conflicts is negotiated through pacts, democratic laws, and institutions. It behooves Tunisia’s new political elite to further consolidate legal and political institutions, and to strive to keep Tunisia as the only ray of hope in the maelstrom of the post-Arab uprisings.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The King's Speech on Green March Day

King Mohammed VI delivered his toughest, and strongly-worded speech yet on the Western Sahara. In his annual televised Green March Day speech, Mohammed VI reiterated Morocco’s stance on the conflict that has pitted Morocco, against the Polisario Front, and Algeria for almost four decades. Much like previous speeches, Mohammed VI advanced Morocco’s position for an autonomy arrangement for the Sahrawis under Moroccan sovereignty. This stance has been Morocco’s unwavering offer since 2006, and it is difficult to foresee a different path to conflict resolution in the Western Sahara. The king reiterated in the strongest terms that the Sahara is "an existential issue, not a border issue" for Morocco. This discourse is in line with previous speeches where Morocco has maintained consistency in its policy towards the conflict. Mohammed VI affirmed his commitment to a negotiated solution that takes into consideration the Moroccan autonomy plan, confessing that as a crown prince he negotiated in the Polisario camps in Tindouf. 

The king’s speech on the Western Sahara would not be complete without criticism of Algeria’s role in the conflict as an integral party to the hostilities in the region. The speech echoed the tone and tenor of previous discourse on the Western Sahara where the monarch appeared stern towards the neighboring north-African country: "Without holding Algeria responsible, as a key party to the conflict, there will not be a solution."

Unlike previous speeches though, the monarch lamented what he perceives as the ambiguity of the US position towards the Western Sahara, especially as the US continues to herald the kingdom as a “model for democratic development”, and “a partner in combatting terrorism in the region.” The royal comments towards the US are not expected to force any change in the American recalcitrant stance towards the issue, as any clear penchant towards Morocco could negatively affect US-Algeria relations, itself a key partner against terrorism in the Sahel.

The sovereign also cautioned Moroccans against “conspiring with the enemy” stating that "those that continue to betray the country, are considered traitors by national and international laws,” and that “a person can either be a patriot or a traitor” This dichotomous, zero-sum position indicates that the monarch is increasingly annoyed with the demands for reforms, and demonstrations against Moroccan human rights violations in the Western Sahara. Mohammed VI concluded that Morocco's stance is unchanged and that "the autonomy initiative is the maximum Morocco can offer in terms of negotiations to achieve a final solution to this regional conflict."

The king's speech is the latest pronouncement on Morocco's intransigent position in a conflict that has been in quagmire since the UN-brokered cease fire in 1991. Historical and identity issues, in addition to regional realpolitik tensions between Morocco and Algeria have virtually made it impossible to find a comprehensive solution to the conflict. The lack of will on the part of the international community, and regional security issues also favor the status-quo. Any solution to the stalemate will have to address all of these factors, and the plight of the Sahrawi people in the Tindouf camps in Algeria.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Elections and Democratic Gains in Tunisia

The latest elections in Tunisia have firmly set the country on a solid path towards full democratic transition. In a region rife with ideological and doctrinal conflicts, and amidst the failure of the Arab uprisings to bring about meaningful regime change, Tunisia stands as the only ray of hope. The electoral defeat of the Islamists of Ennahda and subsequent concession to Nida' Tounes (Tunisia's Call) party show how far the democratic values have been entrenched in Tunisia’s political culture. Contrary to confrontationist views on political Islam, these elections are not an indictment against radical anachronistic Islamists, nor have the Islamists engaged in electoral dissimulation, or attempted an abrogation of the electoral processes. 

Nida' Tounes's victory is not a blow to political Islam as much as it is a momentous event highlighting the success of the democratic political process in Tunisia. The results of the elections and the vast plurality of the votes that the Bourguibist-secular Nida' Tounes accumulated on Sunday are a reaction to societal disappointment with Ennahda’s governance and inability to tackle the many socio-economic problems and security challenges that Tunisia is facing prior to their forced retreat from power a year ago.

Nida' Tounes faces a monumental task to deliver now that they are set to rule over a coalition government. Concerns over the membership of Nida' Tounes, however, could overshadow their mandate over the next few years. Nida' Tounes is made up of former regime functionaries and politicians. The party has worked diligently to distance itself from ties to deposed president Zine al-‘Abidine Ben 'Ali and his former party of power the RCD (French Acronym for Democratic Constitutional Rally). For now the plurality of Tunisians have accepted the narrative of Nida'. But as the new government tackles some of the pressing socio-economic issues of the country, and in the case of under-performance or  potential setbacks, old skeletons may resurface again tying the party to the tejma’a of former RCD-ist members. Nida' Tounes’s octogenarian leader Beji Caid Essebsi’s decision to seek the election in the presidential elections set for November 23rd is also causing much consternation from Tunisians concerned about a total Nida' dominance of both the executive and legislative branches of government. 

In the spirit of the democratic and civil constitution, however, political actors from Nida' Tounes and Ennahda expressed their renewed commitment to a peaceful political transition. Beji Caid Essebsi, himself a relic from both Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes, has so far channeled the right message in victory stating that Nida' will not govern alone, even if it means a coalition with Ennahda. That is unlikely, however, for Nida' will probably court its own family of leftist parties to join in the new government. Leftist secular UPL (French acronym for Free Patriotic Union) of Slim Riahi, sometimes dubbed as the Tunisian Berlusconi, is already setting conditions to join Nida' in the new government with demands for meaningful cabinet portfolios.  

Ennahda Islamist party is reeling after its failure to capitalize on the popularity and momentum it garnered after the fall of Ben 'Ali's dictatorship in the initial stages of the Arab spring. The party suffered from lack of experience in governance, false perceptions of association to radical Islamists, and marred by two high profile political assassinations of leading secular politicians under its watch. These fed into the general sense of insecurity Tunisians have felt under Ennahda, especially as the rest of the Middle East and North Africa is rife with radical Islamist extremism. Ennahda has also paid the price for its inability to deal effectively with the economic challenges, and general political reforms that Tunisia still needs especially in the area of the judiciary. Its leader Ghannouchi perhaps spent more time making the case for the compatibility between democracy and political Islam abroad than at home.

Tunisia is steadily inching towards democratic consolidation where fair, free, and competitive elections, rule of law, and respect for civil liberties become the “only game in town.” Tunisians are undergoing vast behavioral and attitudinal changes. While Tunisians’ confidence in democracy is waning as the latest pre-elections Pew survey shows, belief in further political change through democratic means is still strong. Democratic consolidation, however, can only be further advanced if government forces in Tunisia continue to resort to constitutional means to resolve conflicts, and build areas of compromise within the boundaries of state institutions.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Status of Human Rights in the Polisario Front Camps

Human Rights Watch has released a recent report on the status of human rights in the Polisario-run comps in Tindouf, Algeria. In the report, the human rights vanguard organization lists a series of human rights violations by the Polisario Front in the areas of judicial rights, freedom of speech, and some cases of slavery-like practices:
"While the Polisario tolerates some speech and demonstrations critical of its governance, Human Rights Watch heard credible allegations that authorities harassed some critics for speaking out. In addition, the rights of some civilians tried before military courts have been abridged, and slavery-like practices continue to exist in isolated cases."
The Human Rights organization issued some recommendations both to the Polisario Front and the Algerian government:
"The Polisario Front should end military court jurisdiction over civilians and redouble its efforts to eradicate all vestiges of slavery, Human Rights Watch said. The Front should ensure that camp residents are free to challenge its policies and leadership peacefully and to advocate options other than independence for Western Sahara. Algeria should publicly acknowledge its legal responsibility for ensuring respect for the rights of everyone on its territory, including residents of the Polisario-run refugee camps."
The 94-page report, "Off the Radar: Human Rights in the Tindouf Refugee Camps,"comes out amidst mounting pressure, especially on Morocco for human rights violations in the Western Sahara. In a previous article, I was, and remain, critical of the narrow approach to the conflict solely in terms of the authoritarian nature of the Moroccan state and its human rights violations in the territory. Then and now, the issue is one of self-determination and an identity conflict that should take in to consideration the historical claims to the territory by Morocco.

In the absence of UN human rights monitoring, the report by Human Rights Watch is one of the few reliable source the internal community has about the status of human rights in the disputed territory. It provides a much needed look at the conditions of the Sahrawis living under Polisario rule, and offers some balance to the one-sided focus on Moroccan autocratic violations.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Firebrand Rapper Arrested in Morocco...Again.

Morocco’s revolutionary rapper, Mou’ad Belghouat, is arrested again. After a year in jail for fictitious charges, El Haqed (the Indignant) was arrested Sunday outside Mohammed V Stadium where his favorite Raja de Casablanca football club was to play arguably one of its important matches of the season. Like any football fan in Casablanca, El Haqed, with his brother and friends, was strolling into the stadium when he was arrested by police officers for scalping tickets in the black market. This is hardly an offense in any world stadiums, and is a vindictive trumped-up charge to settle scores with a virulent critic of the regime and state.

The circumstances of his arrest are not still fully clear. Moroccan activist Zineb Belmkaddem provides one of the best accounts thus far on this latest episode of state brutality against the Kingdom’s fiercest rapper. Belmkaddem spoke with El Haqed’s brother, Hamza Belghouat, who was arrested as well, taken to the police station, allegedly beaten, and released Sunday night. Belmkaddem writes:

“As soon as he [El Haqed] got to the gates with his brother and his friends, police approached them and immediately targeted Mouad [ElHaqed]. One officer made it clear that he needed to settle something with him. Police then accused him of buying tickets from the black market, and proceeded to beat him and his brother into submission when he objected and denied their allegations. They cuffed him shortly after and took both brothers, while allowing their other friends with the same regular tickets to run. “It looked as though it was premeditated, they acted as if they’d already planned to brutally assault us both at first, arrest us, take our belongings, beat us some more, then keep Mouad in custody”. Hamza continued to describe the situation as an appalling and humiliating experience: “They hurt him badly in his hands, I saw the marks… they dragged us into one of those blue police vans and beat us even more. The aftertaste is always horrible. They insulted us and attacked us for five hours during the interrogation. It was so humiliating. They took my smartphone, then took us to the 15th (name of one of the police stations in Casablanca). They then kept my things, let me go, and kept Mouad locked up”.
El Haqed released his second album a couple of months ago, entitled “Walou” (nothing), in which he decries a state of despair and futility living under current political and economic conditions in Morocco. In the Album, El Haqed criticizes in familiar themes to his past songs, notably his incendiary “Klab ad-Dawla” (Dogs of the State), the state of social injustice, corruption, and hopelessness rampant among the youth.  In the song “Walou”, El Haqed advances an almost nihilistic view of Morocco where there is larger state of worthlessness of all existing political and social structures:

“Walou...(nothing)..No culture, no art, no creativity, no writers, no society, no associations, no parties..dumb down, dumb down the people”

Since the release of his album, El Haqed is said to have been waiting for the state’s retaliation, and it is hardly a surprise that the forces of order would seek the most repugnant ways to silence an artist in his quest to express the frustrations of many of his generation.

Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once said: “Censorship is advertising paid for by the government.”  Harassment of El Haqed will certainly further highlight his songs and lyrics. His latest album “Walou”, available in its entirety on YouTube, will garner much wider appeal and viewership now that he is prosecuted by the state. Authoritarian states still do not fathom that muzzling dissident voices only amplify their message in the most poignant manner. It also provides a focal point for increased protests and opposition to state authority. The latest arrest of El Haqed further highlights the setbacks that Morocco has undergone since the passage of the much-heralded new constitution of July 2011. A constitution that was promulgated after the initial sparks of the Arab uprisings, and supposedly guarantee freedom of speech, including artistic expression, and journalistic independence.

The Moroccan authorities have effectively lost the compass in recent months clamping down on all vestiges of individual freedom, especially those that are critical of its structures and policies. Journalist and fierce critic of the state, Ali Anouzla, is still in prison waiting for trial for ludicrous charges of supporting terrorist groups. The state is flexing its muscles after the failure of the protest movement to mount a significant challenge to the regime. Increased state confidence is palpable in its unjust and shameful treatment of dissident voices. The State ought to tackle real issues of concern to Moroccans, the same issues that are treated in El Haqed’s lyrical diatribes, and Anouzla’s incisive columns. Instead, the authorities seek to silence, the bearers of those messages.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Interview on Libya on Al-Jazeera English

This is my short commentary on Libya on Al-Jazeera English. I basically argue that Libya's current situation is precarious given the lack of central governmental authority, and schism between the western/eastern parts of the country over power and economic resources highlighted by the issue of the "Morning Glory" Tanker. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Morocco's Lobbying for Authoritarianism and the Western Sahara

Several recent articles on Morocco advance the kingdom’s lobbying efforts in D.C. as a main catalyst for both  US complacency towards the kingdom’s authoritarian edifice, and tacit support for Morocco’s general aims in the Western Sahara. In a Foreign Policy piece, the authors review a litany of lobbying strategies Morocco has employed to sway US policy makers into supporting Morocco’s claims in the Western Sahara conflict. According to the article, Morocco has lavished some $20 million on PR and interest group firms, which have been active in making the case for the kingdom in its fight to maintain control over the Western Sahara. The article contends that the kingdom's lobbying firms in Washington D.C. have spent that sum on the national legislatures, the executive branch, and journalists:

 Altogether, since 2007 the kingdom has spent roughly $20 million lobbying policymakers and soliciting sympathetic coverage from journalists in the United States on all issues, including Western Sahara. In 2009, it lobbied members of Congress, the executive branch and journalists more than any other Arab country -- more than twice as much as Egypt, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for government accountability and transparency.

In another article on Morocco's lobby efforts in the U.S. entitled, derisively, "The Arab Exception", Ahmed Benchemsi attributes the U.S. tolerance of Morocco's authoritarianism to strategic irrelevance and relativism among U.S. foreign policy circles. Quoting a conversation with a US foreign policy expert, Benchemsi writes: "Still, the main reason behind U.S. tolerance for Morocco’s serious shortcomings might be more cynical—and more painful for the kingdom to accept. As a U.S. foreign policy specialist put it to me bluntly: “Morocco benefits from a combination of relativism—whatever happens there is less tragic than the Mideast’s bloody ordeals—and irrelevance. Since there is no real interest at stake, there is no reason to scratch under Morocco’s surface.” Who has time for that in D.C. anyway?"

The latest attention to Morocco’s lobbying efforts in the US are not, on face value, nefarious because various foreign countries are in constant competition to cajole US affections. For every lobbying attempt by Morocco, Algeria, and the POLISARIO, no matter how modest in comparison to Morocco's, are courting their own machines of pressure in the US and Europe. According to a 2011 report by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, Morocco is the leading Arab country in lobbying operations in the US with 653 contacts, followed by the U.A.E (407 contacts), and Egypt (306 contacts). Morocco's regional foe and other shadow party to the Western Sahara conflict, Algeria. had only 50 contacts.

Despite all of the exorbitant sums of money spent on lobbying, Morocco's political lobbying proxies are actually under performing, amidst a marked international shift towards the right of self-determination of Sahrawi people in the region. Such shift is the result of tremendous pressure group activity on Capitol Hill, accentuated by the high profile lobbying efforts, for instance, of Hollywood's own Javier Bardem and the congressional screening he organized for his documentary: "Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony", which documents plight of Sahrawi people in the territory. Similarly, Morocco's lobbyists couldn't prevent the Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights from publishing a scathing report on the status of human rights and Moroccan violations of individual freedoms in the Western Sahara.

Morocco's attempt to court friendly attention in Washingtonm, D.C., while financially costly, is not as successful as the Foreign Policy article contends. Nor are they the greatest impediment to democratic progress in the Kingdom as Benchemsi contends. Far from excusing Morocco’s authoritarian system and the fortification of the autocratic state in the kingdom, lobbying is only an epiphenomenal factor in the explanation. Morocco’s edifice of authoritarianism is located more in domestic variables of state manipulation, limited cosmetic reforms that amount to nothing but discursive attempts to pacify societal angst, and the distribution of patronage among state and society elite.those are more proximate causes for the current state of authoritarianism in the kingdom, even in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, fledgling protest movements, and a new watered-down constitution.