Ben Barka: The Lost Legacy

In a recent essay on the legacy of the Moroccan historic opposition figure Mehdi Ben Barka, abducted in Paris 45 years ago last week, blogger The Moorish Wanderer expresses some interesting thoughts on the malaise amongst the Left in Morocco today. He echoes the sense of resignation and disappointment amongst many progressives throughout the region.

The crisis of the Left is not peculiar to this region of course as it affects progressive movements and parties broadly and in different parts of the world, but it raises some legitimate concerns in the Arab world where it seems to have lost the candor of its beginnings, no longer able to recover from decades of misuse and abuse, unable to offer a solid alternative to mounting conservatism.

Although my friend is not questioning the core values of the Left, I know many others do. Some even wonder if the Left still means anything anymore. But we have many examples today where the legacy of past struggles has eventually, and rather brilliantly, materialized.

Young Mehdi Ben Barka

In Latin America the revival of the Left has led to the establishment of vibrant democracies across the continent. Last Sunday we witnessed a confirmation of that in Brazil when Dilma Rousseff was elected as first woman leader to succeed President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The life and struggle of Che Guevara may not have been in vain after all. Now, from this side of the Atlantic, I reckon there are at least two important lessons to be identified from the Latin American experiment: (1) Dogmatism within any given frame of ideology is a killer for democracy. By the same token, it is a killer for the Left itself. I’m thinking here of the time and lives wasted in Latin America when social and liberal democrats could have worked together from the 60s onward, to overrule the debilitating influence fanatics of either side of the cold war divide had on their region of the world. (2) Sticking to one’s own political principles, standing firm and refusing to be co-opted by corrupt undemocratic regimes is an invaluable impetus for and healthy investment in democracy. In Latin America it has proven to be a way of guarantying the inexorable march towards democracy.

Although the Arab Left had been through similar patterns of political struggle in comparison with Latin America, somehow their paths irremediably diverged, and while our friends harvested an emboldened form of democracy, we (Arabs) on the other hand, ended up with 21st century feudalism and abject forms of authoritarianism: absolute monarchies, hereditary “republics.”

Yet, we have had our own Che Guevaras. Mehdi Ben Barka was one of them. Why did his legacy then fail to materialize? Why weren’t we able to produce the Kirchners, Lulas and Bachelets of Latin America? Who’s to blame for the failure of the secularists and the progressives in the Arab world? The Arab regimes? The West? The people themselves?

Maybe the blame lies more on those who failed to respond to the change rather than those who attempted it.

Ben Barka was principled but not fanatic. Determined but not dogmatic. He refused to be co-opted by a regime he deemed unlawful but has shown ability to accommodate:

“Our duty is to pursue the work started by our deceased king in building a free, democratic and prosperous Morocco, in accordance with Your Majesty’s ideals and the people’s aspirations.” That was the message Mehdi Ben Barka sent from his self-imposed exile in Paris, in late February 1961, to the newly enthroned Hassan II of Morocco, as the whole country mourned Mohammed V, the late king who had just died following a routine surgery.

This was 4 years before his abduction. Five years had passed since independence from colonial France. Five years that have seen the hopes and ambitions of Ben Barka, the energetic reformer, ruined, and his friendship with then Prince Hassan transformed into a bitter rivalry.

Could the Moroccan Left (and maybe by extension the Arab Left) be any better off had Ben Barka been a bit more compromising?

The worst fears of the political leftist leader already started to take shape at the dawn of independence. An independence he spent most of his life fighting for, although (and according to his own belated concession) it was lame and incomplete. He saw the military, namely General Mohamed Oufkir, a pure produce of the former colonial power, unite with Crown Prince Hassan to crush a rebellion in the North of the country [Fr] and put an end to the remnants of the so-called Liberation Army in the South in coordination with former colonial armies. All in total disdain for the authority of the fledgeling central civilian government, the first of its kind, conducted by Abdallah Ibrahim [Fr], a leftist, sympathetic to Ben Barka’s cause, but who was humiliated, forced to condone the persecution of political opposition and former comrades who were thrown in jail.

But maybe the people should have played a more decisive role in this? Maybe we could have had a better future had the people refused to let the regime of Hassan II brutally crush the protests in the Rif and connive with former colonial powers to terminate the struggle of the Liberation Army in the South?

Ben Barka was also a produce of the former colonial rule. Born into a modest family in Rabat, son of a civil servant, his swift ascension through the colonial education ladder caught the attention of the nationalist movement’s captains, the ranks of which he joined at a young age. He rapidly became the mastermind of the liberation movement. After independence Ben Barka made moves to strengthen the hegemony of the Istiqlal, the conservative monarchist party, political heir to the nationalist movement and hub for the Moroccan early post-colonial middle class. Although a Marxist and a strong believer in nationalization, land reform and planned economy, Ben Barka made it his priority to support a strong central authority, showing pragmatism and, at times, a penchant for authoritarian tactics, as eminent sociologist John Waterbury once wrote:

Ben Barka was not exactly the uncompromising leftist hailed by the French press of the left …. He was not a doctrinal, dogmatic man although his methods were progressive, his vocabulary typically Marxist and his politics at times authoritarian. He rather showed remarkable pragmatism to attain his goals.

The ingredients were there for a progressive regime to take shape. But somehow the magic didn’t work.

The departure of the French revealed irreconcilable differences within Ben Barka’s own party. He, the secularist, had to compose with a religiously conservative establishment, and a regime reluctant to embrace his enthusiasm for popular participation. He founded the Socialist party (UNFP) in 1959, rallying around him the most promising elements of the Moroccan progressive political and intellectual elite, marking the start of his irreconcilable opposition to the fledgling Moroccan authoritarian state.

I was always fascinated by the popularity the Socialist party, at the time of its inception, enjoyed among the working class and the growing urban middle classes. In comparison, secular political ideas are viewed in this part of the world today with great suspicion. Ben Barka was a secularist whose record for the independence of his country and the betterment of his people made him and the ideas he defended, trusted and highly popular. Today secularists of either side of political divide have to navigate the fraught path between those guardians of the status quo who are unwilling to open up the system or relinquish any of their privileges and religious conservatives who are suspicious of their motives and are quick to brand them as agents of the West.

How did we manage to ruin the climate of trust and enthusiasm that prevailed during the immediate post-independence decade? How did we manage to let the political class, once bright and trusted, morph into a herd of opportunists voicing parochialism of the middle ages? How did we end up empowering the most extreme and lunatics (religious and others) amongst us?

There is certainly no one way answer to these questions. In trying to answer these questions, we shouldn’t be ignoring the larger player in the picture: the people themselves, and avoid the easy, idiotic answer which consists in blaming our problems on others. Namely the West.

The story of Ben Barka (the anniversary of the abduction of which we celebrated last week) epitomizes the degenerative path of Arab politics and the implosion of the leftist movements in this part of the world. And I like to think that more than anything, it was the failure of the people of the region to grasp the truthfulness and validity of the calls for progress, such us those made by Ben Barka, and their inability and unpreparedness to free themselves from servility to the shackles of religion, tribe and Makhzen that led to the whole progressive project to fail.

2 thoughts on “Ben Barka: The Lost Legacy

  1. Really interesting piece. Ben Barka is a fascinating character.

    The question of why the region didn’t follow a similar path to Latin America and other regions is a huge one. I agree simply blaming the West is ridiculous but the West is certainly not without blame, particularly for the endurance of authoritarianism in the region. For example, funding Islamists to counter the perceived threat from Arab nationalism, and later funding the worst kind of autocrats in order to keep Islamists away from the levers of power.

    I’ve heard it argued that what made the MENA different was the depth of regimes’ penetration into civil society. Solidarity in Poland, entrepreneurs’ groups in Latin America, and the churches in the German Democratic Republic all preserved a significant degree of autonomy from their respective rulers. And from these autonomous spaces sprang powerful social forces, united under one umbrella, and capable of effecting change from below.

    The divisions within the opposition in the Moroccan context, and in the MENA more generally, seem to have been much more pronounced than in Latin America and elsewhere.

  2. @Steve Kelly

    I don’t see how you can blame the West for the shortcomings of the Moroccans themselves and their refusal to culturally evolve. Thing is, we started from a much backwards place than Latin America. Also, the fact that we were plagued by Arab imperialism (in the form of Islam) didn’t help one iota.

    I don’t understand why we are waiting for this Mehdi (al mountadar) to free us from our shackles. We have no need for a visionary. It’s all been done before, and the path to civil rights, individual freedoms and equality before the law is crystal clear.

    If anything, I blame past generations of Moroccans who kept silent about the evils of a state religion, because they didn’t want to rock the boat. This is what caused a country where criticism of religion is a crime on the eve of 2011.

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