A Must Watch: Absolute Power

This is a fascinating, at times chilling documentary from Aljazeera by one of its senior journalists, at least one of my favorite, since his days in the BBC, Rageh Omar, revealing “the tricks of the trade” of Arab dictatorship.

Arab World: Rulers’ Family Life, None of Their People’s Business

Brian Whitaker, the British Guardian’s former Middle East editor and author of a book I highly recommend, is making an interesting parallel between British and Arab monarchies (including Arab monarchical republics) and their degree of openness in matters of family life, as Prince William is announcing his engagement this week:

One obvious factor behind [the] low-key approach to the family lives of Arab royals is the seclusion of women, along with the idea in Arab-Islamic culture that it’s bad form (at least for males) to show an interest in other men’s wives.

This is true to a certain extent. I’m not sure this one argument still is decisive anymore, especially with the relative openness shown by Moroccan and Jordanian royals for example. I’d be more inclined to think that Arab rulers are terrified by the idea that looking more human would reveal them as they really are: ordinary, fallible. They would rather keep the secrecy and the mystic aura that goes with it, as the author goes on explaining:

I think it’s also connected with maintaining a distance between rulers and ruled. Arab rulers would not dare claim to be deities like the Roman emperors but they do try to give the impression of being more than ordinary mortals – remote figures who always know what’s best for their people and whose wisdom is not to be questioned.

In Britain, we know plenty about our royal family, and certainly more than is good for them. But in terms of the way our country is governed, it doesn’t really matter. These days, we keep them in their palaces mainly for their entertainment value. They may still own large tracts of the country but they don’t run it: that is the job of elected politicians.

In Arab countries, though, kings and hereditary presidents actually govern – which is a major difference. Arabs have a right to know more about them, and what sort of people they really are.

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.