Western Sahara: My Dispassionate Viewpoint

Bernard Lugan, the French historian who appears in the video I posted on my last post is a controversial figure as commenters have been pointing out . I must admit I should have known better and checked the credentials. But regardless of what this guy might have been accused of and his rather disconcerting political discourse, I still would have published the video [Fr] because I think the content is pretty kosher.

I’ve been hearing people jangling around this issue for years. Talk over the violent events that led to a number of deaths and injuries at Gadaym Izik, a protest camp near Laayoune, southern Morocco (or Western Sahara, depending on which side you’re on) has often been supercilious or overly patriotic. At least from the Moroccan side. Not the kind of arguments I’m prepared to take anymore. But I was happy to have some reasonable and truly dispassionate discussions, off and online on some aspects of this question over the past few days.

Let me just set the record straight: I think these people who camped at Gadaym Izik had the right to assemble and protest their poor living conditions. I regret the mismanagement of the issue by the Moroccan authorities who did almost everything one could think of to make the situation worsen, and transform a protest that was economic in nature into a highly volatile political crisis with the subsequent media disaster we’ve been witnessing in the last 72 hours or so.

Both sides of the conflict claim the right to be sovereign over the territory. Sovereignty is a controversial notion. It does however matter in this case. And if anyone is to claim sovereignty over a territory, I guess there must be some consistent historical and cultural basis to back that claim, whatever some of my “internationalist” friends might think.

I’m not pretending to have answers here, and I certainly have more questions than I have answers but I, for one, thought it would be interesting to share some of those.

History matters, and from that point of view, the kind of relations that existed between the Makhzen (the Moroccan state) and its subjects, whether in the north or the south of the country, is an interesting one to look at. It consisted mainly, but not solely, on tax collection and crude force, hence the dreadful reputation the Makhzen has acquired across the ages. This has been at the core of the resentment on the part of dissident tribes throughout Moroccan history. They regularly went into dissidence, refusing the mafia-like (to borrow a commenter’s word) imposition they were subjected to, but they maintained some kind of deference to the central/spiritual authority of the Sultans. I believe the same dynamics prevailed in Western Sahara until Spain and the newly created Algeria started poking their nose into it. The fact Algeria and Mauritania didn’t exist before France created them is, I believe, at the core of the problem. This conflict, along with the endless border disputes, have been deliberately planted by former colonial powers so as to maintain a constant dependency. Divide et impera. Beyond the revolving cycles of dissidence (Siba) versus submission there was a consistent trade and cultural network between Morocco and Western Sahara that underpinned the eventual emergence of a nation sate, centuries before the same processes even started in the West. As far as I know, cessation was not a common practice amongst these tribes. Now, whether that constitutes a solid ground for a claim of sovereignty on the part of Morocco is a matter for debate, but I believe Morocco’s case is quite consistent from that standpoint.

I support a people’s right to self determination and I would subscribe to any option the people in question might choose, whether autonomy, integration or outright independence. But that said, there are some preliminary questions one ought to ask before accepting such a process as legitimate and not as an orchestrated imposture on the part of meddling regional powers.

A call for independence must at least be based on a coherent argument. There is, however, a fundamental flaw in Polisario’s stance. It is something that makes the separatist plea highly suspicious to me. If we’re going to consider the Sahara and its people, why for example should we restrict that exercise to the relatively minuscule western part of the huge Saharan territory? The nomadic Saharawi population is a unique blend of Arabs and indigenous Berber tribes, that spans a territory that includes necessarily the whole of Mauritania and very large chunks of the Algerian, Libyan segments of the Sahara desert. The separatists would have been more convincing had they stopped playing the puppet role for regional powers’ obvious ambitions.

I’ve also been arguing (but was unfortunately misunderstood) that Morocco is not Sudan (and I mean no disrespect for Sudan here), in the sense that Morocco has, over its 12 century-old history, acquired a political and geographical coherence and ethnic cohesion that would make the separation way more lethal than say in Southern Sudan or in Kosovo.

Establishing a liberal, genuine democracy in Morocco is I believe the best way out of this. A decentralized authority, a parliamentary monarchy and a federal state is a matter of urgency, for the sake of the Moroccan people, Saharawis included, and for the survival of the monarchy itself.

The referendum idea, in the context of the conflict over Western Sahara, is I believe passé, because the separation would be a disaster, not only for Morocco, but also for the region. Otherwise we would be contemplating the creation of yet another Frankenstein republic, administered from Algiers, under the guardianship of Spain. So much for self determination.

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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.

French Strikes Lead To Sexual Frustration

I’m agnostic about the French strikes and like so many here, I’m starting to become seriously bothered by their affects on our daily lives, regardless of who’s right, and who’s wrong. Fuel is increasingly becoming a scarcity as strikers now blockade the main oil refineries that usually supply the main cities. Something that is starting to have some pretty worrying side effects as marronier, writing on French blogging platform Post.fr explains:

Since the beginning of the fuel shortage, my girlfriend can’t come see me. She lives in Loire-Atlantique, some 50 kilometers away from here, where refueling is very difficult.

So she can no longer come over. I am therefore obliged to keep my fuel for myself. We do not speak often of this aspect of things. Retirements strike has also led to sex strike. Blocking refineries led to the blocking of sexual relations. No more fuel, no more sex!

The blogger goes on explaining how this may lead to some serious trouble:

If the general discontent is combined with sexual frustration, the strike is likely to become increasingly unpopular. And it could explode. Some hot encounters may occur in the street instead of having them in bed.