Morocco: Pro-Democracy Movement Calls for Boycott

The February 20 movement is calling for the boycott on the upcoming referendum on a Constitutional amendment introduced by the king on his June 17 speech. The movement released this video today outlining the main reasons behind their call.

For English subtitles, click on CC.

The Tunisian Paradigm Shift: Why Tunisians Are Changing the Rules of the Game

I first visited Tunisia in the early 2000s. I was invited at the time there by a Tunisian colleague and we ended up touring the country from north to south. It was during summer holidays and I loved the place. I was really impressed by how orderly and clean the streets of Hammamet, Tunis and Monastir were, in comparison with the tumult and dust of a place like Casablanca where I lived at the time. But I soon discovered that a sinister reality lay under that immaculate surface. One day as we were driving by the shoreline, near Bourguiba’s mausoleum, I was struck by the heavy police presence along the road and downtown Monastir. Not that I wasn’t familiar with that kind of show of force but the deployment seemed so unusually disproportionate in such a quiet and uneventful place. I turned to my friend and as soon as I started explaining how impressive the number of police officers looked to me and how this seemed to confirm the reputation of Tunisia as a police state, he grabbed his cell phone, turned it off and kept it firmly squeezed in his hand with his thumb securely obstructing the microphone aperture. He then started mumbling indistinctly but it was clear that I had just recklessly stepped into a forbidden territory.

My friend’s precautionary measures bordered with paranoia but he knew exactly the kind of regime he was dealing with, and he also knew how to take advantage of it. My friend later showed me his party’s membership card with the red stamp of the Rassemblement Constitutionnel et Démocratique (RCD), the ruling party, on it. He said everyone in Tunisia needed to have that card, because otherwise you would be looking for trouble.

My friend’s father, an engineer and successful businessman, was himself, as I later found out, a prominent member of the RCD. He was briefly imprisoned in the late 90s, as my friend later told me, for allegedly providing a check with no sufficient funds. My friend then claimed that his father’s arrest was politically motivated since he was released soon after he committed not to contest a bid sought by a senior member of the party. “It was his membership in the party that saved him from prosecution and further humiliation,” he added.

My friend then explained in great length why, despite what happened to his father, he thought Ben Ali’s regime was good for his country and how repression, cronyism, plutocracy, corruption, lack of freedom were small prices to pay considering the prosperity, stability and Western support the country was enjoying.

My friend’s ambivalence toward the regime is scarcely unique. I was reluctant to challenge him a the time not least because he was my generous host, but also because his arguments about the validity of the regime’s approach were not completely groundless. It almost invariably breaks down like this: you want people to be happy, bring them prosperity. You want prosperity, you need security. And security needs a strong man with a firm hand on power. Democracy? That won’t work –we’re not mature enough.

Those arguments are difficult to disprove in the Arab context. With a Per Capita Gross Domestic Product way ahead of neighboring countries, the Tunisian regime presents itself as a success story and is making the case for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa a difficult idea to sell. As a consequence, Tunisia often serves as a model for other regimes in the region, who use the perceived success of Ben Ali as a pretext to further consolidate their grip on power.

Morocco is a case in point. Since 9/11, Moroccans have been witnessing a steady “Benalisation” of the regime, with the use of police state tactics, borrowed from the Tunisian model to intimidate journalists and political dissenters. The idea is: if Ben Ali can do it and still manage to score high on growth indexes, benefit from Western support, succeed in attracting millions of tourists and foreign investment, then we can do it as well. What’s more, the Tunisians seem to be enjoying it: look how docile, happy and prosperous they look. Well, that was almost impossible to contest until the Tunisian people proved it wrong.

Public demonstrations are unheard of in Tunisia unless they are organized by the ruling party itself. So much so that when the first images of protests filtered through the heavy wall of internet censorship, the world knew something potentially serious was underway. It all started in the interior city of Sidi Bouzid when a 26-year-old university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, sat down in front of the town hall and self-immolated in an act of desperation after the police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling illegally to make a living. Demonstrations then spread across the country, in a rare show of anger that has been up and down, going on for two weeks. Unconfirmed news now suggest that Bouazizi’s burn injuries may have proved fatal, which may reignite the protests only hours before universities reopen their doors after the end-of-year holiday.

The question in the mind of every observer is whether the protests will gather strength enough to lead to a regime change. Whilst I personally doubt this will happen due to the lack of sustainability and organisation of the movement (read Brian Whitaker’s piece on this subject) I believe the Sidi Bouzid uprising has already achieved something tremendous: a mental paradigm shift. No longer will anyone, neither the regimes nor their apologists, claim that repression and authoritarianism can bring prosperity and happiness. And as the Tunisian national anthem goes…

When the people wants to live, destiny must surely respond
Darkness will disappear, chains will certainly break!

For updates and further analysis on the Sidi Bouzid uprising, please follow these links:

– On Twitter: #SidiBouzid
– Nawaat collects the latest news and multimedia material
– Nesrine Malik – Tunisia’s inspiring rebellion
– Octavia Nasr – Tunisia Uprising Vs Iran Election Aftermath. Similarities and Differences
– [Video] Aljazeera’s Inside Story – Tunisia’s unemployment crisis
– Jillian C. York – Why I Don’t Believe in “Net Freedom”
– Me Bochra Beljaj Hamida – Rue89 – « Les Tunisiens, fatigués d’un pays tenu par quelques familles » [Fr]

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.