Getting it right on Syria and the Arab revolutions

Excellent article in The Socialist Worker – affiliated to the trotskyite SWP – on Syria:

The past few days may have seen the balance of forces tilt decisively against Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Paradoxically, a significant section of the Western left seems to have tilted as decisively in their favour.

Take, for example, a widely circulated interview with Tariq Ali, where he claims that the struggle in Syria is part of “a new process of recolonisation”. Although I have great respect and affection for Tariq, I think this is nonsense. (…)

Those in the Western left who allow a reflexive and unthinking “anti-imperialism” to set them against the Syrian revolution are simply confessing their own bankruptcy.

I agree wholeheartedly. Not only are many on the left (not only there though) unable to think through the Arab Spring and its spinoffs in reality-based terms, but they are hostage to old ways of thinking, notably as to the role of Western powers. If there is something that has to be completely dismissed in today’s Arab world, it is the ability of Western powers to shape an Arab country’s politics according to their wishes. While Arab countries do not live in a bubble and are of course amenable to foreign influence, no longer will foreign – read Western – powers be able to dictate the terms of leadership struggles or even foreing policy (Libya is an odd case here). They can weigh in, but their influence is limited as compared to the weight of public opinion and the political forces present in the institutions of the state.

What influence did any Western power have over the Tunisian revolution, or even the Egyptian one? The height of US influence the last year was its ability to get its NGO workers out of Egypt, but that’s hardly a decisive influence on an issue of substance in Egyptian politics. The issue of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is probably the one issue on which the US government has been able to exert influence, but it is also arguably an issue that Egyptians themselves would solve through some sort of statu quo – no Egyptian I know has any aptite for a military stand-off with Israel to start with, although many want the peace treaty to remain just that, and cease to be the fealty oath it turned into under the Mubarak years.

Take the case of Iraq: sure, the US was able to invade and occupy that country, smash its political structure, entrench sectarianism and kill and maim well over one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians – but the end result is a government they do not control – if any foreign country wields decisive influence over Iraq it is Iran – and which basically kicked US troops out of the country. Bombing and killing the USA may continue to do in Iraq in the future, but they are not able of directing its politics the way they once dreamt of.

Tunisians and Egyptians gained their freedom by relying on their own strength and commitment, rejecting any foreign involvement. While quite some Syrian revolutionaries are now asking for foreign military intervention – understandably so in view of the massacres committed by régime forces – not all of them do so, and interest for such an option seems lukewarm outside of the armchair editorialist and liberal interventionism cottage industry. But what is undisputed is the massive lack of domestic legitimacy that Bashar el Assad’s régime has – you don’t need to have actually read Michel Seurat’s « L’Etat de barbarie » to recognise that.

Not any dictator opposed – although in the case of Syria that claim would be dubious, as he wasn’t actively opposed by any Western country since the end of the Bush presidency (France let go of its opposition once Syrian troops left Lebanon in 2005 and Hariri-funded Chirac left the presidency to Sarkozy) before he started slaughtering his own population – by Western powers is necessarily worthy of support. That was true in Serbia in the 90’s, Iraq from 1991 to 2003, and is still true in Syria today. Not everything that happens in Arab countries is the result of CIA memos, Mossad plots, Foreign Office instructions or Open Society grants, and if the State Department wants to see the back of Bashar, for all my hostility to the successive US governments’ foreign policy, I find it hard not to share that wish. And I remain adamantly opposed to any NATO intervention, in the Middle East or anywhere else for that matter – it is dubious whether this military alliance still has a raison d’être, but whatever is left only justifies defensive missions.

And now, Morocco

The revolutionary ignition of the Arab world initiated by the Tunisian revolution and fueled further by the extraordinary Egyptian revolution is a fact, as much as a sceptic like me would like to tone down the enthusiasm. Forget the diversions around the role of social media or the shameless fear-mongering about the role played – or not – by islamist movements, whether it be Ennahda in Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These are mere side attractions. The main factor at play here is psychological – the sudden recognition among the people that they can actually change their situation. Previous protests in Morocco since 1999 have been marginal, save the popular marches in 2000 for – and against – the reform of family law on March 12, 2000 (I’ll leave aside the very substantial popular protests against the Israeli 2002 offensive in Palestine and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which drew millions of protesters across Morocco). The 2000 pro- and anti-Moudawana reform protests were however limited in scope and did not touch the overall political situation or equilibrium.

Since then, Morocco has sometimes experienced very localised popular protests – Sefrou in 2007, Sidi Ifni in 2008 and Laayoune last November spring to mind. These protests, although prompted by universal ills (unemployment, lack of housing, protests against abuse of power), have all been geographically limited – manifestations of solidarity mainly took place on the cyberspace, save for the usual AMDH solidarity protests in front on the Parliament building in Rabat.

What is moving the protesters? Well, it’s not as though Moroccans lack cause for protests against their ruler(s). While the UNDP’s human development index has improved slightly (Morocco ranks a lowly 114th, up though from 124th in 2005) , Morocco’s achievements are still abysmal. On the political front, the initial moves towards deepening liberalisation taken under King Mohammed VI’s first few years on the throne have now long stalled, and the régime is in full reverse gear. The Palace’s smothering control of the political and parliamentarian scene has made partisan politics irrelevant, while the cronyism of close associates to the King (Fouad Ali el Himma, de facto leader of  upwardly mobile Parti authenticité et modernité (PAM) a.k.a. « the King’s shadow« , or Mounir Majidi, in charge of the Palace’s ever increasing economic and financial interests) fuels cynicism, disillusion and anger. The absolute fraud that is Morocco’s judiciary merely compounds the twin problems of corruption and repression that have beset Morocco since independence.

Reading the little that’s left of independent media, plus the much freer social networks and blogosphere, disillusion seems to have spread, trickling down into foreign media reports and marring the undeservedly positive image initially created around King Mohammed VI. While this disillusion is definitely a minority taste in Morocco today, the revolutionary wildfire that has spread has put at the forefront an issue most people would have thought reserved to the ravings and musings of bloggers and human rights activists: constitutional reform.

Morocco’s successive constitutions have invariably been granted – « constitution concédée » as they say in French – by the King, with no input from elected representatives of the people. The low legal quality of Morocco’s Constitution, in substantial terms, is worsened by the very little respect paid to it by the executive and the judiciary. Except for article 19, which sets out the King’s special standing as « Amir al muminin » (« Commander of the Faithful« ), the rest of this shoddy constitutional text is of no or little import to Morocco’s political or legal life. Among the protesters’ claim is therefore a demand that an assembly be elected to draft a new Constitution, to be then adopted – or not – by referendum. The last time this demand was at the forefront was prior to the widely decried 1962 constitutional referendum – radical constitutional reform, with severe curtailment of executive (and royal) power and strong guarantees for civil liberties and judicial independence.

The stagnation affecting domestic politics is rendered more difficult by the stark slide in Morocco’s international standing: while Morocco is now entirely absent from the Arab and Middle Eastern scene, the Sahara dispute is still ongoing, with no final issue at hand. The official chatter surrounding Morocco’s autonomy plan has remained just talk, with no concrete steps being taken to move decisively on a final settlement allowing for this territory to be internationally recognised as part of Morocco while being granted the widest autonomy – and the Gdim Izik (Laayoune) riots last November should really be seen as a last warning shot.

And I haven’t even mentioned the economic situation, with ever-growing trade unbalance, unemployment, and tepid growth (Egypt has had higher growth the last few years than Morocco)…

But none of this is really new – so why all the fuss over the planned February 20 protests? Simply because it has now dawned on Arab peoples that they no longer have to consider dictatorship as a fact of life. There is no reason why this spreading realisation would not reach Morocco – and the fact that trade-unions, islamists, leftists, facebookers, bloggers and even a royal prince have expressed support for the protests speaks volume, and is a substantial departure from earlier protests, either of a local or a partisan nature. There’s a substantial difference though – contrary to Tunisia and Egypt, and maybe Libya, there is simply no discernable popular traction for a régime change implying an overthrow of the monarchy or of the King – the only public supporters of republicanism in Morocco I have heard of are leftist Abdellah Zaazaa and islamist Nadia Yassine, none of whom have actually tried to act on their ideas. The objectives of the February 20 protestsaren’t timid though: democracy and democratic institutions are the aim, whether the head of state be called king or president, something to which I am personally indifferent (I’ve found last year’s republican trend among Swedish talking and writing classes – contemporaneous with Princess Victoria’s wedding – to be an impressive exercise in collective futility and sterile posturing).

I therefore personally support this day of protest, which I hope will mark a decisive stage in the democratisation of Morocco: this is our country, the rulers only rule because we let them – never ever let them forget that.

For updates on the February 20 protests, look here:

– Issandr el Amrani has clever posts on the protests, here and here;

– The Guardian’s Giles Tremlett: « Morocco protests will test regime’s claims to liberalism« ;

– The official February 20 Facebook group;

– On Twitter, follow @mamfakinch and @Hisham_G 

– An independent Moroccan newsportal is devoted to the event – Mamfakinch (also on Facebook)

Quick thoughts on the Tunisian revolution

I have been planning a more substantial post on the revolution in Tunisia these last days but my twitter addiction has temporarily put that notion to rest. You’ll have to do with these few lines instead.

1. Impossible to put words on my admiration for the heroic people of Tunisia – the street vendors, the unemployed, the workers, the housewives, the schoolchildren, the students, the civil servants, the lawyers, the doctors and nurses, the dissidents (in Tunisia and abroad) who collectively rose up and toppled Benali’s hated dictatorship – in fact, they overcame 55 straight years of dictatorship. But the martyrs should be mentioned first, and first of all Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed graduate turned street vendor whose tragic decision to set himself on fire also set the whole country on fire.

2. The speed of Benali’s collapse has been surprising – although I am on record as recognising this as a revolution and not a mere revolt one week ago, I hadn’t envisaged that he would have left power by the week-end. But if his personal rule is well over now, the same cannot be said of the RCD’s (Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique) control of the political apparatus. Benali’s totalitarian rule not only didn’t allow for any opposition, it even turned against the  mildly critical and even the indifferent. Everything – from politics to religion and including sports and economics – was firmly under wraps.

Tunis airport renamed Mohamed Bouazizi airport

3. I have been surprised by the stiff armed resistance of RCD dead-enders (to borrow an infamous term) after Benali’s departure. I had expected the security apparatus to fold once Benali left power and the country, but I had apparently seriously underestimated the criminal, mafia-like aspect of Benali’s power. The dead-enders, close to Benali’s infamous family in law (the Trabelsi clan) seem to be motivated less by political motives than by criminal ones – looting and random shooting would not seem the best way to keep a stake in Tunisia’s new political scene. What seems particularly worrying is the embrace apparently given to these lawless militias by colonel Muammar Kadhafi – media reports tell us the benalist militias are tryin to flee to the south of the country in order to cross the border to Libya, where rumor says they could find a safe haven. The new (?) régime in Tunisia could soon have a serious public order issue on its hands – control of the borders with Libya, from which the armed militias could launch armed raids. I hope that this is only the result of the feverish imagination of this blogger – otherwise this could pave the way for foreign intervention in Tunisia, with US/NATO assistance to help Tunisia’s new government repel such a threat.

4. While we’re on the subject of foreign intervention, have you noticed how irrelevant all foreign actors were to this revolution? It took the EU High Representative, Baroness Ashton, three weeks to react – on Jan. 10 – to a popular uprising in a totalitarian state with which the EU has an association agreement, and as for the US, Hillary Clinton pledged neutrality between the parties in presence a few days before the toppling of Benali – and in order to keep this post free of four-letter words, I will not even mention the French government’s stance. Their support to the revolution would have been appreciated, and might possibly have hastened the outcome and/or limited the bloodshed. More likely, had Europe and the US intervened earlier on, they might have pressured Benali into accepting much earlier the cosmetic reforms – scrapping Internet censorship nad letting a few independent or opposition personalities into his government – he himself decided on in his speech the day before his fall. This would likely have postponed or even aborted the demise of Benali.

As for their role now, the Tunisians would be well advised to be circumspect. The uprising was caused initially by the social problems facing Tunisia’s youth, unemployment being the main one – to which we should add the inequal repartition of income aggravated by 25 years of adherence to the Washington consensus. While all realistic economic alternatives for Tunisia will include some degree of openess to world economy and to Tunisia’s major – European and Arab – trade and investment partners, the new government might want to chart a more independent course to economic development.

Tunisia basically has a choice ahead: whether to continue as the IMF’s, the World Bank’s and Europe’s alleged best pupil in the Arab classroom, with the mixed resultsthat are plain for everyone to see, or to decide for itself, according to its own interests and sovereign decisions, what path and what policies to adopt, whether it be in the foreign policy, domestic policy or economic policy fields. Tunisia can chose to be like Turkey, Brazil, India or Malaysia, or it can pursue in its post-colonial striving for acceptance and the occasional pat on the head by its Western partners, a path followed by Jordan or Morocco with limited success.

I’m not particularly interested at this stage of how the US and Europe’s irrelevance reflects on these two actors – suffice it to say that the US influence in the MENA region seems to have peaked in 2003/2005, and has since then slided in a dramatic fashion – Bashar el Assad now squarely back on the Middle East scene and with régime change in Syria a long-forgotten fantasy, Iraq turned back to a nationalist government with shia leader Moqtada Sadr poised to be the coming man of the next few years, Hezbollah stronger than ever on the Lebanese scene – and even Hamas hanging on to power in Gaza – none of the US strategic objectives have been achieved, and its ability to reach them seems weakened, not strenghtened. As for Europe’s relevance to political developments in the MENA, the least said the better, and don’t even get me started on France.

5. The so-called « national unity government » has been appointed today – the interior (Ahmed Friaa), defense (Ridha Grira), finance (Mohamed Ridha Chalghoum), planfication & international co-operation (Mohamed Nouiri Jouini) and foreign (Kamel Morjane, an in-law relative of Benali’s) ministers of Benali’s last government keep their jobs, and a motley crew of independent personalities (among them film director Moufida Tlatli and blogger Slim Amamou), technocrats, trade-union leaders (including 3 leaders of the UGTT) as well as leaders of three legal opposition parties Nejib Chebbi of the PDP,  Ahmed Brahim of post-communist Ettajdid and Mustapha ben Jaafar of the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés (FDTL) - have be given portfolios. The trade minister, Afif Chelbi, would be given the energy portfolio. It’s worth to point out that the interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, former speaker of Parliament, is a long-standing RCD MP, minister under Bourguiba and Benali, member of the RCD politburo and he was fully trusted by Benali, while the prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has had a long ministerial career under Benali and was in fact his last prime minister as well as the vice-president of the RCD. For all practical purposes, this is the kind of government that Benali could have appointed himself had he had more brains – his last speech actually outlined exactly this sort of government, and he actually met with some opposition members before being deposed.

Most noteworthy of all is the fact that no leaders of opposition parties banned under Benali’s rule – the marxist-leninist Parti communiste des ouvriers de Tunisie (PCOT), led by Hamma Hammami, the Congrès pour la république led by reformist intellectual Moncef Marzouki and more importantly islamist Ennahda, led by exiled islamist thinker Rachid Ghannouchi – have apparently been invited to either the talks on the transition government or the government itself. This is a worrying signal, on top of being counter-productive: while Tunisia has never held free and fair elections, the least tainted ones were held in 1989, and Ennahda candidates standing as independents garnered between a quarter and a third of the votes in the constituencies where they stood. Ennahda is in that sense the largest opposition party that Tunisia has ever had (the UGTT trade-union was a de facto opposition under the leadership of Habib Achour under much of the 70’s and 80’s, but it never set itself up as a political party).

Now, things have changed in Tunisia since 1989: there’s absolutely no way of of saying whether Ennahda would be as popular today, as its leadership has been either imprisoned or exiled. Ennahda has even stated it doesn’t want to field a candidate in the coming presidential elections, in a move akin to the prudent and progressive approach that its Moroccan sister-party the PJD took to electoral participation in order not to frighten the francophone and secular élite, less well-entrenched in Morocco than it is in Tunisia. It is however futile to deny that it forms a part of Tunisia’s political and ideological landscape – any ostracism of Ennahda or the non-violent islamist movement would be benalism without Benali.

6. While the protests in Tunisia really have taken a revolutionary turn, the aftermath of Benali’s demise is strangely stuck in the constitutional and institutional tracks of Benali’s dictatorship. The first interim president was designated as the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi on Friday evening, on the basis of article 56 of the Tunisian constitution providing for temporary replacement of the president – the day after, the Conseil constitutionnel decided that the president was permanently unable to exercise his official functions, and appointed the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies as interim president in accordance with article 57 of the Constitution. According to that article, fresh presidential elections need to be held within 45 and 60 days from that day.

This poses quite some problems. Firstly, the Tunisian Constitution has not been adopted democratically – the 1959 Constitution was adopted by a constitutional assembly that wasn’t freely elected, and the 2002 constitutional referendum wasn’t free either. Secondly, many of its provisions would hinder rather than facilitate constitutional change.  The 60-days deadline to hold presidential elections would render very difficult the holding of truly democratic and pluralistic elections: article 66 of the electoral code states that presidential candidates need 30 signatures from members of the Chamber of Deputies or of presidents of city councils – only the RCD has more than 30 deputies in the current Chamber…

Article 66 of the electoral code is furthermore strenghtened by article 40 of Tunisia’s Constitution, which states that candidates to the presidential election have to get the signatures of a number of deputies as per electoral law – meaning that this legal requirement may only be lowered, but not scrapped altogether as the Constitution requires this. A referendum would be necessary to delete this constitutional requirement (see articles 76 to 78 of the Constitution) – an unlikely prospect.

Furthermore, such a short time-span would advantage the RCD or what’s left of it, still in possession of cadres and logistics. The parties that were banned under Benali will find it impossible to organise for an electoral campaign on such short notice – supposing of course they would get the 30 signatures. Would a government where key functions are held by RCD stalwarts and a Parliament still overwhelmingly RCD play it fair and scrap article 66 of the electoral code – and legalise the banned parties?

The Tunisian people have ousted the dictator, but they haven’t yet got rid of his institutional and political legacy. This is just the beginning, if democracy is to take hold.

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