Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Will Morocco Be The Next Domino To Fall? Or The One After That?


You can easily tell a real revolution from a staged one

Dictators like Mubarak, Ben Ali or Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh (who has just promised not to pass the presidency along to his son) can pack up their Swiss bank account safety deposit bank combinations-- maybe dropping in on the national bank and stealing whatever's left of the country's gold deposits-- and take off for France or Saudi Arabia. But it's harder for a king. Some of them actually believe all the divine-right crap and the dynastic stuff. This week King Abdullah of Jordan, like all of them a self-proclaimed descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, replaced the billionaire crook running his cabinet for him with a military crook and promised cheaper food prices, in the hopes of staving off the inevitable. Syria, ostensibly a republic of sorts, seems to have a hereditary dictatorship and looks to me like the next country to blow, although I suspect the dictator there, Bashar Assad, will feel less constrained than Mubarak has been about just slaughtering everyone who gets wild. After all, his father pretty much leveled the city of Hama in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood got feisty, killing 30-40,000 people.
Syrians are organising campaigns on Facebook and Twitter that call for a "day of rage" in Damascus this week, taking inspiration from Egypt and Tunisia in using social networking sites to rally their followers for sweeping political reforms.

Like Egypt and Tunisia, Syria suffers from corruption, poverty and unemployment. All three nations have seen subsidy cuts on staples like bread and oil. Syria's authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad has resisted calls for political freedoms and jailed critics of his regime.

On Sunday a group of 39 activists and opposition figures issued a statement hailing Egypt and Tunisia's protesters, but Mr Assad has shown no signs of flinching.

The case of Morocco is different. Next-door neighbor Algeria's stability will probably have more impact there than will monarchical Jordan's or thuggish Syria's.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has ruled the country since 1999, was elected on the promise to end the violence that had plagued the country for much of its history since independence from France in 1962.

To a certain extent he has succeeded, and after years of political upheaval the country is beginning to emerge as a centre of enterprise, heavily assisted by the country's huge oil and gas reserves. It has estimated oil reserves of nearly 12 billion barrels, attracting strong interest from foreign oil firms.

However, poverty remains a serious problem and unemployment high, particularly among Algeria's youth. Almost 50 per cent of Algeria's 34.6 million people are under 25, and the youthful population coupled with a lack of jobs has made Algeria something of a simmering cauldron. Endemic government corruption and poor standards in public services are also chronic sources of popular dissatisfaction.

Mounting grievances over spiralling costs and unemployment triggered the riots earlier this month, encouraged by public protests in Tunisia that forced its president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

I hope I'm not boring everybody with all the talk about Morocco, which I realize most Americans haven't been terribly aware of since it became the very first country in the world-- yes, even before France-- to recognize our revolution and our independence from the tyranical British superpower, in December 1777. I first went there in 1969, when I was just a kid, and I've been writing about it ever since-- mostly at my travel blog. I lost count of how many times I've been there after a dozen, and I've yet to meet a Moroccan who's been to as many places in Morocco as I have. (I can always pull Sidi Ifni or the Erg Chigaga dunes south of M'hamid out of my hat.) 

I just spent most of December in Marrakech, where I rented a riad next to King Mohammed VI's palace in the medina. Most of the traffic that comes to the travel blog comes from people on search engines who find the post Is Morocco A Safe Place To Visit?. And believe me, I usually try to keep the two blogs separate. I sometimes have to restrain Ken from posting the travel pieces on DWT when I'm travel-blogging from the road. The short answer to the question about Morocco being safe is YES. But in light of the revolutionary spirit coursing through the Arab world, especially in North Africa, we need to take a look again. 

Can tranquil, scenic, touristic, ever more cosmopolitan Morocco go the way of Tunisia and Egypt? Short answer is the same: YES!

I didn't want to be rude to my Marrakech neighbor, but like I wrote, Mohammed VI-- when you strip away the 21st=century P.R. veneer-- is an authoritarian despot, not all that much different from any king or Emperor or sultan or tsar. In fact, one thing I noticed a lot, and eventually started questioning people about, is that many Moroccans sounded exactly like pre-Revolutionary Russians believing that if only their Little Tsar knew what evil the terrible men around him were perpetrating against his people, he would take care of it! 

Mohammed calls all the shots in the family business, a business that owns at least a piece of almost everything in the country, from the big hotels to the drug-trafficking bonanza that a WikiLeaks cable from a U.S. diplomat asserts is the only bigger source of income in the kingdom than the tourist industry. And remember, it was the release of WikiLeaks cables that opened the floodgates against the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt as well.

Even members of the royal family believe Morocco's monarchy can't go unscathed by what is sweeping the rest of North Africa right now. The King's cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham, third in line to the throne and popularly known as the "Red Prince" because of his criticisms of the monarchy, is reported as having said that "the political liberalisation launched in the 1990s after Mohammed succeeded his authoritarian father Hassan II had virtually come to an end, and reviving it while still avoiding radical pressures would be 'a major challenge.'" 

Everyone is counting on the spiritual bond between the King and the people, a bond, they hope, makes him different from a grubby usurper like Ben Ali or Mubarak or Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika. On the other hand, dissident journalist Aboubakr Jamai wrote in France's Nouvel Observateur, "If Morocco goes up, the disparities in wealth are such that the rebellion will be much bloodier than in Tunisia."

Afrol News appears to be as anti-monarchical and down with tyranny as we are here. This week, with Egypt exploding, they seemed to try stirring things up a little for Mohammed, who they reported was off in one of his fabulous palaces... in France, plotting, no doubt, contingencies in case any radicals decide it's time to follow the example of Tunisia and Egypt and throw off the chains of oppression and kleptocracy.
Discontent is ample in Morocco, the poorest, least developed North African nation, and many are inspired by developments in Egypt. Meanwhile, Morocco's King Mohammed VI rests in his French luxury chalet.

Morocco so far has been spared from larger protesting groups as those in Tunisia and Egypt, much thanks to the King's quick reversal of boosting prices for basic foods. The same move proved a good assurance for authorities in neighboring Algeria.

But discontent is very widespread in Morocco. Despite an economic boom over the last years and some careful reforms ordered by King Mohammed VI-- most prominently regarding gender equality and education-- Morocco remains the poorest country in North Africa, with the least employment opportunities and the lowest literacy rate.

The King, claiming to descend from the Prophet Mohammed, has an almost divine role in Morocco. Very few dare to criticise him, even in the mildest form.

Among the Arab majority, loyalty to the King is great, while the government-- appointed by the King-- and age-old ruling "Makhzen" class-- controlling the administration, police, army and much of business-- are the popular focus of hatred. In the streets of Casablanca, it is often said that the King is honest and wants to rule the country well, but the Makhzen is corrupting everything.

Minorities, however, to a wider degree dare to blame the King for their mischief. This includes large parts of the indigenous and disadvantaged Berber people. Estimates of the Berber population wary from 20 to 60 percent of the Moroccan total, with official estimates being the lowest. Unemployment is highest among Berber youths, of which many view the Arab King as a foreign imposer.

...As the tourist market in all North Africa now is crumbling-- many travellers fear Morocco could be next-- the kingdom's greatest growth and employment sector could soon be strongly impacted. A sudden growth in unemployment due to falling tourist arrivals could spark revolt.

Blogging from Fes, Matt Schumann is a Fulbright scholar and English teacher at the S.M. Ben-Abdellah University, a graduate of Rice University and an incredibly well-informed and very perceptive observer of the Moroccan street, far more so than anyone you're ever going to hear on the utterly clueless CNN or the ideologically sociopathic Fox News. Last week he wrote about being in Morocco and watching the Moroccans watch the developments unfolding in Egypt. His conclusion, though, is that Morocco is immune to the upheavals sweeping the Arab world. I disagree, but I want to offer his arguments, since they make a great deal of sense and include important information we'll need to look at when the revolution does, inevitably, come to Morocco.
It's been strange to be in Morocco during all of this. There's no lack of information. When you walk into a cafe, people are watching coverage of Egyptian protesters burning police vehicles or tearing down posters of Hosni Mubarak. But these images and ideas don't seem to be penetrating. A glance through two of the biggest newspapers, As-Sabah and Al-Masa', lead you to believe that the protests are only tangentially relevant to Moroccans. There are no attempts to apply Tunisians' and Egyptians' grievances to a Moroccan context. On Facebook, my students have posted pictures of the Egyptian protesters along with words of support and solidarity, and then proclaim their love for Morocco's King Muhammad VI. How can you identify with the protesters of two revolutions against authoritarian governments and still do that?

Why have the events in Tunisia and Egypt failed to generate the same reaction in Morocco as they have elsewhere in the Arab world?

Reading reports from the past weeks has made it clear to me that life for the average Moroccan is very different than that of a Tunisian or an Egyptian. Yes, Morocco is a poor country with high unemployment. The GDP per capita is significantly lower than Egypt's and nearly half that of Tunisia. Yet, the poverty is not oppressive. Life necessities are cheap in Morocco. People are poor but do not starve. The Moroccan government also tolerates "underground economic activities" which provide money and support for many young, uneducated Moroccans. The most notable of these is the drug trade, which according to WikiLeaks, generates more money than tourism, the largest sector of the Moroccan economy.

A second, key difference, concerns education. As one commentator pointed out, Tunisia is an exception in the Arab world in that it has a large, educated middle class. The middle class' dissatisfaction with the country's economic prospects fueled the protests that eventually led to Ben Ali's downfall. Egyptians, while not nearly as wealthy as Tunisians, are similarly educated. Both countries post literacy rates in the 70s and both protests movements have utilized social (especially Tunisia) and print media (especially Egypt) for organizational purposes. Morocco is a completely different story.

At best, 50% of Moroccans are literate and many well-educated Moroccans are ex-pats living in Europe or North America. While this may seem insignificant, I think it's a huge factor. Moroccans' illiteracy hampers the spread of information in general, and would definitely impede the organization of any type of protest movement. Additionally, the Moroccans who identify the most with Tunisia and Egypt don't live in Morocco. They've already exercised their discontent by leaving the country... [T]here is no credible opposition to the King [inside Morocco].

Morocco is a parliamentary monarchy that has a prime minister, political parties and elections. But in reality, it's something else. Parliament and the lesser bodies of government are where corrupt officials take bribes and appoint their sons- and daughters-in-law to influential posts. This corruption is obvious and derided by the Moroccan people. It's not uncommon for a Moroccan to say that the best way to make money in the country is to get into politics, but that you can only do that if you know the right people.

The King is seen as the only credible member of government despite his overwhelming and unquestionable political powers. And there's good reason for this. Royal initiatives, like infrastructure development and some social reforms, are completed on time and relatively efficiently. In other words, he gets things done when other Moroccan politicians don't. Combine that with the legacy of the Alaouite Dynasty, which has ruled Morocco for nearly four hundred years, and Muhammad VI is seen less as a despot and more as a benevolent and beloved monarch.

Now it's true that the King has the power to end the corruption that plagues parliament, the police and the military. Allowing his political opponents to profit in their subordinate positions decreases their desire for change. Additionally, their corruption draws the ire and attention of the people. So while his policies may leave something to be desired in the eyes of some Moroccans, the alternatives are much much worse.

The commentator who describes Tunisia as an exception in the Middle East may be eating his words in the next few days depending on Egypt's outcome. This doesn't mean Moroccans are happy with the state of affairs in their country. Poverty, unemployment, education, and political freedom are just a few issues that Moroccans feel must be addressed. But for now, the situation does not seem dire.

More than anything, Moroccans love stability. This is why they love the King. They tolerate the political and social status quo because it still meets their needs and because they don't have to worry about what tomorrow will bring. Because of this mindset, I don't think radical change is anything many Moroccans feel is necessary. Speaking to a Moroccan friend he said that while things here are not good, they are getting better. "Maybe five or ten years from now, but not now," he added. As long as this attitude persists, Morocco will stay stable.

Everybody loves stability. But it costs Morocco an awful lot to keep the King-- much more than he's worth, not just in my estimation but in the estimation of more and more people. When Egypt falls and things get ramped up in another country, Mohammed VI is going to be very happy that his family's corporation has all the billions of dollars they've stolen from the people of Morocco separate from the state's funds. Like the rest of the kleptocrats, they and their spawn will be living on it for generations-- in other countries.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home