Joey Lieberman Squeezes Another Fancy Vacation Out Of American Taxpayers-- This Time To Morocco
Crown Prince Moulay, M6 & Joe Lieberman (l-r)... royalists
Thursday, Joe Lieberman, who is finally retiring from the Senate, was on a junket to Morocco. I can't blame him-- other than the taxpayer-funded part of it. Morocco is one of my favorite places in the world to visit. I first went there in 1969 and I've been there over a dozen times. A couple years ago I rented a riad right next to the king's personal residence in Marrakech. We were told not to point any cameras from our rooftop lounge towards his rooftop lounge. We never did-- nor did we ever see him while he was in town, although I did write about him, maybe more rudely than I should have. Lieberman, like all conservatives, is a royalist at heart and he wasn't rude at all-- just a fabulist tweeting away about "our" wonderful ally being a reformer.
I just guess that Lieberman doesn't know what the Makhzen is, doesn't have a clue about the predatory nature of the royal family and has no idea he's basically endorsing a kleptocracy with good p.r. skills. 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 if only their Little Tsar knew what evil the terrible men around him were perpetrating against his people! Mohammed calls all the shots in the family business, a business that owns at least a piece of almost everything, 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 flood gates 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 swept the rest of North Africa last year. The King's cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham, 3rd in line to the throne and popularly known as the "Red Prince," because of his criticisms of the monarchy, said "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 that "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-monarchial and "down with tyranny" as we are here. While Egypt was 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 contingencies in case any radicals decided it was 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 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 going to ever hear on the utterly clueless CNN or the ideologically sociopathic Fox News, not to mention Joe Lieberman's twitter account. Last year, 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 and 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 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. Not everyone agrees with me, of course. Lieberman sure doesn't. Recently Nicolas Pelham did a thought-provoking piece for the NY Review of Books, How Morocco Dodged The Arab Spring, acknowledging the miserable living conditions in Morocco-- the part the Liebermans never see when they visit our glorious ally-- and the all pervasive corruption. Mohammed may have appropriated and tucked away $2.5 billion from the rich country his family and regime cronies have systematically impoverished but... "gave up his claim to divine rights as sovereign, but left him as Commander of the Faithful," which is slightly different and might seem like a monumental step for some. Pelham can't help but acknowledge that even after parliamentary elections and a man of the people, moderate Islamist taking over as prime minister, "Moroccans ask themselves whether their new constitution was merely cosmetic. Most recently, this view has been confirmed in a battle over who gets to make senior government appointments. Unsurprisingly, the King seems to have won."
It is hard to ignore the royal court’s smugness at how they co-opted the Islamists to revive the monarchy’s legitimacy at its weakest hour. On the one-year anniversary of the King’s “historic” March 9 speech ceding powers to a prime minister, the Moroccan state press, which usually commemorates royal anniversaries with religious attention, carefully avoided covering the event. “M6 [as the King is commonly known] was shaken to the core, and gave the biggest speech of his career pledging to open a new page,” says Karim Tazi, a politically-active businessman who initially backed the protestors. “The way he changed his mind when the February 20 movement began to lose its way is shocking."
[Prime Minister] Benkirane insists he has to “work gradually” to assert his new power and counter corruption, but there are increasing demands that he show it now. All but eleven of the government’s thirty-one ministers come from non-Islamist parties, and several served in the previous government, which Benkirane hitherto decried as corrupt. Aziz Akhennouch, a businessman whose wife recently opened the country’s largest and swankiest mall-- replete with Africa’s first Galeriés Lafayette-- is his agriculture minister, with powers to distribute state lands. An editor of an opposition Islamist newspaper, whom I knew a decade ago as one of the makhzen’s more judicious critics, is now the information minister, dutifully banning foreign newspapers deemed to disparage the king.
The legislature is similarly subservient. Under Article 41 of the new constitution, their laws can be overruled by royal dahir, or decree. Moreover, despite his gruff reputation, Benkirane’s justice minister has pledged that the government will not tamper with royal prerogative over religious affairs such as the Sharia. Scripting the Friday sermons, he insists, remains the prerogative of the Commander of the Faithful. Even Benkirane seems belabored with doubts, alternately referring to his election by the people, and his appointment by the King.
While Egypt’s election of an Islamist president has given Benkirane’s followers a recent boost, attempts by old regime security apparati to stage comebacks and harness elected representatives across the Arab world have also emboldened the makhzen. The old forces have resorted to their old ways, censoring and incarcerating critics. Hind Zerrouq, an Islamist activist, disappeared on June 13 minutes after calling her husband to tell him she was held in the basement of a state security cell. (Islamist websites said she had formed a support-group for the relatives of detained members of the banned but non-violent Islamist movement, Justice and Charity.) The same week, a court sentenced a blogger who criticized the King to two years in jail for possessing cannabis, a Moroccan cash crop. Meanwhile, dissident Islamists, fearing waning public interest and further state pummeling, have suspended public protests, though they continue to agitate for change more quietly.
But the King has not been able to resolve Morocco’s economic troubles. In his thirteen years on the throne, he has removed many of the shackles his father placed on modernization. Child mortality has fallen 30 percent in five years, and literacy is sharply up from previous appalling lows. Yet development projects seem mostly aimed at the country’s upper crust and at foreigners, who are feted by hoteliers in Marrakesh. Moroccan trains run on time, the streets are spotless, and motorways are being built across the country, while everyday life for many is staggeringly squalid.
The government’s commitment to purchase a high-speed train network from France has become a symbol of the social disparities. At a cost of $2.8 billion, it is supposed to send TGV locomotives darting through countryside that peasants still plow with oxen. The sum equates to 10 percent of the annual budget, or ten times the government’s Agriculture fund for farmers, who comprise 40 percent of the workforce. The Islamist budget minister, attributing the decision to the previous government and to anxious follow-up visits from the French president and prime minister, told me the decision could not be reversed. “We can’t demolish what has already been built,” he said.
But that is precisely what the authorities have done when it comes to unregulated housing for the poor. After a year in which the makhzen stopped enforcing planning permits lest they provoke a Tunisia-scale uprising, the security forces now feel sufficiently emboldened by the stability of the Benkirane government to strike back. In March, riot police armed with sledgehammers began flattening the first batch of what officials say are 44,000 homes built illegally since the start of the Arab Awakening a year ago. A broken trail of rubble stretches from Tangiers in the north via the hillsides of Benkirane’s Sale constituency to El-Jedida, an old Portuguese fortress town a two-and-a-half hour train ride down the Atlantic.
Lieberman, of course, is visiting-- and getting his information for his tweets from-- people like himself. Here's a lesson for Senator Lieberman: