Will Morocco’s Youth Be Served by Restarting National Military Service?

Plans to reinstitute national military service for young Moroccan men and women should be a centerpiece for a national discussion on what to do about the country’s discontented youth. But the who, what, where, why, and how remain unanswered.

Part 1 of a two-part article sets out the questions and dilemmas posed by the proposed new law.

The renewal of national conscription announced by King Mohammed VI in a speech following presentation of a draft bill to the Council of Ministers on August 20 has been greeted with confusion and concern. Although there is a backlog of pending legislation, it appears that this bill became a priority in part due to the king’s dissatisfaction with how youth were responding to the government’s lack of momentum in resolving long-standing grievances.

While there are great benefits in building strong values of citizenship, in the U.S. and elsewhere, it may be useful in determining the merits of such a program to consider four topics: What, Why, Who, and How before the law is finalized so that it can be part of a larger strategy that contributes to Morocco’s development rather than a tool for tamping down dissent and promoting false expectations.

WHAT? According to media reports, the initial statement from the Royal Palace said, “Female and male citizens aged between 19 and 25 years are obliged to do military service for 12 months. The military service aims to promote patriotism among the young, within the framework of the correlation between the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

It is hardly a coincidence that the proposed law follows several years of demonstrations in different parts of the country mostly led by young people fed up with the slow pace of economic development, alleged high levels of corruption among government officials, and a general lack of confidence in policies designed to give greater authority of decision-making to local authorities.

In his speech, referring to national service, the King once again spoke forcefully about the need for the government to do more to curb unemployment and improve the educational system and vocational training. “We cannot let our education system continue to produce unemployed people, especially in certain branches of study, where graduates – as everyone knows – find it extremely hard to access the job market,” he said.

While the king has made this a centerpiece of his speeches for several years, the government has not been effective in aggressively moving ahead with projects, reforms, and policies that both broadly promote economic development and are inclusive of groups who are politically and economically marginalized. There is plenty of blame to go around – from the inability of Parliament to use its powers to make government ministries more accountable, the impact of corruption on project awarding and implementation, the mismatch between skills acquired in schools and the demands of the market, and the complex challenges of a country in transition from a largely commodity-based economy to one more diverse and rewarding.

WHY? On the surface, there are two goals in renewing military conscription: engendering a commitment to citizenship and building a sense of patriotism. These goals may overlap, but they are not necessarily congruent. For example, where is citizenship focused – on country, king, local community, or elsewhere? Does patriotism shift one towards more conservative values or is it inclusive of all Moroccans, built on a shared-perspective of the country’s priorities? Or is the project, as some critics claim, a means to delay and defuse acculturation that could lead to radicalization or dropping out?

An insight into the government’s strategy, reflecting the king statements, is that in addition to military conscription, “The council also approved the draft framework law on the education, training, and scientific research system, which is part of the high royal guidelines, aimed at adopting a genuine and irreversible reform of the national education system. This law sets out the principles and objectives establishing the system of education, training and scientific research, and those aimed at ensuring synergy between its various components so that they can fulfill their missions of ensuring quality education based on equity and equal opportunities,” according to the North Africa Post.

If the government is seriously committed to programs that will empower youth with values and skills to become more able citizens and economic engines, then the development of a viable, sustainable, and action-based comprehensive strategy for youth development should be based on a broader-based vision integrating military service, national service, and educational reform to achieve these outcomes.

WHO? When the king abolished the previous mandatory military service in 2006, it was said that conscription had led to a climate of apathy and did not meet “the requirements of professionalism and scientific and technological training.” How the proposed law will remedy this is unclear, along with the content of the service, how it will handle male and female recruits? Who will be exempted, and what are the indicators of a successful policy?

With Parliament returning to session, details such as these will be discussed and debated. Hopefully, more public input and recognition will focus on additional concrete benefits that can be achieved from this program beyond its aims of patriotism and good citizenship. It will be a disservice if the politicians end up enacting a program that favors certain socio-economic or ethnic classes either by conscription or exemption.

Other considerations that are being raised include: how will binational Moroccans living in Morocco or abroad be affected, will there be differentiation between university, high school, and primary school graduates? Will literacy play a role in qualifying for the program and will there be a remedial component? Is there any thought to a skills component to the program? These and other questions are some examples of the complexity of bridging the announcement and the implementation of mandatory military service.

HOW? And in all of this, what does the military itself think? Given that this could mean an intake annually of anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 youths, how will it set priorities, expand existing facilities, develop whatever new or revised regulations are needed to manage the program, and will it be sufficiently funded with an initial build-up period rather than thousands showing up without a systematic and comprehensible intake process?

These considerations are already being debated on social media. It will be telling to gauge the role it will play in connecting the opinions of Moroccans with their members of Parliament, whether groups concerned about the proposed law will organize beyond chat rooms, if the government will use social media to build its case for the benefits of compulsory military service for youth, and what coalitions are formed for and against the program under what perspectives.

 

Part 2 will explore the possibilities of recasting the military service program into a national service program that not only promotes patriotism and citizenship, but also has the capacity to bridge rural and urban constituencies, develop marketable skills, encourage team building and leadership qualities, and add meaning to the lives of the participants, their families, and others.

 

International Donors Conference on the Sahel, Much Ado…Will It Make a Difference

 

According to a number of reports, more than 60 delegations and 14 partner countries gathered in Brussels last month to put meat on the bones of the G5 Sahel force set up in 2017 to enable Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad build their military capabilities to conduct anti-terrorism operations in their countries and along their borders. There were also discussions concerning the need for social and economic development to address underlying local issues that feed dissatisfaction and instability.

The meeting was co-hosted by the EU, the UN, the African Union (AU), and the G5 under the auspices of Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou. Pledges were made totaling some $509 million for the joint force’s operating budget. Issoufou pointed out that it would only support the first year’s operations and that subsequent annual budgets of $150 million would be needed. France also announced that it would increase its contributions to development and government assistance to the region to more than $1.5 billion over the next five years.

As a post in Euractiv explained, “The aim of the military force is to drive out terrorist groups, smugglers, and organized criminal gangs that are taking advantage of the weakness of the state in certain areas of the region. It is a critical region since poverty, climate change, and the collapse of the Libyan state have turned it into an ideal breeding ground for all sorts of smuggling and could also be a haven for Daesh fighters fleeing Syria.”

Given this complexity, among concerns expressed by several delegations were “There is also a risk that an overly securitized approach could squeeze out equally necessary work on governance, justice, and the protection of local populations,” according to ECFR coverage.

In order to address concerns regarding the appropriate use of the funding, the G5 has set up a fiduciary fund for donations, and the EU now has set up a “coordination hub” for channeling international donations to aggregated and disburse funds within the GF effort. Hopefully, this will “help alleviate the risk already posed by so many international actors intervening in the Sahel, ideally avoiding duplication of efforts and wasted investments,” the article noted.

Coordination of both military and development efforts poses a tricky balancing act for the EU and G5 countries as the EU wants the G5 with intimate local knowledge to play the lead role in developing the military interventions while ensuring that support and assistance are channeled to projects that will best benefit at-risk populations and not exacerbate discrimination against local groups.

Unfortunately, the military situation continues to deteriorate. Attacks by jihadist groups aimed at French and G5 forces, often abetted by locals, have increased; and security operations by the joint forces sometimes agitate local civilians and have created refugee situations in some cases. It has been mentioned that as G5 operations continue, “The tactical need to work with “friendly” local armed actors could end up further destabilizing local security arrangements in the name of combating terrorism.”

This makes it even more imperative that the EU Training Mission (EUTM) and security sector reform in the G5 countries proceed apace, that the rights of minorities are protected, and that development assistance is effectively targeted. As Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs remarked, “This isn’t only about security but also about development. Because there can be no real conditions for security without social and economic development, such as opportunities for young people and women in the region.”

The Euractiv post listed that “France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, the EU, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the UNDP have announced that the Sahel Alliance will collect a total of $7.4 billion to finance development projects for the next five years. These funds will go towards the 500 projects that will be set up in the countries of the G5 Sahel, and will be based on six main areas: employment for young people, rural development, food security, energy and climate, governance, decentralization, and access to basic services and security.”

Concerns with a balanced, coordinated strategy were also emphasized in a Devex post noting that Mogherini made the point that the EU had invested more than $9.8 billion in the Sahel in the past seven years. Yet, Friederike Röder, director of ONE France, was skeptical of the durability of the commitments. “It’s great to hear announcements for more investment into development in the Sahel, but we need to ensure that the primary objective of this funding is the eradication of extreme poverty and not controlling migration or military objectives,” she said.

Achieving positive results in the next few years will take more than infusions of money. Reliable coordination and collaboration across the spectrum of military and development programs can only be built on commitments to transparency, effective communications, transnational cooperation, and consensus that is a rare commodity in the region. With the Sahel still liable to increased infiltration by outside militants and jihadists, and the existing unstable political environment, it will take leadership that embodies a long-range vision of building states out of insecure territories based on tribal alliances.

ECFR Report Gives Mixed Grades on Counterterrorism Strategies to Morocco and Tunisia – Part 1

A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) illustrates the challenges of proposing approaches to terrorism prevention in other countries whose methods may at times conflict with Western values of due process, reflect local power dynamics that are unique to each country, and reflect how those governments view tradeoffs between short vs long-term efforts to combat terrorism.

Europe is increasingly concerned that the large numbers of foreign fighters returning from the Middle East to the Maghreb, particularly Tunisia and Morocco, will in time spill over to Europe creating much larger threats than previously encountered. “European countries have a strong interest in understanding security threats that emanate from North Africa, and in working with North African countries to address them,” according to the study. The study has several themes: the nature of security challenges in the Maghreb with attention to how they counter threats within their borders; the types and level of cooperation with the EU on countering terrorism; how each country is fighting terrorism given their unique societies and histories; and how their strategies impact the EU’s options for cooperation and collaboration.

While most of the analyses believe that Tunisia and Morocco are making important and successful efforts in their struggle with countering terrorism, “Nevertheless, the countries’ counter-terrorism strategies share a common shortcoming: both Morocco and Tunisia have prioritized the prevention of attacks and the disruption of terrorist cells, but have failed to pay sufficient attention to the legal and judicial framework for handling people detained on terrorism charges – or to the wide range of factors that contribute to radicalization.” This caveat has as much to do with the historical roots of notions of justice in both countries as well as structural and resource constraints faced in dealing with those groups at risk of radicalization.

The study calls for stronger cooperation and integration of efforts between the EU members and Morocco and Tunisia who “make up the front line in the EU’s efforts to establish zones of security on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.” It specifically mentions the need for “greater attention to areas such as the treatment of arrested suspects, socioeconomic factors that may contribute to radicalization, and the state’s broader relationship with communities that are disproportionately vulnerable to terrorist recruitment,” as critical priorities in terrorism prevention.

Tunisia – changing of the guard

Given the terrorist attacks in 2015 that exposed the weaknesses in Tunisia’s security platform, “With substantial foreign support, the Tunisian authorities responded to this moment of crisis by launching a program that restructured the security services and improved the country’s defenses against terrorism.”

On balance, the study gives the government high marks in that since 2014, it has markedly improved the army and internal security forces’ capabilities, training, equipment, and coordination.

“In 2015, the government launched the National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, which joined the National Security Council in developing the new, comprehensive strategy on counter-terrorism and extremism unveiled in 2016.” As the study points out, it bears “a strong resemblance to European models, this strategy centers on the four pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution, and response to attacks. Finally, in early 2017, Tunisia set up the National Intelligence Centre, an institution designed to overcome problems with coordination and information-sharing between intelligence agencies that had plagued the country’s counter-terrorism efforts since the revolution.”

These steps, plus the construction of barriers in a militarized zone bordering Libya and Algeria, along with enhanced surveillance and detection equipment, are key factors in the country’s upgraded capabilities. The report states that “Tunisia stands out among North African countries for its readiness to work with international partners on reforming and improving the capability of its security sector. European officials generally agree that Tunisia’s security services have considerably improved their capacity to prevent and respond to terrorist threats since 2015.”

On the other hand, it notes that, “Nevertheless, the overhaul of Tunisia’s security and counter-terrorism strategy and structures has failed to resolve some problems and even created a few new difficulties. The reform of the security services under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior has made little headway… as many officials continue to believe that police transparency and accountability would be an impediment to fighting terrorism.”

While Tunisia has sharpened its skills to prevent terrorist attacks, there still remain several concerns that must be addressed according to the report. First of all, the internal security services need to be reformed, especially reducing its immunity for violating human rights and arbitrary arrests and detention. “Using emergency powers, the security forces have carried out thousands of raids and house searches without judicial authorization, and placed dozens of people under assigned residence orders,” it states, calling for independent oversight of its operations.

Additional challenges include the economic impact of border closures with Libya, which severely restrict cross-border trade; and more importantly, the lack of a comprehensive government-wide strategy for dealing with radicalized individuals. Also of concern is the lack of intelligence on Tunisian diaspora in Europe, in sharp contrast with Morocco, which has significant interactions with its intelligence counterparts in Europe.

Among its conclusions regarding Tunisia, the study recommends, “In Tunisia, international partners should follow through on existing reform programs, encouraging further openness within the Ministry of the Interior to help the institution improve its cooperation with the country’s citizens. Greater professionalism within the security services would make it easier for European partners to share intelligence with Tunisia. European countries and the EU should also encourage and support Tunisia in developing programs to promote religious education and awareness, gearing them towards pupils and their families from an early age.”

In my next blog, I’ll look at the ECFR assessment of Morocco’s counter-terrorism capabilities and strategies.

The Way Forward – Counterterrorism Cooperation between Morocco and the EU – Part 2

In many ways, the headline Morocco: capabilities and deficiencies of a strong state sums up the section of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) study on counterterrorism cooperation between the EU and Morocco and Tunisia. While it notes Morocco’s breadth of capabilities and its reputation as “a model of political stability, economic development, and regional integration in Africa and the Middle East,” the study goes on to say that “Morocco’s approach to counter-terrorism is inseparable from the state’s tight control over its domestic population and its undemocratic and unaccountable political system;” a harsh and only partially accurate rendering of Morocco today and its commitment to countering both domestic and international terrorism.

Morocco is supported by Europe and the US in building its CVE tactics and skills, and has initiated a number of programs, with international assistance, to diminish the economic drivers that support radicalization such as unemployment, wealth disparity, corruption, lack of transparency, and marginalization of rural and underserved urban populations. It has also taken on a broader role as co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum.

While the study acknowledges Morocco’s success in thwarting plots internally, it expresses reservations that can be summed up as “at what cost?” Calling Morocco a “surveillance state,” it points out that both “domestically and abroad, Morocco has a proven track record of expertise in human and signals intelligence. Morocco operates as a tight and effective security state, working through an extensive network of security officials and informants that blankets the nation.”

It allows that “European officials have admitted that a number of attacks in Europe might have been prevented had domestic intelligence services been allowed to employ the kind of human intelligence network established in Morocco.” Some detail on these capabilities is instructive. Aside from a national network of some 50,000 locally-sited observers, called mqadmin, who report suspicious activities and personalities, there is a national coordinating center for combating terrorism, the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ). While the mqadmin ”have an ambiguous status as both official and temporary public servants, a situation that is convenient for the authorities, which avoid accountability by keeping the mqadmin’s role and potential role unregulated, [they] have a reputation for involvement in corruption and human rights abuses.”

The BCIJ, on the other hand, has earned recognition for its effectiveness in breaking up cells of potential terrorists. Morocco is also expanding its work in signals intelligence with the assistance of its European partners, primarily France, the UK, and Germany. The study says that “The Moroccan authorities use a variety of pre-emptive digital surveillance techniques to identify and prosecute suspects, such as monitoring phone calls involving individuals on watch lists, and registering suspicious internet searches. In all, the Moroccan authorities are believed to use 19 human and digital platforms to monitor the population, including on the dark web.”

With these instruments and the new reconnaissance satellite launched in November 2017, Morocco has an integrated effort to counter terrorism, monitor movements on its borders and in the Western Sahara, and track migration in the open spaces of the Sahara and Sahel. An additional tool, dubbed Operation Hadar is also of great value. “The operation was designed to protect Morocco from terrorist infiltration using patrols of airports, train stations, and other transport hubs, as well enhanced border monitoring.” Initially deployed in large cities, it is now being extended throughout the country, the study notes.

The role of King Mohammed VI

As the study points out, “As commander of the faithful, the king retains overall religious authority in the country, enabling the central government to not only retain a measure of religious legitimacy but also to dictate which religious practices and interpretations are deemed acceptable – including those among the religious establishment.” Control of the religious establishment includes media distribution of approved religious texts and sermons, controlling the issuance of fatwas, and treating imams as public servants.

Other initiatives include Morocco’s pioneering work in involving women counselors, mourchidates, in communities and rural areas and the training of imams from Africa and Europe. Also, “Morocco has established a religious council for the Moroccan diaspora in Europe, aiming to assist host countries with religious education. Together with intelligence cooperation, Morocco’s religious training initiatives appear to be a form of security diplomacy designed to improve the country’s reach and international standing.”

While complimenting Morocco on its efforts, the study is concerned that “Indeed, counter-radicalization remains Morocco’s weak point. The fact that the security services have thwarted a high number of terrorist plots reflects their capacity to detect and prevent attacks, but it also indicates the extent to which many young men and women remain susceptible to extremist messaging. In an all too familiar pattern repeated across the world, the government points to the tactical successes of its counter-terrorism operations while downplaying the underlying conditions that necessitate these operations.”

The EU study finds that the government’s outreach to the EU and US for help in prison reform, rehabilitation, police corruption, and training medical staff to recognize signs of abuse are moves in the right direction. It recognizes that “Moroccan counter-terrorism cooperation with both European countries and the US is not only a security endeavor but also a crucial component of Rabat’s long-term efforts to strengthen economic and political ties with these countries. Morocco aims to minimize international outcry over the Western Sahara issue, encourage greater foreign investment and tourism, maintain access to Western military equipment and training, and promote Morocco’s integration into NATO’s strategic plans.”

The path to more effective collaboration must reconcile, according to the study, Morocco’s commitment to a robust CVE strategy firmly grounded in the Moroccan experience, which may or may not take into consideration concerns of its friends in the EU and US on such issues as human and civil rights, internal security and judicial reforms, and social and economic disparities among the population. Working through these issues of accountability and equitable development are as important to the EU as Morocco’s stress on security within stability in the short term. In this regard, the study overlooked two facts in Morocco’s efforts to reduce economic disparities: its national campaign to promote development in rural and marginalized communities, and its need to attract foreign investment to ensure a steady growth in employment opportunities. Facing these concerns as well as the challenges of returning militants from conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere are the next chapter in this complex saga.

Of Note: MEI Panel weighs in on Protests in Morocco and Tunisia

The Middle East Institute (MEI) recently presented a panel discussion on “Protests in North Africa: parallels and prospects.” Speakers addressed “the social and economic drivers behind the recent demonstrations [in Morocco and Tunisia], as well as prospects for resolving these inequities.”

The Washington, DC panel included Intissar Fakir (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Dokhi Fassihian (Freedom House), William Lawrence (George Washington University), and moderator Paul Salem, MEI’s senior vice-president for policy research and programs.

Although the immediate causes of the most recent demonstrations are very different – in Tunisia protesters want a change to the country’s new austerity laws, while in Morocco the flashpoint is the death of two young coal miners, Houcine and Jedouane Dioui in Jerada – the root causes are the same: economic inequality, perceived lack of investment and development resulting in high unemployment, and ineffective government responses to local needs due to corruption and lack of accountability.

In Tunisia, protests have been continuing for many months due to the lack of economic growth in the country, corruption and lack of government accountability, and strong feelings of marginalization among youth. Laws exonerating wealthy businessmen and politicians from persecution for actions during the Ben Ali regime overthrown in 2011 have soured public confidence in the government. Despite large amounts of international assistance, some significant international investment, and large doses on congratulations for Tunisia’s democratic progress, many citizens are unhappy with the government’s inability to develop sustainable and equitable strategies for moving forward. Its nascent democracy is challenged by these protests as the government is resorting to tougher security measures, arresting hundreds of demonstrators.

Although Ms. Fassihian, senior program manager for MENA at Freedom House, characterized Tunisia as “more free” than Morocco due to its strong and more open human rights record, she notes that the continuing demonstrations have led to extensive arrests and to trials in military courts, further undermining the civilian government’s credibility. Arrests are both planned, i.e. targeted at certain leaders, and random of people at the demonstrations. This has resulted, according to Ms. Fakir, who is the Editor-in-chief of Sada, CEIP’s Middle East blog journal, in a growing lack of trust in the government and impatience with its inability to resolve the economic crisis. The lack of transparency in decision-making has also undermined the public’s faith in the government.

In Morocco, one can link the Jerada protests to the 2016 marches in the Rif protesting the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in El Hoceima. Both incidents highlighted the regional and local governments’ lack of accountability and corruption, leaving them unable to move effectively to solve local programs of unemployment, lack of investment in infrastructure and social services, and providing the services, education, and job opportunities that citizens expect.

The protests, which spread beyond the Rif region, drew a strong response from King Mohammed VI who showed his displeasure with those officials charged with not having carried out the more than $100 million of development projects allocated to the region over the past six years. He fired and blacklisted past and current ministers, director generals, and other officials responsible for the economic development and governance of the region. The King sent his personal envoy, Aziz Akhannouch, Minister of Agriculture, to meet with leaders of the Rif protests.

Now, the King faces a similar crisis some 120 miles away where young men, working to mine coal in abandoned quarries, died in attempts to scrap out some income for their families. Again, there are charges of local government inaction, extensive unemployment, corruption and lack of accountability, and insufficient investments to retool the local economy, create jobs, and build needed infrastructure.

While Ms. Fassihian pointed out that Morocco is at least attempting to observe freedom of assembly by allowing protests, security forces eventually cracked down on the protestors. The judicial system is still dominated by the security forces, controlled by the Palace. So without an independent judiciary, there is an observable regression in observing civil and human rights, more protests, and a decline in public confidence. Hence, demonstrators continued to come out in order to reach out to the King as the ultimate arbiter in the country.

One of the recurring themes mentioned by the panel is the need for credible decentralization or regionalization that devolves effective decision-making from the central government to local elected authorities. Both countries have committed to decentralization as a means of promoting political and economic development. Ms. Fassihian noted that although Morocco is a leader in the region in decentralization, the process is very slow and many obstacles are due to lack of clarity from the central government on issues such as power-sharing between elected and appointed leaders, budgetary guidelines and allocations, and standards of accountability and transparency in government transactions and services.

Despite these challenges, there was agreement among the panelists that US policy can play an effective role in both countries. Dr. Lawrence pointed out that he US government has many links to Morocco and Tunisia through various agreements, assistance programs, training programs, as well as educational and cultural ties. A more strategic and targeted approach, especially focused on economic issues and youth can have a significant impact as these are the root causes, along with corruption and accountability, that drive the protestors.

It is a conundrum in Morocco and Tunisia, as well as other emerging economies in Africa, to meet the rising expectations of the majority of their citizens without a more efficient use of their limited resources. There are no single or simple solutions. Each country, given its historical and recent experiences, must confront dilemmas that arise from inequities in their societies that reinforce social, economic, and political disparities. Morocco is fortunate in that it has a King, widely respected, but a government which lacks widespread credibility with the people is not trusted to carry out needed policies.

Tunisia’s struggles are well-known, some historical, others part of the generational shift from an authoritarian regime to a democracy that seeks to balance its forward progress without weakening the country’s economic, cultural, and social infrastructure.

A major step in the right direction could be a firm and consistent commitment to forms of decentralization/devolution/regionalization implemented within a context of clear government authority, responsibility, and accountability. The people of Tunisia and Morocco are demanding to be at the core of their countries’ futures. The US can continue to upgrade its commitment to its partnerships by working to target both the short and long-term efforts to enable and ennoble the government-citizen relations.

 

The Wheel of Misfortune – Russia Takes Advantage of US Lethargy in North Africa

Those who follow US policy in the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly concerned with a lack of a robust or consistent American presence in the region outside of support for Israel and mixed messages on Syria and Iraq. Arab governments initially were pleased that the Trump Administration took a high profile on pursuing a Middle East peace settlement, inserting itself into the Israel-GCC-Iran quagmire, and issuing some soothing words in the Qatar boycott fracas. But the rest of the region, including Egypt and Yemen, are apparent afterthoughts in policy discussions at the State Department and National Security Council, while North Africa may as well be on another planet.

Aside from bewildering our Arab allies and stoking Israel’s anti-Iran fury, it is hard to discern the strategy or results of the Administration’s actions to date. Among the signs of discontent are mutterings about the lack of Ambassadorial appointments to the majority of Arab countries and the opaqueness surrounding the work of the President’s special envoy to the region. As with the Obama Administration, Arab leaders are wondering what can be done to engage the US outside of its seemingly very narrow agenda.

Another consequence of the Administration’s perceived lack of engagement was recently highlighted in an article from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), remarking on the extensive outreach of Russia in North Africa, ostensibly a region of low priority to the US.

In the article, the authors, Sarah Feuer and Anna Borshchevskaya, make a point of the heightened pace of Russia’s dealings with the region in hopes of offsetting traditional US influence and promoting its own “geostrategic, economic, and political interests.”

They point out that, “In Putin’s estimation, Russia’s ascendancy depends on countering the United States and its European allies. Expanded access to the Mediterranean serves this broader goal by establishing a foothold in a European sphere of influence and reducing the U.S. ability to maneuver militarily. In economic terms, North Africa presents an opportunity for Russia to sell arms, forge partnerships in the energy sector, and invest in infrastructure development. Moscow can also claim it is in the region to fight terrorism.”

Although Russia has traditionally had strong relationships with Libya and Algeria, its moves into Tunisia and Morocco should be troubling to the US.

In Libya, Russia is seeking to maintain its foothold by supporting Gen. Khalifa Haftar and positioning itself as a neutral force between the major factions in the country. In addition to its energy resources, Libya offers important access to Egypt and port facilities that expand Russian presence on the Mediterranean.

Russia’s relationship with Algeria is perhaps the longest one it has enjoyed in North Africa, dating from the time of its enormous weapons sales as the Soviet Union. More recently its dealings with Algeria encompass debt forgiveness, more weapons sales, intelligence sharing, and cooperation in the energy sector, despite Algeria being a competitor in natural gas exports. Russia has also signed exploration and development agreements covering oil and gas concessions in the country.

Although Tunisia has long been considered pro-Western, it is benefitting from closer ties to Russia. The article notes: since 2011 the bilateral relationship has focused on counterterrorism, nuclear energy, and tourism… In 2016, roughly 600,000 Russian tourists visited Tunisia, a tenfold increase from the previous year and over 10 percent of the country’s visitors that year. Tunisian retail businesses have welcomed Russians’ presence, and the government has spoken positively of Russia’s assistance in counterterrorism. Officials have also publicly acknowledged Russia’s growing regional sway, including in Syria.”

Morocco-Russia relations are where the hedging of bets by traditional US allies in securing their interests is most apparent. Since his trip to Moscow in 2016, King Mohammed VI has “strengthened economic relations through a renewal of the countries’ free trade agreement and an expansion of Russian access to Moroccan fisheries on the Atlantic coast.” While Morocco-US relations flounder without clear signals from the US side, Russia has continued to build its ties by becoming a major importer of Moroccan agricultural products, providing technical assistance in the energy sector, and supplying liquefied natural gas to the country.

As importantly, “As it does Tunisia, Russia views Morocco as an economic gateway to Africa; it also regards the kingdom as a model to emulate in countering Islamist extremism in its own vicinity.”

Given the stasis that seems to permeate US diplomacy outside of conflict situations, there is much more that the US could do to assert its common interests with the Maghreb countries, starting with appointing competent and active Ambassadors to fill all the empty posts.

Additionally, “In cooperation with its European allies, policymakers should promote greater regional counterterrorism cooperation among the Maghreb states and expand the US Navy’s presence across the Mediterranean. Stationing more vessels out of Rota, Spain, for example, would help constrain Russian actions.”

Despite the cuts to foreign assistance programs, the US must continue to build its cultural, education, and capacity-building programs with North Africa whenever possible, developing regional programs when useful. North African countries could greatly benefit from encouragement to strengthen civil society and protect individual liberties; the U­S can do much more in this regard.

Promoting stronger economic relations can also play a role in enabling local economies, which are in need of resilient and sustainable projects that create valued jobs and include women and youth. Programs that support entrepreneurship and the creation of SMEs should be continued and expanded as an antidote to the growing numbers of restless, unemployed youth susceptible to negative messaging.

North Africa should not be Russia’s for the taking. The US has invested decades of efforts in supporting the development of these societies. Many individuals within these countries’ public and private sector leadership have taken advantage of US exchange and educational programs and have an inclination to support closer ties. Without a commitment to husbanding these ties and building long-term relationships that engage North Africans across sectors and parties, the US is signaling its intentions to become a second-rate friend in the region, and American influence will wane accordingly.

Is Morocco On Course?

Morocco’s second election since the adoption of the new constitution in 2011 resulted in the appointment of Abdelilah Benkirane as head of government, since his moderate Islamic party, PJD, had the highest number of votes. He is currently in the process of negotiating a governing coalition.

To outside observers, this seems consistent with the norms of a democratic election and so is not remarkable. However, it has a much larger significance for several reasons. First of all, the results reinforce the reality that free and fair elections are a consistent feature of political life in Morocco. There are winners and losers, and the process moves towards peaceful outcomes and transitions, if necessary. Secondly, the results indicated the rise of a strong party, the PAM, in opposition to the PJD-led government, another healthy sign of a society in which no one party has the monopoly on the national discourse. A third consideration is that King Mohammed VI showed his support for the electoral process by immediately appointing Benkirane to form a government, a critical step since PAM is known to be strong supporters of the palace.

Most important in the long run, the election underscores Morocco’s advance towards greater civic engagement and government accountability, a consistent theme in the King’s speeches, most recently to the opening session of Parliament, itself continually including more women and youth members. And this is probably Morocco’s strongest asset, the blending of the King’s leadership with a government supporting ongoing reforms that bring Morocco in line with human and civic values that solidify its democratic elements.

Intentions are certainly not enough. The reform agenda is still incomplete. And the gap between passing and implementing legislation cannot be ignored. The King himself complained about the inadequate understanding and enforcement of the Family Law (Moudawana), which provides significant policies for women’s empowerment. Judicial independence is still to be attained; the regionalization process devolving certain powers to local governments has yet to be fully codified with institutions and human resources prepared to implement it; and there are gaps in the educational infrastructure and approach that are an obstacle to fully developing the country’s human potential.

These issues and many more were raised during the election, another positive sign for Morocco’s democracy. Most importantly, aside from a defensible prohibition on pre-election polling (which can be appreciated given the cornucopia of contradictory results of the myriad polls in the US at this time), Morocco has achieved a seasoned election process. As the political parties mature and the number of serious parties shrinks from the 30+ in the recent election, the opportunities for more robust and vibrant political campaigns can be realized.

Casting Ballots are only one small piece of democracy

Casting ballots are only one small piece of democracy

Over the longer term, Morocco’s elections have another very important function – to build needed credibility in the political system. Some international election observers suggested that the turnout of 43%, while comparable to democratic elections elsewhere, may signal dissatisfaction with political parties. In fact, there are signs that the political parties are getting the message that defining positions, seeking to be more inclusive, and listening to constituencies are critical to their survival and success. Shake-ups are already underway in those parties that fared poorly. Another lesson learned in the recent elections.

Finally, another issue to be reckoned with is how legitimate political mechanisms, such as elections, contribute to Morocco’s internal coherence and ability to govern. The lack of credible mechanism is commonly mentioned an indicator of “state fragility.” As Thomas Carothers points out in a recent Policy Brief produced jointly by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for a New American Security, and the United States Institute for Peace, a common feature of fragile states is the systematic exclusion of its citizens. And the commonly defined prescription is “inclusive governance.”

If inclusiveness is the glue for building stability and the social contract, then Morocco is surely headed in the right direction. Elevating the Amazigh language as an official language for the government and educational system, broadening the role of civil society in in policy-making, and the King’s insistence, in his latest speech, that the government remain focused on providing quality services to the people – are all positive trends towards inclusion. People are already more empowered due to digital technologies; the government and institutions must keep pace develop credible and effective communications strategies in order to proactively discharge their responsibilities.

As the Policy Brief concludes:

When a government closes off space for independent civil society, it is creating a significant structural obstacle to achieving inclusive governance and positive state-society relations. An active, diverse civil society is the key to empowering marginalized groups, creating multiple channels for citizen participation, mediating diverse interests in a peaceful fashion, and in general creating state-society relations based on mutual communication, respect, and consensus.

This is where Morocco is headed and the country is well on its way.

Flo Martin Looks at Moroccan Cinema as a Transnational Player

I would like to say that I’m a cinema fan, but I leave that to my sisters who are steeped in the craft and have well-defined perspectives that make for great family conversations, including our in-laws.  There is so much to enjoy in cinema today. The diversity, quality, and sometimes quirkiness of foreign films in particular make them quite engaging.

I can remember my university days when I was first exposed to films that had to have subtitles…strange experience for a small town teen from Western Pennsylvania. Today, international films have become a staple of film festivals all over the US, no longer confined to college campuses or arts cinemas. I­­t’s hard not to find films that satisfy, even if you’re not a critic or film buff. And, as I am learning, Moroccan films are among the best in Africa and the larger region.

The Middle East and North Africa were hotbeds of sophisticated (non-Bollywood genre) productions beginning in the 60s, with Lebanon leading the way to rival Egypt. It produced only a small number each year, but it became a center for film study, and today, six universities have cinema arts programs which trained many of the professionals who went on to start film centers in the Gulf. Most of the Arab film community today got their training in France or Lebanon.

As Wikipedia points out, “Films from Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestine, Syria and Tunisia are making wider and more frequent rounds than ever before in local film festivals and repertoire theaters.In Washington, DC, where I live, there are at least three annual film festivals hosting Arab cinema productions and all are well attended.

So when a friend at Goucher College let me know that one of its professors, Dr. Florence (Flo) Martin was participating in a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) (UK) grant to “analyze the rise of Moroccan cinema over the last two decades from relative obscurity to a position where it is arguably now amongst the most important national cinemas within Africa and the Arab world, ” I was intrigued.

So I set out to find out how someone from France, a Professor of French and Francophone Cinema and Literature from Goucher College iin nearby Baltimore, MD, became part of a film project in the UK.  So I contacted Dr. Martin, Flo, to find out about the project and her own interest in Morocco. She said that she came from Paris to Goucher where she had worked previously as a French assistant and instructor both at Goucher and at Randolph-Macon College. She created a Study Abroad Program in Paris for Randolph-Macon, which she directed for several years as she was completing her PhD dissertation.

Dr. Martin then spent a year at the University of Exeter (UK) directing Goucher College’s Study Abroad Program at the school, writing about Maghrebi cinema, and teaching French and Francophone Cinema Studies at Exeter. While there, she met Professor Will Higbee, Professor of Film Studies and French, who has a particular interest in immigrant, transnational, and diasporic cinemas, and has written several seminal books on North African cinema. Professor Higbee recruited Dr. Martin as his senior investigator for the AHRC grant.

On a Role

By this time, she has already written a paean to Bessie Smith followed by several articles and books on women in North Africa cinema, focusing on how their “revolutionary voices” were given new outlets by film. According to the AHRC website, “The project aims to explore the critical and commercial success of Moroccan cinema through a transnational lens, analyzing the global reach of this ‘small’ national cinema…The project places a strong emphasis on collaboration with filmmakers, festivals, policy makers and other industry figures and has partnerships with ESAV (Marrakech), the London Film School and The Africa in Motion Film Festival (Edinburgh),”

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Part of the project involves bringing together diverse players in film at a symposium at the Marrakech International Film Festival in December. Cinema professionals, critics, academics, and policy-makers will gather to exchange ideas that contribute to a deeper understanding of the project’s themes. As a prelude to the symposium, there was a competition for young filmmakers to submit two short films representative of their work. From 60 entries, two filmmakers will be chosen to spend a semester at the London School of Film Studies, where they will undertake collaborative work with others and become part of the School’s international network.

[A commercial interruption – The Marrakech festival, (FIFM) – was started in 2000 and has become one of the most prestigious events on the continent and Europe, drawing talent, directors, producers, critics, and film lovers from around the world. It is held every December.]

Dr. Martin describes Moroccan filmmakers as “agile,” able to collaborate with others in many countries to produce their films. And she believes that Moroccan cinema is currently “trying to figure out where it’s going.” It is “unique in that it speaks to global audiences and those at home in ways that are no longer encoded but are more direct and open, which is what caused the uproar over the Moroccan film ‘Much Loved.’ It was too raw, too direct for some.” [If you don’t know, the film was banned before it even made it into Morocco. It deals with the life of a prostitutes in Marrakech – read about it here.] She also listed “Adios Carmen,” which recounts in the Amazigh language the history of Tangier and northern Morocco, as emblematic of the new films that speak directly to audiences.

Earlier this year, Flo spent several months in Tangier working on her new book about Farida Benlyazid, an icon among filmmakers in Morocco, who introduced her to many young film aspirants who provided Dr. Martin with their perceptions of their craft and their country. Not one to slow down, Flo is already planning for the next steps after the symposium in Marrakech; after all, the grant is only for three years! Given her prodigious output so far, this project will define for quite some time the regional and transnational impact of Moroccan cinema.

 

Bill Murray at 15th Marrakech International Film Festival image from sg.entertainment.yahoo.com

Building Resilient Communities to Combat Terrorism

Two recent publications tackle the issue of state fragility and policy choices for the US in addressing vulnerable countries and communities. An inaugural paper directed at the incoming administration, is a result of a joint project by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for a New American Security, and the United States Institute of Peace. It is aptly titled “U.S. Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility,” and is co-authored by William J. Burns, Michele A. Flournoy, and Nancy E. Lindborg, all veterans of the US government, respectively at the State Department, Department of Defense, and USAID.  Additional Policy Briefs are already being published “to discuss the implications of fragility on existing U.S. tools, strategic interests, and challenges.”

The second is a series of blogs being published by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which deals with “supporting democratic resilience to violent conflict.” Both efforts seek to focus conceptual and policy-making energy on lessons learned since our involvement in Afghanistan and how the US can avoid the pitfalls of what had been called “nation-building” and other efforts to promote democracy and governance in emerging political societies.

‘State Fragility’ poses four criteria for making policy choices: clearly articulating US priorities;  allocating limited expertise and resources;  and building on international support and and local capabilities for building resilience.  What is of particular interest is the assumption that those countries that are managing their affairs are less of a priority in this series because the failures of fragile states have a higher probability of destabilizing the country and surrounding nations.

In the MENA region, this means that more effective state actors such as Morocco will have to continue to expend high levels of energy and resources to combat extremist forces that seek to undermine its security, stability, and prosperity. Others working to implement a comprehensive CVE strategy, such as Tunisia, or those with a go-it-alone approach based on local sensibilities, i.e. Algeria, will have to rely primarily on its own capacity to continue the fight against radicals.

Protecting Democratic Gains

In this context, the NDI series aims directly at what we know will enable the path to democracy for those countries already committed to that mission. Although the pace of democratization may be too snail-like for some observers, there can be no doubt that the trend toward greater political accountability and local decision-making is becoming more prevalent in countries not in conflict in the MENA region.

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Why is this critical? As the NDI paper points out, “A key goal of democratization is peaceful politics. Political battles may be inevitable, but in stable democracies they are not waged by armed groups, but through institutions such as elections, parliaments, the media, and civil society organizations.”

Morocco, on the eve of its second parliamentary election since the new constitution was adopted in 2011, recognizes the crucial value of building political institutions resistant to political manipulations. The process has been and continues to be a lengthy one with several moving parts: local elections reflecting the regionalization policy of devolving more political decision-making to locally elected officials, a judiciary and election commission increasingly independent of the central government, a cabinet lead by the party that garners the largest number of votes, and greater freedom of appointments by the government rather than the palace, among other factors.

There are many studies that indicate that countries that mature into full democracies “have the lowest levels of violence towards their own citizens and are more peaceful neighbors than autocratic states.” Thus NDI engages countries that are evolving their democratic institutions, policies, and values.

Morocco is consolidating its democratic advances by empowering civil service organizations to act as advocates and service providers, pressing political parties to build constituencies based on policies and capable candidates, and prodding Parliament to take significant responsibilities for building an accountable process for debating and enacting legislation.

Tunisian faces as many internal as external challenges ranging from manipulations by traditional power centers to sustain the status quo,  parliament that struggles to move out of crisis mode, and rapidly evolving security services to combat internal and external threats.

As the NDI blog points out, its work is to build “conflict resilience at all of these levels – institutions, policies, and norms –  simultaneously, by promoting peaceful elections, bridging conflict divides, supporting effective post-conflict transitions, and ensuring citizen security and inclusive political processes.”

Through its programs in Morocco and Tunisia, NDI promotes the adoption of effective strategies that enable the country to evolve its democratic capabilities. In these efforts, NDI’s programs are strongly facilitated by King Mohammed’s commitment to enhancing the capacities of all members of Moroccan society to take up their full roles and responsibilities as citizens.

In Tunisia, democracy capacity-building is hampered by the need “to foster a more representative political environment where political parties compete effectively on behalf of citizens’ interests, parliament conducts responsive legislating and oversight, and civil society plays an active role in overseeing the political process,” efforts which require a degree of internal stability which is still evolving.

The MENA region needs success stories to encourage citizens to press for needed reforms rather than opting out of politics as usual or turning to more militant alternatives. It is in America’s interests to consistently and sustainable support its friends.

 

Lead image property of lifeinstitute.me

Between the Lines – Who and What Reflect Muslim Values?

The US Presidential campaigns have staked out their positions on Muslim-Americans, Muslim immigrants, and by extension Muslims worldwide. These positions have been defined by perceptions about Islam and its various components: the Quran, Sharia law, religious terms such as kafir and jihad, and generally not well understood rituals. Most telling are the images daily broadcast and projected by radicals who use Islam as a cloak for their violence and heinous crimes against mostly other Muslims.

The ongoing conflict is not only between Muslims and those who are not. More and more courageous Muslim voices are being raised against radicalism and extremism as not representative of Islam and actually in deep conflict with the basic values of Islam. These rejections by Islamic leaders and communities are at odds with those who claim that Muslims are not public enough in their condemnation of extremists who claim the mantle of Islam as justification for their actions.

Lately, there is growing recognition in the West that Muslim leaders from Malaysia to Morocco are indeed making the case against terrorism and Islamic radicals. In this context, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed by the noted French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy who singled out the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, as one of many who have boldly challenged the radicals.

He pointed out that the king’s condemnation took on even greater gravitas as he is regarded as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and has the title “Commander of the Faithful” responsible for the integrity and promotion of Islam, in particular the Maliki school with its strong Sufi texture and emphasis on inclusion, moderation, and peace.

The king spoke on the 63rd anniversary of the People’s Revolution, commemorating the resistance of Moroccans to the French occupation. Most Western media accounts highlighted his condemning terrorism, noting there is no heavenly reward for terrorists. It is reported that the Prophet Mohammed said “I guarantee a house in the surroundings of Paradise for those who give up arguing, even if they are in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Paradise for those who abandon lying even when joking; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Paradise for those who have good character and manners.” (Sunan Abu Daawood: 4800)

So when the King said that he wanted overseas Moroccans “to remain firmly committed to their religious values and to their time-honored traditions as they face up to this phenomenon which has nothing to do with their culture or background,” he was emphasizing that values lie at the heart of the practice of Islam and so to distort the rituals is to challenge the moral core of the religion.

In Islam, there is no eternal reward for passively living in the world. According to Anabulsi, a noted Muslim scholar, the Hadith “Religion is Conduct” [الدين المعاملة] means that “real worship does not consist only of establishing rituals, but it’s about exerting good conduct/behavior or applying good manners towards others.” This Hadith adds that “Ritual worship is not valid unless it’s largely supported by good conduct.” And further, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

This emphasis on good works is found throughout the Abrahamic faiths. It is no coincidence that in Islam, human behavior, from commercial transactions to how one treats family members, is guided by values that engender good conduct. In Islam, the link between behavior and prayer is reflected in Hadith such as “Through his manners and good conduct, the believer can attain the status of a person who frequently fasts and prays at night.” (Abu Dawoud)

The backstory to the king’s speech is that there is the explicit need for Muslims to act according to values that promote comity, respect, and dignity. We are in this world to do good, not evil, and that we should shun those who would tell us to hurt others. As the Imam Malik reported, “Mohammed, the Messenger of Allah, PBUH, said, I have been sent to perfect good character.” And “The best of you is the best among you in conduct.” (Al-Bukari and Muslim)

King Mohammed’s words echo the determination of King Abdullah II of Jordan who, like King Mohammed, has a unique historical role to both defend Islam and clarify its dynamic role in promoting harmony, justice, and respect within the human community.

 

Image: mapnews.ma