Those who thought that in the Middle East the convulsions of the so-called Arab Spring, as well as the enmity between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran, were definitely overshadowing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the issue of Jerusalem, must re-examine their script.

 

Thanks to President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it seems that the Arab-Israeli conflict is about to be back to center stage in the Middle East. Indeed, the eruption of protests throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds that followed President Trump’s decision, simply shows that the statute of the city of Jerusalem is still a very sensitive and mobilizing issue among Arabs, and Muslims around the world.

President Trump’s reckless unilateralism and disregard for UN resolutions regarding the statute of Jerusalem, and for international law, particularly at a time when yielding to his obsession with unravelling Barack Obama’s policies, his administration is forging an incongruous anti-Iranian alliance that includes alongside Israel, countries like Saudi-Arabia, the Emirates, and Jordan, can only weaken and undermine further these friendly autocracies; but also, just as, if not more important, those factions among the Palestinians that are ready to negotiate and compromise with Israel.

In addition, Mr. Trump’s short-term vision, right-wing populism and electoral politics catering to his Evangelical base, as well as his anti-Muslim rhetoric, not only plays into the hands of Iran, but also embolden radical Islamist groups in the region and beyond, and all those who favor the use of force to the detriment of international law throughout the world.

Donald Trump’s unilateral decision is only aggravating the Middle East long-standing tensions and adds to the region’s predicament. It also delivers a fatal blow to the hypocrisy of the US being an honest broker and neutral arbiter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and destroys the little credibility the US still had among the Arab and Palestinian peoples. This opens further the door to other global actors to step in, such as the Europeans (particularly the French who are already seizing the opportunity to re-assert themselves in the region), and the Russians, and perhaps even the Chinese, to a lesser extent.

This may not necessarily be a negative development. Given the integrated nature of the problems facing the region, the multiplicity of local, regional, and global stakeholders, and the lack of credibility of American diplomacy to move forward the so-called peace process, only a negotiated comprehensive solution to the problems of the region, starting with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, involving all said stakeholders without any restriction, could lead to stabilizing the region.

It would then allow the Middle East to focus on pressing issues of economic and social development, including economic diversification and job creation, particularly for the unemployed youth (the next time bomb!), and not to mention the very serious environmental challenges of drought, desertification, and water scarcity.

Néjib Ayachi

Moroccan Social Scientists Support the Rif’s Hirak Protest Movement, as “a form of resistance and mobilization that has breathed a new dynamism in terms of popular mobilization”   

A large group of social scientists have declared their support to the Hirak protest movement of the Rif region in Morocco, which they say, also offers “an opportunity” for social researchers “to go beyond the usual dichotomies, such us bled al-siba (spaces of political dissidence) vs. bled al-makhzen (spaces controlled by the state), Arabs vs. Berbers, Mountains vs. Plains”, etc.  The French-language Moroccan magazine Telquel.ma, of June 11, 2017, has published an Op-Ed-article expressing their views along with a list of signatories.  An abbreviated version has been translated into English by the Maghreb Center:

Started in April 2017, the Rif Hirak protest movement in Morocco has been going on for over seven months now. It has been accused of separatism and sectarianism (some of its leaders are said to be Shiite) by the political parties in power and several academics and intellectuals, with some adding a conspiracy by foreign elements dimension to explain it. But the situation unfolding in the Rif has remained at the center of the political process in Morocco, and other voices have offered a different analysis from the one expressed through the official discourse.

Understanding the Hirak movement requires a critical eye, intellectual vigilance, different sociopolitical outlooks, and a genuine understanding of the many facets of Riffian society, all at once. Rather than further stigmatizing the Rif population and analyzing the protest movement through colonial lenses, emphasizing dichotomies such us bled al-siba (spaces of political dissidence) vs. bled al-makhzen (spaces controlled by the state), Arabs vs. Berbers, Mountains vs. Plains, among others, it is essential to delve into the intricacies of the situation, and look more closely at the political economy of the region.

Political decision-makers attempted to discredit the Hirak movement by calling it a “fitna” (sedition, civil strife), and this can only be counterproductive, as it is a factor of division which leads to widening the gap between the populations of the Rif and the rest of the country. The Hirak movement refers indeed in some ways to a dynamic that is in breach with the classical ways of doing politics. It can be defined as a new form of resistance and mobilization, a collective action movement using an alternative discourse which has fostered a new dynamism in terms of popular mobilization.

We need to  understand the vital energy of the Rif’s Hirak movement in connection with the low voter turnout at the 2016 legislative elections (28%), and go beyond the designation of scapegoats (the political elite, and the political parties). These events invite greater scrutiny of the various factors which have contributed to decreasing the importance of elections, and brought about the erosion of the role of elected officials as the voice of the people. The protest movement offers an opportunity to revive research in social and human sciences, which are necessary to understand the dynamics which lie at the foundation of this country. And this research, as much as it needs funding and resources, needs independence in the face of market and government, to produce results.

For the list of signatories, see the Tel Quel article.

 

Turmoil in the Rif: A New Chapter for the February 20th Movement?                                                  (By Camille Ford *)

On June 5, 2017, two central figures of the grassroots protest movement AlHirak which developed in Northern Morocco over the past six month, were arrested. Nabil Ahamjik and Silya Ziani, leading figures in the movement, have been detained since then in Casablanca, where about 20 other protesters were already being kept.[1] The face of the movement, Nasser Zefzazi, was arrested earlier this year, on May 29th. He is being detained on the grounds of “threatening national security,” amidst a slew of other criminal charges.[2]

Escalating protests

These arrests reflect the escalating tensions in Morocco, as protests overtake the Northern Rif region of the country, which started in October 2016 following the brutal death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller in the Rif town of Al-Hoceima who was crushed to death by a garbage truck as he attempted to retrieve confiscated goods, later identified as illegally acquired swordfish that he were about to sell. The police officers who were arresting him stood idle as he faced a violent death. The scene was caught on tape and widely shared, and sparked outrage throughout the country, with protests sprouting locally, but also as far as Rabat, the capital city, and Casablanca, the economic epicenter of the country.

The  Al-Hirak movement is by no means an isolated event, and can be considered in connection with the Arab Spring, the series of protests and uprisings which sprouted across North Africa and the Middle East, demanding democracy, and social and economic justice. In Morocco, the protests were organized by the 20 February Movement, named after the first demonstration held on that date in 2011. To prevent the spread of the movement, the monarchy quickly introduced reforms towards the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and avoided the harsh and violent responses that met the Arab Spring protests and uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. But the general situation in Morocco is still not much different than that of other countries in the region: persistence of authoritarianism (although in a more benign form), lack of social and economic justice, rising unemployment particularly among the youth, an economic system dominated by cronyism and corruption, etc.

Like the southern and central regions of Tunisia where the Arab Spring started, the Rif is a rather poor region, and neglected by the central government. However, unlike his father King Hassan II who ignored the region, King Mohammed VI has launched several economic and social programs there in an attempt to alleviate the distress of the local people. But this is far from being enough.

Thus, over the past six months, the Al-Hirak protest movement has amplified,  with participants denouncing the government hogra, a colloquial Moroccan Arabic term for “contempt” (or “utter neglect”). Although King Mohamed VI expressed his deepest condolences to the people of Al-Hoceima, and called for a thorough investigation of Fikri’s death, the protests went on.

The Rif and Morocco: A history of tension

The Al-Hirak movement brings to light not only the complex relationship between the Rif region and the rest of Morocco, but also the effectiveness of the measures taken by the King and the government in favor of democracy and economic development in Morocco.The Rif region has been inhabited by Berbers, the native people of North Africa, since prehistoric times. It is considered a Berber stronghold. The Berbers of the Rif have faced consistent marginalization and lack of proper recognition by the authorities. The region has historically sought greater autonomy, even briefly declaring itself an independent state in the 1920s during the so-called Rif War (1921-1926) between Spanish colonial forces and the peoples of the region[3]. In recent years, the Rif has felt largely abandoned by the central government, suffering from a lack of investment and development initiatives. With Nasser Zefzazi as the voice of the movement, the people of the region are demanding increased economic aid in light of the region’s high unemployment rates, and  persistent and widespread poverty. The movement, which echoes largely the message of the February 20th movement, has garnered rapid support beyond the rebellious Rif region, and comes at a time of major transformations in Morocco.

Morocco at a crossroads

As Morocco finds itself faced with tides of change, on both the economic and political fronts, the protests in the Rif region come as a major challenge, and a reminder that the political reforms, and the development initiatives implemented recently in Morocco are not enough. While the Moroccan intellectual elite has showed open support for the movement, the government’s reactions, with the wave of protesters arrests that he carried out, are a sign that the nation is divided about its future direction. As Islamist politicians have asserted themselves as a dominant force in the Moroccan parliament, and civil unrest grows, Morocco faces a sociopolitical crossroads reminiscent to that seen in 2011. Despite the increased incarcerations of the Hirak leadership, the people continue to take to the streets demanding change. The response of the ruler and the Moroccan government to these growing protests, could very well be a defining moment for the country’s future.

[1] Agence France Presse, and Le Monde. “Au Maroc, arrestation de deux meneurs du mouvement de contestation dans le Rif.” Le Monde.fr. June 05, 2017.

[2] Agence France Presse. “Maroc: Qui est le leader de la contestation populaire dans le Rif qui vient d’être arrêté?” 20minutes.fr. May 29, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2017.

[3] MEO Staff. “What’s behind Morocco’s Rif protests?” Middle East Observer. May 28, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2017.


* Camille Ford is a student in International Studies and Islamic Civilizations and Societies, at the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Boston College, and a Summer 2017 Maghreb Center intern.

 

Tunisia: Creeping [Populist and Demagogic] Islamization is Threatening Freedoms  (By Ikhlas Latif, Published in Courrier International  on 04/14/2017, and translated by the Maghreb Center)

A movie director assaulted, a British DJ condemned in absentia to one year in prison, pressing calls for the closure of stores selling alcohol… The image of a tolerant, open and progressive Tunisia will soon be just a myth.

It was necessary to strike hard. There was an emergency. It was impossible to wait, the matter was very serious and national security was at stake. Tunisian justice did not fail and delivered its verdict without delay. The dangerous criminal who infringed the feelings of Tunisians has been condemned in absentia to one year in prison. Justice has finally been served, Tunisians’ honor is safe, and religion is protected.

This is indeed the surrealist verdict issued by a Tunisian court against a British DJ who played a remix recording of the Muslim call to prayer in a discotheque in the resort town of Hammamet, during a music festival, on March 31.  The artist is accused of “public outrage of modesty”, and “breaching public morality and causing harm to  good morals”. As if the campaign on social media, as well as the harassment and death threats against the DJ were not enough, the governor of Hammamet region, was invested with the noble mission of defending the faith, and he decided to close the discotheque.

In addition, in just a few days, Tunisian justice, usually so indolent, hastened to repair the offense. Now, our valiant authorities must contact Interpol and launch an international search warrant against the criminal villain. When it comes to protecting the sacred against the “profaners”, to preserve morality, the judicial machine moves swiftly. We throw hundreds of young people into the hole for smoking a joint, we perform anal tests on homosexuals who have asked nothing other than to live their lives like everyone else, but…  Other cases of terrorism, rape or murder can always wait. Click here to read the article.

Libya: enter Russia

(By Richard Galustian*)

Since the Libyan civil war began, the question hovering over everything was – will Russia get involved? The answer to that question came when the chief of Libya’s UN-created Government of National Accord (GNA), the so-called Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.

Having stayed aloof from a messy civil war now into its third year, Russia has decided to effectively replace the void left by the US and become the chief ‘powerbroker’ not only in Libya but the entire Middle East and North African region. The bad news for Serraj is that the beneficiary as far as Libya is concerned is likely to be his big rival, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, commander of the powerful Libyan National Army (LNA). The imagined role in Libya of the EU and the UK is just that: imaginary and delusional.

The admirable efforts of British Ambassador to Libya Peter Millett in trying shuttle diplomacy between stakeholders in Tripoli, Misrata and Haftar and his LNA in the east have achieved nothing but to underline that it’s Moscow and Washington that is calling the shots. Sadly London has become as irrelevant as Brussels.

It was Haftar that Moscow turned to in January, inviting him for military talks aboard its aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, cruising off Libya. And equally Haftar was happy to be courted by Moscow. The talks included a full dress military parade and band playing the Libyan national anthem on the deck, underlining for all to see who Russia wants to do business with.

There is no doubt that Russia’s policy on Libya is growing stronger and in a positive way for all involved. Moscow is not only talking with all parties but also trying to find a way for the Tripoli government to acquiesce to Haftar and vice-versa. “We are carrying out consistent work with both key centres of power in Libya,” said the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova.

Moscow is not wrong. Haftar’s battle against extremists in Libya has made him a national hero among the vast majority of the population and brought big victories. Haftar’s army has almost crushed a galaxy of fanatical militants who had terrorised Benghazi, and killed the US ambassador there in 2012. Most significantly perhaps, last September Haftar captured the country’s main oil ports, giving him control of the eastern oil fields – the ones that matter representing at least two-thirds of all the oil in the country.

Already Egypt has given Haftar strong support, as has France, which provided special forces to work with his army in the east of the country.Russia also senses an opportunity. It has all but won the Syrian civil war, cementing an alliance with Syria’s president Bashir Assad and outflanking American efforts to support the rebels. With the oil ticket in his pocket, and rising popular support in a country weary of endless militia skirmishes, rather than decisive battles, Haftar now clearly holds the keys to power.

That much was made even clearer last month when Egypt tried to become peace broker, inviting Haftar to meet with Sarraj in Cairo. Both men showed up, but Haftar said no to a meeting, leaving Serraj stuck in a hotel room with a phone that refused to ring.
There is a reason why Haftar saw no reason to talk to Sarraj: for just as Haftar’s power is rising, so Serraj’s is falling.

His Government of National Accord (GNA), created by the United Nations, is a joke. It is not a government, having failed to win control of key institutions like the Central Bank (CBL) and National Oil Corporation (NOC). It most certainly has failed to win any of the key Libyan tribes. And there is no ‘accord’ – in fact, Serraj is marooned with his presidency in a Tripoli naval base, because militias are the law in the Libyan capital. The rest of his time he spends in Tunis.

Worse, for Sarraj, those militias are fighting with each other, with many backing yet another government in Tripoli, the Salvation Government, in furious street battles recently with tanks and heavy artillery that have turned parts of the capital into a real war zone. Little wonder Haftar refused to meet a man incapable of controlling even his own city.

Officially, Russia takes the side of all Libyans, not one faction, with Lavrov saying: “We would like to see Libya a united and prosperous nation relying on stable government institutions and a viable army.” But Russia also senses an opportunity. Already it has all but won the Syrian civil war, cementing an alliance with Syria’s president Bashir Assad and outflanking American efforts to support the rebels. Now it is poised to do the same in Libya, in contrast to the US, Britain and Italy who have been relentlessly backing the GNA.

But talk of a super-power rift between Moscow and Washington may be premature: the Trump administration’s key policy advisor Steve Bannon has long campaigned against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the main supporter of the GNA, and the White House is expected, like the Kremlin, to get behind Haftar, a move that would help also in its objective of doing business with Russia.

Even Britain, arch supporter of Serraj, is having to rethink. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson now says a place must be found for Haftar in Libya’s government.
Meanwhile, on March 2, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee published a report on the UK’s relations with Russia, urging the foreign office to conduct meaningful dialogue with the Kremlin. The committee’s chairman, Crispin Blunt, said: “Refusal to engage with Russia is not a viable, long-term policy option.”
He’s right: Moscow is spreading its wings in the Middle East and North Africa. Its desire to move into Libya was emphasised in another way last week, when Rosneft, the state oil giant, signed a deal to invest heavily with Libya’s state oil corporation (East NOC). After years in the wings, Russia has finally ‘arrived’ in Libya (and the region), and western powers are slowly becoming aware of that fact.

MENA countries are more and more looking for the power broking role to be taken up by Moscow rather than the US or UN and certainly not by the UK or EU. A new 21st century reality.

* Richard Galustian is a British political and security advisor based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years. He wrote this piece for The Times of Malta, dated 03/07/17.