22 March, 2007

À qui le Maroc?

I am reading about Morocco at the moment, to prepare for an assignment from Spy School. In particular, I have been reading about the Justice and Charity group, a political party blocked from taking part in the country's comedic electoral process. They are an Islamist group, led by the septuagenarian Sheikh Abd Assalam Yassine, a former Sufi mystic. He seems like an interesting fellow (and has a great beard). If you want to get a sense of his ideas, you could do worse than read his Memorandum to him who is concerned, an open letter issued in 1999 to the then newly enthroned King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

If you are reading Yassine's letter and are not too familiar with Moroccan affairs, here is some context:
1. The previous king, Hassan II, was an authoritarian cockfarmer (who had Yassine confined to a lunatic asylum for writing a similar letter to him in 1974).
2. The Makhzen referred to in the letter are the cronies of Hassan II - the regime's old guard.
3. Tazmamart was a horrific jail in the desert into which Hassan dumped his regime's enemies, leaving them to rot in spectacularly horrendous conditions.
4. The government of alternance referred to is a spectacular coup of Hassan - he managed to co-opt some hitherto oppositional forces and form them into a supposedly oppositional government, though of course the king retained the right to appoint and sack key ministers and control the broad directions of state policy. Under Mohammed VI the alternance has remained in place, conveniently attracting hostility that might otherwise go towards the king.

Back to the Memorandum. Yassine skilfully attempts a reverse cooption, saying to Mohammed "You seem like a nice fellow, unlike your late cockfather. Here is what you would do if you really are as nice a fellow as you seem". Like most open letters, it is intended for general consumption as much as reading by its addressee. The implicit message is that if the king does not act as outlined, then he is in fact no more than a creature of the Makhzen or a chip off Hassan II's block.

What Yassine actually requests of Mohammed VI is the usual - sacking the Makhzen, cleansing the regime of its corruption (identified by the sheikh as a major barrier to attracting foreign investment), and instituting serious democratic change. Yassine also contrasts the enormous foreign debt with the massive personal wealth of the king (Hassan had essentially set up the crown at the centre of the state's economy, sucking its proceeds into his private coffers in a weird parody of Arab socialism). Noting that the king's personal wealth is roughly equivalent to the foreign debt, Yassine hits on a handy solution to the problem - let the king pay the debt out of his own funds!

This is perhaps the most problematic part of Yassine's programme. The king's wealth is not in the form of gold bars or on deposit with the gnomes of Zurich, but instead exists as a business empire spanning Morocco. While this wealth belongs to the king rather than the people, in practice the king's investments are the equivalent of a series of state industries. And were these enterprises sold off to raise monies to pay the debt, Morocco would doubtless find that domestic savings were completely insufficient to purchase them. Instead, foreign investors would be the only people who could afford to buy them, even at the depressed prices this kind of fire sale would command. Yassine is basically offering international finance control of the Moroccan economy in return for immediate repayment of the debt.

That aside, Yassine comes across as a serious and thoughtful figure with a rather droll sense of humour. His views on the Western Sahara seem considerably more flexible than the Moroccan establishment's mainstream. Although he is implicitly in favour of that occupied country remaining part of a radically reformed Morocco, he can countenance their leaving should the corrupt ancien regime remain in place.

Yassine leads the largest party in Morocco, albeit one blocked from participation in the official political process. As Islamists, they are easily presented as The Enemy to the governments of Europe and North America, who have difficult understanding that not all Islamists like to fly planes into buildings. While it would be naïve to expect to much of the Americans, it is still shocking that the European Union is still unable to engage with parties like Yassine's which are almost always the most popular in their countries. There is of course some dialogue between the "think-tank community" and and North African Islamists, and a former EU commissioner last week talked of the need for constructive engagement with Hamas in Palestine, but official Europe is still not interested in official communication with the Islamists. Official Europe looks likely to continue to bolster authoritarian regimes rather than support democratic elections that would put Yassine and his analogues in power. In the long run, this is probably unwise. The current Arab regimes (monarchies and republics) are so lacking in legitimacy that their rotting from within and collapsing in a 1989 style disintegration has to be seen as likely, if not inevitable. Europe could help promote democracy among its southern neighbours. Or it could have a lot of explaining to do when the ancien regimes are swept away

One final fascinating fact that I have not been able to integrate into the preceding concerns Yassine's daughter, Nadia. She is seen as likely candidate to succeed him as the Justice & Charity group's leader when he dies or steps down. She was recently arrested under some weird Moroccan state security law after she suggested that maybe the country did not have to be a monarchy in the future.

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