The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Links 28 September - 6 October 2016
LinksThe Editors
The Syrian Trauma

Sit yourself down to read, without distraction, this essay by our friend Peter Harling. It drives through, with unforgiving force, through the apathy that many of us who watch Syria from afar (and indeed those of us for whom Syria is a professional interest). There is a "Syria" out there that is synonymous with evil, misery, apocalypse and the collapse of a regional, or even global order. There is a "Syria"that is a "problem from hell" or an argument about i teventionism. And then there is Syria, the country, the complicated people, which is what Peter is reminding us to listen to:

Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively.

Our massive moral failure has been a source of public embarrassment and personal unease for many officials involved in the conflict’s management. Gradually they have been gravitating toward a solution to their own psychological tension: “stopping the violence” to appease themselves, even at the expense of diminishing any prospect of closure for Syrians. Such self-centeredness has become, in itself, an obstacle to any progress: all the policy talk about “what can we do” will remain empty until its meaning becomes “what can we do for millions of Syrians” and not “what can we do to rid ourselves of the problem.”

Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?

AsidesThe EditorsSyria
Dissidence and Deference Among Egyptian Judges

For Egypt judiciary nerds (you know who you are), this article by Mona El Ghobashy for Middle East Report is just such a great read that weaves so many threads together, I have to link to it again. Money quote:

It is tempting to dismiss pro-government judges as lackeys of military rulers, automatons who move only at the behest of the de facto center of power. The reality is far more troubling. Many judges are active, self-willed architects of an expanded regime of legal exception and legal repression.

. . .

There have always been judges who see their role as applying, not checking, punitive laws. The zeal with which these judges and prosecutors are expanding the infrastructure of legal repression and resuscitating Mubarak’s paradigm of permanent emergency suggests that political dissidence is not their only target. A broader pacification of the population seems to be the goal, to punish the rampant disobedience and disrespect for authority that ruling elites remember as the revolution. Commenting on an avalanche of summary expulsions of students from universities, an administrative court judge said, “The reasons behind the expulsions [nowadays] weren’t there during Mubarak’s time. There wasn’t a revolution during Mubarak’s time.”

Sisi plagiarized his "spare change" idea

There has been much hullabaloo in the last couple of days about Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi's idea that transactions in Egypt's banking system should be rounded off to the nearest pound, with the "spare change" (i. e. whatever is left in piasters) donated to the government to, you know, pay for stuff.

Sure, the idea seems like a silly back-of-the-enveloppe calculation that an out-of-his-depth ruler has casually come up with because he has no economic vision for his country beyond a general sense that people are not sacrificing enough and that there should be more prestigious mega-projects run by the army. Yes, he could be clutching at straws because, while Egypt was in pretty dire straits when he took over in 2013, he has not improved economic fundamentals nor set the country on a path to reform

Of course, I'm not an economist, so all these assessment could be wrong and Sisi may actually be doing brilliantly. Who knows. The only thing I'd like is for Sisi to acknowledge where he got his idea from: 1999's cult comedy Office Space, in which disgruntled employees scam their company's credit union by introducing a virus into the computer system to syphon off fractional remainders of pennies from transactions. This shows he has better taste in movies than I thought, but, come on – credit where credit is due.

(By the way, anyone seen the printer at the presidency lately?)

Links 18-27 September 2016

The new issue of Middle East Report is out, and it features some great pieces by old friends, including Mona El-Ghobashy on Egypt's judges and Joshua Stacher on Hebron. And don't miss editor Chris Toensing's editorial on the absurd $38 billion President Obama decided to give Israel – a country whose leaders have tried to serially humiliate him – as a parting gift.

MER and its parent organization MERIP are subscriber-funded. Get a subscription and keep them producing great reporting and analysis on the region. 

Now here are the links...

LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Egypt's sorrowful class

Among all the many painful things Egypt has gone through in recent years – state violence, terrorism, oppression, a bitter political closing after the opening of 2011 – it may be the economic situation that is most sorely felt by the most people. The Sisi regime's grandiose plans – a new capital city, an expanded Suez Canal – are either in mothballs or have failed to deliver much-needed new revenue so far. The military is taking control of an increasing chunk of the economy, squeezing out the private sector that has driven much of the past 30 years of job and wealth creation (however skewed) and not doing much for the non-military public sector. (It's even creating its own private schools!) The chief victim of these policies, especially the ongoing devaluation of the Egyptian pound, is probably the middle class (because the poor are both less exposed to their impact as many subsistence goods are subsidized and because Sisi done more, even if it's not enough, on poverty alleviation and targeting the poorest in the country through cash handout programs and other measures).

In recent weeks, there has been a spate of writing in the Egyptian press about the struggling middle class – perhaps because it's back to school time, a moment in the year where families feel particularly pinched (especially if you want to avoid sending your kids to public school.) Tareq Hassan's column below is one of the better examples of this trend, which is so politically significant in the medium term to the Sisi regime. Defining the middle class is hard in terms of income (there are multiple layers), and one element of it is more about aspirations and class outlook than pure financials. In Egypt, I would argue there are three middle classes: the private sector middle class (currently losing out), the public sector middle class (stagnating) and the military middle class (accumulating privilege). They are not hermetically sealed from one another, but it does represent a shift, even reversal, of the trends of the Mubarak era.   

We are grateful to our pals at Industry Arabic for making this In Translation series possible. Check them out if you need to translate your professional documents from the language of the ض.

The sad state of Egypt’s middle class

Tareq Hassan, al-Masri al-Youm, 11 September 2016

If you asked me which is the most discontented class in Egypt right now, I would immediately tell you it is the middle class — the broadest, largest and most extensive class in society.
If you asked me which class is the class of the future, without whom there will be no future in Egypt or for Egypt, I would tell you immediately: There is no other — it is the middle class in all its social components.
How is this class both the most discontented and the key foundation for progress and Egypt’s future?
Naturally, discontent prevails throughout the middle class. Its general situation is obvious. It is either being neglected or deliberately ignored as a topic of interest. The prevailing political rhetoric discusses “low-income people” without specifying their precise social position and with a chronic complaint about not being able to reach them. Meanwhile, the current media discourse focuses on aversion and skepticism toward the rich and prosperous classes and personalities.
But where is the middle class?
It is not present in the binary of “low-income” and “wealthy.” How is it that it is not a point of focus or a pivot of speech and action in social and political rhetoric? This is the class that pays its own way — the class that studies with its own money and gets medical treatment with its own money.
It is the class where most might use public transport only rarely. It it the class where some may appear to be among the wealthy but are in reality blameless and decent people.
It is the class where, if one has a large or necessary obligation, he will take a loan from a bank or participate in an “association” with a set date to fulfill the obligation.
It is the class in which, if one individual is afflicted with a serious illness, they sell everything they own for his treatment.
It is the class that buys on installment plans and takes out bank loans, that has a Visa card balance they pay back many times over in interest. It is the class where they do not have ration cards and do not eat subsidized bread, and the government withholds some of their taxes at the source.
In short, it is the class which carries out the role of the state for itself, by itself. Last but not least, it is the class upon whose shoulders falls all the economic measures and political and social burdens, and which has suffered irremediable hardships from January 2011 to today.
We are right to say: The middle class has become the undisputed weight-lifting champion of Egypt. It is also the class whose situation, unfortunately, is dealt with as it should not be — if not ignored altogether.
The middle class is the problem and the solution. It is the spark of revolutions, unrest and upheaval. It is also the key and the pillar of progress, modernity and development in our world. For example:

  • Since the end of the 1920s, the middle class has been the foundation and the pivot of the Egyptian nationalist movement in all political, economic, social and cultural spheres. Upon its shoulders, the Egyptians built their state under the British occupation. Then came national independence.
  • In the 1950s, Abdel Nasser had success with the middle class. He knew how to build a strong bloc from the middle classes with a clear identity.
  • Since the 1970s, with the implementation of market measures, the base of the middle class has widened and it has started down the path of development, capacity and private business.
  • By the year 2008, the Gini coefficient — the key measure of inequality adopted internationally — noted in a statement on the equity of wealth distribution across the world that the richest ten percent of Egyptian families received eight times more of Egypt’s Gross National Income than the poorest ten percent. This was one of the best rates at the time. The same report said that the richest ten percent of American families had 15 times as much as the poorest ten percent of families. Japan had the best internationally, with four times higher, and the worst was Bulgaria with 157 times higher. This means that the middle and upper classes in Egypt may include more than 70 percent of Egyptian families and that it had greater and deeper capabilities than many thought — to the extent that some car market experts believed that, at purchasing power parity, Egypt may be able to absorb more than 50,000 cars per month if offered at the prices of neighboring Arab countries. With a growth rate of 15 percent annually, it would be possible to sell a million cars a year by 2021.
  • In January 2011, the aspirations of the political and social middle class in Egypt exploded. They wanted to achieve their particular ambitions in a modern country with modern organization which was not under bureaucratic control. Their simple argument was: we want Egypt to be a country worthy of consideration, and we want to live as they live in the civilized world. January occurred as a social explosion, not a political movement with reason, capacity, organization, and a clear identity. This was the tragedy of the middle class and the story of its multifaceted and multidimensional losses and tragedies. Here it became a sorrowful class.
  • Now Egypt’s middle class has become 50 million angry people, in the words of a headline of a recent interview with General Abu Bakr el-Gendy, head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, in the weekly al-Mussawar magazine.

The problem is not the collapse of the social and economic situation of the middle class, nor the harsh government measures affecting their situation, although as a whole these do remain a problem. The main problem is in politics which have not reconsidered the middle class and its social and political centrality.
The problem remains in a politics that does not advance the status of the political, social, economic and cultural middle class, in order to advance the country.
Political thought and its public rhetoric have still not understood that the middle class erupted in the 25 January Revolution, brandishing its dreams and aspirations. The major problem now is that no one has rescued it or helped it back on to its feet after its dreams and aspirations were shattered, and that there is no solution but lifting it back up and thereby reviving the country.
The ambitions of the middle class are worthy of consideration. Nothing will achieve the ambitions of the middle class and return it to its rightful place except the systems of a modern state, the systems of political and social freedom, and the systems of a society that manages its own political and economic and social and cultural affairs.
There is no solution and no future in Egypt or for Egypt except in fostering and promoting the society’s middle class. Without it, the reckoning will be turmoil and loss.
Large segments of the middle classes and lower classes have begun to converge — they live in the slums and poor neighborhoods together, while the wealthy minority grows richer. In this severe social and political imbalance, danger lurks for the country.
The middle class is the source of balance in the country. Without it, there is no balance.
I ask God for forgiveness, for you and me.
Happy Eid al-Adha to all.

Links 1-17 September 2016
LinksThe Editors
Bidoun #25 in Arabic

Our friends at Bidoun write:

This issue of Bidoun was assembled in Cairo between March and April of 2011. It remains, if nothing else, a true record of an uncertainty — so rare that even those who experienced it can hardly imagine it today.
We're making this Arabic-language version available more than five years later. We had originally hoped to launch it in Egypt, but the moment wasn’t right. We’re still waiting.

Get it here.

AsidesThe Editorsbidoun
In Translation: The case against democratic transition

Conservatism – as in a propensity for caution in politics, not necessarily the Islamist or traditionalist kind – is making a comeback of sorts in the Arab world. The devastated post-“Spring” landscape of the region, the conflict and chronic instability many countries face (Syria, Yemen, Libya) and the reassertion of authoritarianism in two countries that went through major upheavals (Egypt, Bahrain) and those that avoided them (Algeria, Morocco, in a different ways most GCC countries) has made many citizens very weary of contesting the powers-that-be with the same enthusiasm they might have in 2011. It is certainly a sentiment I come across often in Morocco, where I live.

Parliamentary elections will take place in Morocco on 7 October, and in anticipation the normally sleepy national political debate is heating up. The party that leads the outgoing government, the Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), is making much of both its modest record and is promising to take on the regime more forcefully if re-elected. The question of whether or not Morocco has experienced an authoritarian comeback in the last few years – a kind of revenge against the protest movement of 2011, civil society and political parties has taken place; it might be most aptly described by that favourite academic non-sequitur, "semi-authoritarian" – is heatedly discussed. The PJD and some of its allies, having spent (in the eyes of their critics) timidly nibbling on whatever crumbs of power that the regime of King Mohammed VI would allow them, is promoting to assert itself in the name of democracy.

Moroccans often see their country as something as an exception, distant from the violence of the Mashreq and unique because its monarchy has ancient roots. Like Egypt, it sees itself as a rare genuine state in a region of “tribes with flags”. It has its own political lexicon, in which the word “Makhzen” is central. The Makhzen is the regime, le pouvoir, al-sulta. These concepts are familiar across the region and elsewhere, but Morocco’s claims a uniqueness derived it being rooted in history. Makhzen means warehouse in Arabic, but it is also the origin of the French or English word “magazine” in an old (now largely deprecated) sense: the commissary or munitions depot of an army. In pre-colonal times, the sultan's army of "bled al-makhzen" (the land of the warehouse) collected tributes from unruly tribes in bled al-siba (the land of dissent). The Makhzen is not the monarchy, or at least not alone; it is also used to denote network of influence in public administration and in business that gravitates around the king. It is in a sense a storehouse of accumulated power, a method of redistribution and a network of influence. It is a slippery term, used to denote both “deep state” in a modern sense as well a perhaps invented, or at least exaggerated, historical pedigree the imbues it with a pseudo-legitimacy.

The Makhzen is a given in Moroccan politics, so the term around which of the pre-electoral debate has recently centered is a less often used one: tahakoum(التحكم), which literary means “control” but here denotes the exercise of parallel rule. (In this translation, I decided to leave it in transliterated Arabic.) In the article below, Mohammed Jabroun, a member of the PJD and academic, argues against his own party’s leadership that presenting itself as the best hope for democracy against the reactionary Makhzen is a sterile debate. He posits that this binary should be overcome, and with it the myth of “democratic transition” that the state and political actors officially adhere to – a democratic transition that can never be achieved, and thus creates tensions in society and among the political class, in which parties promising to lead the way to democracy have their credibility eroded by their compromise with the Makhzen. The article caused a stir in PJD circles and beyond, and Jabroun was decried as defeatist at best and echoing the regime’s tired clichés of reconciling “tradition and modernity” at worse.

Jabroun’s argument has its weakness, not least reducing tahakoum to the symbolic and political role of the monarchy and the Makhzen and ignoring their more materialist aspects: corruption and state capture. Still, at this juncture in the region’s history – one of revolutionary fatigue, reactionary backlash and a context of worldwide democratic retrenchment – it echoes a malaise about the failure to overcome authoritarianism in the region and disappointment with the Arab Spring’s meager harvest.

P.S. - a reader alerts me of an excellent response to Jabroun, here.

Many thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for enabling us to provide this feature. Please check them out if you need translation services.


The PJD, confronting “tahakoum,” and the need to abandon the idea of democratic transition

Mohammed Jabroun, al-Youm 24, 14 August 2016

For weeks, Morocco has been witnessing profound discussion and concern among its political actors about the return of “tahakoum” to political life and the future of the democratic transition, which entered into a new phase after the Arab Spring began in 2011. This is occurring ahead of the parliamentary elections due to be held on 7 October of this year. Although the other national parties all have an interest in this issue to varying degrees, the Justice and Development Party (Parti de la justice et du développement or PJD) shows far greater interest than the rest, to the extent that mounting a resistance to tahakoum has become is an existential battle for the party — or something close to it. You can hardly find anyone among the leadership who dares oppose the trend.
In terms of democratic principles, there is more than one sensible and valid reason lending legitimacy to the positions of the Moroccan national parties – including the PJD – in rejecting tahakoum and its mechanisms. Not least of these is the ideology of the party itself, which was founded on the idea of seeking power through elections. But applying this principle at this place and time in Morocco and amid the current regional and international circumstances poses several challenges and questions which, as a whole, make the idea of confronting tahakoum seem like a less than a rational approach, especially for the PJD, which is assumed to have a kind of authenticity in the political discourse.

On the nature of tahakoum:

Tahakoum is the intervention of anti-democratic forces in political life through various means with the aim of creating a “two-faced authority” which reproduces and modernizes authoritarian rule through the façade of democracy. This intervention, because of its recurrence in Morocco’s modern political landscape, has become conventional, and has been a cornerstone of most of the electoral and political milestones that Morocco has passed through since independence. From this perspective, tahakoum is one of the consequences of the forced political modernization upon which Morocco embarked at the time of independence amid conflict between the monarchy and the parties of the nationalist movement.
Although tahakoum in the current political lexicon is a term that describes actions and practices and intentionally omits discussion of the actors that stand behind it — for reasons that people interpret in various ways — it is undeniable that these actors are inseparable from the monarchy and the Makhzen apparatus which oversees them. They consist of the Ministry of Interior and its extensions in public administration; the partisan political field; and the various security agencies. Despite the novelty of this term in Moroccan political language and its connection with the experience of the PJD, the phenomenon it refers to is old, and its import has been expressed through other terms that carry same meaning currently in circulation. The most prominent of these terms and expressions are the “secret party”, the “party of the interior”, the “shadow government”, the Makhzen, and the “deep state”.
As a practice, tahakoum in its first inception emerged primarily from the regime, and reflected the failure of the Moroccan political elite to build a modern political system which could establish a strategic partnership between the nationalist movement and the monarchy — a partnership preserving the effective continuity of the Makhzen and the king as ruler on one hand, while on the other hand allowing the nationalist movement to exercise power.
From another standpoint — alongside authoritarian practices — this failure resulted from a lack of democracy. The parties of the nationalist movement, which found themselves cut off from power in the wake of independence, found that democracy was necessary to express their legitimate aspirations to wield power and confront absolute monarchy. Indeed, tahakoum in this sense is the objective antithesis of democracy and democratic transition. The extension and expansion of tahakoum clearly means a retreat of democracy, and aborting the hopes of a democratic transition. On the other hand, the resumption of the democratic process and the accumulation of its procedures means a retreat of the forces behind tahakoum. Moroccan political life from independence until today has been characterized by dispute and abortive negotiation between the two sides of this binary (tahakoum/democracy), although the victory has always gone to the forces of tahakoum for many reasons, which cannot be dealt with at length here.

The possibility of overcoming tahakoum:

Based on the above, overcoming the problem of tahakoum and entering a democratic era for both the regime and the political parties, appears nearly impossible under the premise of “democratic transition.” Over nearly 60 years, the nationalist movement and various Moroccan political factions have not succeeded in achieving major qualitative political progress within its framework, despite the serious sacrifices they have made. Whenever the dialogue of democratic transition is opened for one reason or another, or because of some domestic or foreign event (uprisings, coups, severe crises), it is quickly closed again at the soonest favorable opportunity when this reason is lifted. Perhaps the current generation remembers the reasons and circumstances for why the last initiative in this direction was aborted, with the “alternance” government of (1998-2002).[^1] Tahakoum in this sense is another expression of the Moroccan political character, which time has not succeeded in weakening or curtailing, and which many manifestations of the Moroccan nationalist movement have failed to include within and base their programs upon.
In this political assessment of the toll of the conflict and the dispute between tahakoum and democracy in Moroccan history, the discussion steers us to a central question: in independent Morocco, has the Moroccan political mind succeeded in developing a theoretical framework for a modern political system in line with the Moroccan character in its various dimensions? Were the nationalist movement and the monarchy aware of the sensibility and the strategy they were dealing with politically after independence? And from this question stem a number of other questions: Is the theory of democratic transition – as a theoretical basis for the national democratic parties’ political struggle – correct? And is it still valid as a way of framing the party-based political initiative? Is using confrontation with tahakoum as a banner for the current political phase a sound approach, taking into account the essence of tahakoum and the Moroccan character in its political-historical dimensions? Or does it indirectly serve the forces of tahakoum — whether they are aware of it or not — and facilitate their methods of shutting down democratic dialogue?
This conceptualization and analysis and its resulting questions leads us culturally and politically right back to the very beginning — that is, the moment of independence, which was the moment of an “innocent” search for a political partnership between the monarchy and the nationalist movement. It also restores our hope of getting out of the deadlock. Thirdly, it allows us to consider the possibility of building a political system consonant with Morocco’s political and traditional character and which is neither an absolute monarchy nor a parliamentary monarchy. This is what the first generation of the nationalist movement failed to do.
In answer to the central question posed above, it can be said with great assurance, based on the principles and experience of Moroccan political life, that both the monarchy and the nationalist movement have failed to build a modern political system in line with the elements of Morocco’s character. The relationship between them has remained tense, reflecting a clear contrast in their visions regarding the nature of Morocco’s modern governing system and its future status, during the period between independence and the Arab Spring (2011). The political discussions that Morocco saw on the sidelines of the constitutional consultations that defined them in the past have reflected some of this drastic contrast. The monarchy, through its extended apparatus, has always tried to put the brakes on democratic aspirations, while the democratic parties have run counter to it and tried to expand the margin of democracy.
This failure is not explained by traditional political factors such as conflicts of interest and ambitions. It goes back to deep reasons related to the cultural reference points that framed the modernization efforts after independence. It therefore reflects, in our view, a clear failure to manage Morocco’s character within the context of building a modern nation-state between one faction seeking political conservatism, characterized to a large extent as reactionary in its political concepts (the Makhzen), and a party striving for modernity and modernization, characterized to a large extent as progressive in its concepts (the parties of the nationalist movement). In this context we can reference two highly significant ideological documents: L’Idéologie arabe contemporaine (1967) by Abdullah Laroui and Naqd al-Dhati (Self Critique) (1949-52) by Allal al-Fassi.[^2] Both were foundational to a progressive political ideology completely at odds with the desires of the conservative Makhzen. It should be noted that this discussion began before independence.
This polarity, based on a misunderstanding of Morocco’s character and a poor use of it in political life, is rooted in the severe cultural divisions which Moroccan political culture suffered in the wake of independence, when Moroccan political actors were split between three primary movements: the progressive movement (the National Union of Popular Forces), a Salafi movement (the Istiqlal Party)[^3] and the traditionalist movement (the Makhzen). This prevented the emergence of unified concepts for the reference points and nature of the appropriate political system for Moroccans at the time the modern nation-state was constructed.
Accordingly, the concept of “political transition” is the main manifestation of this failure. In large part it reflects the ruptures of Moroccan political thought over the last 60 years. When it was based on a progressive concept or “Salafism” (the Salafism of Allal al-Fassi), it did not take into account the extensive role played by tradition in Morocco. This made it into a point of contention and not an answer in terms of politics or struggle at a particular stage.
Consequently, building a modern political system in Morocco and finally getting past the bilateral democracy/tahakoum deadlock and making a break with the history of conflict does not require and will not be achieved by once again reviving the idea of “democratic transition.” It requires a creative synthesis between political tradition and modernity that preserves the effective presence of the monarchy and allows citizens to participate in power through their representatives.

The PJD and the need to reconsider the idea of democratic transition

The question that poses itself in this analytical context is: Do the nationalist movement parties, including the PJD, understand this cultural impasse that Moroccan politics has reached, and are they ready to bring about the necessary intellectual shift it demands? None of this seems likely in reality; however, for many reasons the PJD is qualified to do some of this.
The sweeping attack that a number of the nationalist parties have carried out against tahakoum, led by the PJD, confirms that Morocco is gradually approaching the moment where democratic dialogue will be shut down and that what Morocco has suffered over the last 60 years has not changed anything in the political class’s understanding of the tahakoum/democratic binary. The PJD in this respect, for instance, is similar to a number of nationalist movement parties that have entered this conflict. It has exhausted its reformist energies in its battle and is on the way to reviving the same traditional battle which caused Morocco to miss an excellent opportunity for progress and revival. (Prime Minister and PJD leader) Abdelilah Benkirane is the latest parallel to Allal al-Fassi, (historic USFP leader Abdelrahim) Bouabid, and (former USFP leader and Prime Minister Abdelrahman) Youssoufi and so on. It is likely that if tensions continue in this direction, it will result in the same price for the PJD that was paid by its predecessors in the same battle. The party leadership’s statements about the methods and tentacles of tahakoum and their militancy in confronting it do not indicate a new or qualitative understanding of the phenomenon of tahakoum, and it does not establish a new phase of political action in the kingdom. Naturally, the question that occurs to more than one reader after this analysis is: Is there a way to overcome the chronic political deadlock and then escape the pressure of the idea of tahakoum? And is there any role for the PJD in this regard?
Yes there is. I think that the opportunity to overcome this chronic deadlock exists. It is possible for the PJD to participate forcefully in overcoming it. Perhaps the first position/opener that needs to be offered as an avenue to settling this problem for good is a reconsideration of the idea of democratic transition, which has framed the political struggle for the Moroccan nationalist movement from independence up until today, with the bulk of these parties’ concepts just an echo of that idea.
Moroccan party politics today demands the shuttering of the debate about the nature of the political system, and at the heart this debate lies the question of the distribution of power between elected and monarchical institutions. It is not possible for this resolution to ignore the realities of recent history and Morocco’s historical character. Today, it is no longer comprehensible for the national Moroccan parties to continue with their original ideology, which was established by the circumstances of independence. Today, it is necessary to invent new political ideas that move beyond the “democratic transition” quandary to political, developmental and economic challenges in a real and responsible partnership with the monarchy. No doubt in such a transition, tahakoum would lose its political and strategic value and would be made into a mere political obstacle with no political benefit to be derived from it.
Abandoning the idea of democratic transition would lead to qualitative changes in Moroccan political thought. On one hand, it would confer political and democratic legitimacy upon the political system, and would make the historical and religious dimensions of Morocco’s character (the ruling monarchy) into another manifestation of its individuality and uniqueness. On the other hand, the Moroccan political system would consciously escape the political instability which reverberates through the continuous discussion of the transition project.

In conclusion:

The PJD, as a qualitatively new current in Moroccan political life, has the cultural and political credentials to carry out this revolution in Moroccan political thought. It has come close at several moments, but events in the Moroccan political scene in recent months and the tactics they necessitated pushed it away from this goal. The exaggerated discussion of tahakoum among the PJD is indeed not without strategic or reformist depth. The ambition of this party since its return to political life in 1996 has been to reconcile with the monarchy and avoid conflict with it.
The aim of this discussion is to alert the PJD leadership, led by their secretary-general Abdelilah Benkirane, to the danger they have courted in recent months with their constant talk of confronting tahakoum, although this runs counter to their primary beliefs. Tahakoum is more than a party or a figure — it is a political phenomenon linked to the monarchy with its own objective rationale. We have tried in the above to clarify some of this rationale. Consequently, it is not possible to eliminate this phenomenon except by addressing its underlying causes. In particular, it is necessary to abandon the premise of “democratic transition” and help ensure stability by crafting an authentic and exceptional political system.

[^1]: The government of “alternance” headed by historical opposition leader Abdelrahman Youssoufi marked the first time that an opposition party democratically arrived in power in the Arab world. It was negotiated between Hassan II (who knew he only had a few years to live and wanted to prepare a safe transition to his son) and the USFP in the mid-1990s.

[^2]: Abdallah Laroui is Morocco’s pre-eminent modern historian and an intellectual who had great access to both Hassan II and the Moroccan political class more generally. Allal al-Fassi was conservative intellectual, a leader of the Moroccan nationalist movement and the founder of the Istiqlal party, which together with its more progressive offshoot, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), dominated the country’s political life after independence.

[^3]: The author refers to the Istiqlal as Salafi in part because its leader, Allal al-Fassi, was inspired by the Salafi renewal led by Mohammed Abdou and Rachid Reda in Egypt, especially in the interwar period. It should not be seen as equivalent to contemporary Salafism, and the Istiqlal Party, while conservative, is neither Salafi nor Islamist in the tradition of the Muslim Brothers (the PJD is closer to this).

Links 13-31 August 2016
LinksThe Editors
Links 1-8 August 2016
LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Egypt's foundering economy

Last month, the Egyptian pound reached EGP13 to the US dollar for the first time, highlighting the massive stresses on the Egyptian economy and the inevitability of a further devaluation (long expected by the markets) despite the Central Bank of Egypt’s efforts to have controlled re-evaluation of the pound. Also last week, Egypt announced that it was in the final stages of negotiating an agreement for as much as $12 billion in loans (which will of course come with policy conditions) from the IMF. Yesterday, President Abdelfattah al-Sisi warned that austerity measures are coming. All of this points to the continuing fall of the purchasing power of average Egyptians, from the poorest segment of the population (only partly sheltered by price controls on basic goods) to the middle class (perhaps the most dramatically affected).

These developments have appointed once pro-Sisi commentators to lash out. Like many once pro-establishment Egyptians I have met in the last year, it is not so much that they blame Sisi for the alarming economic condition of the country (that after all is a long-term trend) but his lack of vision for the economy and indulgence in wasteful prestige projects and the lack of transparency with what is being done with money raised from the Egyptian public and foreign backers. In the piece below, the Nasserist columnist Abdullah al-Senawi (who in 2013-14 was said to have Sisi’s ears and was a major supporter from the “nationalist left” through his TV show and writings) skewers the Sisi regime for his and more, predicting that such poor economic stewardship may very well spell its downfall.

Thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for the translation. Do check them out for your Arabic translation needs - we’re very happy with them, and the New York Times recently used them to translate an excellent piece on Saudi Arabia by our friend Ben Hubbard.


The economic crisis and Its repercussions

Abdullah al-Senawi, al-Shurouk, 29 July 2016

In the face of an ominous economic situation, if there is no recognition of the causes there can be no avoiding the serious consequences. The collapse of the Egyptian pound against the American dollar is just one aspect of the crisis, not its core. The rising prices of basic goods are another manifestation, but they are not the whole of it.

There is near consensus among Egyptian experts that there has been no clear, well-understood economic direction. Nor has there been management competent enough to grasp the necessities and priorities. Thus, we have arrived at a disastrous failure that is now undeniable: the markets announce it and the numbers confirm it.

If there is not a serious reconsideration, we are heading for tough days with no hope of escape. When there is no way of reviving the markets except by resorting to the International Monetary Fund, this means that the economy is teetering and on the brink of collapse.

The first question is: what exactly is the underlying problem? Why were there no policies able to create plans for production that would pump investment into the sclerotic arteries of the economy?

The second question is: to what extent are the grand projects adopted by the state responsible for depleting the country’s foreign currency reserves, without feasibility studies to examine likely revenues in the foreseeable future?

The third question concerns the aid and loans that Egypt obtained since 30 June 2013: how were they spent and according to what priorities?

The fourth question: is there an opportunity to correct and review the roots of the policies that led to this difficult economic situation?

Frank discussion of the facts is an essential step in overcoming a deep-rooted crisis, and it is legitimate and normal to raise questions. If there are no feasible ways to correct the situation, there is no hope of any social cohesion to prevent sudden collapses. Here is one indicator from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics: 27.8 percent of Egyptians live under the extreme poverty line and cannot afford the basic essentials of human life. That number is an indication of the dangerous level of poverty, which in the countryside of Upper Egypt rises to 57 percent.

That is a store of suppressed anger that is likely to explode if the suffering becomes unbearable and the state remains completely irresponsible. The state could take some degree of action to ease the suffering of the poorest parts of society, regardless of its capacity.

The same suppressed anger in the middle classes – the main victim of the economic crisis – could lead to unrest, which nobody can predict when or where it will begin. The declining purchasing power of the Egyptian pound, along with the forecasted steady rise in prices for commodities and services and the imposition of new taxes such as the VAT, all represent a dangerous fall in real income and an unprecedented erosion in living standards that cannot be compared with any previous period. When society is on the edge of despair, everything is possible and an explosion can be expected at any time.

Around four decades ago, on 18-19 January 1977, million-strong protests filled the squares and streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. This became known as the “bread intifada.” It followed the announcement of price hikes on basic goods such as bread, gas, sugar and rice after an agreement with the IMF to tackle the budget deficit.

Those protests, in terms of their size and momentum, resembled the protests of January 25, 2011, but their aim was limited to cancelling the decision to raise the prices of basic goods. President Anwar Sadat was forced to announce a curfew and send the army into the streets to impose order after the police were unable to face down the public anger. What is more important is that the decisions were all cancelled.

The lesson stayed ever-present, particularly in the memories of the security services. The interior minister at the time, Hassan Abu Basha, published a memoir about the “bread intifada.” But the passing of time creates the temptation to forget experiences. If the same factors are present, the results are likely to be the same.

If the security services are ever tested in this way, the results are pre-determined. The worst thing that happened after the 30 June Revolution was the way the security services were given a free hand in public life, allowing them to interfere in an unprecedented way in party politics, parliament, university and economic life.

That was one reason for the state’s weak will to carry out its functions. Every institution has functions that differ from those of other bodies, and it is unfair to ask the security services to take on functions other than its natural duties.

Security solutions have a ceiling of what they can achieve, however extreme their shows of force. They can work for a week or two in stopping speculation on the dollar in the black market, but they do not build a basis for relative stability in the markets and trading activity. Excesses can lead to economic paralysis that cannot be sustained for long. The issue is not one of stopping a few speculators or closing some foreign exchange bureaus, but rather changing the whole environment and revising the policies of economic failure.

The first aspect of this economic crisis is that production has almost ground to a halt and factories have almost stopped, investment has declined enormously, tourism has hit its lowest levels and transfers from Egyptians abroad have fallen to abnormally low levels.

The second aspect is that projects haven taken precedence over policies, and that is a fundamental error. Assuming that projects are undertaken due to some necessity, what are those necessities, and which of them must be postponed for the sake of other needs that are directly linked to production and operations, according to a studied plan with well-defined priorities? After the IMF loan, another question is: where is the money going exactly? It is certain that loans place constraints on future generations through accumulated debt, and no one is entitled to deprive them of their natural rights.

The third aspect is the absence of any equitable distribution of burdens. The government’s policies are similar, but less competent, than those followed by the Policies Committee1 chaired by Gamal Mubarak, the son of the former president. All the burdens are borne by the middle class and the poorest parts of society, without any readiness to impose progressive taxes on businessmen and owners of large companies, based on their profits and income, despite the fact that the constitution requires it.2 The crisis of the Mubarak regime was the lack of any type of social justice despite that economic growth reached nearly 7 percent a year.

The fourth aspect of the crisis is the poisoning of the political environment, the human rights situation and public freedoms. The economy cannot move, investments cannot be implemented and tourism cannot return to its normal high levels in a climate where politics is taken off the map and freedom deleted from the dictionary. The bad state of human rights in Egypt is one reason for the escalation of the economic crisis, as are the deteriorating levels of transparency and integrity.

There is now a fear that Egypt will be seen as a country rife with corruption – which has become more ingrained now after the sentencing of Egypt’s chief auditor Hesham Geneina following statements he made about the cost of corruption in Egypt.3 Where corruption takes hold, the opportunities for investment retreat.

That is a truth that cannot be forgotten. Egypt is looking at its future through the prism of the economic crisis and its repercussions.


  1. The Policies Committee (legna siyasat of the National Democratic Party was a vehicle through which Gamal Mubarak rallied a number of technocrats and policy intellectuals and sought to promote liberal economic policies in the mid-2000s. ↩︎

  2. Article 38 of the 2013 constitution stipulates that “The taxes imposed on the incomes of individuals are progressive multi-tier taxes that according to their tax capacity.” ↩︎

  3. See “Egypt's former top auditor Geneina sentenced to 1 year in jail for 'spreading false news’.“

Links 15-31 July 2016
LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Strategic implications of Turkey's failed coup
Erdogan and the Turkish National Security Council

Erdogan and the Turkish National Security Council

Last weekend's aborted  coup in Turkey, and the crackdown that has followed it, has been the focus of excellent think-pieces in the last week (such as this excellent piece by Aaron Stein). Most are concerned with the domestic implications for Turkey and the ambitions of President Erdogan. In the Arab world, reaction has been divided and mostly concerned with the strategic implications for the region, particularly as it came as Ankara had announced an effort to patch up its relations with neighbors. The most concrete element of this new policy that has been achieved thus far is the discreet settlement reached with Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident, and the potentially most significant element were overtures to Russia and Syria. (Reconciliation with Egypt, also floated prior to the coup, seems unlikely after Egypt so clearly welcomed the putsch.) 

In the article below, the commentator Abdel Bari Atwan (whom I find relatively equidistant these days from the main Arab "concerned parties" in the new regional great game) focuses in on the potential of a reversal of Turkish policy on Syria. Atwan wagered that the issue might be addressed in Wednesday's National Security Council meeting in Ankara (it does not appear to have been) but this is one issue worth watching.

As always, our friends at Industry Arabic provided the translation. They're great, please check them out for your business (or other) needs.


Is President Assad the biggest winner after the failed Turkish coup? What is the surprise Erdogan is preparing to unleash on Wednesday? How do we explain the chilliness and confusion of the Saudis toward Ankara? And why is Jubeir suddenly more optimistic about solving the Syrian crisis?

Abdel Bari Atwan, al-rai al-youm, 20 July 2016

Let us leave aside the failed Turkish coup and all the consequent purges, which have included tens of thousands of judges, teachers, imams, security officers, state employees and both high and low-ranking officers — let us leave all of that aside, even if temporarily, and try to explore the steps President Recep Tayayip Erdogan is preparing to embark on at the regional and international levels.
Surprises from President Erdogan these days are many and various — you need to stop and catch your breath every now and then while trying to keep up with him — but the most prominent may be “reconciliation” with Syria, entry into negotiations with it, and a shift in Turkey’s attitudes toward it, politically and militarily.
We’ve spoken about this issue here more than once before, and have quoted more than one statement from Mr. Binali Yildirim — the prime minister, and the second man in Turkey — in which he spoke about the futility of the war in Syria and the need to stop the bloodshed and return to “zero problems” with neighbors. What is new this time is that assurances in this direction came from Erdogan’s own mouth the day before yesterday. This may be the biggest surprise, and could gladden the hearts of some while giving others heart attacks.


In video and audio, President Erdogan told a group of his supporters on Monday evening that “his country would put all its disputes with neighboring countries behind it,” and revealed that his country would take an important decision after the National Security Council meeting which will be held tomorrow (Wednesday).
We do not know what important decision the Turkish national security leadership — with the participation of the prime minister, senior state officials, and the military and security establishments — will take, but we do know that the biggest disputes with neighboring countries, which it will put behind it, are with Syria, the source of all the problems Turkey is enduring these days, including “terrorism” and its bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, and Kurdish aspirations to establish a “state” taking shape along its northern border.
Of course we do not deny the existence of disputes with Iraq, as well as others with Egypt, and third, to a lesser extent, with Iran, and fourth with Russia, which are on their way to being resolved. However, all of these disputes are secondary, or are directly related to the Syrian issue, and will all melt away if there is a change in Turkish policy toward this issue.
In this article, we will try to read between the lines of Erdogan’s statements and see what they involve in terms of meanings and indicators on this or that issue and what we can deduce through these readings. We can summarize them in the following points:

  1. There has been an accelerating political and media trend by President Erdogan’s government to review its friendly relations with Washington, as well as a lack of concern with European threats to stop negotiations to include Turkey in the European Union if it reinstates the death penalty. There is a chance of a rupture between the two sides on the grounds of the American government’s refusal to extradite US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has been officially accused of being behind the failed coup.
  2. A state of “chill” has prevailed over Turkish-Saudi relations since Mr. Yildirim’s statements about the possibility of restoring his country’s relations with Syria. The confused reaction of Saudi media toward the failed coup reflected this chill, as Saudi channels, including the official Al Ekhbariya and semi-official Al Arabiya, appeared at first to sympathize with the coup, and then corrected this and timidly welcomed its failure.
  3. A strange statement was made by Mr. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, on the sidelines of the European Union-Gulf Cooperation Council Ministerial Meeting in Brussels yesterday. He said, “There is hope of finding a solution to the Syrian crisis,” while adding at the same time that, “the support of his country for the Syrian opposition will continue, as well as the war on ISIS.” What made this strange was that Mr. Jubeir was uncharacteristically optimistic about a political solution in Syria and did not mention the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, whether peacefully or through war, at all.

We do not want to preempt events or jump to hasty conclusions, however we do not hesitate to say that President Assad could be the biggest winner to emerge from this failed Turkish coup, whether it was real or fabricated, for several reasons, listed below:

  1. The Turkish-Russian rapprochement will be definitive, and could enter a stage of unprecedented strategic cooperation if US-Turkish relations collapse. Two days ago, Sergei Lavrov confirmed there was close cooperation between Moscow and Ankara around the Syrian issue.
  2. The phone conversation initiated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with his counterpart Erdogan — and which was greatly welcomed and appreciated by the Turkish president when Rouhani offered congratulations on the failure of the coup and readiness for cooperation between the two countries — could be a prelude to joint Iranian-Russian mediation to resume Turkish-Syrian relations.
  3. The Syrian opposition has disappeared from the political scene over the last three days. So far, no delegation representing it has arrived in Ankara to at least show solidarity with Erdogan.

The Turkish landscape is changing, and Turkey will be different after the coup, as we said in a previous article. So is it the case with President Erdogan. We are less than 24 hours from finding out about the biggest transformation, which the Turkish President will announce after the National Security Council meeting. These are long hours to wait, at least for us.

Links 1 June - 14 July 2016

Sorry, we've been on holiday.

LinksThe Editors