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Autumn of the Arab Patriarchs?

Not all Middle Eastern unrest is alike.

Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By LEE SMITH
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Rabat, Morocco

Autumn of the Arab Patriarchs?

Michael Ramirez

It is a rough time in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, not least for the United States and its allies. In Beirut, Hezbollah toppled the government of Saad Hariri while he was being hosted in Washington by President Barack Obama. In Egypt, tens of thousands have flooded the streets to protest against current president 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak and his son and apparent successor, 47-year-old Gamal. Jordan is witnessing widespread demonstrations, and the same holds for Algeria, Yemen, and Mauritania—a seemingly remarkable chain of events all kicked off with the self-immolation on December 17 of a 26-year-old fruit vendor in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid.

As street protests brought the reign of Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to an end, imitators around the region lit fire to themselves, perhaps in the hope of similar results, or maybe just out of a chronic desperation that seems to have no limits. Either way, it is not merely the Arab regimes that should be worried by these popular uprisings, but anyone who fears the dangers of political activism carried out under the sign of self-murder.

“My concern is that the same people who recruit for suicide bombers are now going to start recruiting for these self-immolation operations,” says Robert Holley, a former U.S. diplomat who worked extensively in the region. “The whole aim of these guys is to destabilize these regimes.” The lives they toss away in the meantime are irrelevant to their ends, of which no one can now be certain. Certainly there are democrats in these gatherings, whom Washington should wish well and assist where possible, but there are plenty of others, too, including Islamists and regime insiders jockeying with each other for position. Holley now heads the Moroccan American Center for Policy, sponsored by the Moroccan government. He led me on a recent tour of the country, including Rabat, the capital, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and the Western Sahara. 

Morocco is one of the few places in the Arabic-speaking Middle East that isn’t in the midst of political turmoil, even as analysts and journalists have predicted that the monarchy is just another prospective domino about to fall like Ben Ali. Not surprisingly, Moroccan parliamentarians, civil society activists, and diplomats are unhappy about being lumped together with their North African neighbors in Tunisia and Algeria.

Morocco has gone through its dark periods as a hard security state and is now squarely on the path to liberalization—including political representation, women’s personal status laws, and a wide-ranging reform of the judiciary. The purpose of the latter, explained Ahmed Herzenni, head of the Royal Advisory Council on Human Rights, “is to distinguish between the executive and the judicial branches of our government”—a feat rarely attempted in the Middle East or North Africa.

Herzenni spent 12 years in prison for his left-wing political activism, but credits his onetime jailer Hassan II for initiating the reform process that his son, King Mohamed VI, has accelerated since he came to the throne in 1999. Herzenni notes that their “rights are not merely gifts from the monarchy, but were won by Moroccans.” And these rights are exercised regularly. “There are people protesting every day in front of parliament,” he says.

The lingering myth of Arab nationalism—the notion that all Arab societies share the same goals, desires, and ideas—has led observers to overstate the similarities of the current unrest in countries that are in fact very different. For example, coups d’état are typically the result of powerful militaries, yet in Tunisia it was the military’s weakness that toppled Ben Ali.

Habib Bourguiba, the father of modern Tunisia, kept his military relatively small. “He saw the military coups around the region and feared that a powerful military would be a problem,” explains J. Peter Pham, an Africa security expert at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. “So the Tunisian military wasn’t the overwhelming drag on Tunisia that it was on many Arab countries. It was a professional and well-trained corps, which provided a path for Tunisian men that ended with a certain level of reward for their service.”

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