The Middle East Channel

Showdown in Morocco

The makhzen refers to an ancient institution in Morocco -- the extended power apparatus close to the Moroccan monarchy, made up of a network of power and privilege. It allows the King to act as an absolute monarch and the de facto head of the executive. Beneath the give and take of everyday politics, the makhzen has always been the ultimate guarantor of the status quo.   For three months, the pro-democracy youth movement, known as "February 20," has been advocating against that status quo. Protests have not been targeting the monarchy directly, but instead have been urging for reform that would yield a system in which the King reigns but does not rule.

What started as a small group on Facebook earlier this year, has since grown into a nationwide movement made up of a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and members of the conservative Islamist right. Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and powered by new media, the movement convinced hundreds of thousands to take to the streets. The demonstrations held week in, week out, were remarkably peaceful. In response, King Mohammed VI promised a package of constitutional reforms to be submitted to a referendum in June. But as protesters, unconvinced by the King's promise, vow to keep up pressure on the regime, authorities seem increasingly impatient and determined to break up protests violently, paving the way toward escalation and confrontation with the street. The middle class is joining the mass of demonstrators, moving the protests beyond the core of mobilized youth. Their target is the makhzen -- which has become a code word for the monarchy's abuses of power and monopoly over large sectors of the economy.

Protests are not new in Morocco. During the Cold War years, leftists who dared to stand up and denounce the regime's abuses of power saw the wrath of the makhzen befall them. Those who were lucky enough not to have disappeared suffered the worst abuses, or were thrown into secret prisons in the middle of the desert. But in the age of Internet and new information technologies, the regime knows well that its actions are closely watched and that the indiscriminate repression of the "Years of Lead" (a name commonly used in Morocco to refer to the dark era of repression under late King Hassan II) are virtually impossible to hide from the public eye. This partly explains the inconsistency of its handling of the tension in the street.

From the start, the protest movement indentified key areas where reform is much needed: poverty, corruption, injustice and the control of political and economic life by the monarch's close entourage and some privileged families accused of misuse of public funds. The regime's response was tempered and conciliatory at first. In an attempt to quell popular anger, King Mohammed VI gave a speech on March 9 in which he announced the appointment of a committee to revise the Moroccan Constitution, pledging to relinquish parts of his prerogatives, while setting the outlines of permissible change. The status of the monarchy was to remain untouched, while the King was to supervise the reform process.

The proposed reform plan did not convince everyone and many decided to continue their protests. Skeptical youth doubted that the process initiated by the King was compatible with fundamental popular demands, such as the drafting of a whole new constitution by an elected assembly. Protesters have also been calling for the dissolution of the parliament, the dismissal of the current government, the release of all political prisoners, the clear separation of powers and the trial of officials involved in cases of torture and corruption. Amid continuing street protests, the palace offered a series of reforms, including the release of 190 political prisoners, mainly Islamist and human rights activists.

But then on April 28 a terrorist bomb attack hit a popular restaurant in the heart of Marrakech, killing 17 people. The country was plunged into a state of shock. Beyond the unanimous condemnation, the timing of the attack raised many questions. The fear of a security clampdown and a freeze of liberties were the main concerns of pro-democracy advocates. Their fear is justified. The makhzen has traditionally actively sought to nurture an image of stability -- an exception to the turmoil in the Arab world. That strategy has worked for a time for the regime: Morocco is routinely praised by western officials as an ally of the West in a rather hostile region. The country holds an advanced status with the European Union; it has signed a free trade agreement with the U.S.; it is actively cooperating with the Americans in their global "War on Terror," and it enjoys the status of a Major Non-NATO Ally. The specter of terrorism has long been a useful card for gaining external support.

Police violence in recent days has escalated. On May 15, peaceful demonstrators who wanted to protest in front of an alleged secret detention center in Temara (dubbed Guan-Temara by protesters) near the capital Rabat faced repression. A week later, anti-riot police systematically and violently disrupted peaceful gatherings in public squares. This may be the sign that the regime is shifting its attitude toward the street and taking a much more hardline stance. As with other Arab regimes, the makhzen faces a dilemma: if it clamps down hard on peaceful protesters, it risks loosing its reputation as a model of democratic reform in a region often perceived in the West as averse to the liberal ideals of democracy. If it loosens up, then it will have to face the challenge to its own existence posed by a determined and organized street.

The "February 20" youth movement is vowing to keep up street pressure, rejecting the King's offer of token reform. If the regime insists on denying the people their rights of assembly and free expression, then the country will be heading toward the unknown. Against the backdrop of the Arab revolutions, change looks inevitable. It is still in the power of the monarchy to ensure a peaceful transition and at the same time ensure its own survival. The more the makhzen drags its feet, the more it runs the risk of undermining the stability of the country and, at the end of the day, its own existence.

Hisham al-Miraat is the co-founder of Talk Morocco and a contributing author for Global Voices.

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Is Turkey losing its balancing act in the new Middle East?

President Obama's Middle East speech last week laid out a policy of support for the growth of democracy and peace in the area. He challenged all the players in the region to support self-determination, equal opportunity, democracy, political and civil rights and religious tolerance. He stated that democracy requires a free press and right to assembly. He called for a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. The President has a clear vision of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

It is not obvious that the Turkish government could make the same declarations.

Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkey is having a tough time adjusting its much heralded foreign policy of "zero problems with neighbors" to the new realities of the Middle East. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says Turkey wants good relations with the people and regimes of the region. However the people of the Middle East are challenging their own dictators today. Tomorrow they will remember the states that supported the brutality of these regimes. Turkey must therefore realize the soft power they extol in their active diplomacy as a regional leader is not just about trade and diplomacy. It also calls for active support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

The AKP came to power with the promise of furthering Turkey's Western orientation through the EU process. But under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and guidance of Davutoglu for the past eight years, Turkish foreign policy has been turned on its head by prioritizing its Middle Eastern neighbors rather than its traditional allies in the West. Beginning with its rejection of the U.S. request to enter Iraq through its territory in 2003, Turkey surprised many with its newfound independent streak. It built on this anti-Western popularity with Erdogan's rhetoric at Davos in 2009 and increasingly hostile attitude towards Israel after the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident. This precipitated a honeymoon between Turkey and the Arab world, with Erdogan enjoying the highest popularity of any leader throughout the region. Turkey's support for a second flotilla to Gaza and its bellicosity towards Israel now stands in noticeable contrast to its silence on attempts by the regimes in Iran and Syria to bury their citizens' demands for democracy.

Having misjudged Libya by initially rejecting sanctions and even opposing NATO's involvement, losing much credibility before changing course, Turkey finds itself in the uncomfortable situation of being a flip-flopping regional power. Now with the ongoing protests and brutal repression by Turkey's closest "brother" Assad, Ankara once again seems to be sticking to its mantra of "zero problems" even as Syrians die every day. Syria has been the showcase of Turkey's policy of engagement in the Middle East. Therefore how and with what speed it acts will be consequential for Turkey's future role in the region. The people of the area will be looking for more than rhetoric. The EU and U.S. have imposed sanctions. Will Turkey too take action?

Turkey emphasizes its uniqueness as an indigenous Muslim democracy. Yet that democracy was facilitated not by its Middle Eastern neighbors but by its evolution within the community of Western nations. As a G-20 founding member, NATO member, and EU aspirant, Ankara has transformed itself into an international actor, capable of bringing considerable clout and influence to the region precisely because of its Western orientation -- and not in spite of it.

Turkey should use the huge economic, moral, and political capital it has invested in its rapprochement with the Middle East to promote to its neighbors what Turkish citizens have been enjoying for decades -- a vibrant democracy that in spite of its imperfections is seen as an example of reform in the region. Ankara can make a difference by publicly and firmly telling Damascus and Tehran to call off their security forces and institute meaningful reforms with tangible economic incentives. Ankara has the most to gain from a transformed Middle East which will increasingly look to Turkey for guidance and leadership.

The AKP's confusing policies risk losing not only its credibility in the region as a champion of democracy but also its voice within the community of Western allies. Ankara needs to regain its balance among its neighbors and its allies. Its newfound status as a Middle Eastern power does not have to come at the expense of losing its hard-earned Western credentials.

Dr. Lenore Martin is the Louise Doherty Wyant Professor at Emmanuel College and Associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies both at Harvard University.

Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University and a research fellow at the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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