The Middle East Channel

Egypt sees mass protests a day ahead of constitutional referendum

Protests are planned in Egypt between Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and opposition groups amid tight security the day before a referendum on a new draft constitution and after weeks of unrest and violent clashes. Liberal, secular, and Christian opposition members are protesting outside the presidential palace while Islamists have assembled at a nearby mosque. Opposition members have threatened to boycott the referendum if certain conditions are not met by Saturday, but are currently calling for supporters to vote "no." Voting will begin Saturday in Cairo, Alexandria, and eight other provinces, and polling will take place in the rest of the country on December 22. The referendum is being split because there are not enough judges willing to monitor all polling stations. Meanwhile, Egyptian prosecutor, Mustafa Khater, is accusing aides to Morsi of interfering with an investigation into accounts of Islamists detaining and abusing dozens of opposition protesters outside the presidential palace, whom they said were thugs paid to incite violence. Khater's accusations would implicate Morsi's chief of staff, Refaa al-Tahtawi, of direct involvement in the abuse of the captives.


The United States and Syrian opposition are calling for Russia to aid in pressuring President Bashar al-Assad to cede power. U.S. State Department statements have come after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Boganov admitted Assad might be losing control. However, Russia denied reports insisting its stance on Syria has not shifted and the foreign ministry reported Friday that Boganov had "issued no statements and given no special interviews in recent days." Russia has maintained there must be a political solution to the conflict and have criticized the international recognition of the opposition coalition under Mouaz al-Khatib saying it is undermining diplomacy. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta approved sending two batteries of Patriot missiles and 400 military personnel to Turkey to protect its border with Syria. The U.S. batteries will add to four from Germany and the Netherlands in a NATO effort and are set to be operational by the end of January. Turkey has been concerned about the spillover of the Syrian conflict after several border infractions, with fears heightened after U.S. reports that the Syrian government has fired Scud missiles at opposition targets. On Thursday Syria denied the Scud missile attacks.


  • I.A.E.A. failed to gain access to the suspected Iranian nuclear site Parchin but expects a deal in meetings scheduled for January to restart an investigation into nuclear weapons research.
  • Israeli prosecutors have dropped charges of fraud and money laundering on polarizing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman due to insufficient evidence but will indict him on breach of trust.
  • Reuters has accused Israeli soldiers of assaulting two of its cameramen at a border crossing near the West Bank city of Hebron, the site of recent classes between Israeli forces and Palestinian youths. 

Navigating Egypt's political crisis (Issandr El Amrani, The European Council on Foreign Relations)

"Egypt is in the grip of its worst political crisis since President Hosni Mubarak was deposed two years ago, and shifts in the three-way balance of power between Islamists, secularists and the military make the outcome more difficult to predict. The on-going crisis has dramatically increased the likelihood of protracted political and social instability. Violent street clashes between supporters and opponents of the six-month-old administration of President Muhammad Morsi have claimed eight lives and left hundreds wounded. The sacking of a number of offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, allegations of organized attacks against opposition protesters, as well as the uncompromising and increasingly belligerent rhetoric from both sides suggests the worst is yet to come. Absent a muscular effort by political leaders to contain the crisis, Egypt could be heading into a new season of political violence.

Some of the political leaders on both sides who initially staked out maximalist positions have begun to show more caution, but may lack the political authority or the political will to calm the rising anger of their supporters. In the meantime, the military is sending ambiguous messages and appears to want to remain above the fray, even as each side attempts to drag it back in - and in doing so is willing to give it concessions almost all factions opposed only a year ago."

The masochism tango (The Economist)

WHEN Barack Obama became America's president four years ago, he had two main aims in the Middle East: to make America more popular around the region; and to get out of it, starting with Iraq and ending with Afghanistan. Such was the faith in his powers that some thought Mr Obama might even find the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict that had eluded previous presidents. He would persuade Iran to forgo a nuclear weapon, preventing further war in the region. The shale-gas bonanza would make America less dependent on Middle Eastern oil and, in turn, bound less tightly to its oil-rich allies in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. With all this done, America could edge towards an exit from this troublesome place and pivot towards the Pacific.


--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey


The Middle East Channel

A Moroccan monarchical exception?

Almost two years into the so-called "Arab spring," the record of revolutionary success is mixed. Whereas Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are engaged in their own post-revolutionary institutional experiments, Syria has descended into civil war, in a sure sign that the outcome will irrevocably undermine the Assad regime. In the midst of all of the revolutionary tumult, monarchical regimes, in the Gulf, Jordan, and Morocco, have for the most part withstood the tempest of the protests. This imposes imminent theoretical and empirical questions about the variation in the outcome of the Arab revolt.

So far, monarchies have been the exception and far from engaging in semantic exercises, this regime-type is indeed an empirical reality pointing to what I call an "advantage" that they possess over republican states in the Middle East and North Africa. After all, the Arab authoritarian states all used, in one way or another, similar strategies from the same menu of autocratic manipulation to deal with their respective uprisings.

The Maghreb's only monarchy in Morocco proved more resilient than many had expected, and has largely outlasted and outmaneuvered the beleaguered February 20 movement. In addition to institutional manipulation and vastly cosmetic changes, monarchies possess an advantage over republican authoritarian states. In fact, while many may speak of a crisis of authoritarianism, we can perhaps identify a "republican" authoritarian crisis and a monarchical advantage.

This advantage is traced back to the colonial period when European colonial masters established most of the republican states arbitrarily. Monarchies like Morocco, on the other hand, feature a different state-regime relationship as remnants of political orders pre-existed the edifice of the modern state constructed by either French or British colonialism. Current regimes have managed to surround existing regime coalitions with modern states as a byproduct of colonial legacies, as is the case in Jordan and the Gulf states.

This "advantage" in its religious and traditional guise, and the resulting manipulation of its symbols of power facilitates the authoritarian rule in most of Arab monarchies. In Jordan, the mixture of tribal manipulation, and courting of the Hashemite lineage of the monarchy have been crucial in facilitating the regime's grip on power. In Gulf sheikhdoms, tribal and clan relationships sustain the authority of oil-rich monarchs, in addition to the distribution of patronage. In Morocco, the French colonial project strengthened monarchical rule as it subdued former lawless territories outside the dominance of the monarch to a centralized modern state that grew more autocratic after independence in 1956.

Regime stability in Morocco has relied on the interplay between symbolic, historical, and coercive means subsumed under the authority of the Makhzen apparatus of the state. The state in Morocco is in many ways an authority in which two systems, rational-temporal and symbolic-religious, coexist in the face of modern challenges to regime stability. The modern Makhzen, initially buttressed by French colonial state modernization has of course adapted new constitutional and administrative structures while retaining its historical, symbolic rigor and authority. In fact, what the French created was a giant leviathan with its tentacles in the spiritual/traditional and the modern/temporal realms of power.

The duality of the monarchy as a modern and traditional authority thus created through colonial rule is difficult to challenge by any other opposition discourse and has made for a robust edifice for authoritarian rule based on patronage and specific institutionalized rituals of powers. The modern manifestations of old traditions of power create a culture of dissonance conducive to monarchical supremacy. The monarch's spiritual hegemony in turn frustrates the opposition's attempts to challenge the legitimacy of the regime.

The symbolic, traditional, tribal, or religious capital associated with monarchical regimes subsumes all other features of authoritarian rule. Morocco's strategy toward the February 20 movement is instructive in this case. Relying on his socio-cultural capital, King Mohammed VI managed to slow the momentum of the February 20 protest movement, by offering a semblance of reforms. Thus in a nationally televised speech, the king pledged constitutional and political reforms. He stated his "firm commitment to giving a strong impetus to the dynamic and deep reforms ... taking place." Days later, Mohammed VI established a blue ribbon royal commission entrusted with the task of proposing a new constitution which was unveiled and endorsed by the monarch in June 2011. The new constitution, hailed as a milestone in the process of democratic reforms in Morocco, was met with wider criticism from the vastly outmatched opposition and the February 20 movement.

The new constitution was later approved, after the royal endorsement, in a national referendum by an overwhelming majority of 98 percent of the votes. The new constitution consecrated the king's religious capital, despite removal of any references to the sacredness of the personality of the king. The sovereign is still inviolable as "king, commander of the faithful (amir al-mu'minin)" and "head of state, and symbol of national unity." Despite the constitutional changes, the monarchy holds significant clout in the political system with control over the military and economy, and retains vast discretionary powers. The impacts of the February 20 protest movement of have been limited due to the colossal popular support for the monarchy in Moroccan society stemming from its tremendous religious and traditional capital.

Monarchical control over the realm of the religious and traditional is manifested through the use of regime rituals of power, which have been codified and institutionalized in the body of law, constitution, and political system in Morocco. The coup de grace for the protest movement was the legislative elections of November 2011, which saw the plurality victory of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) and the appointment of its head Abdelilah Benkirane as prime minister. Many were hopeful that the electoral victory of the former opposition and Islamist party would be a prelude to meaningful political and economic reforms. Such hopes were quickly dashed as the work of the government continues to be undermined by the palace's own shadow government of personal advisors.

Thus, Morocco's monarchical regime is confident these days. In fact, it is so confident that it has launched the last phase of its strategy toward the February 20 movement. Instead of placating the protests, recent demonstrations witnessed outright state oppression as scores of protesters were injured while lamenting the increasingly dire socio-economic conditions. The poverty rate exceeds 20 percent, and unemployment is around 30 percent among people under 34 years old. The situation has worsened due to this year's chronic drought, a drop in tourism, and the economic recession in Europe (Morocco's leading trade partner). The protests also came amidst the governing JDP's controversial decision to launch fiscal reforms of the state's subsidy system. Benkirane's government also unveiled a 20 percent increase in fuel prices, which angered many in the streets, already reeling from high levels of inflation and increased cost of living.

Whether it is a state of exceptionalism, an anomaly, or a temporary advantage, Morocco's monarchy seems to have so far carefully navigated the first salvo of the Arab street unrest. In addition to institutional, and socio-economic manipulations, Morocco's king and other monarchies possess a traditional, tribal, or religious advantage that may well have made the difference in their survival thus far. In the case of Morocco, as long as opposition forces are unable to demystify the monarchy of its religious hegemony, real progress will always remain elusive. At the same time, monarchy's dual policy of promoting fictitious reforms, while at the same time oppressing individual liberties, and plundering the state's economic resources, could gradually, and over the long term, erode its regime "advantage" especially as it is increasingly seen as an agent of paralysis.

Mohamed Daadaoui is associate professor of political science at Oklahoma City University. This piece is a contribution to a multipart MEC symposium on the resilience of Arab monarchy.