April - 27 - 2012
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The Arab ‘Awakening’ Could Still Arise

Some of Morocco’s problems derive from its overly close economic ties to Europe. Right now there is a growing crisis south of the Sahara, the Sahel that will inevitably affect Moroccan security. Mali, a poor country but one of the shining examples of parliamentary democracy in Africa, suffered a coup while enduring a separatist war with regional consequences in the north. Niger has faced another drought and is suffering from another period of famine. The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, which has seen the bulk of the fighting led by opportunist Islamist forces, could prompt a renewal of militant fighting in Western Sahara, seeing as little progress has been made in the latest round of talks. If a solution isn’t found soon, Western Sahara, in the context of the turmoil in the Sahel, could promptly become embroiled in the web of terrorist and smuggling networks that are threatening North and West Africa.

In North Africa, Algeria and Morocco are the two countries that have experienced the softest manifestations of the Arab Awakening. Algeria avoided the turmoil largely because it had experienced an ‘awakening’ of its own throughout the decade of the 1990’s that permanently ‘put to sleep’ over 100,000 people. Morocco avoided massive uprisings thanks to the existence of institutions capable of absorbing and translating social dissent into political language. The language was clear enough, for the King to become the most enthusiastic promoter of important Constitutional changes that, at least on paper, seemed to provide for a reduction of the monarchy’s powers.

However, not even the reformist monarch, Mohammad VI, could avoid the wave of Islamic and socially conservative politics that has affected the rest of North Africa in the wake of the ‘Arab awakening’. And now, in Morocco, as in Tunisia or Egypt, the Islamists are having to confront difficult economic conditions such as high unemployment, high food prices , difficult weather that destroys crops and of course political demands from citizens that make it difficult for the government to lift traditional subsidies from basic consumption goods. This leads to a growing budget deficit and less control over public finance, which also adds difficulty in meeting citizens’ demands.

Morocco has also been affected by Europe’s economic crisis, which has uncovered an important weakness. That is that it is overly reliant on the European economy, such that when the EU sneezes, Morocco catches more of a bad ‘flu than a cold. Morocco exports less to Europe and suffers from reduced investment. The excessive weight of Europe creates a spillover effect on human and social policies affecting hundreds of thousands of Moroccans (and other North Africans), who have migrated to Europe. They are also affected by the financial crisis, suffering from the lower wages, unemployment and the anti-immigration backlash that inevitably occurs in difficult economic periods. Accordingly, the French presidential election is having just such an effect on North African migrants, as candidates have discussed the idea of reducing the number of Algerians residing in France. The mere fact that such ideas are being discussed affects the way Moroccans, as fellow North Africans, are perceived, making their lives all the less bearable. Naturally, a difficult European economy, implies that Moroccan migrants are remitting less to their homes, contributing to the budget deficit and the economic burden of many individual families. In northern Morocco, near Tangiers, the textile sector has suffered considerably. Lower European demand is creating a social conflict as well.

The Moroccan Association of Textile Industries says that the rise to power of the Islamist PJD Party has led to an increased presence of their related UNTM union, which is said to be unusually aggressive; so aggressive that businesses are lost as to how to deal with the unprecedented degree of militancy. The UNTM blocks access to factories and insults managers. Union members also block entry and exit of goods. All the while, unemployment is very high and textile exports are stalled. In some factories, staff numbers have had to be cut by half and owners are having to deal with debts or be forced to shut down. Meanwhile, UNTM influenced workers demands to be paid for the days they have not worked. There is little that the Tangiers region can do, as its economic fate is tied to that of large Spanish companies, facing their own recession. Other textile intense areas, such as in Casablanca or Rabat, produce finished goods destined for the wider European market, faring better than their counterparts in Tangiers, who produce unfinished textiles that are then finished in Spain.

While the wheat harvest has turned out to be better than expected – and agriculture still accounts for more than 15% of Morocco’s economy – given a drought, tourism has suffered as well. Most tourists are European and a drop was to be expected. Tourism accounts for some 10% of GDP normally, but it fell significantly in 2011; some estimates based on Marrakesh suggest drops of as much as 9% overall, while there were 16% fewer French and 25% fewer Spanish visitors, both groups accounting for the bulk of Morocco’s tourists. While most of the drop stems from lower disposable incomes in Europe, it certainly does not help when members of the Islamist controlled government, and no less a figure than the minister of justice, Mustafa Ramid, deliver nonsensical statements in Marrakesh, describing this most important of Moroccan travel destinations as a place where “people come from all over the world to spend time sinning in and being far from God”. Not surprisingly, the minister’s statements drew much criticism from Moroccan tour operators and some major national newspapers, suggesting that there is still some common sense. Moroccans can at least console themselves for the fact that tourism in their traditional ‘competitors’, Tunisia and Egypt, has dropped far more drastically with ministers, preachers and other personalities delivering even more counterproductive statements.

If some of Morocco’s problems derive from its overly close ties to Europe, there is a growing crisis south of the Sahara–the Sahel–that will inevitably affect Moroccan security:

Mali, a poor country, but one of the rare shining examples of parliamentary democracy in Africa, suffered a coup, while enduring a separatist war with regional consequences in the north.

Niger, has faced another drought, and is suffering from another period of famine. The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, which has seen the bulk of the fighting led by opportunist Islamist forces, could prompt a renewal of militant fighting in Western Sahara, seeing as little progress has been made in the latest round of talks. If a solution isn’t found soon, Western Sahara, in the context of the turmoil in the Sahel, could promptly become embroiled in the web of terrorist and smuggling networks that are threatening North and West Africa.

Apart from incidents, such as kidnappings of foreign aid workers, that have already occurred in Polisario controlled camps in Algeria, the area is awash with weapons from the Libyan conflict while the border areas are destabilized. As the Tuareg separatists and the various criminal or islamist groups find it easier to penetrate this territory, the timing is ripe for a militant resurgence of the Polisario, which officially gave up the armed struggle against Morocco in 1990.

Armed elements from the various renegade groups are free to recruit members in refugee camps, especially in the almost lawless areas bordering Western Sahara such as Mauritania and the above mentioned Polisario camps in Algeria. The latter have already been implicated in drug smuggling and kidnapping activity, which suggests that the al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) has already established links to Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf. In addition, the Polisario’s nationalist agenda may also have lost its appeal among the Sahrawis in the camps, which makes those living in the camps more vulnerable to being recruited by militants.

France continues to back Morocco’ claims to the Western Sahara, but no progress was made at the recently UN mediated talks. Algeria and Morocco are the key players around the conflict however, and these two states must reach a compromise in order for the Sahrawi issue to be engaged with more vigor at the international level.

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