The Moorish Wanderer

The Rachid Nini Affair

Posted in Flash News, Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Moroccanology, Morocco, Read & Heard by Zouhair ABH on May 9, 2011

Our very own Glenn Beck has been jailed. For good. This time there is no fine, no (royal) pardon, just outright jail to the Kingdom’ chief moral inquisitor.

I have to confess an ambivalent mixture of relief that he will not be writing his incendiary column everyday, that at least for some time, the populist literature will not benefit from his own, inspired contribution. And, on the other hand, there was a feeling of sorrow. Sadness in fact, that the regime should still resort to these methods to stifle any kind of dissent or criticism.

Rachid Nini, leaner and more alert during the beginning of his career

Rachid Nini has been writing some very strong criticisms right from the starting point of his career, when he had his own column with Assabah newspaper. His informal style and acerbic criticism of what he considers to be moral wrongs or simply the expression of the underdogs’ frustrations made him very popular with a large spectrum of the Moroccan society. The poor level of Arabic he uses in his writings- poor by his own admission- was not a hindrance to his popularity, but rather a sign of strength, the symbol of ‘the truth spoken in simple terms’ carried out by the herald of those who cannot make their voices heard.

The pleasant columns he was writing in Assabah (which I did enjoy once, back in 2002-2003), then in his own Almassae newspaper, centred around his imported column, soon turned sour: homophobic comments, nationalistic, misogynist and vengeful articles too.Above all, a reactionary who took liberties with a great deal of things: with past history, some baseless accusations that left-wingers are the one who wrecked the country’s moral standards and everything it holds dear; Some very nasty pieces of innuendo on the morality of anyone who tries to criticize him. The man, because of -no doubt many of them- the letters he receives from admirers, really believes to be the voice of the people. And maybe he is.

And that’s the trouble with independent journalists in Morocco: they cannot draw the line between reporting the news, and actually making them. Because mainstream politics has been discredited with corruption and nepotism -as well as the effects of power concentration within non-representative circles- journalists like Ahmed Reda Benchemsi (from his days with TelQuel Magazine) or Taoufik Bouachrine (with Akhbar Al Yaoum) or indeed The Jamaï Camarilla with Le Journal (Hebdomadaire) and Nini, all of these and many others, sought news reporting as a convenient way to defend and advance the causes they believe in. Bottom line is, there is little difference between the human rights-loving Khalid Jamaï and the populist Rachid Nini. There is no particular criticism to their proceedings; they are, after all, citizens voicing their opinions by setting up a business so as to reach out for the largest possible public.

Le Journal, another firebrand 'agitator', but appealing to another kind of public

The trouble is, they get mixed up, they think of themselves as the new-era politicians, the standard-bearers of their readers (especially when their readership is 80.000-100.000 per year, about 14% of total nationwide readers (OJD figures, 2010) a hefty market share, large enough for Mr Nini to believe he is a Vox Populii (and you know the saying, Vox Populi, Vox Dei) and sometimes, in his fire-and-brimstone posts, he trips over powerful lobbies like the Prosecutors’ corps, the military or the police, and well, he got himself in a cross fire.

So in essence, the man is not condemned for ‘criticizing the government‘. First because his criticism is very targeted, and there are rumours he is basically, a gun (or a pen) to hire, a proxy mean for powerful lobbies to shoot each others. So he shouldn’t be mistaken for yet another victim of our inhumane system, simply because he has been nursed in the regime’s bosom. He is, quite simply, a gambit. a scarified pawn in the rarefied circles of power. That might explain why I don’t feel particularly inclined to defend him.

Still and all, Rachid Nini is another victim. And even if he is a detestable figure, for all his flaws, the least he should be guaranteed is a free and fair trial. And his was no such thing; It was so obvious that the state prosecutor felt compelled to claim that there were no instructions (التعليمات) prior to the trial.

This is the cornerstone of democracy, or at least the way Voltaire defined its corollary, freedom of speech: to protect the freedom of speech even when one does not agree with their point of view. And I wish such noble interpretation would extend to others. Nini is a high profile journalist, he has some considerable following, so not to defend him would be a bit double standards toward those with whom I happen to disagree (or even feel sorry for)

But then again, he is not tried for his speech, he is tried for something else. Therefore, if he is ever to be defended, then the one right we need to make sure he has, is the one of a re-trial, a fair and free one, this time. We now move from an issue of stifled dissidence, to that of a more basic right. All of a sudden, he loses his martyrdom to the benefit of a more down-to-earth kind of status. Unfortunately, not many see it that way. #RetrialNini instead of #FreeNini rather.

For these reasons, and because I would like to remain true to my stated principles, I would rather call for a retrial, rather than free him again. Whoever instructed these puppets magistrates have satisfied their vengeance, but alas created a bigger threat to them and to anyone who happens to disagree with the now-martyr Nini; The argument is simple: Nini has been jailed for writing some stuff on power circles, Power circles are corrupt, therefore he writes the truth. We are all looking forward to the kind of column he will be writing when he would have done his time.

Wrap it up, Time is of The essence

It has been about three months since a group of young people, eager to make their voices heard loud and clear, staged the first of the three demonstrations calling for constitutional reforms and policies to rout out corruption and nepotism. The momentum built steadily, the youth managed some spectacular stunts, but now is the time to cool off and set off a precise agenda.

Paradoxically, “Feb20” ‘s main strength turns out to be its deadliest weakness, and if it does not try and do something about it, perhaps the cause of its demise. Indeed, the movement is heterogeneous: old-guard left-wingers and human rights activists coexist more or less peacefully with Salafists and Al-Adl religious conservative. This strange alliance of social progressists and reactionaries appeals to a broad spectrum of the public opinion, but that unity comes at the price of ambiguity. Both wings -and the motley of nuances in between- wholeheartedly agree on the need for establishing democracy, but still fail to define a common manifesto, as it were.

Consider the main 20Feb. grievances, those that gathered masses of demonstrators on February 20th, March 20th and April 23th:

” دستور ديمقراطي يمثل الإرادة الحقيقية للشعب.

– حل الحكومة والبرلمان وتشكيل حكومة انتقالية مؤقتة تخضع لإرادة الشعب.

– قضاء مستقل ونزيه

– محاكمة المتورطين في قضايا الفساد واستغلال النفوذ ونهب خيرات الوطن.

– الاعتراف باللغة الأمازيغية كلغة رسمية إلى جانب العربية والاهتمام بخصوصيات الهوية المغربية لغة ثقافة وتاريخا

– إطلاق كافة المعتقلين السياسيين ومعتقلي الرأي ومحاكمة المسؤولين.”

Among these items, the manifesto does manage to find common ground: the liberation of political detainees (a clear rebuttal of Morocco’s boasting about its human rights record), an autonomous judiciary and court action against corrupt officials appeal to every Moroccan citizen, whatever their political allegiances. There is even a great deal of potential consensus on parliament and government dissolution and the appointment of a transitory body to oversee the constitutional reform aimed at. But the niceties stop there. There is an explosive disagreement potential on what everyone of the Feb20 supporting organization means by “a democratic constitution representative of the people’s will”; It ranges from Soviet democracy to an Islamist Caliphate based on the Islamic notion of Shoura (شورة) democracy, or indeed a Libertarian, crypto-anarchist democracy, whatever wing each member of the movement belongs to. This diversity insures a truly democratic representation within the movement, but unfortunately has a crippling effect on its potential as a platform opposition to the regime.

Consider, for instance, their refusal to answer the official invitation from the Menouni commission to contribute to the official constitutional debate was, I am afraid to say, the first chip in “Fortress February 20th”. There are many Human Rights activists within the organization, and it can count on the support of very respectable law scholars party members of supporting political parties and societies, but it seems the refusal was more out of sheer realism: how can it be possible to prepare the movement own manifesto on constitutional reform? My point does not consider the refusal on itself (a decision, in my opinion, in full accordance with the principle of compromising with the regime until it gives in on the real issues). No, I fear the regime can no take the high grounds, and further stresses the impossible task, for the movement, to come up with a precise agenda. On the other hand, this curse might as well be a blessing in disguise: there have been scores of unhealthy speculation about some sort of Faustian alliance between the extreme-left-wing (Annahj types) and the Salafist reactionaries (Al Adl types). If indeed such alliance was sealed, then there would be a lot more centralization and discipline within the ranks. If indeed professional militants were the spearhead of Feb20 movement, things would be a great deal more confrontational. At least that should reassure conspiracy-theorist freaks: the movement is not a vassal to the Marxists and Islamists.

Let me explain: consider the left-wing, secularist activists in the Feb20 platform. Obviously, they would consider a secularized state with no religion-based legislation or legitimacy as the most straightforward way to achieve democracy. On the other hand, Salafists have this literature calling for the regeneration of Islamic scholarly heritage (hence their name) Although they do not necessarily always profess reactionary positions, they share the common feature of considering Islam and Sharia as the sole basis for social legislation.

The word ‘reactionary’ should be understood with no negative connotation (although I tend to use that myself) but as an open hostility to liberalism and progress, as well as the stated objective to roll back what is considered harmful or foreign and go back to some unspecified past setting. Salafism, because of its longing to the true ismalic life the ascendants (السلف الصالح) led in strict observance of Islamic teachings (Sharia and Koran), can rightfully be considered to be a reactionary.

So here’s a first roadblock: both wings agree on democracy as the only viable political organization to replace the existing crony autocracy, but would ultimately fail to define the very basic mechanisms of such regime: indeed, the head of government (and we assume here all Feb20 tendencies agree on the institution of Prime Minister, or at least some sort of Premiership) has to be accountable to the people. But then again, what are the Premier’s responsibilities? Would they allow individual freedom to flourish, or are they required as proxy to Amir Al Mouminine, by virtue of some modern Beya (بيعة) contract, to uphold the teachings and rules of Islamic Sharia?

Are these too high-brow kind of matters to discuss with our average Ahmed? Well, let us consider these: the liberal wing wouldn’t mind the present modern monetary system, with interest rates, commercial papers, complex financial transactions that make the economy rolling. Sure some macroeconomic policies would be the flavour of many left-wingers, but what about the Islamist bunch? Wouldn’t they prefer a more Islamic economic structure? Wouldn’t they oppose the use of interest as Ribaa? Wouldn’t they settle for anything less than the full gearing of economy into Islamic mode?

That’s the trouble with re-writing the constitution: it is not just a set of rules every citizen has to respect. It is above all the legislative paradigm all laws, court rulings and administrative regulation move within. And what is more of a trouble is that Islamist paradigm (the one favoured by the politcal wing of Al Adl anyway) contradicts too much that of left-wingers’. Liberals and conservatives can walk the line, but not all the way down, not if they want to be true to their principles.

Now, it can go either way: the Royal deadline for CCRC to publish its constitutional draft is approaching fast (mid-June, according to the King’s speech). Whatever criticism one might have on its appointment procedure or the quality of its panel members, it will have the undeniable moral advantage of claiming that it has asked ‘civil society’ and adjusted its draft accordingly. It is also the official spokesperson for the regime’s idea of possible constitutional draft, a regime which is not entirely gainsaid by the dissidence, so there is very little chance an outright majority would reject the commission’s findings. The movement could try and mobilize voters to vote against the draft during the referendum, thus forcing the regime into reconsidering the process, and perhaps come to their senses and convene a nation-wide consultation (perhaps with a direct Royal meeting with representatives of all sorts) thus insuring a genuine consensus on the constitution. The movement’s diversity would, if I may, be transmitted to other political forces and the civil society, so as the achieved consensus draft would be indeed representative of all opinions. This dream scenario has a chance of sucess if the movement manages to muster enough support to repel the referendum and put pressure to call on a different consultation afterwards.

The second scenario considers Feb20 movement in its most patent feature, i.e. as a pure tribune organization. It opposes the status quo, but because of the delicate balance it has managed to achieve within its membership, it cannot go any further than shout slogans that lack content or even appeal to the silent majority. On possibility is that the movement might call for a boycott (a decision I can respect and understand) but would fail to present an alternative other than taking on to the streets.

Voices of moderation and compromise should, in such cases, prevail. But let us not forget that one of the reasons with these young people rose and shouted their exasperation is precisely because of the obsessive use of compromise and consensus in mainstream Moroccan politics. In times like these, and in view of the grand principles the movement calls for, nuances and compromise, for all the undeniable benefits it might bring to the movement’s credibility, are very far from being considered as a starting point for a comprehensive counter-proposal on the constitution.

But perhaps I am mistaken. I do hope I am, for it would be a shame the spark (Iskra) would not start the bush fire our politics desperately need.

May Day And the Trade Unions Mafia

Today was the Great May Day with its colourful parades, joyful demonstrations and overflowing bouquets of red flags and roses. These are my child memories of May Day, anyway. Other than that, as far as I can trace back my own recollections of what a union does for a living (so to speak) it is either disinterest or puzzlement to the actual nature pertaining to their work.

UMT Logo, circa 1955

Well, an ill-informed judgement could not explain why unions would exist if political parties, especially left-wing ones, were already in place defending the workers’ grievances. The initial puzzlement might also be explained by the quasi-incestuous relationship many Moroccan political parties entertained (or are still doing so) with our trade unions even before 1956. Unions and Parties act like political mates, a bit like Juno, the two-faced (literally) Goddess. And unfortunately, such unhealthy proximity was operated at the expense of the very workers both political institutions vow to defend. So for all the decorum every May 1st, the parade is just a travesty of Workers’ day. This sounds suspicious of a self-confessed

With no intended pejorative connotation, Moroccan unions are a product of French colonialism. Very early after the Fes Treaty, French unions started to recruit Moroccan workers (against segregationist regulations) who, in turn, established in March 1955 their own union with the foundation of the Union Marocaine du Travail (UMT). In May 1956, the union boasted a 600,000 strong members base, i.e. about 52% of urban workforce; It maintained a close relationship with Istiqlal party, right until 1959 with the UNFP spin-off. The old-style Istiqlal in turns founded its own union in September 1959, (Union Générale des Travailleurs Marocains) UGTM. Even USFP (a UNFP spin-off) did the same in December 1978 and founded the Confédération Démocratique Du Travail(CDT) these instances (and many others) show one thing: national parties cannot thrive without a union support, so they create their own dedicated workers’ support. It looks as though these parties cannot reach out to their electorate without a parallel organization, one conveniently with no direct political agenda, but nonetheless amenable to the party’s ideology, and led by party activists and leaders. Can anyone spot the peculiarity here?

Omar Bendjelloun, the assassinated trade union leader, and perhaps the most respected and well-known of them all.

One way to explain this is perhaps because of the very tense political atmosphere following independence; parties like UNFP were regularly censored, its activists and leaders either arrested (and tortured) or prevented from carrying on their political activities; unions were a very convenient way to continue political activism without much repression; UMT union however, did not always cooperate with left-wingers: Omar Bendjelloun wrote a letter in 1963, describing vicious beating from old UMT boss Mahjoub Bensedik‘s henchmen.

“- j’espère que chacun procédera aux rectifications nécessaires, en donnant leur véritable contenu aux concepts révolutionnaires au lieu de ne s’en servir qu’occasionnellement comme alibis au service de la diffamation,

– j’espère que la lucidité triomphera en fin de compte pour éviter à chacun de devenir encore plus prisonnier d’un engrenage qu’il a lui-même engagé, ou de se laisser mettre de plus en plus devant le fait accompli,

– j’espère surtout que cette lettre soit une participation au redressement de certaines erreurs, afin que rien n’empêche plus les masses populaires sous la direction de la classe ouvrière de se libérer du joug féodal et colonial, et de s’engager aussitôt que possible dans la construction du socialisme,

– j’espère enfin que tout ce qui précède ne soit pas encore une fois mis au compte de ce qu’il y aurait en moi (ou beaucoup d’autres) de “prétentieux”, “extrémiste”, “gauchiste”… Ou tout simplement “salaud”.”

Some good trade-unionist turn out to be like Omar Bendjelloun, while many others acted like Mafiosi, but the former type gets shot or turns into martyr, the later gains comfortable  rent out of a very convenient ‘mutually destructive mechanism’ kind of relationship with the regime: save for the 1967 incident, Bensedik has been in goods terms with the authorities, and over the years, his union and the others suffered from the same ailments: ageing activists’ base and operatives, bureaucratic proceedings within the federations and branches, engagement in dubious management of mutuals and various ministerial offices, etc… This holds for most unions, including the vehement CDT and its own tribune boss, Noubir Amaoui.

What about the workers? Credit usually goes to government when there is a pay rise, and these usually affect only public sector civil servants; the stereotype of these organizations as redoubts for civil servants’ privileges is further strengthen when they join in a chorus gloating about the “victorious concessions unions managed to extract from the government”, all of this, with a shrinking union base, demonises further the very idea of collective bargaining, even though empirical evidence can substantiate the argument for such labour and wage-setting contract. So the question remains: are unions any good to the workers? I guess the same applies to political parties (i.e. are they, too, any good to citizens). The strange companionship party/union goes even further in the observed weaknesses: both organizations suffer from an acute ‘personalization’: the union is automatically identified with its leader, usually the only one since its foundation (Bensedik, Afilal or Amaoui have been quasi-lifetime bosses) and are too subject to spin-offs when some frustrated n°2 decides to jump ship and set up their own organization.

3rd UMT Convention delegates

Both organization sought the support of local notabilities for electoral purposes (in the unions’ cases, a mix between professional and legislative elections) and sometimes come to conflict when politicians want to boycott a particular process when union leaders push for active campaigning. The similarities stop there: unions have been historically more flexible in their slogans. It might have to do with trade-unionist pragmatism, but it certainly is related to the perks each union can lay their hands on; each ministerial department has their mutual fund and charities, usually managed by unions, thus the potential benefits (to the members or to the organization)

Perhaps this is too much of an exaggeration of the dead-weight unions represent. As a matter of fact my criticism is not on the very idea of organized labour, and there is argument for the eminent benefits of collective bargaining in a grand design; indeed, under the assumption of some overhaul like the Open Society project, unions are more than needed to design the nationwide labour contracts needed to redefine labour-employers relationships, conflict-solving mechanisms and finally the wage bargaining process.

Collective bargaining, in this case, brings undeniable benefits. The problem is not the institution, but the men (for trade unions are a very masculine environment) behind them. There is a great deal of corruption and inertia, all of which might -just might- fade away when the pressure for new leadership renewal becomes too much for the old power-brokers to step aside and stop eating their young. A generational gap, once a crippling handicap for unions and political parties might come in handy, solving at once incestuous relationship between party and union, as well as put an end to the corrupt environment where unions evolve. Transparency and Accountability are the watchword for the “Brothers” to heed.