The Moorish Wanderer

War and Politics in Western Sahara: the 1956-1958 Campaign

And I finally got it! the absolute reference on ALM operations in Spanish Western Sahara. Mohamed Bensaid Ait Idder published “Epic pages of the Liberation Army in the Moroccan South” in July 2001 -and I was so far unable to find it in a library or bookstore (yes, it is a borrowed one…) the great thing about the account M. Ait Idder gives of these operations is that it does not stop at the unfortunate ending of Moroccan operations on Spanish and French-held Sahara, but rather describes in documented details the political intrigue surrounding these operations, the delicate political balances it influenced, during times of a race for power in a freshly independent Morocco.

As early as July 1956, High-ranking French officials expressed worries as to the growing activities of the Moroccan Liberation Army South of Draa valley, indeed, French Colonies Minister, Gaston Defferre wrote to his colleague Maurice Bourges-Maunoury on July 18th, 1956:

Gathered intelligence suggests likely imminent attacks against North Mauritania launched by Moroccans from the Liberation Army units stationed in Draa valley, Algerian, Moroccan or Spanish-born moors, more or less supported by warring tribes from the said region.” (Translated from Michel-Ivan Louilt, 2009)

These tumultuous times spared no country involved in the area: France has gone past the fail-safe point in Algeria when the Guy Mollet government called in the reserves; in Morocco, the monarchy was ambivalent in its dealings with the MLA- on the one hand, it was only fair game the King Mohamed V and his son the Crown Prince Hassan were keen to gain control over the MLA, but on the other hand, the regular armed forces were no match, and “assimilation” was not a frank success, as former MLA fighters rather preferred migrating South to liberate territories still under French and Spanish control. To some of the MLA leadership, their activities were a legitimate endeavour to shape the “Great Morocco” project, Allal El Fassi‘s brainchild, but also, as the continuing struggle with Algerian and Mauritanian brethren to achieve Maghreb independence. The Great Morocco map went deep South, all the way down to the Senegal river, while it claimed large chunks as its Eastern borders territories from Algerian and Mali Sahara.

Though Spain did not involve itself directly during World War II, it was still a junior European power even by post-1945 standards; Consequently, its colonial representatives -in 1957, General Rojo was the commanding officer Of Ifni, Seguiet El Hamra and Rio de Oro troops, and later on, General Zamalloa- had tremendous difficulties in reigning in MLA activities on territories theoretically under its control. Instead, Spanish authorities in Western Sahara adopted a more conciliatory attitude, and even allowed MLA units to settle in, with its main Headquarters located in Guelmim, “The Doors to the Desert”.

Spanish soldiers garrisoning outposts near El-Aiun (probably 1957-58) - Picture El Pais

In the MLA leadership’s minds, the main -if not the sole- enemy was the French Army, including those officers heading the Bureaux des Affaires Indigenes. Spain on the other hand, was considered a little less short of an ally, and initially firm orders were issued to MLA fighters not to organize operations against Spanish garrisons in Sidi Ifni and Ait Baamrane (that was also due to the fact that most of Francisco Franco’s inner circle was, up to mid-1956, made up of fiercely anti-French Phalangist old guard). As early as July 1956, violent engagements between MLA and French units happened in Foum Alachir (July 6th 1956) Mergala (August 8th 1956), and M’hamid Ghizlane (December 6th 1956) to name a few. However, the initial Spanish neutrality turned sour, and numerous arrests and crackdowns on resistant networks soon prompted MLA high command into directing its units against a once benevolent colonial occupier. Indeed:

“The Ifni War, sometimes called the Forgotten War (La Guerra Olvidada) in Spain, began in earnest on November 23rd, fifty years ago today. The Moroccan Liberation Army was now no longer tied down in conflicts with the French, and could thus commit a significant portion of its resources and manpower to the capture of Spanish possessions. The Spanish Legion repulsed the Moroccan drive easily, but two Spanish outposts were abandoned in the face of enemy attacks. Many others remained under heavy siege.

In the space of two weeks, the Moroccans and their tribal allies had asserted control over most of Ifni, isolating inland Spanish units from their South-Moroccan capital. Simultaneous attacks had been launched throughout Spanish Sahara, overrunning garrisons and ambushing convoys and patrols. (Source)”

From a purely technical point of view, figures were not on the MLA’s side: its 13 regional commands could field at most 3908 troops (including some 200 in training) equipped with heterogeneous arsenal. After Spain had dispatched two units of its Legion, total Spanish forces in their part of Western Sahara amounted to 9000, not to mention the considerable advantage they hold in terms of air-power and mechanized hardware. Still, in view of the versatile and experimented MLA troops in desert-warfare, as well as the political and material support local Sahrawi tribes provided to these units, initiative and audacity allowed MLA commandos to obtain significant victories: attacks on isolated outposts, or even a full-scale siege on Sidi Ifni and El-Aiun made Spanish presence in these parts of the Sahara very uncertain.

MLA troops near Sidi Ifni, 1957.

The French army, on the other hand, experienced brief exchanges of fire with MLA, first in the TInduf and Colomb-Bechar sector (MLA Central Command considered those to be rightfully Moroccan territories still occupied by the French) and then South of Rio De Oro, when France decided to include Mauritania in its brand new “Union Française” in 1956. Again, MLA leadership, in accordance with El Fassi’s “Great Morocco” design, considered Mauritania to be equally part of our national boundaries. The ease and the amount of destruction inflicted by Benhamou’s troops North of Fort-Trinquet prompted the French into seeking schemes to eliminate once and for all an increasingly annoying MLA activity and a roadblock to its support for Mauritania as a future nation: indeed, many officials from Mauritanian tribes (like Prince Val Uld Umeir) rallied behind MLA and King Mohammed V, as these notabilities represented large and diverse groups of Mauritanian tribes.

November 23rd 1957 saw the first wave of large-scale attacks on Spanish outposts protecting Sidi Fini: Tighna, Thlath Issoubya, Taberkukt, Ithneen Ait Atissimur and Taliwyn. These outposts were outrun after two weeks of fierce battles. To that effect, MLA headquarters in Guelmim committed about 600 troops, among which 140 locals from Ait Baamrane earmarked for the capture of Sidi Ifni itself.

Originally, the attack was supposed to be stealthy and secretive, so as to seize not only all of the outposts ringing Sidi Ifni, but the city itself with minimal or no combat at all. The surprise attack scheme turn out to be a failure partly because of poor, inadequate preparation to the task at hand, and also because of the damaging effects leaked intelligence to the Spaniards had on the attack’s effectiveness. These pieces of intelligence were leaked, it seems, from obscure interests in Rabat and Agadir.

If Sidi Ifni was a semi-failure, other ventures were more successful: El Aiun, Smara, Aoucerd, Cap Bojdor and Bir N’Zaran were seized, or at least captured for hours and days until the Spanish garrisons broke the siege, but only temporarily. In desert warfare, number and equipment do not make a difference. It is worth pointing out that MLA operations were a logistical nightmare: following accounts of the total arsenal at their disposal from 1956 to 1960, weapons from Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Germany and Czechoslovakia meant at least 30 different types of ammunition, as weapons varied from pre-WW1 French rifles Chassepots to modern Submachinegun MAT-49, but most MLA troopers were issued with Italian rifles Mannlicher-Carcano (1012) and Spanish Oviedo M93 (837)

The following lists the significant items in MLA weaponry, as of February 1958:

– German MP40 Submachinegun………………………………………30

– German MP38 Submachinegun………………………………………13

– German Kar98 Bolt-action rifle……………………………………….25

– German MG42 Heavy Machinegun………………………………….82

– French MAS36 Bolt-action rifle……………………………………….87

– French Lebel Bolt-action rifle………………………………………..224

– Spanish Oviedo M93 Bolt-action rifle………………………………837

– Spanish Argo Heavy Machinegun………………………………….277

– French Hotchkiss Heavy Machinegun…………………………………1

– American Thompson Submachinegun……………………………….15

– American M1A1 Automatic carbine………………………………….16

– American M20 Bazooka AT gun…………………………………………1

– Italian Mannlicher-Carcano Bolt-action rifle……………………1012

– Italian Breda Machinegun………………………………………………10

– British Lee-Enfield SMLE………………………………………………..45

– Czech 33/40 Bolt-action rifle…………………………………………122

all in all, between 30 and 40 different calibres are required for this diverse arsenal and other items like hunting rifles and various side-arms. In addition, The striking feature of MLA arsenal is its lightness. Other than 60mm and 82mm mortars (about 8 of them) the heaviest weapon remains one M20 “Bazooka” recoilless anti-tank gun. Quartermasters at Guelmim and Agadir, as well as representatives sent abroad to buy weapons and ship them to Morocco needed to be extremely careful in their purchases and choices. France and Spain however, relied solely on less than a dozen of calibres when issuing weapons to their troops, and could field artillery (mortars, guns and howitzers) as well as APCs and light tanks, when MLA troopers were only camel-borne. Nonetheless, victories were achieved against Spaniards all the way down to Laguerra thanks to MLA high spirit, skills and dedication to the liberation of Western Sahara.

Dead legionnaires near Sidi Ifni after a MLA attack, 1957 (source: Arxxiduc)

the 9000-strong Spanish forces were not, at first, made of front-line troops: most of those soldiers staffing outposts scattered across the desert belonged to disciplinary companies, ill-equipped, ill-commanded and with no will to die to defend a waterhole, a wells or oasis. They fled their positions when the fight was too fierce. Even the Legionnaires and paratroopers the Spanish high command sent as reinforcement to Sidi Ifni, EL Aiun and Villa Cisneros (Dakhla) garrisons did not deter MLA fighters from storming the enemy with all their might. But the conjugated effect of French air power and the denied access to Spanish territory lead to the dissolution or destruction of MLA presence south of Sidi Ifni.

As mentioned before, French High Command in West Africa and Algeria was very keen on the destruction of any armed resistance, whether from Algeria or Morocco: the Suez failure and the Algerian war convinced the French that something needed to be done about Algerian FLN activities in general as well as MLA raids near Tinduf and Colomb-Bechar in particular. To that effect, the commanding officer, General Bourgund (former commander of French troops in Morocco) needed the precise location of Moroccan “mobs”, their strength, fire power and supporting tribes. Intelligence work and activity was therefore assigned to the POMI –Bureau Politico-Militaire– officers, so as to dissociate MLA fighters from Sahrawi tribes, and denounce them as Soviet-backed agitators. M.I. Louit reports Spanish propaganda was to portray the MLA as:

“an instrument of the USSR […] and that Allal El Fassi and his (sic) Army of Liberation are bad Muslims serving Russia, enemies of God and traitors to the Sultan”

The plan Generals Borgund (France) and Zamalloa (Spain) agreed on early 1958 was to be carried out in three phases:

Preliminary phase: Spanish forces to occupy Draa causeways North of parallel 27º40 and deny access from both directions (i.e. to prevent flights and reinforcements)

Phase 2: Spaniards would move South from El Aiun to meet the French as their troops attack North of Fort Trinquet, so as to block MLA regional HQ (Commander Benbrahim) to that effect, the French commit their Foreign Legion (1er REI) and various CSMs (Compagnie Saharienne Motorisee) as well as the 7th RPC (Paratroopers)

Phase 3: Spanish and French troops from Smara jointly attack, the former North-East and the latter South. Spain carries out further attacks from Villa Cisneros.

By late Feburary 1958, all significant MLA activities South of parallel 27º40 would have been disrupted and its units dispersed or destroyed. (click to get a more detailed view)

France divided its forces in 4 main task forces, with Fort Trinquet and Fort Gouraud as their starting bases:
– Taskforce “Grall”, to attack Tifariti from Ft. Trinquet
– Taskforce “Vidal”, to attack Guelta Zemmour from Ft. Trinquet as well.
– Taskforce “Tinduf” to attack Tifariti from the North and liaise with Groupement Grall.
– Taskforce “Sud” to attack Bir N’Zaran with the Spaniards and clear the way in the Rio De Oro. Taskforce “Sud” was reinforced with smaller units near Zug and Atar to provide support.

Operation Ecouvillon: 8th to 23rd of February

Spanish troops were, on the other hand, reinforced garrisons from coastal cities prepared to attack.

Overall, French and Spanish troops would have committed about 14,000 troops, 130 war-planes (mostly for transport, observation and ground-attacks) and no less than 700 vehicles varying from GMC 6×6 trucks to light tanks M5 “Stuart” and M24 “Chaffee” and light recon vehicles like the M8 “Greyhound” and EBRs. Artillery, ranging from 60mm light mortar to heavy 105mm howitzer was often brought to bomb MLA strongholds away from Guelbs and Canyons they were holding to. As for planes, France relied on medium bomber Glenn-Martin B26 and ground attack plane T6 to disperse and destroy Camel herds suspected to belong to MLA groups or loyal tribes. Similarly, Spanish troops used Nord-Atlas 2501 and Dakota C-47 to carry paratroopers and cut MLA from supply and escape routes.

Against overwhelming odds, MLA fighters did the best they could, but ultimately failed and were bitterly defeated and chased away from Western Sahara, for good. General Bourgund paid a martial tribute to his enemy by writing:

“The enemy doesn’t fight in daylight. However, he is much more aggressive at night; he is endowed with an amazing ability to use the ground to his advantage, his marksmanship and his strength to carry out long and exhausting marches make him a worthy adversary. If surprise favours him, he withdraws at night and the next day, camps some 50 to 70 kilometres away from the ambush, or chooses to join safe haven beyond the border”. (Louit, p.107)

Engin Blindés de Reconnaissance (EBR) unit awaiting orders. French army used many of these to crush MLA activities (Picture ECPAD)

Accounts conflict on the kind of provided intelligence that tipped the balance and gave away MLA units: A first version claims Spanish observers reported minute details to the French, and these corroborate them with accounts from local intelligence (Ait Idder refers to them euphemistically as “French agents”) i.e. from sources inside and in high places in Morocco. French sources however, while disparaging Spanish contribution to Ecouvillon-Teide, seem to favour the “inside theory”, namely that French intelligence in Morocco, with the assistance of Moroccan officials, has managed to compile considerable information on MLA positions and activities. These sources (and Abdellah Ibrahim seem to agree with these accounts) specify these “High ranking officials” as officials close to Mohamed Laghzioui -former head of security and a familiar of crown prince Hassan II- and various officers in the Moroccan Army (FAR) many of whom served with the French Army during WW2 and Indochina campaigns, and kept close ties with French officers still in place after 1956.

It is also fair to say that the Crown Prince was regularly briefed by MLA leadership on ongoing operations, he, at the same time, was on a constant liaison with French officers, as well as American intelligence (in the person of Commodore Leo Blair). It is a known and documented fact (comprehensively reported in Ignace Dalle’s latest book) France regarded the Crown Prince as a trustworthy ally, who in return expressed a desire in weeding out opposition and remaining a strong partner to France.

MLA field commanders meeting with Spanish Colonel to negotiate passage across the border. From left to right: Benhamou, Col. Chass (Spain) Manouzi, Benacher and Bouida.

The MLA, in that respect, was therefore standing against two enemies: France, as the colonial ruler of Algeria and Mauritania, had interest in eliminating any armed resistance, even on Spanish territory. the Crown Prince considered these valiant resistants as potential rivals and a threat to his own ambition and thrust for power.

The Original Sin of Moroccan Politics

So the book should be closed -not on the movement, but on any ground-breaking “changing of the guard” in the political spectrum. This is one of these rare occasions where I take off my “left-wingy, radical nuts” and try very hard to consider Moroccan politics from a dispassionate viewpoint. As it happens, I had little to do these last couple of days, and I thought I should give Jean-Claude Santucci’s paper a good second reading.

Before I start diving into tedious considerations about the Istiqlal split in 1959, or how USFP party, even though priding itself with left-wing credentials, systematically stifled dissent against its leadership, I want to write about that particular issue of political sociology, because in a sense, it contributed a great deal to the rise of Feb20 movement, and might very well be the movement’s caretaker. Alternatively, it can also contribute with the brightest -politically speaking- political personnel in a couple of decades we ever had; “partisan revolution” as it were, is not tabled for the next couple of weeks, much less in the next couple of years. Santucci gets the record straight:

“la revendication constitutionnaliste du mouvement nationaliste était moins liée à la disparition d’un régime despotique et absolutiste représenté par la tutelle ottomane – que le Maroc n’avait pas connue – qu’à l’abolition du protectorat d’une puissance étrangère, mis en cause pour s’être converti en administration directe.”

So it is sheer lack of political knowledge and savyy to believe the Feb20 is likely to force some radical outcome, and it is petty media manipulation to label all of the movement caucuses as firebrand republicans -of course, some of them indeed are, and they deserve every right to voice their opinion without being threatened or indicted under common criminal law-, but the fact of the matter remains, the whole political spectrum, ranging from left-wing national movement parties to administrative parties -including PJD moderate islamists- engaged in a consensus over the political regime; the debate is therefore over which power-sharing scheme between the monarchy and parties is best suited -to whom, or to what, that is the question. Trouble is, these power-sharing schemes have been more than heavily skewed toward the monarchy for the last half a century, and so, “Moroccan exceptional-ism” looked at times -and the current situation is one of these- like a sideshow to the real politics.

“qu’en est-il du cas marocain longtemps érigé en exemple avant d’être réajusté à sa valeur purement symbolique de faire-valoir ou d’instrument de contrôle politique ?”

and there goes our very own commendable model of democracy in North Africa: multipartism is just a decoy to the real politics, one that takes place in rarefied circles and recluse palaces. That’s one of Morocco’s political sins, the other is the lack of internal democracy within political organizations (parties, trade-unions and NGOs alike) that ultimately leaves everyday citizens fed up with political parties, unions and NGOs, in that order.

It is alright to denounce the regime as despotic and authoritarian, but then again, some of these mechanisms that feature best on the Makhzen apparatus can be observed in smaller, (non)partisan organizations, among which the Leader’s supremacy over their flock.

PSU-PADS-CNI pre-electoral rally, August 2007

The point is, many -if not all- of these parties have considered internal democracy and the free expression of diverse opinions as, at best a sideshow, if not a potentially dangerous luxury likely to break party unity. While it is in the Monarchy’s DNA to refuse and suppress the free expression of political and religious beliefs, the blame can be laid -though not equally- on political parties (particularly the National Movement derivatives) that failed somewhat to embody the very democratic methodology they are so keen on promoting. As for the Administrative Parties (i.e. those artificially created to disparage the opposition, or to serve a particular tactical requirement) partisan democracy has been even more of a rare good.

This lacklustre performance on behalf of our political personnel has been used by many commentators, both domestically and abroad, to justify the lack of serious democratic reforms. A recent poll carried out by La Vie Eco newspaper produced staggering results, although these have been consistent with earlier, more far-reaching reports: the Moroccan electorate -young voters are no exception- do not know, or trust -or both- their elected officials.

D’une manière générale et que ce soit en rapport avec le parti ou non, seules 8 personnalités politiques ont été citées par plus de 50 personnes parmi les 1 000 jeunes concernés par cette enquête. Le Premier ministre arrive en premier, avec 209 citations, suivi du secrétaire général du PJD, Abdelilah Benkirane, avec 106 citations.

[…] En somme, les jeunes ne se retrouvent pas dans l’offre politique actuelle. Y a-t-il lieu de s’inquiéter alors que nous sommes à quelques mois des élections législatives ? Oui, soutient le politologue Miloud Belcadi, «il y a péril en la demeure si ces jeunes boycottent les élections. Un taux d’abstention important des jeunes se traduira nécessairement par une balkanisation du futur Parlement, donc un gouvernement faible et éclaté (formé de 6 ou 7 partis politiques). Résultat : le gouvernement sera non seulement fragilisé dès le départ, mais il perdra beaucoup de temps à gérer ses différences internes au lieu de s’occuper des affaires publiques».

In these conditions, it is simply sheer lunacy to allow these politicians to actually govern the country, the “technocratic” argument goes.

And so is the original sin of Moroccan politics: it seems a very static perception of the political struggle has prevailed over the last half a century -and I suspect it has over the couple of previous years, too- following which the immediate objective is to establish a viable or profitable balance of power. Democracy is seen as a temporary luxury, or, at best, an ideal state likely to be achieved later on, and not a parallel process equally important to be strengthen alongside partisan activism.

Ziane's Den.

Partisan democracy is no fancy; indeed, transparent and rigorous mechanisms for leadership selection and transmission of power ultimately lead abler men and women of the said political party to take over the leadership and contest elections with consistent manifestos and ideas. Unfortunately, party bosses in Morocco are not even smart enough to remain in the shadows and act as power-brokers; It is indeed a sad predicament of partisan politics to witness old farts like Abdelouahed Radi (an MP since 1963) to hang on, and basically live on past activism like some retired employee on a trust fund.

And yet, I am confident the Feb20 Movement has created a precedent. In a couple of decades, the 20-something years old figureheads would more than likely have joined political parties – following insisting rumours, 20Feb figurehead Ousama Khelifi will be MP candidate for USFP party for (likely) a Rabat or Sale borough. The new generation at least has a keener interest in promoting democratic mechanisms, a source of optimism and confidence that someday -sooner rather than later- politicians will actually care about principles.

“New Politics” Inc.

Posted in Flash News, Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Moroccanology, Read & Heard, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on July 19, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I had this most peculiar conversation with someone “in high places”. I mean, I did not meet that person for an official purpose – it was a social visit, I leave official meetings to senior bloggers. The person’s rank and occupation were not obvious to me, as I was told, much later on, I was talking to an official from the Interior Ministry. And so, the summary of our discussion is a bit at odds with the kind of posts I usually publish: this is, if anything, a first-hand account of what seems to be the prevailing argument up there. Alternatively, I could be mistaken, and the green I am in practical politics might have been fooled with a tailor-made speech for would-be “young politicians”.

The thing is, the argument was extraordinary to my ears, simply because it betrayed what seems to be a newly developed, intelligent approach. That’s why I am posting about it: Intelligent. By intelligent I mean a very perverse – adulterating- policy into systematically chaperoning whatever novel proposal might pop in the Moroccan political discourse, carefully taking into its confidence any initiative likely or potentially likely to change things too radically. In a nutshell, the idea is to encourage young Feb20 activists to join mainstream political parties and shake them to their foundations. And as my interlocutor said, they have the next 5 years to achieve the following set of objectives: take over the partisan apparatus, topple down the old-guard leadership and before you know it, the Palace will hand over its powers and obligingly establish itself as a true parliamentarian monarchy. The perfect scheme, even to my taste. Who would oppose this offer? it sounds responsible and moderate, plus it has the advantage of cleaning political parties’ Aegean stables.

But there’s a catch to it. In fact, there are several of those: first off,there are boundaries not to cross -and those are tighter than you might think- second, there are “Moroccan exceptionalism” features one needs to take into account, i.e. not to rush things; and last, the State tropism is the only viable paradigm in Moroccan politics, i.e. the very concept of individual welfare, or community well-being is necessarily encompassed within the State, whether Makhzenian or modern. Supposing these young people manage to take control of these political parties within the next half a decade, the ensuing struggle would leave them paralysed, and in any case unable to put forward any controversial proposals. It might go otherwise, but one cannot erase 40 years of meaningless politics with one clean swipe of 5 years of fresh, youthful activism.

There was one aspect of our discussion I founded quite interesting to mention in extenso here: the official was very relaxed when I contradicted him, in the sense that he didn’t behave in that typical you-republican-in-disguise-plotting-for-the-downfall-of-our-beloved-fatherland and was very open and forthcoming in interacting with me – I mean he admitted the existence of dissent, and was generally in agreement that its existence and activism were strengthening more than threatening Moroccan democracy and development. But past beyond niceties about general principles, the typical Dakhilya way of thinking took over: “No, the Ministry or the Civil Service can’t supply you with Demographic features of specific boroughs. No, a Federal Morocco is out of the question. No, it will be chaos and mayhem if you make Mokadem and Caid positions elected offices“. In short, as long as a certain political project was deemed in compliance with certain guidelines (carefully laid out in High Places), then it is fine to be creative; Other than that, you are simply, and I quote: “Hard-headed”. Actually, this applied to those political parties he quickly guessed I was sympathetic to, or even a member of: PSU, PADS (and a little of Annahj, too).

The other thing we agreed upon was that the Feb20 demonstrations were no threat to the regime’s stability. Quite the contrary, I was comforted in my belief that the blueprints of 2011 Constitutional upgrade -for this is not a genuine reform- were already in place (apparently as early as 2000-2001) and needed only some acceptance from the partisan spectrum. Rather, political parties themselves felt threaten -after most of them castigated the daring youth for being either manipulated, unreasonable, radical, and finally stubborn. The Monarchy, the system surrounding it to be precise, is stronger both domestically and abroad.

Old Faithful

The gamble is subsequently very audacious: it is common knowledge the present political personnel is ageing, incompetent and/or largely corrupt. Palace has been trying to revive some Royal opposition, but failed with large parties, mainly because of a past policy of constant corruption and house-training. Parts of these high circles, it seems, understood the dangers of a too house-trained political personnel. Luckily enough, there’s a bunch of motivated, enthusiastic and pure new players around who seem to have as keen interest in politics. They can provide the suitable relief to political parties, and who knows, some fresh ideas to the other side as well. As a matter of fact, the whole argument can be summed up as follows:

“join political parties and make them look credible so as to seize power. The monarchy will not obstruct”.

Other things of peripheral interest to the main subject were mentioned as well: for his perspective, the 40 years long struggle between the National Movement and the Monarchy was very damaging to Moroccan perspective in growth, development and advancement in civilization. But then again, in his view, National Parties shouldn’t have engaged in a bras-de-fer with the Crown Prince, then King Hassan II. That curious (from my perspective anyway) interpretation of modern history was his reply to my favourite line: if the Monarchy was indeed keen to accept a real Parliamentary Monarchy, why was Abdellah Ibrahim Government systematically ambushed by the Crown Prince? It was as though his mind was definitely made up about that era, only he was respectful enough not to express it in blunt terms: the National Movement was the only responsible political body for the loss of time and resources Morocco suffered from over the last half a decade, not the Monarchy.

So here it is: at least one school of thought within the regime pushes for a renewal of politics, because it prepares an alternative power and so enact a smooth transition from the “Executive Monarchy” to  a true symbolic one. However, the transition has to be done on the regime’s term, and they will pick who qualifies and who does not. Even though the stated standard selection puts a large weight on competence and talent, the principle is un-democratic, and furthermore, the dictated terms are such that there is little room for political innovation: the State is still perceived as benevolent and in charge of individuals and communities, even though it has a poor record in achieving common wealth.

In short, I came back home even more convinced I should stick with the Hard-headed bunch. First because I don’t like patronising tones and schemes, and second, while I agree political personnel needs renewal and a great deal of political savyy, I do not believe the movement should be hurried, or artificially created. That reminds me of the Charm Offensive Fouad Ali El Himma undertook vis-a-vis the Radical Left – presumably as a vanguard of a Modernist-Monarchist movement- around 2005-2006; once in a while, the regime wants to pick the brains of its non-governmental elite by means of alluring promotion or honouring their scholarly work for instance.

Leave it Governor, the New Politics you are advocating cannot be the process of political engineering. the Changing of the Guard is coming, but on our own terms and time.

What’s Next?

Posted in Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on July 15, 2011

Jed Bartlet‘s favourite catchphrase applies fully to the post-referendum environment in Morocco. Both domestically and abroad, Makhzen authorities have reasserted their strength and mastery of the national political agenda. I will certainly have an opportunity to go back on more details regarding the turnout, its geographical distribution and how its significance is more important as a symbol than their intrinsic levels.

First off, let us have a look at the various feedbacks to our Basri-era phenomenal figure of 73.46% and:

Rabat – Le nombre des votants qui se sont prononcés en faveur du projet de nouvelle constitution a atteint 9.653.492, soit 98,50 pc, selon les résultats provisoires du référendum constitutionnel du vendredi, a indiqué, samedi, le ministre de l’Intérieur, M. Taieb cherqaoui. […] Selon les résultats provisoires du référendum tel que proclamés par les 39.969 bureaux de vote mis en place sur l’ensemble du territoire national, le nombre des inscrits a été de 13.451.404 électeurs, dont 9.881.922 votants, soit un taux de participation de 73,46 pc, a ajouté le ministre. (MAP Communiqué)

— Rabat. the total number of voters supporting the new draft constitution amounted to 9,653,492, i.e. 98.5% following provisional results from Referendum Day held on Friday. Interior Minister Taieb Cherqaoui announced on Saturday. […] provisional results are proclaimed accross the 39.969 polling stations spread across the nation. Total number of voters amounted to 13,451,404 among which 9,881,922 showed up, reaching a turnout of 73.46%

French foreign minister Alain Juppé supported the Referendum results in these terms:

“Selon les résultats partiels donnés par le Ministère de l’intérieur marocain, le pourcentage des votants qui se sont prononcés en faveur du projet de nouvelle constitution a été de 98,49 pour cent des personnes inscrites sur les listes électorales. Le nombre des votants s’est élevé à 9.228.020, soit un taux de participation de 72,65 pour cent.

Nous devons bien entendu attendre les chiffres définitifs, mais il apparait d’ores et déjà que le peuple marocain a pris une décision claire et historique. […] La révision de la constitution a été conduite à partir de consultations étendues, associant tous les partis politiques, les syndicats et une large palette de représentants de la société civile.

Nous saluons la forte participation du peuple marocain à ce référendum. Elle a donné lieu à des débats animés et substantiels, reflétés dans les médias et notamment sur internet.[…]La France se tient naturellement aux cotés du Maroc pour l’accompagner dans cette nouvelle ère et forme des vœux pour que la mise en œuvre de cette nouvelle constitution s’accompagne de nouveaux progrès et de nouvelles réussites.”

As for the United States State Department, the language was equally praising and very supportive of the Referendum, but more cautious and overall non-committal to the whole process, indeed:

The United States welcomes Morocco’s July 1 constitutional referendum. We support the Moroccan people and leaders in their efforts to strengthen the rule of law, raise human rights standards, promote good governance, and work toward long-term democratic reform that incorporates checks and balances. We look forward to the full implementation of the new constitution as a step toward the fulfilment of the aspirations and rights of all Moroccans.

Short, succinct and positively abstract. The State Department commits to nothing and keeps its options open.

Finally, the European Union press release doesn’t deviate from the quasi-unanimous praises of our referendum:

“We welcome the positive outcome of the referendum on the new Constitution in Morocco and commend the peaceful and democratic spirit surrounding the vote,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and neighbourhood policy commissioner Stefan Fuele said in a joint statement. […]

“The reforms proposed in it constitute a significant response to the legitimate aspirations of the Moroccan people and are consistent with Morocco’s Advanced Status with the EU,” the said. “Now we encourage the swift and effective implementation of this reform agenda,” the statement said.

[…] “The European Union is ready to fully support Morocco in this endeavour.”

So in diplomatic terms, our significant partners are basically accepting the result, and this international support -some might consider it to be a blank check- makes the regime more secure and confirms its hegemony over the Moroccan political discourse.

"How on earth did they manage such a score?"

This is even more obvious domestically: even though charges of ballot-stuffing and incoherent figures tarnished the referendum’s credibility, lambda Moroccans will not gainsay the result. The typical Moroccan voter (Male, Father of three children and living in a rural or sub-urban area) is more than likely to have voted for the constitution, not because what they would have read was interesting and appealing to their grievances, but because of multifarious factors: their social environment does not allow for criticism, individual decision-making or the use of Cartesian logics. Do I sound elitist and full of contempt? Perhaps I do. But the figures speak for themselves: the highest turnout figures were recorded in regions like Oued Ed-Dahab-Lagouira (92.19%) Guelmim-Es Smara (86.76%) Laâyoune-Boujdour-Sakia el Hamra (84.05%) and Doukkala-Abda (80.06%) All three regions are very tribal, and rely heavily on Makhzen administration for favours and other privileges, thus the higher outcome compared to national turnout. Conversely, low turnout in Casablanca and Rabat (respectively 57.17% and 72.39%) are thus because of its more individualistic, or shall we say more community-oriented settings, plus local administration has less leverage over its denizens, and so less likely to persuade them to vote (one way or the other).

The pro-democracy platform needs to pack up and look for new issues to campaign on, simply because the showdown that took place ever since February 20th is coming to an end, and not the movement’s advantage. The referendum might have been fixed, perhaps there will never be a solid body of evidence to suggest a nation-wide ballot-stuffing, and the absence of impartial scrutiny has a lot to do with it -perhaps if the retained option was a No-vote instead of an all-out boycott, there would have been some civic control over referendum proceedings. Furthermore, and because of the comparatively few people who took to the streets last week and today only confirm Moroccan apathy -and implicit acceptance- towards the referendum results.

The whiff of fresh air brought by the Feb20 demonstrations into the hermetical Moroccan political house, it seems, is losing speed. The long overdue New Politics many of us have been awaiting is yet again postponed to an unspecified date. Subsequently, there is a need to turn the public’s attention to more relevant issues: the national economy and the economics of national debt; the crumbling standards in public sector departments like Health and Education. More down to earth, issues that matter to the public are few and pressing: employment, standards of living and education for the future generations.

Paradoxically, these are the issues that explain the already existing and dangerously exacerbated social tensions between the haves and havenots. In between, our very own “squeezed middle” are the ones paying for these tensions, whether in demonstrations or just as a scapegoat for social resentment. I wish there was some sociological review of Feb20 prominent members; I would bet good money that many of these are of Middle-Class background, and those attacking them -the so-called “Baltagyas”- are from lower income and social classes. In any case, waging a political agenda does not seem to gather a lot of durable support, and that is why something else needs to be done.

Constitutional reforms can no longer be used as flag to rally dissatisfied individuals and communities. Rather, a more down-to-earth set of agenda focused on these immediate needs can win favours and support to build on more political and strategic grievances later on.

Fiscal Policy? What Fiscal Policy?

Posted in Dismal Economics, Moroccan Politics & Economics, Morocco, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on July 3, 2011

Sometimes, reading the budget from top to bottom does not tell much about the policy the government of the day is set on pursuing. So other documents come in handy, like the fiscal expenses report attached to the budget law; It shows how articulate government policy is in its effort to stir the economic variables deemed to be important in a certain direction, so as to achieve a certain policy objective. It might be interesting to have a look to these figures, because it is a cause of concern for me: it seems the Finance Ministry cannot make up their mind on the proper policies, especially on fiscal policies, and end up every year squeezing its receipts, and not in a good way.

Caring Government.

Assuming that the broad ideological objective is to relieve Moroccan taxpayers (households and businesses alike) from the burden of excessive taxation, and that such policy is bound to increase welfare among the communities and the economy as whole, the least Finance Minister Salahedine Mezouar and his staff can do is to make sure there would be some sort of equitable effect across classes and sources of revenues. Though the supply-side economics can be beneficial -up to a point- these policies have unfortunately been damaging, rather than healing income dispersion and discrepancies. It seems budget policy -at least since 2003- is to hope for high growth figures, so as to reduce income inequality. The 2007 tax cuts are an even more obvious faith in an economic growth robust and long enough so as to reduce poverty and income dispersion, indeed, HCP study “La croissance est-elle pro-pauvres au Maroc ?” (2009) reports:

“Il en résulte un indice de croissance pro-pauvres inférieur à l’unité (0,930) et un taux de croissance d’équivalent pauvreté de 44,7% inférieur, de son côté, au taux de croissance observé (48,0%). Rappelons que lorsque l’indice de croissance pro-pauvres est compris entre 0 et 1, les riches bénéficient plus que proportionnellement de la croissance que les pauvres. C’est exactement ce qui s’est passé entre 1985 et 2007″. (p.2)

Suffice to say that what holds for extreme levels of poverty is particularly true when it comes to the difficulty, for the real middle class in Morocco (and the lower, working classes too) to benefit this growth. That supply-side economics of his makes the 2002 and 2007 governments more pro-Business than ever, but with no obvious positive effects on the vast majority of ordinary Moroccans.

The 2011 Budget bill has passed a deficit of MAD 12.13 Bn, a rather modest figure when compared to earlier deficits (but already topped by the unexpected increases in expenses, mainly on subsidies and wages) though it hides some policy decisions that do not seem to be very sound, or if they were, are quite ideological and socially very divisive. Among others, there were MAD 4.2 Bn income tax cuts in 2010 (and an effective MAD 7.6 Bn) only half of which benefited to middle and lower-class households; These cuts are not economically beneficial to the majority, especially when those economic sectors that benefit from these tax cuts (whether on income tax or others) are not productive: over the last couple of years, certain fiscal measures have been taken to boost real estate in Morocco. In 2010, real estate tax deduction amounted to MAD 4.438 Bn that is 15% of all the MAD 29.8 Bn tax cuts plan in 2010 (scheduled for the 2011 Budget) The 39 measures that enabled these cuts benefited only up to MAD 1.3 Bn in social housing (while other cuts benefit to the well-off) while the rest goes in the pockets of property and real estate developers, large housing owners and corporations. The problem does not reside in these categories benefiting from these tax cuts, the real problem is the hypocrisy surrounding the social housing project. This is but one instance of the amateurish at best -if not outright carelessness on the government’s behalf- in assessing the effects of implemented policies.

Jobs for the boys. An annual MAD 10Bn goes into rich pockets

On average from 2003 to 2011, tax cuts and loopholes amounted to MAD 21.75 Bn; Real Estate and Agriculture get an average share of 30% of these measures, while education gets at most MAD 100 Million while the financial sector receives on average a Billion a year. The trend of this concentrated distribution increases markedly with 2007.

As for Agriculture, it is understood the sector employs a large workforce -thus requiring a particular social policy designed to insure the balances in this potentially volatile part of Morocco are left untouched (a left-wing government would try to improve them in favour of the peasants against the cambradores) governments since 2006 have been cutting taxes on agriculture at increasingly higher paces, from a MAD 1Bn exemption in 2003 to MAD 4 Bn.

But then again, doesn’t this square with the idea that government taxation should not fall on this fragile sector? Of course it does, unless these measures were actually helping the affluent farmers, those who can afford dozens of thousands acres of land, mechanized techniques and large markets, both abroad and domestically. As for the small peasant with a few dozens of acres, these tax breaks mean nothing. On the other hand, tax breaks can also be applied, so as to improve the domestic purchasing power (at least, that’s the official argument behind these cuts) it seems that the Finance Ministry has fully assimilated the supply-side economics, since their tax policy also believes in a trickle-down economy, whereby a decrease in costs (and in this particular case, VAT taxes) can generate a lower price for consumers. While this argument might hold -when buttressed with some serious econometric computations, we in Morocco do not observe this, and the starkest example is that of subsidies: indeed, edible oil, sugar, milk and other strategic commodities are subsidised, and yet manufacturing companies are recording high levels of profit, and prices are not always low.

Consider the 32 measures targeting Agriculture and Fishery sectors:

Exonération à l’intérieur et à l’importation d’engins et filets de pêche destinés aux professionnels de la pêche maritime. Art.92 (I-3°);123

Exonération à l’intérieur et à l’importation des engrais. Art.92 (I-4°);123

Exonération à l’intérieur et à l’importation de matériels destinés à usage exclusivement agricole. Art.92(I- 5°);123

Exonération des ventes aux compagnies de navigation, aux pêcheurs professionnels et aux armateurs de la pêche de produits destinés à être incorporés dans les bâtiments de mer. Art.92(I-34°)

Application du taux réduit de 7% avec droit à déduction sur les aliments destinés à l’alimentation du bétail et des animaux de basse-cour. Art.99(1°); 121

Exonération à l’importation des bateaux de tout tonnage servant à la pêche maritime, les engins et filets de pêche, les rogues de morues et appâts destinés aux bateaux pêcheurs ainsi que les appareils aéronautiques destinés aux armateurs et aux professionnels de la pêche en haute mer et utilisés exclusivement pour le repérage des bancs de poissons. Art.123(9°)

Exonération à l’importation des Animaux vivants de race pure des espèces équidés, bovine et ovine ainsi que les caprins, les camélidés, les autruches et les oeufs à couver des autruches. Art.123(12°)

And the list goes on. It seems these tax breaks are very much subsidizing imports of specific items the vast majority of farmers and fishermen cannot afford. Of course, there are some commendable measures to be recorded, like those:

Exonération de la vente des dattes conditionnées produites au Maroc ainsi que les raisins secs et les figues sèches. Art.91(I-A-4°)

Exonération de l’huile d’olive et des sousproduits de la trituration des olives fabriqués par des unités artisanales. Art.91(I-A-7°)

Application du taux de 14% sur le beurre à l’exclusion du beurre de fabrication artisanale. Art.99(3-a°);121

But that’s about it. And these amount to very little in terms of fiscal expenses, compared to the potential gains when imports taxes are applied to the item delineated above. The same can be said of the fiat exemption until 2014 of the whole Agricultural output from any taxation; such a measure, while seemingly populist and caring, benefits mainly to the wealthy farmers, and adds up to the double-exemption this population benefits from: tax exemption when importing these items the Budget bill considers vital for farming, tax exemption on exports -their main market- and finally, tax exemption on income they derive from these businesses.

Bumpy road ahead: Morocco's CDS is taking up a few dozen bps

The list of strange and unjust exemption is long; suffice to say that this unsound fiscal policy, added to the debt the Moroccan government is taking on to defuse social discontentment, do not allow for optimistic outlook. On financial markets, the Kingdom’s CDS Debt -a good measurement has climbed some 50 basis points up since the beginning of 2011, and is now at the same level it was during the 2009, while it almost doubled over one year. It is also worth mentioning that the fundamentals of Moroccan debt are not the ones to worry about, nor the current level of CDS (compared to other countries like Greece or Ireland) but rather the discrepancies between terms: while all maturities move across time in the same direction, the shorter maturities seem to be more sensitive than the longer ones. It does vindicate the idea that somehow, fiscal and debt policies do not seem to be motivated by any kind of long-term strategy, but the one to prevail, even at the price of abysmal budgeting and subsequent austerity plans.

Best of luck to the next Finance Minister. Oualalou’s and Mezouar’s respective legacies are a tribute to a pro-wealthy policies… and to the present potential mess lurking in the shadows and ready to burst off. Great show Ministers, you have done very well.