The Moorish Wanderer

Wandering Thoughts Vol.6

Apparently 13.000 votes have been registered for the MBA. That’s a huge number, and I am sure there’s some 9% that voted for me (the competition on my award class allows me for some support effect, to my benefit). I’ve just realized that the last piece might scare off the less politically engaged voters, so, for the sake of triangulation and bland, tasteless non-political blogging, I shall devote this piece to a benign subject, well not too benign -for I might alienate the likes of me-… well, I suppose this is excellent training for would-be politicians: how to reach out to the crowd by taking centrist views without alienating the hardcore base vote; sell-out, I call that.

A year ago, I read Mounir Bensalah’s fascinating account of Moroccan philosopher Abdellah Laroui, ‘من ديوان السياسة’ (Min Diwan Assyassa). The account in question was very documented, much more documented than the present one, albeit the criticism it bore was, to my opinion, a bit unfair, especially when one bears in mind that Laroui is one of the very few original thinkers Morocco can still claim its own. After El Jabri‘s death, the Moroccan intellectuals’ club is shrinking to depressing proportions.

Abdellah Laroui (Aujourd'hui Le Maroc Picture)

The book is not really a substantial work, not when compared to other Laroui’s production, like the ‘Origines Sociales Et Culturelles du Nationalisme Marocain‘ or ‘Islam & Histoire‘ to name but a few. The book is more of a dictionary, a glossary of concepts Laroui delienates but not too much, and as a former sociology student, I can vouch for the educational benefits for the fledging political sciences student, or the honest citizen trying to make sense of politics and its history in Morocco. Other than that, there is no luminaries to be found, no ground-breaking revelations. Contrary to Mounir, I do not find the book explicitly discussing current politics: there are a few references to the late King Hassan II, when he mentioned the first Constitution (rightfully denoted the granted constitution) and I think current politics was his main subject. If anything, he had plenty of opportunities; The entry on the  ‘آل الذمة’ (traditionally Jewish or Christian subjects living under Islamic rule with a status involving paying special taxes) the recent troubles with MALI, or the fact that AMDH human rights organization put secularism top of their political agenda did not elicit him into making some kind of comparison with the tradition dimmi status non-Muslims enjoyed (the word is inappropriate, for the Jewish denizens in ghettos, mellahs, were frequently subject to pogroms)

Laroui does not attempt any formal lecturing of our officials into the intellectual and philosophical foundations of our present regime. At best, some helpful reminders of post-1956 Moroccan history are referenced once a while, as well as the almost common-place, definitely banal references of Islam, initial Salafism and other concepts he details in more academic books. The book looked to me as though it was more of a cross-breed between Nietzsche’s quotes and an introduction to Moroccan Political Sociology. I can still remember last summer, touring the prominent bookshops in Rabat and Casablanca, well, I can tell that book production is dying. It’s only a matter of time, the Philistines are putting the final touches to a complete intellectual comatose. And for this, whatever Laroui’s short-sighted actions and quotes, he remains worthy of respect (I am sure Mounir did not intend to offend his intellectual stature, or gainsay any of his academic contributions)

I wanted also to write something about British politics. Since the May 2010 elections and the coalition agreements between the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats, and especially since George -The Human Chainsaw- Osborne prepared his emergency budget, and the subsequent ‘swinging cuts’. (the coalition agreement signs the death warrant of left-wing lib-dem influence, and Vince Cable had to curb his liberal tendencies…)

Gideon Georges Osborne, Conservative Chancellor: the return of nasty economic policies

But the appointment of Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor Of the Exchequer in lieu of a resigning Alan Johnson just prompted me to write some lines about it.

First, I cannot exhaust my enthusiasm for the political system in the United Kingdom: The highest ambition I would ever have for my country is, within my lifetime, to bear witness to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy where the King is revered by his subjects as a symbol of national unity (not out of fear or venal expectation for a grima), and where politicians do the politics. A parliament with genuine powers able to hold government accountable, and a free press, whatever trashy or politically skewed its content may be, ensuring the elected representatives of the people keep on behaving like good chaps in a club. An image d’épinal, I must admit, of British politics, but their constitutional monarchy has this aura I feel words are not enough to describe. (Anas is of that opinion too…)

Now, why would I mention British politics? Because Ed Balls is back to front-line politics. His similarity to Piers Fletcher-Dervich belies a very combative spirit, some would describe as divisive, cliquish and retort. A former henchman of Gordon Brown, he is certainly a change from Alan Johnson. Before I elaborate on that, a couple of praising lines on the system of shadow cabinet: the idea that opposition needs to act as if it was in government gives its media communication, and its own behaviour at question time quite responsible. the Labour party, between 1992 and 1997 perfected the art to unattainable proportions. I’m just saying, political parties back home would benefit tremendously by appointing spokespersons on specific subjects (and large parties could go further by appoint shadow ministers). A matter of organization, I would say. Ed Balls is back to the department he considers -rightfully- his: when Gordon Brown finally took over from Tony Blair in summer 2007 (and I still remember watching Blair’s farewell speech at the Manchester conference), Balls assumed, and was tipped by the press to be the next Chancellor. Brown however had second thoughts about what might look like cronyism or favouritism, which left him disappointed and frustrated. Ed Milliband, after a successful leadership bid in September 2010 also denied Balls promotion, and instead confided him to the Shadow Home Office (Balls’ wife, Yvette Cooper, was given the Shadow FCO portfolio). It can be expected that the new shadow chancellor will put public debate into perspective: the conservative chancellor with no rigourous training in Economics, will have a tough time answering questions from someone with a decade of experience, the training, the wit and intellect to take on the government spending cuts. Looking forwards to PMQs and other parliamentary questions.

Johnson's out. Enter balls, fightin' politics in.

It also avoids Labour media blunders when Johnson admitted he had no idea how and when to cut deficits; Balls was prevented from n°2 in shadow cabinet because he disagreed with Alistair Darling’s deficit reduction plan (Balls deemed it to be too fast and dangerous for growth recovery). Milliband shouldn’t worry about his leadership  -if he ever does; It’s a matter of winning economic argument, i.e. the conservatives will mess up the economy.that usually goes down well with ‘middle England’, or indeed the ‘squeezed middle’.

Last thing I adore about British politics: scandals. Not the expenses scandal, but the current one, involving Lord Strathclyde, leader of the House of Lords and cabinet minister, whom affair with a single mother rocks the boat of the conservative government, and their pledge for family values. I love it, I love it, it has a flavour of ‘back to basis‘, Major-style !

Joke aside, the more I get interested British politics, the more distant I feel from mainstream politics in Morocco: we are so bogged down on trivial issues we should have long got past by, and yet here we are, still trying to promote the idea that elected institutions need to be trusted and given more power, and the same old argument, the same tantrum hammering back that we are not up to it, that the Royal circle has better to be in charge… deeply distressing, I can tell you.

All in all, do not forget to vote for me for the Maroc Blog Award. And for my friends in the other categories: TalkMorocco, Anas Alaoui, Rimerrante, Agharass & Lbadikho.


Jed Bartlet's endorsement: "Leo was ok with me taking over from that foul-mouthed Scotsman Malcolm Tucker. Do vote for my candidate. We share similar tastes, see, we're wearing the same tie." This advertisement has been paid for by 'Bartlet For Moorish Wanderer' (CNN Picture)

Wandering Thoughts, Vol.4

Posted in Flash News, Read & Heard, The Wanderer, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on January 8, 2011

I got nominated as finalist for the MBA, which means potentially I might be the best Moroccan blogger for 2011. I cannot emphasise how unimportant this is to me, but there’s always the ego, lurking in the shadow, and hoping for some peer recognition, which I must confess. You do understand that I would be counting on your vote to boost that ego a bit.Now, if you like reading an intellectual, well-written (the commentators say so, to my delight, I must say) and well documented blog, I suppose you would like to vote for me. If not, there’s plenty of choice out there to nominate for best Moroccan male blogger. My gratitude for the regular readers. Vote for Me.

On the other hand, you can also vote for me as a nominee for another blog award, the Morocco Blogs.

Tucker's comment: "Wake up and smell the cock. Na, scratch that. It's not like he was the ideal candidate. If anything, he had to dress like one of Lord Sutche fucking Raving Monster party loonies. And, come to think of it, if he really wins, we are going to have a wee bit of an ego problem. I'm just saying".

Three topics on the menu: the West Wing (the TV show, not the actual one), John Le Carré, and finally, the rising tide in neighbouring countries, Algeria, but more specifically Tunisia.

I am now at the third season of the West Wing, and still 4 to go (to which I am looking forward). I can’t get enough of the Opening Theme (It reminds me of some other US  TV show, I cannot recall which, but the theme is rousing indeed). For those who did not know about the show, the West Wing depicts everyday politics in the White House, in the West Wing to be precise, where the Oval Office, and the working headquarters of senior staff to the President of the USA, are located. The show focuses on the Communications team, besides the Chief of Staff. Politics worked sometimes as a background for individual stories, as the storyline goes on, the viewer learns about the characters, which gives a human touch to the whole thing. The West Wing is perhaps -to my knowledge- one of the very few TV shows actually pushing for a more positive view on politics.

From left to right: Charlie Young (Dullé Hill), Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), C.J. Craig (Allison Janney), Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Abigail Bartlet (Stockard Channard), Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford)

The show has a prestigious cast: the President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet PhD. (D) is portrayed by the memorable Martin Sheen (among others, Apocalypse Now). My impression is, this president is a synthesis of previous ones: Bartlet is Catholic (and most probably Irish, not because he attended Notre Dame University) like  John F. Kennedy, he is a scholar (economics, my favourite !), like Bill Clinton (who is a Doctor of Law) and he has a je-ne-sais-quoi aura of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In any case, he looks and sounds like the best US President the country never had: intellectual, witty, cosmopolitan, a father figure… That’s the difference between real life and show business. In any case, Martin Sheen renders a very decent play of a Liberal president, summing up the best of every Democratic president the USA had for the last century. The other members of the cast played their part wonderfully well too: his Chief Of Staff, veteran Leo McGarry, a mixture of friend and counsellor, the gloomy Director of Communications and Domestic Policy adviser, Tobias Ziegler (his caustic sense of humour is winner), deputy Chief of Staff (and ) Josh Lyman the President’s speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe’s portrayal is quite impressive) and many others.

Now, the show is brilliant. No doubt about that. There are however -as it is the case with any politics show- some hidden messages, hints I should say, that inevitably slip by: I am not an expert, nor even a documented follower of US domestic politics, but it looks as though institutions are bogged down in partisan struggle, while desperately trying to look ‘bipartisan’; the curse of trying to look centrist, I suppose. This holds for both sides: it appears that a President with a minority House of Representative (or indeed Congress as a whole) cannot carry out their policy, unless they get into some back-room deals (senior staff usually do the President’s bidding) that result in angering the party base, or force the administration to move to the middle ground, which is not always good, even in media terms.

Martin Sheen's rendition of Barlet is stunning. The character is a fantasy of the ideal President (for Liberals, that is).

The show also portrays the heavy reliance -and in real life, that’s also the case- on pollsters, advertising, consumer psychology, and all sorts of marketing concepts that were imported from Corporate world. Rationalizing government and communication is a good thing, but the impression I got, right from the 3rd season, was that the show was more focused on the senior staff trying to get hold of the news cycle, to manage it, rather than get the policy going: when it is not mid-term election, it’s an important piece of legislation that needs to be forced through by staging media strategy, and before you know it, there’s presidential nomination, and then re-election campaigning. I am caricaturing a bit, though comparatively little attention is given to economics (that might be tempered, as the Bartlet administration often congratulated itself for the good economic performance the US was enjoying), much more to collective bargaining (Unions and employers would from time to time lobby the West Wing one way or the other) or indeed social policy.

All in all, it’s a pleasant piece to watch. And accounts from real-life senior staffers at the White House confirm that a great deal of accuracy was put on the show to render a realistic view from within. I also like the struggle all characters had to live through, between remaining faithful to their principles, being idealistic as it were, and the need for compromise, or spinning it as such. As Lyman stated: ‘as an adult, I realize many would not share my view of the world‘. How true.

I just finished two of John Le Carré’s masterpieces: “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People”. I watched the TV adaptation of both of them with the exquisite Alec Guiness (in the 1970’s if I am not mistaken). I know, spy novels are a bit old-fashion, but George Smiley is no James Bond: he is not athletic, but rather an old man, retired from the service. The first book, “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy”, is a classic story of mole-hunting. Before I start elaborating on the story itself, There’s something very ‘old-school’ in the codes John Le Carré gives to certain organizations: the Intelligence service is called ‘The Circus’, its head is simply referred to as ‘Control’ and the respective heads of units in the Circus are all chaps from Oxford or Cambridge, the flower of British intellect; Scalp-hunter is another of these code-names assigned for specific jobs or positions -in this case, an agent in charge of recruiting potential correspondents. Among them, a traitor. Smiley, an exhausted and retired member of the Circus is drafted again into service. It is worth mentioning that John Le Carré was himself a member of the British intelligence service MI-6 (and was stationed in Germany for a couple of years) and he drew considerable inspiration from his work to write his most excellent spy novels. There’s a difference with Ian Fleming’s James Bonds, in the sense that the tone is darker, the characters, more ambiguous and less inclined to think of themselves as marshalled into the great struggle against the evil axis. Smiley, Guilham or Esterhaze are of different stock: morality goes out of the window.

On the East/West German border, Karla (P. Stewart, left) surrenders to Smiley (A. Guiness, right)

Smiley had an enemy. Rather an opposite number, for when they met (in Smiley’s people, as part of Smiley’s final victory) he felt contrite for the kind of methods he resorted to. Simely’s opposite number, codename Karla, was a Soviet spymaster who was successful in plating a mole (in a very devious way indeed) into the SIS (Circus). The mole, codename ‘Gerald’, was Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson), Smiley’s colleague, friend, rival and occasional lover of Smiley’s wife, Ann. Incidentally, Karla was apparently sketched on Markus Wolf, the East German master spy.

I have a personal history with intelligence work; And when I was a little boy, full of dreams, I devoted myself to the career of spy. Well, my raw model was no James Bond, and what attracted me to the job was more its cosmopolitan side (the person in question used to travel a lot and under various qualities) and the ease with which they can put up a cover story was, for me, the quintessential application of good lying.

A bit grown-up now, and although the job entails some very questionable assignments, morally-wise, as well as the incommensurable dangers it involves, I still have some irrational reverence for the occupation of secret agent.

The last piece is more serious: my impression is that a dam is about to crack. Will it burst open? I’m in two minds. In Tunisia, the ongoing  demonstrations might remind the sociologist of those in the 1980’s; The Sidi Bouzid events prompt me into re-reading a book (courtesy to the Sociology years) directed by D. Le Saout & M. Rollinde: “Emeutes et mouvements sociaux au Maghreb: Perspective Comparée“. Accounts of these riots are strikingly similar to those of today: “Le récit de ce qui s’est passé en ces jours [January 1984 riots] d’émeutes montre que les acteurs qui occupent la rue n’appartiennent pas, pour la plupart, aux mouvements sociaux structurés qui occupent la scène politique, sociale et culturelle de la Tunisie. Ils vont même à l’encontre des mots d’ordre lancés par la direction de ces mouvements. […]“.

What is surprising about Tunisia, it’s how few popular uprising occurred over the last half a century: under President Habib Bourguiba, riots of January 26, 1978 and January 1984 are the only recorded occurrences. Under Ben Ali, there was a tighter grip on security matters, not least because of the President’s background as, well, a Military officer (with a heavy emphasis on internal security and intelligence). For many years, Tunisia was the ‘model’ of allied ‘moderate regime’: here’s a country that has virtually suppressed any islamist threat, that keeps its population in line, and recurring use of torture is covered up by the seemingly sustained economic growth. Tunisia reminds me of these dictatorships in Latin America and South East Asia: economic miracle, successfully disposing of communist threat but at the price of human rights abuse, corruption and cronyism but faithful allies of the West.

Popular uprising are a bit like pressure-cook: when pressure is too high to bear, the top cover is blown; Even the air-valve might not be of use. That’s what looks like have happened in Sidi Bouzid: the self-immolation of that young fruit merchant ignited a ras-le-bol against injustice, inequality and ambient corruption; It is worthy to note that, for the time being, no political agenda is behind this, which can be seen as a strentgh and weakness. It’s strength because the regime cannot label it as a political plot (with Islamists in their sights) and thus being a genuine, nationwide protest is a plus. On the longer term, the revolt might end up as a short-lived,  feu-de-paille-like aggregate of riots. The danger to be so is due to the lack of a symbol, a leader that can provide credible alternative. The trouble with mass uprising is that it lacks a long-term view, there is a danger that this might at best, trigger insubstantial changes in the top offices at Tunis. At best, Ben Ali would be forced out of office, and another -very similar- President might be sworn-in: there is going to be a change of individuals, but the regime stays basically the same. The furore abates, but things do not fundamentally change. Furthermore, the regime has every incentive to play for time: they can count on Western neutrality (French media have been ludicrous in their belated reporting), they still have the support of Police, Army and Security troops. I wish all the best to Tunisian protesters in their venture, but time is not their ally. Very much like the Algerian people too. It is remarkable how similar their concerns are: both countries are enjoying good economic outlooks (Algeria, as an Oil-producing country, is richer than ever) but wealth redistribution is stingy at best, greedy in fact. Oligarchies are enjoying Western-like standards of life, while the common man struggles to meet ends. Nothing new, and nothing different from what’s happening in Morocco too.

I remain very pessimistic about the potential changes in these three countries: first because it looks to me as though it is another popular uprising with no political agenda. These things happened before, and in the past, they ended up with little changes, or worse, with reactionary outcomes (Algeria experienced regular Army interventions, and Moroccan troops slaughtered dozens, if not hundreds during the 1980’s). The new thing is that regular web-users around the world are better informed. There’s still some hope that now, with instant and widespread report of what might be happening in Sid Bouzid, or Tinghir or M’sila is almost instantly put on the internet. Would that help? Yes it would. Would it be a decisive factor? It does not look like it.

A Tunisian blogger has been arrest a few days ago. That’s the backlash of web-activism (which I always under-rated) in our countries. If you don’t care about these issues, at least do join the campaign Free Slim for humanitarian concerns. Thank you.