The Moorish Wanderer

Who’s Next?

I did not get elected. That was expected, though I was disappointed I did not get enough votes for the MBAs. Never mind, perhaps next year, and a great thank you to those who supported me throughout. I will nonetheless continue in my folly, those who appreciate it can be assured of that.

Yesterday, late at night, after one too many Jack Daniel’s & Vodka shots (at a birthday party, mainly mingling about), I was staring at television, watching news from Egypt. I dare say it gets pretty hard to impress me, but the pictures of demonstrators on a tank (alive and joyfully chanting ‘Down With Mubarak !‘) took me aback. Drunkenness only just amplifies the sense of amazement that, if something is happening in Egypt, it might not be the same as the Tunisian uprising, it remains a historical day, and a memorable month.

Central Cairo. Demonstrations are genuinely popular and demand ousting Moubarak (Guardian Picture)

If dices keep rolling, the whole MENA region’s geopolitics might be profoundly altered: perhaps my analogy is wrong and misplaced, but it feels quite like the late 1980’s behind the iron curtain: the GDR, the most trustworthy ally to the Soviets, went down as the Berlin Wall was joyfully torn apart by enthusiastic demonstrators. In Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, oppressive Stalinist regimes faded away like houses of cards. If the analogy is far-fetched, the symbolism of iron curtain can be considered to be relevant: in MENA, there is indeed an iron curtain, between the oppressed denizens and their rights, whatever basic they are, between the oppressed and squeezed poor-working classes and the apparatchik, greedy, rapacious cronies. An iron curtain between eternal, sometimes senile rulers and youthful, healthy ruled. In every sense of the word, there is a huge asymmetry between the body politics and the body citizens. Truly, we live in interesting times, and this is not a curse.

Humour me: is there is country where a part of the population desperately rallies behind the ruler, re-affirms its love and devotion for Him, and reiterates the line “we are different”? Hint: It’s most westerner one in North Africa. Moroccan policy-makers are watching carefully, and delivering even more careful statements, trying to anticipate what was already managed but was yet to get worse.

I think why I did not get enough votes for the MBAs. Perhaps I was too critical of the ruler(s) of the land. Perhaps I should have watered down with some lauding comments, or perhaps by expressing understanding sympathy to a Regal will for reform. Cheap lines, as it were, that, even in real life, are of little help: the policy-maker works better when facing opposition, and the more the latter is involved in real debate, enjoying a say on matters of state, then the very epitome of democracy are there for citizens to enjoy. In time of crisis, hurriedly rallying behind His Majesty looks at best sheepish, if not entirely lick-spittle behaviour. What, are all Moroccans -especially on the web- eager to show their monarchical sympathies like a badge of honour? Is there is some greema for every spine-less, herd-minded fool enough to change their profile picture on social networks, start posting fulsome praises to the King, and worse, stifle those questioning their sanity. That, dear readers, is a fit of panic. And with it, the shadows of doubt, indecisiveness begin to close on Morocco’s future.

The next Lego Ad, Perhaps?

It is true Morocco is different. This is such a tautology, considering that all countries are different one from the other when considered globally. Egypt was different from Tunisia, and yet there is an ongoing successful, large-scale protest against the incumbent ruler. What is meant by ‘difference’ is that the reasons why Egyptians, Tunisians and Yemenis took to the street differ, although there can be found some pattern, which can be found in Morocco too. Now, we should address two questions: is Morocco’s profile risk bound to deliver some large scale protests, and what is the ongoing reaction among officials.

First, Morocco shares common features with Tunisia and Egypt, and up to a point, these indicators are even worse concerning Morocco. Their respective economies grew at comparatively high rates, but failed to benefit all but a few members of oligarchy. While the three countries signed free-trade agreements with each other and with other major economies, they commit to free markets and limited state intervention, and yet the economic structures is either monopolistic (private monopolies, that is) or oligopolistic; Furthermore, there are numerous records of opaque relationships between some state officials -some quite close to the rulers’ inner circle- and the largest economic players. In a word, all these countries -and others in the region- are, as far as economics is concerned, crony capitalism. With respect to economic structures, and regardless of regional variations, each countries has a concentrated distribution of wealth. In social and human rights terms however, the differences are more acute: Benali’s Tunisia was considered the ‘Mother Of All Oppressive North African Regimes‘, while Egypt and Morocco, mainly because of their large population -compared to Tunisia- did not crack down on Human Right activists and bloggers with the same viciousness as in Tunisia, but still, both regimes exercise a watchful -and sometimes vengeful- eye on dissidence. Morocco however, has a more liberal dealing with dissidence, though it remains highly repressive.

Second, Morocco witnesses quasi-everyday protests: the unemployed graduates in front of Parliament alley in Rabat, or in the hinterlands, the so-called “Maroc Inutile” the ‘useless Morocco’, where denizens have access to basic services, but only just: reliance on rain barometer, high unemployment, arrogant, corrupt and rapacious local administration are but a few items that sometimes lead these parts of the realm to social resentment, and ultimately, popular protests that are either  put down by use of police force, or defused with usually empty promises. Compared to Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other countries, Moroccans are more willing to take to the streets, but only to protest for Palestine, and sometimes, just sometimes, against rising prices. When local demonstrations are staged, they do not usually target anyone in particular, and political claims are watered down by claims for more affordable cost of living. My theory is that by tolerating some minor, localized demonstrations, officials provide the people with an air-valve to defuse their frustrations and neutralize any possibility of a larger, more dangerous uprising. If that happens, there are thousands of unknowns to be determined: if the police is not enough, they might wheel-in the army. Are soldiers going to shoot live rounds to demonstrators? Who will give the ultimate order of ‘fire at will’? what part political powers are likely to play? Is the Regal institution going to be gainsaid too? All of this makes any prediction one way or the other most blurry, most difficult to estimate.
One thing for sure: these idiotic gesticulations about ‘love march’ and ‘we heart the King’ betray an increasing unease about the prospect that, after all, Moroccan people are not so fond of their Sovereign. It’ high time we faced the eventuality of such outcome.

What is to be made out of calls to stage a pro-monarchy demonstration on February 6th? Not much in fact. It could look like a makhzenian demonstration, but things could also turn sour with the police and security forces butting in. And before they know it, the brass would find themselves with a de facto revolt: riots, injured, possibly dead, worldwide TV cameras and bad publicity for a regime dying to distance themselves from the turmoil and marketing its institutions as an isle of democracy and freedom of speech.

The Unknown Lurks in the shadow of sudden twists in History.

So far, theses calls for ostentatious monarchism look at best laughable. It does not make sense, or it looks like a staged coup to reassure the policy-makers: “look Your Majesty, your Regal picture is all over Facebook and Twitter. Your subjects love you, sire”.

As a monarchy, we have a court. Favourites and courtesans prance about, trying to catch the Sovereign’s good graces. It could indeed be a re-enactment of a millennium-old ritual: when the Sultan visits a contumacious province, the local governor lines up the men and women, chanting and dancing for the pleasure of His Imperial Majesty the Sultan, providing such Thespian skills to provide for a façade of submission, good will and undying loyalty to the ruler of the day.

The trouble is, our governance modus operandi is so opaque, so esoteric that whatever event cannot, and will not be considered at its face value. Sane commentators and fair-minded citizens will ultimately see an anxious regime, trying to re-assure themselves that, no, the Moroccans are not Tunisians or Egyptians, and love their King genuinely. As far as things are, the angry mob would direct their frustration to other potentates: Wealthy families, essentially, with some figureheads as scapegoats (that the King might dismiss, when needs to be). But if old farts stick together, there will be a time, we’re no way near it, but still, were such fine nuances would be wiped out.

I hope the fine minds monitoring Morocco would take that into account, start defusing things by preparing real political reforms, and start addressing the economic weaknesses and shunning the fat cats they take to their bosom. Start pumping reforms, before the street takes you over !

(I can help the Royal Cabinet if they want me to. Please contact me for CV and Interview. MAD 80k entry salary, a car and an up-state house, opportunities to travel abroad)

Tallyho Politics, The Reign of Amateur Policy-makers

The Political apparatus in Morocco is a shambles. I say shoot the old lot, bring the young and let them make mistakes. Sounds radical, doesn’t it?
Joke aside, it’s been a long time since the political parties in Morocco failed to devise policies, and when they do sketch some feeble argument, it is so diluted that if it ever was put into practise, they wouldn’t know where to start first. On the other hand, policy-makers in Morocco lead the charge with formidable support from McKinsey-style consultancy firms. The trouble is, a country like Morocco cannot be run like a corporation. And even if it is so in the minds of the young fellows at the Royal Cabinet (which I expect to join any moment now. There’s always hope, isn’t there?) the corporation is certainly not run in the best interest of its shareholders, only to the board’s benefit.

Policy and social engineering are worked out under the assumption that the objective is to maximize the country’s welfare. There remains a great deal of blur in defining what one might mean by that word: “welfare“. In fiscal matters, it may come to the idea of taxing individuals and companies more than others, while in social policy, it also means helping some social classes more than others. There’s also a great deal of ideology in policy-making, even among the high-brow circles of consultants: under the veneer of technocracy, there’s a political motivation behind strategic thinking like the ‘Plan Maroc Vert‘, ‘Halieutis and the INDH or indeed anything of the sort like the high-speed network.

Perhaps I am over-rating the Palace’s task force. It has been a question I often ask myself: how are decisions taken up there? Whether on economic policy, or on-the-spot decision crisis like the Aminatou Haidar case, or the issue of protest camps in Agdim Izik, how are decisions made up there? Do they meet in a war-room, delineating scenarii then discussing the likelihood of each one until they reach the best decision?  Because we know, we all know it’s not some old-fashioned fool that takes the decisions in Morocco (even global institutions like rating agencies know that) so it must be that the Royal Cabinet has some kind of modus operandi I assume to be ultra-rational (given the high proportion of  engineer and business graduate from the French Grandes Ecoles). And yet, it looks as though only fools and incompetents are in charge. Please allow me to expatiate; and ad absurdo reasoning would be best. Let’s consider the ONA-SNI case: if the firm is really set on pulling the country out of poverty and into prosperity, how come its dividend policy never shows it?

I mentioned before an opinion that has been formed on the economy front: there is, among other things, a consensus that the private business of His Majesty can pull the economy. The idea is that we need the Moroccan equivalent of Chaebol, the Korean conglomerate of Banks and Industries that played significant part in making South Korea what it is today: a first-class country that is now considered to be member of the G20 club, when, 50 years ago, its GDP per capita was lower than Morocco’s, and the best thing they could have ever manufactured at the time was T-shirts. The idea was therefore to imitate, as it were, the Korean experience with companies like SNI-ONA, or indeed Attijari Wafabank and other national heavyweights. The economic model sounds good: at the price of domestic monopoly, Morocco fields a first-class holding able to operate on global markets with the required size to win us some surplus that would be redistributed. In other words, the private monopoly captures the common surplus in order to expand, and then redistribute it through pay rise or investment in intangible assets. This is the semi-official line. The financial statements tell otherwise, though.

ONA Shareholders per share. the only public fund -CDG- has a ridiculous 2.73%

Now, doesn’t it strike you as odd that the fleuron of our largest firms should invest so little and distribute these high levels of dividends to the shareholders? Between 2004 and 2010 -prior to the smoke screen withdrawal of ONA SNI shares- the holding distributed an average of about 3/4 of its benefits (which reached the billion of Dirhams at least);

while the rare investments they undertook where mainly about mergers and real estate speculation. The Chaebols, on the other hand, had a gargantuan appetite for asset acquisition (which also meant that they favoured a rigorous dividend discipline, translated into high levels of savings – something that did not prevent them from using audacious financial structuring) and are, at the end of the day, radically different from our own sketchy, greedy, money-grabbing beloved conglomerate. So much for the economic new era

Even the ‘Grand Workshops’ our 8.00 o’clock news are so keen to laud, the fulsome praises elude the main question of: ‘who benefits from what’. Plan Maroc Vert is a favourite: the official line states that small farmers would benefit from cutting-edge policies like ‘aggregation’. For those who are not familiar with the plan, it has two main implementation strategies: the first one is export-oriented, very monopolistic that favours already existing large domains, industrial-like farms (among which [drum rolls…] the Royal Domains) the other one, which looks like it was hurriedly put together, is designed to help ‘directly’ the small farmers. Cooperatives, micro-credit, etc… just enough to keep their heads above the water. How could Plan Maroc vert be helpful when funding is so biased towards large, wealthy farmers?  Do we need to remind the readers of the figures? Yes we do, it’s always beneficial to  put things in prospective: MAD 80 billion is made available for 961 projects with only 562.000 farmers and 545 projects for 855.000 farmers (Those that should be helped and supported) get no more than MAD 20 billion.  In other terms, and under the provision all farmers benefit from the Plan Maroc Vert, 39% of the farmers (most of whom are quite wealthy) get 80% of the funding.

In economic terms, the policies are not, to say the least, caring about the majority. Unless they take the view that the common welfare is that of a privileged minority, the 10% sort that has 40% of the total national income, the sort of passengers able to pay for the TGV between Tangiers and Casablanca. Perhaps the idea is that already rich people would get richer and richer, till they reach a point of satiety such that they would spend money, to the benefit of the less-off. If that’s the view, this kind of rapacious capitalism is bound engender serious resentment from the excluded. Oh, wait it’s already happening !

(Credits to Al Wandida for circulating the video)

Now that the economic model proved its shortcomings, social and political strategies prove to be at best coy, and in any case dangerously hegemonic. Say the Moudouwana was a great improvement (although one can cast doubts whether it was just a return to the 1957 square) it was a show that was full of symbolism: to the liberal side, it was a clear signal that His Majesty is the one calling the shots, and their liberal agenda prospers as long as His pleasure allows it to. To the conservatives, he proved he could block whenever he wanted the perceived westernalization of Morocco, and  confirmed his role as the sole source of religous legitimacy. On this issue and on may others, His Majesty made his King Louis XIV’s apocryphal quote: ‘l’Etat, C’est Moi‘. And all the policies the little helping hand and the shadow army are not, in the long term, to His, or Morocco’s best interest.

FAEH: The Architect of His Majesty's political project.

The PAM project, on the other hand, is the only old-school trick: the infamous Front de Défense des Institutions Constitutionelles, Rassemblement National des Indépendants, Union Constitutionnelle or Parti Justice et Développement (Among Others) all roved to be temporary rough patches when the opposition was resolute in its stand. the PAM is a patch against the abnormal high abstention rate the 2007 general elections recorded; A motley of activists, a bizarre amalgam of renegade left-wingers, rural and Mafioso-like notables and hungry young opportunists. Does it restore confidence in partisan politics? The PAM designers are in for a shock, I dare say.

Events in Tunisia -to which I must confess my complete astonishment, why, a regime like Ben Ali’s to fold like a house of cards!- proved that an excessive concentration of wealth, power and legitimacy is, on the long run, a disastrous fuite en avant.

In these conditions, why should anyone try and give additional credit to a regime so stubbornly greedy, and how long should it take them to realize that monopolising bright minds -and neutralizing their most valuable assets, i.e. ideas- is not going to help them further, and fuels a resentment that I warn might develop into a incommensurable social conflagration.