The Moorish Wanderer

Odd Ball

Posted in Dismal Economics, Flash News, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on February 8, 2011

The news from the financial markets are always funny to read: among many other things, one learns that for all the trouble the MENA region is heading to -or, for some countries there already experiencing it- the cost of insuring their sovereign debt is much lower compared to Greece. Incredible! Or is it?

Consider the following graph; I have to apologize for incomplete information, especially regarding the more recent levels of CDS on Greece, and for Egypt I had to crunch the missing numbers in order to get the current level. When one takes a careful look at these levels, and the way they evolve, there are many thoughts one could foster on the MENA region: Tunisia is a surprisingly low risk, when compared to Greece, or even to Egypt. The level of risk, captured via the CDS did certainly not justify the downgrading by Moody’s. Or if Moody’s did so, it has little to do with its political risk.

Cost Of Insuring Sovereign Debt CDS 2009-2011 (Datastream Reuters)

And for one, Leila Trabelsi was directly responsible for absconding 1.5 tons of gold bullion, which means € 45 Million, or $ 58 Million approximately. The sum might look like small beer, but when one keeps in mind the level of government debt Tunisia has -about $ 25 Billion- then it is obvious that annual payment can be endangered by that kind of blow; Not to mention the effect this has on the exchange rate the Central Bank Of Tunisia wants to sustain. There are other issues about the country’s sustainability in terms of economic growth, but it seems the downgrade was not, shall we say politically motivated, nor was it in reaction to market anxiety over developing events. And the market data shows it: the level of CDS remained remarkably stable, and for a troubled country, the financial markets do not seem to mind the difference with Morocco -as late as February 3th, CDS were slightly lower for Tunisia that Morocco’s-.

Why are Credit Default Swaps a good indicator for a sovereign debt? First, CDS are considered to be an insurance, mainly a guarantee against possible likelihood of default. In that sense, political instability, poor economic policies or unexpected low growth result can be indiscriminate factors in worsening CDS levels. In that sense, CDS are quite useful, but in the sense that they are signals: their prices are subject to demand and supply, and if their price goes up, it is a signal that, say for the Egyptian sovereign debt CDS to climb up to 400bps and counting, it means, first, that to insure $ 10 Million of Egyptian debt, an investor has to take on an insurance of $ 400.000. The signal is about expectations investors might have of the future. The more pessimistic they feel, the higher the price of CDS. And for the moment, levels of expected risk, in Tunisia or Morocco are very similar. Strange?

The same goes for Egypt: even though the country started from comparatively higher levels of risks (the higher CDS level, the higher the perceived default risk, markets-wise) they still operate at early 2009 levels, at which time Mubarak’s position was not particularly threatened – in fact, no one at the time would have bet a dime on successful demonstrations that we are witnessing today and since a fortnight. Again, a source in financial markets tell me that for all the media frenzy -and the local damage to the economy- foreign debt-holders are relaxed even with regime change, whether in Tunisia or Egypt, or other countries that might be on the waiting list. There remain countries like Morocco that were confirmed in their near-investment rating. At the time, and perhaps it might remain so, rating agencies do not see enough warning signals to downgrade the rating, perhaps because financial markets do not seem to mind the whiff of liberty in MENA.

In any case, the rumblings in the MENA region do not look harmful to the financial markets, as they rate Greek sovereign debt far more likely to default. this is good news for would-be protesters too worried they might compromise their country’s ‘good name’. It is also bad news for Greece, but ethnocentrism doesn’t involve me in feeling sympathetic to their miseries. I don’t know if I can stress enough the importance of these results: the MENA region has been experiencing, for many countries that is, sustainably high levels of growth, but the distribution effect has been marginal across countries. The current wave of public anger is not primarily motivated by political claims -this, in my opinion, comes with street protests- but rather by more redistributive policies. It seems financial markets, up to a point, do not mind that.

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)

Wandering Thoughts Vol. 5

Posted in Flash News, Morocco, Read & Heard, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on January 13, 2011

Do allow me to try something different here. Less tiresome, and a bit more entertaining. On second thoughts, let’s make entirely irrelevant.

Boredom. Humanity's worst enemy

I would like to talk about Tunisia and Algeria, but then I refrained from it. I mean, they deserve every bit of my sympathy, and I feel I should be showing more solidarity, which would not exceed re-tweeting videos, articles and comments followed by the hashtag #sidibouzid. I feel contrite because deep down, I grew insensitive of sufferings our neighbours are going through, and even to the effects of creeping authoritarianism in Morocco. When events over take the cloistered intellectual, the ivory tower, as it were, looks cosier than ever. I’m elaborating on that later on.

I don’t know if it’s the weather, or my latest readings that got me in such mood. Or both. In any case, I have little to write about (not really, I am taking my time in posting), so it’s going to be the regular “Review for 2010”. I mean, we’re still in the first quarter of January, so there’s no harm in keeping up with the new year’s eve spirit. A couple of events I found interesting:

Early January, I remember I did something rather unusual, namely trying to hear the King’s speech on the radio. I usually watch it on the telly (when I am in the presence of one, that is) or I would just wait for the next day, and I can get the transcript and exhaustive, lauding comments. But January, 3rd was special. As it turned out, it wasn’t quite so. But the veneer of ‘mystery communication’ around it (His Majesty usually delivers speeches on National holidays) managed to capture an additional auditorium. January 2010 was therefore the kicking start of a nation-wide discussion about local government in Morocco. It seems the official in charge of the commission is about to publish his findings (and sum up what political parties and the civil societies have communicated themselves) What kind of  de-centralization are we up to? Sure, there was the Local Government bill in 1997, but it had the adverse effect of strengthening the Interior department’s grip. And it is virtually impossible to forecast anything beyond a redrawing of administrative borders. To be followed (and announced)

March was a bit of a surprise to me: as it happened, I was working on the Bloomberg screen, and for those who hadn’t the opportunity to use it, there’s a kind of a telex with flash info, among which Standard & Poor’s was upgrading Morocco’s sovereign debt to Investment Grade. It was good news, in the sense that our country risk profile was improving, and at a time when money is short. Later on, it turned out the upgrade had a positive effect on the bond issue on June. In financial terms, the upgrade was good news. But like all news, there’s a blessing but also a curse looming by. In terms of macroeconomic variables, Morocco got through painful adjustment policies. The macro-economic variables that are referred to here are mainly of public policy: the sustained trend in reducing public debt and the efforts in keeping under control, as well as the low levels of inflation achieved (among others, by freezing wages). These policies were carried out over two decades (adjustment program plus the alternance government since 1997)

Late May, our Communications Minister had to bear the shameful behaviour of his son in public space, at a time our Radoteur en Chef was busy leading the charge against the independent press, or indeed doggedly promoting the official line of ‘Morocco: an isle of stability and democracy’. Now, the child’s misbehaviour should not reflect on his capacity as a father. Politics is about higher matters. The trouble with Prof. Naciri is his dirty mouth: he  is only too willing to do the regime’s bidding in disparaging the press. When newspapers like Al Massae got hold of the story, that was tit for tat, web-citizens were very resentful as well and when the story broke out, there were some pretty acrimonious comments about our valiant minister.In a nutshell, Naciri Junior had a driving dispute with a regular citizen, and assaulted him with a baseball bat near Parliament Avenue. The trouble is, a video was snatched. I assume that was him carrying back his son who was handcuffed to the Parliament fence. Regular citizens obligingly walked them back to the car…


June, the effect of S&P upgrade got us money. Big money at good terms, considering how volatile the capital markets were at the time. € 1.bn at 4.5% is a good deal – even Greece or Portugal couldn’t levy such amount at such interest rate. Now, it appears the government has not started preparing schemes for spending the money, and instead, the Office des Changes is passing liberal legislation that would just allow for more hard currency to get out of the country. As if Bank Al Maghrib had unlimited foreign reserves, or did not have to sustain pegs against Euro. Ultimately, there’s a chance this money would be squandered into non-productive spendings (I had information the government is experiencing cash difficulties at the time)

November was hot in the Sahara. It started as a peaceful, apolitical protest against abysmal economic conditions, endemic corruption and the like -just like elsewhere in Morocco- but amateurism on behalf of the officials ensured the protest to turn political and provide ammunition for the Polisario. If I may, security officials are as guilty as those who killed -quite gruesomely- elements of the security forces. On the communications front, once more media coverage proved that it’s high time some high-minded PR professionals are needed to advance Morocco’s claim. On my book, things look like a game of chassé-croisé: every year, one of the two sides pulls a trick, scores some points, but ultimately no one further their claim, and a durable peace settlement seem more than ever, unlikely.

So, let’s get back to the Tunisian case. If there was a country in the MENA region that was unlikely to host a popular uprising, it was Tunisia. a Police state that made extensive use of the small area and denizens. A totalitarian state, in the sense that repression was micro-managed, where spaces of free expression are so tightly squared, and occasionally squashed when they dare expand. And a month ago, the myth of the ‘Tunisian model’ as it were, came tumbling down. That’s good news, because it might prompt other neighbouring people to chance a revolt. Not that it does not entail costs (among other, 20 to 50 dead following sources) and risks of reprisals. But then again, Tunisians reached that tipping point, beyond which it matters little if the truncheon blow was painful or not. In many ways, the uprising just shows people are not entirely submissive in the MENA region.

Tunisian Army APC in Gafsa. (Picture: nawaat.org)

That said, I still have doubts about the outcome. There are reports the army is moving in, and even rumours of the Ben Ali household preparing exit strategy. Until there are occurrences of Army and Police mutiny and fraternisation with demonstrators, the whole thing would be at best a change in leadership but not in the regime, at worse, God forbids, a bloodbath.

While they deserve every bit of sympathy, I don’t necessarily relate to them. Partly because I am far away in a cosy place, but also because one cannot help but try analogies about Morocco, the great: “what if ?” as it were. And that’s the trouble: there’s considerable resentment among the Moroccan people; no need for forensic analysis there, one just need to enumerate the number of protests, sit-ins, demonstrations and so on. What happened in Tunisia could also happen in Morocco. The trouble is, our country is larger, and from past history, large-scale riots always end up with the army cleaning up the lot. Perhaps soldiers would be less willing to shoot fellow Moroccans, but still. The prospect of a revolt in Morocco  is not at all engaging.

On the other hand, we cannot go on like this. Someone, or something has to lance the boil: Morocco is growing richer, but there’s a widening gap in income distribution, growing resentment against social injustice, institutionalized corruption, endemic cronyism and so on. Because the outcome is too violent to bear, I get to the craven decision to retire back to my ivory tower (talking about the West Wing or Georges Smiley for instance) because the world does not make sense, or if I try to figure it out, at the end of the line, the unknown is mixed with chaos. I am defaulting on my role as a would-be organic intellectual, but sorry, I’ve got better things to get to.  Proving that there’s a subgame perfect equilibrium in determining monetary policy, for instance.

Oh, I’ve just received ‘Zombie Economics‘ by J.  Quiggin, PhD. My tutor recommended it as a good reading. I should post something about it once I’ve finished it.

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.