Tunisia is not Libya, which is not Bahrain, which is not Morocco
We are certainly witnessing a regional transformation in the Middle East in which autocratic regimes are being challenged and in some cases toppled by secular uprisings. But, as I have noted before, the differences between countries is critical -- and may provide some helpful insights for U.S. policymakers.
I last spoke to Ed Gabriel, former ambassador to Morocco and now an adviser to the Moroccan government, shortly after demonstrations in Rabat and other Moroccan cities were held. Gabriel explained then that to assess the strength of the protesters, we should look to see whether these protests were one-day affairs or whether they continued over days and weeks.
I spoke to Gabriel again this morning. He told me, "There were some demonstrations -- a dozen here or there across the country. There was talk of a bigger demonstration but that didn't materialize." However, the demonstrations have petered out, and the country, he says, is "calm." He told me reports suggested that the king had given strict orders to the police not to use lethal force to subdue protests. That sort of "black and white" direction to authorities, Gabriel said, is critical in preventing the escalation of violence.
That does not mean the demonstrations have had no effect. On Thursday, King Mohammed VI announced the formation of a human rights commission. Gabriel told me that since the initial demonstrations, "This is the first and most important thing [to occur]." He explained that the king's father had formed a human rights council that was part of the government. The commission, however, is a different sort of body, according to Gabriel. It will be headed by a human rights activist and include representatives from NGOs and political parties as well as politically independent figures. Gabriel related that in the announcement the king made clear the new commission will "enjoy an autonomy away from the government authorities."
It remains to be seen what impact, if any, this body will have. But it does suggest, Gabriel said, that unlike in other countries caught up in violent uprisings (Libya, Yemen), in Morocco there "is not that animosity between king and country." Gabriel also suggested that there may be a lesson for American and Middle East officials. For years, many policy gurus assumed that in the Middle East the "only thing that mattered was a job. In Tunisia we found out that wasn't good enough." But in Morocco, Gabriel asked why the protests did not turn violent. Morocco remains a poor country (with a per capita annual income of about $4,000), but by opening up the political system, it seems to be weathering the Middle East storm better than most countries. Aside from the king's standing in the country, Gabriel argued, "it's this political space for people to demonstrate and to debate, to make sure their voices are heard" that is key.That should inform American policy and serve as a warning to regimes in Jordan, Syria, Algeria and even Saudi Arabia.
I asked Gabriel more generally about the Obama Middle East policy. He termed it "befuddled" and said that events in Tunisia and Egypt "caught them flat-footed." He noted that the State Department's undersecretary for political affairs, William Burns, has traveled to the region trying to get "good information" so the Obama administration can formulate a coherent policy. Gabriel believes Obama officials "want to stay on the right side of democracy and reforms" but haven't translated that into a "strategic vision for the region." Perhaps, Gabriel suggested, "it would help to ask what is going right, and then to play off a strong model."
It makes perfect sense, but it is far from clear that the Obama team has the drive and the skill to do so.
Posted by: Orientalist | March 4, 2011 2:24 PM | Report abuse