October 24, 2007
MENA Reform: Reform is Dead, Long Live Reform
In part provoked by stunningly irritating conference call with idiots (aka known as 'funders") and in part by getting this piece of silliness emailed to me by some of the same participants, the recent naming of a government in Morocco (for which you can see some useful French commentary chez Ibn Kafka, whose 2nd home at Aqoul sadly awaits the intervention of a mystery writer coming out with a stunning review of some Somali chick...) is a moment to reflect on reform, via this flawed although not entirely useless article in FT (if one closes one's eyes to the idiocy of quoting the USFP). I will add that yes it is clear that England is clearly stringing together his series of quotables, poor bastid is a bit at sea.
First, in preface, let me say that I have long held the opinion that political reform can not really take place except when driven by economic change. At the same time, my dear Ben Ali in Tunisia shows that economic progress without political reform in our MENA region, well can go down a blind alley to be polite.
This aside, at the same time there is a real occasion for MENA emerging markets (see e.g. in FT here, with Wolf here and in a rather more short term view, but with value - maybe not once in a lifetime, but fairly close - to make changes that might generate enough non-clienteliste "middle class" and elites to slowly drive real political change. Perhaps not warm and fuzzy Western European low-cut jeans political democracy and maybe rather more Victorian Era royalist democracy, but one should be realistic in one's goals. 
That being said, there is a difference between realism and self-deception or realistically based compromise. Sadly the Americans who are driving MENA "reform" haven't the slightest bloody clue and quite frankly are combining the worst of airy aspirations and language - let us call it Democracy Theory - and vulgar semi-realist whoring. I call it semi-realist as it rather seems infected with a nasty combination of wishful thinking, superficial realism (i.e. Moubarek is our friend of the moment so we'll bloody well get buggered for him) and short-termism of a highly mediocre nature. The first parts rather resemble the worst parts of the French engagement in their colonies - unlike the self-interested exploitation by England, with some facade (and I would opine governance suffered where self-interest was weak and self-fellating lies were strongest) of "civilising"
I would rather prefer pure out and up front vulgar opportunism over the same dressed up in "Democracy Promotion" that would tend to discredit the same - in the same manner that I found the insane, utterly magical "market promotion" of the American "Coalition Provisional Authority" disastrous as it gave a stick for Left Bolshy illiterates like Naomi Klein to make a point (and sadly although she was off in fantasy land as usual, her critiques sadly hit home as the cartoonishly ... ideological Bush Administration (whose Bolton only confirms what a dangerous and bloody Bolshevik like lala land they are in).
But returning to the FT analysis - or article rather - that I lazily prefer to work off of:
When King Mohammed named Abbas el-Fassi as Morocco’s new prime minister, some saw it as a positive sign for the north African state’s fledgling democracy. He was after all the leader of the party that won most parliamentary seats in September elections.
That would no doubt be this crack smoking silliness.
The long-awaited announcement of a new government last week has, however, confirmed the view of government critics that reform is off the monarch’s agenda.
They regard many of the 34 cabinet members as palace appointees with little or no relation to the four parties that make up the ruling coalition.
“We didn’t advance in terms of democracy, the government was not chosen by the prime minister, it was chosen by the king’s advisors,” says Omar Balasrej, a member of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP). “Eleven posts are not party members…and even within the other posts you have several who just have the colours of a party.”
Well, let me comment that the sad-sack government that the Moroccan monarch appointed is not a sign of flagging reform because the incompetent cretins of the USFP were not appointed to positions, or that several Ministerial posts were filled by technocrats rather than the mediocritities of the party system (although as Ibn Kafka rightly pointed out if I recall, the mediocrity of the parties is very much encouraged and promoted by the Makhzen system, of course of which the Ahl Fassi are the superb products).
Rather, by all accounts, this government with one or two exceptions looks rather like the worst of both worlds, a combination of time-serving cretins from the parties and time serving cretins from the palace circuit.
The nuking of the talented if massively ego-centric head of Attijariwafa Bank, behind which was clearly Palace oriented politics, suggested that the Palace servitors who value boot licking cretinism in Morocco have the upper hand over those with a modicum, however limited and dim, of perception and sense of future.
Others say the formation of the government – which has new finance and foreign ministers - highlights the weaknesses of Morocco’s political parties.
The four parties have a total of 146 seats in the 325-member assembly. The system ensures that no single group can achieve a majority, forcing the leading party, in this case Mr Fassi’s traditional and conservative Istiqlal, to form a coalition.
It took a month to form the cabinet, during which some politicians were accused of switching affiliations to gain positions, while parties drew criticism for making little mention of policy as they divided up the posts.
I can almost id who are FT journo is channeling here.
Of course the government does indeed reflect the bankruptcy of the parties as well as the myopia of the current political elite (whose sad self-fellating is regularly seen in the francophone press). Myopia.
USFP, which was one of the main losers in the elections, falling from first to fifth place in terms of seats, accepted five cabinet posts even though some members see the government as devoid of power.
Et quelle surprise. This is about rents, not ideology.
Now, mind you, I am no fan of ideology as such, preferring pragmatic flexibility, but utter absence of any standards at all, other than seeking more rents to extract while piously mouthing fake slogans in "solidarity" with the populace that is taxed purposelessly by the very image of Leviathan, well, that has nothing to recommend it - not even competence sadly.
Indeed, let me add that in region - Maghreb or MENA one constantly runs into pious whinging on about politicians only looking after own interests.
Well, welcome to the bloody real world. Looking after the idealised greater good only exists in abstract political texts. So when one looks for "greater good" oriented politicians, one is looking for unicorns. Rather better is to have a political system that aligns those politicians real incentives with the national incentives - however roughly - and reduce the opportunity for them to seek rents to extract.
However, pious quasi Leftism is deeply soaked into the political framing in region, so we have this constant chorus of disappointment - constantly seeking the impossible of activist government without rent seeking. Leaving this aside, oddly the question of just plain competence is rarely raised. Doubtless as it is hard to openly question the basic competence of actors without getting oneself in court.
And of course the only people who seem to focus on the issue of competence are the Islamists (who, whatever their own magical thinking about religious piety resolving corruption, contrary to thousands of years of contrary empirical evidence, at least at an operational level seem to put real effort into competence, at least some modicum of a semblance of the same).
The Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist party that came second, remains in opposition, where, its members say, it will be more active and take its opposition to the streets.
Indeed it is likely to be more effective... although I am worried that in Moorocco and Tunisia there is not enough of a safety valve - and riots over rising prices is going to put pressure on the Maghrebine states to take anti-liberal market measures. Hopefully this will be minimal to cover the basics rather than massively distorting and unwind the long-term good of the baby steps of liberalisation to date.
Many Moroccans displayed their displeasure with politicians at the polls - turnout was at a record low of 37 per cent - and some are already questioning how long the government will last.
A key player, observers say, will be Fouad Ali al Himma, who is close to the king and stepped down from his position as one of Morocco’s most powerful men to run in the elections. He now heads a bloc of parliamentarians who support the ruling coalition, giving it a parliamentary majority.
“The politicians in the government have less and less influence,” says Ali Amar, editor of Le Journal. “There’s no more democratic transition.”
But others are more positive, saying the cabinet includes able technocrats and pointing out that the representation of women has risen from two to seven.
I grow ever more sick of the "Representation of Women" - virtually all from privileged elite backgrounds - as a sign of "progress."
Some pet bloody Fassi women in Parliament do not progress make. It changes fuck all in reality. But the superficial whankers in the outside world - plus the equally superficial pseudo-secular elites are seduced by this superficial symbolism (as if, for example, having a Benazir Bhutto did anything at all for the "status" of Paki women - and to be clear, no I think it did fuck all).
Women and gays. Why, unless MENA societies are aping immediately the latest cutting edge mores and habits of elite Western society (or rather their elites are aping the other elite), we can't really be having progress...
Morocco’s business elite sees the king as better able to push ahead with economic reforms than politicians who are often viewed as incompetent, says Hassan Alaoui, president of Success Publications.
He says the king has a 12-year plan to tackle the massive economic and social challenges facing Morocco, and democratisation will occur as the political parties and the population mature in a country with high levels of illiteracy and poverty.
“Whether we have Abbas el-Fassi or we have another prime minister who is more brilliant, the king, the palace, will remain the driving force behind development,” he says.
“We have understood that the political community does not have the guts you need to take on the economic and social challenges. They don’t have the knowledge to drive the economy… they don’t have the strategy, they don’t have the human resources to plan and move to action.”
Not entirely unfair, this comment, although he glosses over the why, nor am I certain that the market oriented business elite with which I deal is genuinely convinced the King is better than sliced bread.... given certain recent events and queer interventions where competition touched on his interests.....
But compared to most party cretins, well... it is an unfair competition.
One western diplomat says the elections were the most transparent the Arab world has known and that the process of forming the government has simply highlighted that overall democratic reform cannot take place in the absence of internal reform among the parties.
You know, I think I know who said this...
There is much to be said for the second part of the observation (although of course internal reform of the parties has Makhzen interference), but the first part... eh. Whatever.
1. I should note that I am not i any way seduced by any more than Abraaj's attempt to exit its BCCI logic via an IPO - quite the contrary, these efforts rather represent the downside...and anyone who sucks up either's explanations is a fool. Mind you none of this is to support the shrieking hysteria of Dubai Ports World is a threat from the port investment period, but "not a security threat" and "good investment for a minority investors on a home market controlled listing...", well that is a different analysis.
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Thanks L. I can't say any of it is terrribly surprising, other than just how stupid some people are whom you'd think wouldn't be.
I particularly like this observation:
Why unless MENA societies are aping immediately the latest cutting edge mores and habits of elite Western society(or rather their elites are aping the other elite), we can't really be having progress....
Not only MENA, but any country anywhere, really.
I've been reading a bio of Sir Edward Coke, Attorney General to Elizabeth I and James I. I'd like to see what our current crop of 'Democracy Promotion' guys would have made of Britain at that time. It would certainly be comic for students of history. And guys like Coke, Bacon and the Cecils, not to mention Elizabeth and James, would have run laps around them.
True, Britain has gone from having a monarch who would imprison Parliamentarians for criticizing him/her (not however if both houses took a combined stand) to having all the universal sufferage and Civil Union you could want, but it's been 400-odd years. And 400-odd years of very specific history, at that. Why do we think everyone else in the world is going to get to the same end-state overnight? Why would we think everyone is going to exactly the same end-state anyway, or that our great-grandkids won't think we are as full of it as we think the Victorians were?
Posted by: Antiquated Tory at October 26, 2007 05:45 AM
On the good ole' argument of "only the king/duce/jefe-de-moco-verde has proven able to do so and so"...
While granted, opposition political parties haven't proven particularily pragmatic in their ability to have their share of power - or skilled in using it when they had some - there is talent technically speaking. I know a few people who'd be able to turn the country positively upside down in a few years if they were put in charge. There's nothing in MENA that a small group of average skilled managerial or entrepreneurial minded technocrats couldn't do...
... provided they understand that politics are a fact you have to accept and manage in any organization, be it a government or a corporation bigger than a pop-corn street seller.
Aside from the lack of vision of the ruling rentiers and the opposition - whether the rentiers wannabes or the wishful thinkers - the people who have most of the skills to change things are usually heard whining about how it would be so much better if only the Messiah ruled MENA.
They consistently lack that one grasp with reality. For them, real politics as they are in the real world are a dirty disease that only corrupt people engage in. It isn't a fact of life or an area where skills also need to be developed because it will always impact them whether they play ostriches or not.
Not to mention the fact that the underlying higher morality pretext is actually more of an excuse for their individual inertia and lack of boldness. Just like the argument above in fact, by framing ability to change in a "either the king, or the opposition" exclusive choice.
Which brings me to Rather better is to have a political system that aligns those politicians real incentives with the national incentives (...) Doubtless as it is hard to openly question the basic competence of actors without getting oneself in court.
No one needs to be a hero. But if some individual has compentence to offer, rather than finding excuses for not using them, it's actually win-win to become buddies with your favorite (or least disliked) ruling (or wannabe ruling) bozo and work with him on your projects.
Part of Spain's switching to democracy happened that way in the last years of Franco.
Part of Spain's switching to democracy happened that way in the last years of Franco.
Not directed at your post, Shaheen, but about the use of Spain as an example. This is always brought up as a role model for democratization of Morocco. On the surface, it seems alright: liberal Mediterranian king hands power to opposition, country avoids civil war, The End.
But the monarchy in Spain wasn't very much like the one in Morocco. For one thing, it wasn't in power -- Franco and his ilk were, until the very end, and it was thanks to them there even was a monarchy. The monarchy as an institution bridged and directed the transition from Francoism to democracy, which was of course an important role, but it could perhaps also have been played by others. In Morocco, democratization is about getting the monarchy to dismantle itself -- not abolish, but to withdraw from being the source of all power into the constitutional/ceremonial background, without collapsing society at the same time. That's something quite different from the Spanish example.
I think the constant references to Spain do more harm than good, and Moroccans would be better advised to look for other models. Maybe it's just me being nearsighted, but Scandinavia seems a case in point. There you had really powerful monarchies who were gradually, and for the most part involuntarily, edged out of power, as they were forced, pushed and sweet-talked into modernizing the economy and state structure. That happened over something like 100 years, and was never the question of a king suddenly organizing elections and, voilà, democracy. Instead, the important pro-change actors were (a) liberal/weak kings, (b) the political, cultural & business elites (respectively: pro-democracy, pro-liberalism, anti-state interference), and (c) broad social movements, like labor unions, the alcohol prohibition movement and radical Christian revivalist congregations who were opposed to the ruling system because it denied them their particular demands (labor rights, religious freedom, etc).
Sure there are huge differences, both between the countries and the historical setting, but that's true for Spain and Morocco too. Perhaps Ibn Kafka has some strong opinions on this?
Posted by: alle at October 27, 2007 05:46 PM
Looks like another case of wanting to see democratic baby steps in what is essentially upgrading authoritarianism.
Now, if Morocco all the sudden stops supporting the US, expect for these exact same elections to be compared to Iran's and for Mo VI to be called a dictator.
Posted by: Djuha at October 27, 2007 06:23 PM
actually I wasn't thinking of the Spanish monarchy at all, but about the pro-democracy technocrats who were present at all levels of government in the last years of Franco, and active after his death in competition with the less democratic currents.
In the Moroccan palace, like in any political configuration, there are different competing currents. It's moronic to think that the monarchy will dismantle itself willingly, and it doesn't have to. But it's also ignorance to think that the monarchy or people inside the palace are a monolithic block having free reign over Morocco. To the outside, they all have a common interest, that the monarchy survives obviously. But on the inside, each one is limited by the amount of weight the other currents put on their side of the balance.
If you're one of those non aristocratic but educated Moroccans whining about your government, there's nothing preventing you from being a good buddy with some makhzen folks and pushing for your projects. Don't be a maximalist and be aware that change doesn't come overnight. You'll then definitely find some amount of support. You'd serve your own personal interests that way, and incidently, you'd serve the "greater good", by aligning their interests to those in the populace of whom you're representative.
But hey, it's always easier to whine and throw the responsibility of you not being the big man you should be on the bad guys.
Hey, I agree with you, I'm not arguing against. My only point would be -- and you would obviously agree -- that what you're saying is true not only in Morocco, but everywhere: if good people refuse to dirty their hands with political reality, bad people will reign supreme.
But I had been thinking about this Spain/Morocco thing since before, and, well, you mentioned both countries in the same post, so...
Posted by: alle at October 27, 2007 09:07 PM