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Dr. ABDELMAJID HAJJI
Washington / Morocco Board News-- “I don’t understand anything,” interjected a Moroccan man in resignation this Sunday, Feb. 26, as thousands marched in the main boulevards of Casablanca in a carefully hemmed protest, hoisting ample supplies of unflattering slogans and banners against Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria.
So, what’s going on in the region that is causing many to forfeit faith in their judgment?
How do we disentangle the skein of occurrences, such as the march against Bashar Al Assad in Casablanca, the presence of Hilary Clinton in Rabat, the fast deteriorating security situation in Syria, the “Friends of Syria Summit” in Tunis, the huge new US embassy compound in Rabat, and the sputtering Al Jazeera, which to this day has failed to inform with regard to the Syrian issue, let alone make the case for a “just” war?
Even in the mind-stretching atmosphere of the post Arab Spring, and notwithstanding the presence of few Syrian émigrés in Morocco, the sight of twenty thousand North Africans shouting “Irhal” (go away) in the face of President Assad is by any reasonable account a piece of implausible political extravagance. True, relayed gavel-to-gavel by Aljazeera and Al Arabiya, the bloody images from Baba Amr, Homs, and other Syrian localities have reached Moroccan hearts; as they have undoubtedly the conscience of millions around the world. But it is the other sounds and sights from the region which are confounding ordinary citizens as well as the radar of the most tested political traffic watcher of the Middle East.
Marching against Bashar, for Clinton
Rabat had its million-man march in 2003; but that was against a forgone decision by the US to attack and invade Iraq. This time around, the anti-Assad protest was welcome news for a United States on the look-out for any noise that will drown down the sound of shelling in Syria and temporarily mask the apparent helplessness of the Americans as they pondered ways to deal with the humanitarian and security quandary. It was also a fitting greeting by Morocco to its trusted and influential long-time friend, Mrs. Hilary Clinton. Morocco was the Secretary’s last stop in a four-nation waltz, taking her from a London summit (on Somalia) to Tunis (for the “Friends of Syria Summit”) and briefly through Algiers for a dinner break with ailing President Bouteflika; a detour meant to manage sensibilities as well as to nudge Algeria to be more forthright this time in its condemnation of the Syrian dictator (and avoid the isolation it awkwardly found itself in as it supported Muammar Kaddafi till his last gasp).
Baptism by protesting crowds of indignant Arabs and Muslims was also the type of visible action lacking from the effort to dislodge the head of the Syrian regime. In an interview with CBS Television from her hotel in Rabat on the day of the protest, Mr. Clinton was impatient to see more visible signs of rejection of the Ba’thist regime from the Syrian people themselves in, for example, the important cities of Damascus and Aleppo. In an international order that still reveres sovereignty, repeated popular outcries maintain searing heat against sitting dictators as well as lend momentum to diplomacy.
The Limits of Qatar- and Al Jazeera-Led Diplomacy
The “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis, staffed by diplomats from over seventy nations but shunned by veto-wielding Russia and China, demonstrated the limits of diplomacy as coaxed overnight from a heterogeneous gathering of “friends”; too many to stack behind a single vision or plan.
This summit also established the serious limitations of Arab media activism; astoundingly successful in the events leading to regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Al Jazeera and its arch-rival-turned road companion, Al Arabiya, have clearly misjudged the effect of prolonged coverage of revolutions on weary viewers. Hollywood should have provided the confirmation that sequels rarely succeed; so the television stations that literally supplied the street addresses in Cairo for the rebels to amass and charge, among other forms of overt and covert assistance, have caused irreparable fatigue in Arab viewers with the Syrian dossier. Even when done professionally --and that means rarely—Al Jazeera’ and sister channels’ coverage of the events in Syria has simply failed to inform; an indispensable step if you further plan to persuade. For one thing, it seems that Al Assad used to his advantage the advance notice provided by the flight of the Tunisian president and hermetically closed his country’s borders, depriving the media from the proximity to the events and their backgrounds. Equally, Syrian television media learned from its adversaries the use of the split screen technique to carry across pro-regime protests in different cities; cheekily going to the very places the outside media had announced earlier as being zones of riots or military brutality.
The Syria events as relayed by outside media may have seriously compromised the feelings of triumph over the maturing of citizen journalism and the demise of the traditional model of news delivery. Effective in previous rebellions in Egypt or Bahrain, the video feeds from the splintered Syrian rebels on the ground had not achieved the intended result. Too inconclusive at times, blurry all the time, and a trifle over-elaborated (as a clapboard-type banner usually announces the time, the place, the occasion and slogan of the day at the beginning of each video) the feeds compelled the hapless audience member to either stop paying attention to them or, worse, start paying close attention to their probable artifice. To make matters worse, Arab viewers woke up each morning to anchors blaring without a great deal of conviction the number of the dead--usually between twenty and forty, every now and then spiking to a hundred-- with no credible identification (civilians, militants, army or police), no recognizable sources, and certainly no attempt to investigate the stories. The slogan that kept the Qatari station defiantly afloat despite myriad attempts to drown it, “the opinion and the other opinion,” has been abandoned or severely circumscribed.
It was known all along, and redundantly established by a Wikileaks document, that Aljazeera is being used by its sponsoring country as a tool to further its foreign relations goals. If somebody still harbors a doubt, a review the tape of events in Libya will uncover a channel exceeding its mandate to inform and becoming a public relations outfit for concurring major international players on the ground. If it is granted that symbiotic links exist between Al Jazeera and Qatar’s foreign services, it may not be surprising to discover that the discomfiture of the state of Qatar as it haltingly attempts to rally support for an armed intervention in Syria finds its full and fitting reflection in the untidy coverage of its media arm. It could also be equally argued that that the hard work of the Qatari foreign minister is unwittingly being undermined by the failure of Al Jazeera to successfully convey the simple message that that all means are justified to stop the brutal regime in Syria from killing thousands unjustifiably. All in all, the adage apocryphally attributed to W. R. Hearst, namely: “you furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war,” failed to play itself out with regard to Aljazeera in Syria, when it arguably did for the recent events in the region—and surprisingly drew no public rebuke for the practice . Arab television media may well pride itself on being an all-powerful game changer in the Middle East; but a closer consideration will reveal that this may be possible only when sufficient factors and the right dynamics coalesce on the ground.
If Qatar and Al Jazeera, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia succeeded in staving off Al Assad’s plan to divide the Arab League (and instead used the club to hound the Syrian regime), these Gulf powerhouses staggered when faced with the issue of what do next. In Tunisia, Clinton got the confirmation, if that was needed, that the Gulf countries may cajole diplomats into line in the evening only to see them disperse in the morning. The majority of the nations who agreed to attend the Tunis “Friends of Syria Summit” took refuge in the non-committal stance of support for the defenseless Syrian civilians without outside intervention, with no hint as to how that could be achieved. But if Mrs. Clinton found the principle of ripeness missing in Tunis, she was dead right to be in the Maghreb region.
Clinton Courts the Islamists of North Africa
Soon to turn completely green this coming spring, as the elections in Algeria then will almost certainly yield an Islamist majority, Clinton sensed that the Islamists’ hatred of the Ba’athist regime which had butchered thousands of Islamists in Aleppo twenty years ago may be harnessed and directed against Bashar Al Assad. What is more, the Islamists who came to (share) power in this region would look despicable to their newly disenfranchised constituencies if they do not disown the Syrian dictator. If we add to the above the region’s strategic position on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, together with an important population fairly receptive to Western ways and messages, we will then understand why the Americans are willing to give the region a fresh look with perhaps the same weight they have accorded the oil-rich Gulf since the fifties.
Other considerations for the shift westward are no less substantial: America’s reputation has suffered enormously in the Middle East as a result of two inconclusive and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as by a nagging perception that the present administration has reneged on its promises to act decisively on the Palestinian issue. Recent temperature takes reveal a lingering mistrust of the United States, despite the Obama factor and the considerable investment in resources, arms, and men in the region. Another headache for the US administration is Iran, whose nuclear ambitions failed to scare the bulk of Muslims in the region who instead see parity with nuclear Israel and the deterrent nature of nukes as reasons not to be alarmed. Regarding this issue, what is more disquieting for the region is not Israel’s anxiety to eliminate what they regard as an Iranian threat (they lived prosperously with this unsubstantiated threat since the Iranian revolution), but the likelihood that this US administration will be dragged to do Israel’s bidding and thrust the region into another destructive round of strife. Israel wants to attack in Summer 2012 at the latest, else it is too late; the US is also eying Summer 2012, but with eager hopes to find the Middle East a changed place then: without Bashar Al Assad in Syria; a Hezbollah busy trading its military advantage with a prominent position within Lebanon’s political architecture, and finally an Iran mellowed by the loss of its allies to the West and willing to reassure about its nuclear program.
If then the rich Gulf allies are perceived to be tainted and too cavalier to be credible with regard to the Syrian dossier; transferring some of the weight to the Maghreb is not only common sense but great strategy. The demographic, economic, strategic and moral weight of the Maghreb countries should constitute a formidable second flank (the first being the GCC countries). The pincer movement from the Gulf in the East and the North Africa from the West may now begin; the goal being the containment of the Shia crescent by eliminating a key component of it, Syria. Of all the countries in North Africa, Morocco stands out as the one most positioned to co-lead the charge, if one becomes necessary. It did so effectively but gingerly in Libya; and now it is being approached to help with the toppling of the Al Assad regime, the sooner (before July and Ramadan) the better. The quizzical Casablanca march may be partially construed as an attempt to woo and a sign of acceptance of this new role.
The Road to Morocco Leads to Damascus
Morocco is no great power; its military and economic reach being extremely modest. But the North African country was in far humbler shape in 1943, when F. D. Roosevelt met his Second World War allies outside Casablanca to plan the European strategy against Germany-led axis powers. Now as then --but now more than ever-- Morocco may sport its unique asset as a geo-strategic hub in the global future spheres of trade and commerce, maritime security, policing of drug trafficking, the environment, immigration and other issues. Morocco occupies a place of choice as a strategic node and a transfer hub in the concentric circles of the Maghreb, the EU, the Arab, the Mediterranean, the West African and the Atlantic. In this architecture, the USA may presciently opt to affect these spheres by taking the road to Morocco.
Never before, at least since James G Blaine, Secretary of State in the James A Garfield administration (1889-1892), did a foreign secretary in time of peace rally with such focus a drove of nations behind a host of strategic interests of the United States (as Blaine did for the American Latin nations then). Dubbed “Big Brother” and seen as an extension of the Monroe doctrine, Blaine’s drive to assert American power within Latin American nations is now being mirrored in the MENA region by Mrs. Clinton. Descending at this moment on Morocco and the region with the focus of an eagle and the rustle of a dove’s wings, Clinton also proved that she can multi-task as the best operating system out there.
Keeping an eye on the interlocking issues of Syria, Israel, and Iran, Clinton moved decisively to hedge the US future bets on the Arab region through the symbolic ground breaking of a super US Embassy Complex in Rabat. Not the monster sprawl of Baghdad; but an ultra-modern, $187 million structure to be finished before February 2015, to comfortably serve 300 staffers. If Qatar has its Udeid air base from which the US crippled Saddam’s assets in the previous Gulf wars, Rabat will have its important American compound, strategically overseeing the Gibraltar Strait, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Sahel region and Southern Europe. No streaking jets here but humming bits and bytes, as befits a military ground asset in the digital age. The United States, despite the depressed economic times, is determined to maintain its pride and power visible. Morocco on the other hand may breathe more easily now that the valuable backing of the most powerful nation in this unipolar world has been secured; this after only a few years into the reign of Obama, who was initially viewed with some misgivings by the Moroccan government as somebody least likely, ideologically, to endorse its position on the Western Sahara dispute.
For Morocco, the distinction is earned. Morocco was the first country to recognize the new American republic in 1776, and the Barbary State (as Morocco was referred to then) never broke the bonds of friendship, neither in paper nor in reality. The “Perdicaris affair” (on which the 1973 film, The Wind and the Lion, is loosely based) involving the kidnapping of a presumably American national by a Riffian chieftain, did not sore relations with America. On the contrary, the Algeciras Conference (1906) provided Theodore Roosevelt then with the opportunity to play a more assertive role, arguing for special treatment for Morocco as the European powers were determined to pounce on the weak kingdom. More recently, in 2005, the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) between Morocco and USA was ratified. More recently, Morocco moved to occupy the important Arab and African seat in the Security Council for the period 2012-2013; and in this capacity will prove valuable as the United States drags the Syrian issue time and again in the corridors of the United Nation.
Mrs. Clinton may reap additional benefits from betting on the region. Only a few months ago, the Arab Spring unleashed the Islamists from their imposed exile to elected positions of power, albeit shared with other persuasions, in Tunisia and Morocco. Doubts circulated as to the opportunity of engaging these Islamists to drop their suspicion of the West and concentrate instead on providing peace and prosperity for their peoples. The suspicion soon dissipated as the Islamist-led governments in Tunisia and Morocco surprised all by their resilience and understanding of the intricacies of ruling in a globalized world, as well as by the assurances issued about individual and group liberties. Clinton soon received confirmation, through the Tunisian Foreign Minister and his Moroccan counterpart, that the Islamists of all stripes also want Bashar Al Assad gone. In the protest in Casablanca, the Islamists were quite visible.
But Clinton is craving for more than moral street support in the case of Syria; however vital this may be at this moment. In her BBC and CBS interviews in Rabat on February 26, on the occasion of the launching of the construction of the new embassy compound, Clinton stopped short by a hair width from publicly calling for the arming the Syrian opposition. Pressed by the CBS journalist for the US game plan and how to stop the violence in Homs, she uncovered quite a patch of her mind:
So maybe at the best, you can smuggle in automatic weapons, maybe some other weapons that you could get in. To whom, where do you go? You can’t get into Homs. Where do you go? And to whom are you delivering them? We know al-Qaida. Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaida in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?
This is not the first time the US interests overlap with those of the very groups America considers as terrorists. Afghanistan comes to mind; there Bin Laden, one of the Mujahidin, turned his hate on America after the Russians retreated. But times have changed, and the US must have vanquished some of their misgivings in Libya about groups they have up till now labeled Islamic radicals or terrorists, even turning a blind eye as NATO and other countries supplied them with arms and intelligence in order to unseat Muammar Kaddafi. Was Clinton mulling the eventuality of harnessing the unpleasant energy of such groups from North Africa, in the same manner Nordic countries harvest steam and geothermal energy from the terrorizing force of volcanoes? This is not a far-fetched eventuality; and the anguish-filled statement above does not categorically preclude it. If Russia persists in propping up the Syrian dictator and NATO refuses to intervene --for among other things the financial cost in cash-strapped Europe and the unpleasant aftertaste from the Libya expedition-- the option to look the other way or arm yesterday’s listed enemies may be the cost-effective gadfly that will disorientate and undermine Al Assad.
This is not the first time North Africans have come to the rescue of a distressed American damsel. The film, The Arab (1924), by Irish American director, Rex Ingram (who also loved and spent years in North Africa ), revolves around a love relationship between a Christian missionary’s pretty daughter and Jamil, the son of an Arab chief; culminating in the rescue of the girl and the Christians from a massacre. Jamil (played by Ramon Novarro) likes to describe himself as “the best dragoman in the world,” and therefore is proud of and often shows a testimonial written for him by an American which he thinks contains his praise but actually reads thus: “Jamil is the finest little liar in this country of liars, and as a dragoman he is a bunco artist.”
Despite saving the white girl and the Christian mission (brazenly erected by the side of a mosque, as a reviewer was able to remark then) from destruction by marauding Arabs, Jamil and the girl do not unite in the customary Hollywood salute to the divinity of love and family. Although the ending is strategically left open, contemporary reviewers surmised the relationship will go unconsummated. The July 16 (1924) issue of Variety had this colorful comment:
The “happy ending” is wisely left “open” –it is asking too much for her to dismiss the handsome noble Moslem who has saved her and her whole white family and flock, given up his indigenous rascalities for her and fallen in love with her; yet he is “tan,” by birth and tradition, and she is white –oh, so white.
Luckily for Clinton, attitudes to miscegenation have changed and are at least not relevant in the diplomatic sphere. However, it is fair to say that despite the torrent of favorable statements and signs of affinity from the North Africans and the Americans, the question of course remains whether each party will deliver what the other party hankers after: development for North Africa and security and a position of leadership for the Americans. Beyond the rhetoric, none is now willing or is capable of transcending the numerous impediments (ranging from the economic to the cultural) to effectively and constructively respond to the challenges faced by one or the other. At this time, Mrs. Clinton and her administration are fighting for more than regime change in a Middle Eastern country; the real stakes are to be found in how the US sees its role and standing in the world during the next thirty years. America understands it had no success in Iraq nor in Afghanistan and it behooves it to keep these experiences in sight as they plan to camp in another part of the Middle East; hopefully neighborly and peacefully.
Can Mrs. Hilary Clinton afford to be more forthright, constant, and responsive to this region’s overtures than pretty Mary Hilbert in the film a hundred years ago?
Author: Dr. Abdelmajid Hajji is a professor at Moulay Ismail University in Meknes, and adjunct professor at Al Alakhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. He teaches International Communication & Peace and Conflict Resolution.