2011-02-09 February 20 is Morocco’s Day of Rage

A February 20 protest has been planned to restore “the dignity of the Moroccan people and for democratic and constitutional reform and the dissolution of parliament.” One of Morocco’s leading Islamist movements, Justice and Charity, which has an estimated 200,000 members and is banned from politics but tolerated, has called for “urgent democratic change.” It’s website states “It is unjust that the country’s riches should be monopolised by a minority.”

Abdesslam Yassine, leader of Justice and Charity does not challenge the monarchy itself, but refuses to recognise Mohammed’s religious title of Commander of the Faithful. He was put under house arrest for several years under King Hassan, but King Mohammed VI lifted the restriction shortly after coming to power in 1999. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, but the constitution allows the king to dissolve the legislature, impose a state of emergency and have a key say on the appointment of sensitive government portfolios, including the prime minister. Justice and Charity would like to replace the constitution with “a democratic one to mark a break with all aspects of autocracy … and monopolisation of authority and national wealth and preserves the human dignity of the Moroccan citizen”. “It’s an Islamism that is anti-establishment that is pushing for peaceful change,” said Islam expert Mohamed Darif of Justice and Charity. “It doesn’t talk about abolishing the monarchy.”

Economist Najib Akesbi calls Morocco “A young, largely idle population facing problems of lack of training, employment and prospects and a fairly closed political horizon,” and further says the country is plagued by corruption and nepotism. According to Human rights Watch in 2009, “Human rights conditions deteriorated overall in 2009 in Morocco, although the country continued to have a lively civil society and independent press. The government, aided by complaisant courts, used repressive legislation to punish and imprison peaceful opponents, especially those who violate taboos against criticizing the king or the monarchy, questioning the “Moroccanness” of Western Sahara, or “denigrating” Islam. … Police are rarely held accountable for violating human rights. In cases with political overtones, courts seldom provide fair trials; judges routinely ignore requests for medical examinations lodged by defendants who claim to have been tortured, refuse to summon exculpatory witnesses, and convict defendants on the basis of apparently coerced confessions.” The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern in a November 9, 2010 report over an “increasing climate of hostility for Spanish journalists in Morocco, highlighted by official measures to prevent Spanish journalists from covering clashes in the Western Sahara.”

The Moroccan Minister of Communication, Khalid Naciri, said on February 3 that the government felt “serene” about the calls for protests. “Morocco … has embarked a long time ago on an irreversible process of democracy and widening of public freedoms. That citizens are able to express themselves freely does not disturb us in any way.” He warned, however, that such protests must not harm national interests and constitutional values, but “Nothing suggests to us that it will be otherwise.”

“We intend to reassure those who are organizing protests on the internet that this is an entirely normal thing and is part of the democratic life of Morocco,” Telecommunications Minister Khaled al-Nasiri told newspaper Hespress. “We are used to such initiatives growing up and have for years been open to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Menouar Alem, ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco to the EU, said his country was stable because they had put in place a multi-party system, given workers freedom to unionise and enshrined people’s right to protest. Moreover, he said that the country had a consistent policy of promoting women’s rights, family planning and investing in human resources. King Mohammed VI has tried to reduce poverty and cut what was one of the highest illiteracy rates in the Arab world while developing infrastructure to attract foreign investment and create jobs. Rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have said the North African country of 32 million people is the least likely in the region to be affected by the wave of popular unrest.

2011-01-28 Cable: Qatar on the Israeli-Palestine talks, Egypt and Iran

US state cable 2010-02-24: 10DOHA71 outlines Senator Kerry’s meeting with Qatar’s Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani (HBJ) on February 13, 2010. In the meeting, HBJ stresses that it is a mistake to exclude Hamas from Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, equates Egypt to a physician with one patient, and accuses Egypt of having a vested interest in dragging out the talks for as long as possible. He also warned against a US military action against Iran.

HBJ told Senator John Kerry February 13 that “everyone in the region” seems to have a separate plan for moving ahead on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute when only one plan was needed; a plan that both the Israelis and Palestinians would accept and finalize. HBJ underscored that it is a mistake to ignore Hamas in seeking a lasting agreement. Saying this does not mean that Qatar expresses a preference for Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot sign off on an agreement on behalf of the Palestinians where open divisions exist.

Senator Kerry responded that we “are where we are.” He assessed that the Goldstone Report and dissatisfaction in Fatah’s ranks in the West Bank made it difficult for Abu Mazen to “give something to Israel” that would allow direct negotiations to begin between the parties. Add in Abu Mazen’s previous statements on the need for a full settlement freeze, and the ingredients for the Palestinian people to accept direct talks simply are not there.

Abu Mazen is out on a limb, responded HBJ. “He climbed a tree (drawing a line in the sand on settlements) and can’t get down.” HBJ noted that in conversations Qatar has held with Hamas’ leadership, it is clear that Hamas is ready to accept Israel’s right to exist. But the acceptance must come about gradually, not in one day. Senator Kerry said he had heard this elsewhere, but in his own conversations, he did not get the sense that Hamas was ready to accept Israel’s existence.

Qatar’s PM observed that the biggest obstacle on the Palestinian side to an eventual agreement with Israel is the reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah. HBJ maintained that it would have happened during the previous U.S. administration, but President Bush told Abu Mazen not to sign off on it. Reconciliation can happen, HBJ asserted, but only “if bigger countries in the region allow it.” The leaderships in Syria and Gaza consult each other, and no one leader in Hamas can take a decision alone, reported HBJ.

Chairman Kerry asked HBJ if Hamas is feeling political pressure from Gazans over their current living conditions. HBJ responded that anytime people do not have housing, schools or public utilities, their political leaders feel pressure.

According to HBJ, Egypt — the broker — has a vested interest in dragging out the talks for as long as possible. Egypt “has no end game; serving as broker of the talks is Egypt’s only business interest with the U.S.” HBJ likened the situation to a physician who has only one patient to treat in the hospital. If that is your only business, “the physician is going to keep the patient alive but in the hospital for as long as possible.” HBJ emphasized that Qatar, on the other hand, is interested only in bringing about peace in the region — and as quickly as possible.

HBJ noted that since its inception the Quartet has been anti-Hamas and aligned with the interests of Abu Mazen, Egypt and Jordan. These partners of the Quartet, observed HBJ, are the very partners who have not delivered a Palestinian-Israeli agreement.

Returning to his theme that “peace brokers” act in their own self-interest, HBJ observed that President Mubarak of Egypt is thinking about how his son can take his place and how to stave off the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian government, said HBJ, has jailed 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood members without bringing court cases against them. The Egyptian “people blame America” now for their plight. The shift in mood on the ground is “mostly because of Mubarak and his close ties” to the United States. His only utility to the U.S. is brokering peace between Palestinians and Israelis, so he has no interest in taking himself out of the one game he has, underscored HBJ. “Tell your friends (in Egypt) they must help themselves.”

As for Qatar, “We want to help Abu Mazen and the Palestinians,” declared HBJ. The short-term needs of Palestinians in Gaza are acute, said HBJ. We need to broker a quick reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and move forward quickly on rebuilding Gaza. Senator Kerry asserted that HBJ was preaching to the converted and told the PM he was “shocked by what I saw in Gaza.”

Continuing to illustrate how Egypt had not delivered for the U.S. on Palestinian issues, HBJ said Qatar was told in late 2008 that Israel and the U.S. needed the Egyptians to deal with the crisis in Gaza. Yet former Israeli PM Olmert later complained to Qatar that Egypt is a big country and not nimble; it could not move fast enough. Senator Kerry pointed out he was in Cairo at the time Qatar was calling for an Arab League Summit in December 2008/January 2009 and asked HBJ for his perspective on the rift between Qatar and Egypt at that time.

HBJ told Senator Kerry that Mubarak refused to come to Doha for a meeting of Arab leaders, preferring that the meeting take place in Riyadh. The request to move the meeting was relayed to Qatar by the Saudis, not the Egyptians. Saudi Arabia, as a big country like Egypt, has a vested interest in keeping Egypt afloat, said HBJ. The Saudis agreed to host the meeting in Riyadh not because they objected to traveling to Doha, but because the Egyptians did. “So we argued over the meeting location” while the Palestinians suffered, and we in Qatar “called a meeting and said whoever comes, comes.”

Qatar is worried, said HBJ, about Egypt and its people, who are increasingly impatient. Mubarak, continued HBJ, says Al Jazeera is the source of Egypt’s problems. This is an excuse. HBJ had told Mubarak “we would stop Al Jazeera for a year” if he agreed in that span of time to deliver a lasting settlement for the Palestinians. Mubarak said nothing in response, according to HBJ.

Asked his advice on bringing about an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, HBJ said President Clinton recognized before leaving office that Egypt was a problem. When President Clinton sought help at the end of his term in reaching a final deal, the Saudis and Egyptians did not encourage him, said HBJ. “They told him to do what he thinks right.” Culturally, said HBJ, that is the way Arabs say “you are on your own.” And President Clinton was, said HBJ.

Now we are at a stage, said HBJ, where Egypt does not want Arab League involvement in brokering a reconciliation agreement among the Palestinians unless the talks bog down. HBJ said he had told Abbas that climbing down from his tree on no settlement activity so that talks can go forward will require Arab support. But the Egyptians won’t allow it.

Senator Kerry noted that Special Envoy Mitchell had made a lot of requests of Arabs but with little success. Leaving Qatar aside, the Chairman asked HBJ for proposed next steps. HBJ said he trusts the Saudis, but because they talk openly to Egypt and do not want to create more problems for Egypt than the Egyptian government already has, it is essential to bring in the small countries and start there.

HBJ suggested one or two GCC members, Morocco (although the King there is hesitant) and Syria as the core membership of an Arab League committee to address Palestinian-Israeli concerns. HBJ told Senator Kerry the inclusion of Syria might surprise him, but having Syria play a role would create jealousy among the Arabs. Some jealously and rivalry is just what the U.S. needs, opined HBJ, to get the process moving.

Iran, Lebanon and Iraq

HBJ said Iran’s president views the U.S. as a country that is overstretched and in difficulty as a result of too many commitments. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. economy are the three main problems President Ahmadinejad sees. HBJ observed that a Western attack against Iran for Ahmadinejad would be good politics, because it would allow him to take out his opposition using the war as a pretext. Senator Kerry asked clarification of whether Ahmadinejad had said these things, or if HBJ inferred them from conversation.

Qatar’s PM said Ahmadinejad had told him, “We beat the Americans in Iraq; the final battle will be in Iran.”

HBJ said putting economic pressure on Iran is the best way to get the leadership to rethink its quest for nuclear weapons. To be successful, he told Senator Kerry, Russia would definitely have to be on board, as would the Central Asian countries bordering Iran that provide food and supplies.

Asked his perception of the state of play with the opposition, HBJ said the U.S. had done a good job of standing back and not becoming the symbol of the opposition. Cracks in the regime are appearing. It is highly significant that many demonstrators ignored Khamenei when he called on them to stop their protests. The four key pillars of Iranian power — the court, oil sector, imams, and Revolutionary Guards — all must stick with him, stressed HBJ. There are cracks in the system, but the downfall of the regime may not be in the cards.

Asked what the sanctions should target, HBJ said the money that Iran derives from oil. Depriving Tehran of this revenue would force the regime to negotiate.

Senator Kerry observed that Ahmadinejad was making it easier by his actions. There is wide consensus in the Executive and Legislative branches of Washington to press ahead. Senator Kerry warned that Ahmadinejad “should not equate Afghanistan and Iraq with what he faces.”

HBJ encouraged Chairman Kerry to bear in mind that Iran is clever and makes its opponents dizzy in the quest for deals. They will keep you working on a deal and then start from scratch with a new interlocutor. HBJ stressed that Iran will make no deal. Iran wants nuclear weapons, and HBJ said he would not be surprised to see Iran test one to demonstrate to the world its achievement.

On Lebanon, Senator Kerry asked if Iran and Hizballah are ratcheting up their weapons stockpiles as part of Iran’s war against Israel. HBJ affirmed that is the case.

On Iraq, HBJ told Senator Kerry that Prime Minister Al-Maliki wants a Shia state, even though the Sunnis (when you count Kurds and non-Kurds) have the majority.