What’s Going to Happen in the Middle East?

It’s been more than three months since my last blog on my home page.

Much has transpired in Washington, DC where I live and in US relations with the Middle East, from where I am writing. Contradictory statements and actions of the Trump Administration, on Syria for example, have observers puzzles as to the strategic thinking that support of statements and policies. From the White House to the NSC, the State Department and the US UN Ambassador, the Defense Department and the various official spokespersons, it is hard to find a thread on which to build an unencumbered understanding of this administration’s priorities. As it is becoming obvious to many, “American First” is not a policy; it is a point of reference for a tribal zero sum view of the world, not to mention the administration’s attitude towards its domestic critics. Throw in Congressional reluctance to be drawn into a lock step march on President Trump’s initiatives, and the brew certainly becomes toxic.

So here I am in Lebanon after a week of meetings with the country’s political/sectarian leadership, a weekend in Jordan catching up with friends, and back for more meetings and participation in the Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference of Lebanese from around the world. Of course it would be great to say that the country is on track to getting its act together and mobilizing its tremendous human capital…can’t say that, not even close. The bickering over the electoral law, in which each sect seeks to protect its own prerogatives, is just another indicator that this “democracy” has yet to evolve into institutions that support the state regardless of the political environment. Lebanon, as the eminent professor Michael Hudson wrote in 1968, is still the “Precarious Republic” splinted into multiple competing identifies of which “Lebanese” is not always even in the top three!

True, some compromises were made in accommodating competing demands in electing President Aoun and allocating ministries, yet the core question remains…who are the Lebanese who share a national identity? Unfortunately, while there are signs of less partisan attitudes among Lebanese youth and urbanites, this varies by class, background, and education. What remains is a country in a form of paralysis that is just enough to numb without destroying basic functions but not elastic or strong enough to take steps that reduce the inability to act consistently for the national good.

So what have I learned so far on this trip and what are the implications for US policy? Much of the analysis has not changed from earlier commentaries. Regrettably, countries from Mauritania to Iraq and the Gulf have structural and cultural barriers that inhibit much needed change. Witness the challenges that Saudi Arabia is facing in implementing Vision 2030. Issues decades in the making will not be resolved in months or even a few years. Among the most intractable are:

  • Uneven governance, wealth inequality, un- and underemployment, environmental degradation, and for countries with limited economic resources, inadequate public and social services in health, education, sanitation, water, and power, among others. In those states, particularly the Gulf oil monarchies that can buy solutions for infrastructure needs, the challenges of national employment and adequate market-based education still loom large.
  • Tied to this is the concept of leadership at the national and local levels. How is leadership determined and political priorities set? Is power-sharing between national and local governments on the agenda? Morocco and Jordan are among the few working on decentralization strategies to empower local communities. Maybe you have to have limited resources to be innovative and spread decision-making!
  • In their political systems, from political parties and real separation of powers, to Rule of Law and electoral politics, most of the Arab world gets poor grades for implementation.
  • The all-pervasive specter of corruption, from low level purchasing of goods and services to opaque government procurement processes, has not diminished. While some progress has been made, it is still an obstacle for international firms and investors and well as citizens.
  • Gender and youth inequality that robs the countries of productive roles from the majorities of their populations.
  • The negative consequences of multiple identities: religion, ethnic, tribal, and social differentiators,
  • The lack of coherent and integrated economic growth strategies with achievable results that benefit the economy broadly, supporting emerging and existing middle class citizens, and that deal with the presence of large communities of foreign workers who take jobs that locals disdain.
  • The interference of external factors such as regional politics, crises, and competition among the US, Russia, China, and others for influence.

Remedial Actions and Possible Initiatives

These do not represent all of the challenges in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region to becoming more engaged in citizen-centric and rule of law policies. But, as a checklist of potential areas for where the US can be useful, it’s a sufficient start. Of course, what will happen with US foreign assistance was a major question in both countries. The US supplies much of the weapons and supplies, and well as training for the Lebanese and Jordanian military. That will likely continue as Syria and ISIS are targeted by this administration.

In a companion blog, I will look at the administration’s political calculus on foreign assistance, which as of now seems muddled aside from supporting those who fight against “terrorism.” Hopefully, this will lead to some doable initiatives that both build on best practices and serve US interests in the always challenging MENA region.

IMF’s Christine Lagarde on Need for Strengthening “the Middle”

Speaks in Morocco on challenges of post-Arab Spring economic and human development

In Rabat on May 8, Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), provided her analysis and prognosis of the “The Arab Countries in Transition—Strengthening the Economic Middle,” an insightful overview of the challenges and trends in the region.

Lagarde noted that despite the overwhelmingly economic and political nature of the demands for change, all were grounded in a basic human need for dignity. She quoted noted Moroccan author Fatima Mernissi, “Dignity is to have a dream, a strong dream that gives you a vision, a world where you have a place, where your contribution, however small it may be, will change things.”

More than three years after the Arab Spring began in December 2010, unfinished reform and development agendas throughout the region are complex, difficult to manage in the short term, and vary widely in responses and successes. What began as demonstrations about lack of jobs and transparency across the region turned political as people felt that they lacked the levers by which to effect policy changes. And now that many political participation issues are being resolved in the transition countries, some are moving forward to consolidate growth strategies.

Citing Morocco as an example she said: “Countries like Morocco are reaping the fruits of their efforts by diversifying and spurring both exports and foreign investment—especially in high value-added areas like cars, aeronautics, and electronics.”

Yet Lagarde is clear that there is much still to be done if the goals of people and governments are to be met. “So the great challenges for the next step of the transition are clear: How to create the jobs needed to meet the aspirations of a rising generation. How to create a vibrant and dynamic economy that offers opportunities to all.” It is this link between economic needs and the elusiveness of ready solutions that frustrates both governments and society. What seem at street level to be easy answers, such as increased pay, subsidies, and public employment, are in fact corrosive factors that undermine a country’s capacity for economic growth in the medium and long term. “These tasks are daunting. To make inroads, we would need to see growth rates doubling from the current levels of around 3 percent. We also need to see growth feeding into jobs to a far greater extent than is currently the case.”

Success Comes from Building the Middle

Lagarde has no illusions about the difficulties ahead, but she believes that strengthening the “middle” of the economy, society, and state economic policies can lead to progress and solutions. “Strengthening the economic middle means giving a shot in the arm to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the formal sector. These are the kinds of firms that form the backbone of a healthy economy, and— in other regions of the world—are the main engines of job creation.”

Leather and brass souk in Morocco

Souk in Morocco

Note her emphasis “in other regions of the world” since, in the MENA region, SMEs generate less than 20 percent of the jobs in the formal sector. Moreover, because informal companies have no access to formal financing, are not protected by the regulatory environment, cannot guarantee labor rates and benefits, and lack the ability to access formal distribution channels, they are doomed to remain small players in creating jobs and wealth. Policies that transition the informal sector into a valued player in a country’s economic growth strategy are an essential ingredient in building the private sector and rewarding entrepreneurs.

Lagarde then addressed the importance of the second key “middle.” “Global experience tells us that we need a strong middle class to drive an economy forward. A strong middle class sustains consumption and invests in the future. A strong middle class makes societies more cohesive, and lays the groundwork for stability and prosperity. A strong middle class is also home to the kinds of entrepreneurs we need for today’s modern economy.”

One of the essential vehicles for growing a middle class is the kind of public-private partnerships Morocco is supporting that match the professional and technical expertise of private sectors with the economic and financial goals and policies of governments.  Through its incentives for investment, training, and site selection, and reforms to the education and training sectors, the government of Morocco is striving to promote entrepreneurism and mobility to the middle class through the third “middle” – balanced economic growth policies.

“Looking ahead, the state needs to step back from some areas and step forward in others. It needs to provide fewer blanket subsidies, and more of a basic safety net for people who fall through the cracks. Perhaps most importantly, it needs to become less of an employer, and more of an effective and impartial regulator and enabler of the private sector—the ultimate source of good jobs.” She adds, “Just look at Morocco. Over the past couple of years, it has managed to cut its subsidy bill while increasing spending on programs aimed at improving access to health and education for the poorest.”

Of particular interest to Lagarde is the importance of broadening opportunities for women. After recounting statistics that show the critical contribution greater female participations can make to a country’s GDP, she said “So it is imperative to let women contribute, by removing outdated obstacles and introducing enabling polices. After all, it was Ibn Rushd who said that ‘treating women like a burden to the men is one of the reasons for poverty.’ The logic is clear—greater opportunities for women mean greater rewards for everyone.”

Growth and Dignity

Christine Lagarde, IMF, in Morocco

Christine Lagarde, IMF

Christine Lagarde is no stranger to the challenges facing the MENA region and emerging economies globally. She has provided important leadership in the IMF’s response to crises ranging from the Ukraine to sub-Saharan Africa. And the IMF is evolving, with greater attention to its role as a facilitator rather than a guardian of strict and rigid growth mandates. Her focus on the “middles” represents a clear and deliberate enunciation of how Arab countries can move ahead in response to their particular needs for growing their economies and their societies.

Dignity does not derive from food and energy subsidies, shadow employment, or passive participation in society. Citizens want to feel that they are invested in by their governments and in turn they can invest in their country’s future. Valued jobs and a vibrant public space are vital ingredients in securing the stability and economic growth that nurture and protect the “middles” Lagarde describes. This is the daily agenda for the leadership and civil society in Morocco, where they are working to realize both economic and political agendas that encourage and facilitate human and economic development.

The Core of Democracy is not Elections – It’s Rule of Law and Civil Society

*Pundits wonder why democracy is failing judgment based on mistaken assumptions*

It’s hard not to look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the broader collection of emerging states without disappointment at what has happened to the democratic impulse that held so much promise at the end of the last century. Whether one is assessing the color revolutions in the former Soviet Union, the Arab Spring, the growth of democratic practices in Latin America, or Central Asia, the verdict is the same—why has democracy failed to grow deep and sustainable roots?The issue of the future of democracy has been addressed in several recent articles that should be required reading for anyone interested in something more than sound bites about freedom and progress. The core issues these articles address are: what are the ingredients that make democracy enduring and what are the factors that slow or inhibit its growth at a time when “people power” seems to have replaced the ballot box as a leading edge of change?

A major criticism directed at the “democracy now” crowd is their over-reliance on elections as the primary vehicle for expressing and managing change. The key question this bypasses is how to determine what people really want—is it a constitution that describes power sharing and the process of getting there, or is it a bill of rights that guarantees basic civil and human rights to the broadest possible number of citizens in a country?

In the MENA at least, where elections are an event rather than a reliable indicator of democratic values, the clear preference of the majority of Arabs, based on anecdotal and polling evidence, is to have their rights, with less concern about who can guarantee them, which goes to the longevity of the former leaders of Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria in the present, and others. Democracy/elections are perceived as a way to better determine distribution of economic benefits. This should come as no surprise, considering the lackluster progress in promoting democratic participation in governments, the weak mobilizing and educating roles of political parties, and the general sense of malaise when it comes to making institutional political reforms.

Resetting Assumptions about Democracy

In thinking through the future of democratic governance, a review of the indicators in the Freedom House Index, Freedom in the World, and the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index, demonstrates the complexity and singularity of the process of effective and equitable self-government. Rankings that are high on stability do not necessarily line up with those that reflect public participation in political space. Speaking to the brief attention span of reporting on political change, Anne Applebaum wrote “the creation of democratic institutions—courts, legal systems, bills of rights—is a long and tedious process that often doesn’t interest foreign journalists at all.”

In a similar vein, Stephen M. Walt wrote about the confusion between “a democratic government and a liberal society.” His point is that “democratic procedures do not guarantee that human rights will be protected, that individual differences will be tolerated and respected, or that public institutions—to include the press and intelligentsia—will not be corrupted or compromised.”

Reflecting on the source of much of the conflict within today’s emerging democracies, Walt writes that “Most importantly, a liberal society emphasizes toleration…” He raises a critical question in this regard, which goes to the heart of raising a liberal democracy today: “But it is much harder to convince a population to prize individual rights over collective identities and local traditions—and to impart in these citizens a sense of toleration for those who are different and for ideas that might seem dangerous or distasteful.”

Struggling for Clarity in the Democracy Debate

While the term democracy invokes a paradigm of responsible civic participation, it is difficult to balance the image with the reality. As Paul Pilar points out, “We should not apply the label of democracy where it does not belong.” In deciding how best to spend US democracy-promotion funding, it would be worthwhile to look at those countries that are growing the credibility of elections as well as focusing on capacity-building for civil society.

Civil Society Summit in MoroccoMorocco is a useful case in point. It not only has successfully held local and national elections that international observers have judged free and fair, it also continues to invest heavily in advancing its civil society capabilities. In the late 1990s, the late King Hassan II, sensing the shift in public sentiment towards having a greater role in governance, undertook two important reforms. He allowed the largest party in Parliament to nominate the Prime Minister, and he opened up opportunities for an empowered civil society as an antidote to bickering political parties. Over the next fifteen years, especially under his son King Mohammed VI, civil society continues to evolve as a potent force in defining political, human, economic, and social development priorities—quite separately from the political parties. More than 40,000 NGOs are currently registered in all areas of the country.

King Mohammed encouraged this activism by convening a year-long civil society dialogue under the National Committee for Dialogue on Civil Society. During the past year, the committee held 18 meetings that drew nearly 10,000 civil society activists, stakeholders, and officials who shared their perspectives on proposed legislation related to the forward status of NGOs. According to El Habib Choubani, the Minister for Parliamentary Relations, the goal of the effort is “to create a legal arsenal that can guarantee the freedom to create organizations” and ensure the “independence of civil society activity and governance.” Rather than treat civil society as adversaries or passive partners, the dialogue seeks to further the goal of the 2011 Constitution to enable civil society to play a major participatory role in the political life of the country. These efforts reflect the essence of building a liberal democracy—knowledge, access, power, and respect.

If all politics is local, then Morocco should focus on details of effective governance

Given that Morocco is on schedule to produce recommendations for implementing regionalization in its southern provinces, it is a good time to reflect on what is involved in regionalization, once it is defined in law.

There are at least four intersecting lines of authority involved in the devolution of power from the central government to locally elected officials:

  • The division of political/administrative decision-making among the central government, the regional authorities (currently 16 regions and 61/62 provinces), and local governments.
  • Prioritizing and managing the country’s economic investments, including infrastructure, economic development projects, tourism, agriculture, economic growth, entrepreneurship, and higher education.
  • Coordinating the provision of citizen services, including health, education (at all levels, including technical and vocational training), retirement, disability, and environmental services and monitoring.
  • Supporting all of these lines are mechanisms dealing with taxation, human and natural resources, accounting and reporting, and coordinated monitoring and evaluation of government performance.

Managing the transition to regionalization

This brief list gives a flavor of the complexity of moving ahead with regionalization. It is important to recognize that given this complexity, it may take up to a decade before full regionalization in any one area of Morocco is completely implemented.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of international experience that can help Morocco to meet the challenges of devolving authority and building the institutional and human capacity needed.

A good place to start to gather experience on the road ahead is at the 2nd World Summit of Local Leaders and the 4th Congress of United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) being hosted in Rabat this week.  With delegates attending from more than 100 countries, “The Summit is envisaged to be a unique opportunity to present and discuss concrete local solutions to world challenges. It will also be the occasion to define policy, shape action and set future strategic goals for the new international development agenda.”

Local governments throughout the world, and in places such as Morocco where the urban population now exceeds 70 percent of the population, are increasingly tasked with spearheading new delivery systems for social services, reducing congestion and pollution, balancing budgets through creating new and more efficient revenue sources, and integrating their initiatives and responsibilities within a larger, national fabric.

King Mohammed VI made Morocco’s commitment to this vision clear.  Addressing the UCLG Congress leaders, he acknowledged the “tremendous responsibility incumbent upon local and regional actors” for “building good governance within their territorial boundaries.”

He declared “It is no longer acceptable today that central governments should have exclusive authority in defining development strategies for local communities.”

Ensuring “local authorities have the necessary legal, financial and human resources” to “fulfill their mission,” the King said, “needs to be placed at the heart of local public policy.”

The Rabat meetings will enable local and regional leaders, multilateral partners, analysts and researchers, and specialists in the complexities of urban society to review and make recommendations regarding the next set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) within the framework of Habitat III, set to begin in 2016.

It is a prime opportunity for Moroccans to discuss the opportunities and challenges of moving forward with decentralization while ensuring quality of life for its citizens.

– See more at:

Engaging Stakeholders in Defining Future of Morocco’s So. Provinces

Having completed the second iteration of its assessment of the government’s performance in the Southern Provinces, the CESE traveled to Dakhla, the major tourism center in the region, to sound out the local population on its drafted recommendations.

Having completed 2nd iteration of its assessment of the government’s performance in the Southern Provinces, CESE traveled to Dakhla to sound out local population on its drafted recommendations.

 This is the fourth  in a series of blog posts on Morocco’s Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE) project to assess “effective access to basic human, economic, social, cultural & environmental rights in the southern provinces – laying the groundwork for regionalization in the south and throughout Morocco.”


During my recent visit to Morocco, I was curious to discover if people, particularly those who are politically aware, were following what the country is doing to define its strategic vision for the Southern Provinces.

As with any unscientific sample, I may not have captured a complete cross-section of Moroccan perspectives, but that didn’t diminish the interesting responses I encountered. Two key themes are intertwined in the proposed vision: regionalization — that is, devolving power from the central government to locally elected officials — and citizen participation, which leads to greater accountability in that governing process.

Opinions ranged from a small minority of shrugged shoulders, with little or no knowledge of the work of the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE), to those who strongly support moving towards autonomy for the south through regionalization. People in the know were emphatic that the change in Council leadership to Nizar Baraka, the former finance minister, would mean continuity in the serious and detailed work of CESE.

The Stakeholders Take Center Stage

Having completed the second iteration of its assessment of the government’s performance in the Southern Provinces, the CESE traveled to Dakhla, the major tourism center in the region, to sound out the local population on its drafted recommendations.

Quite a cross-section of Sahrawis and other Moroccans attended, representing local government officials, civil society, tribal federations, professionals, and citizens, whose opinions covered the spectrum of positions on Morocco’s role in the Southern Provinces. Supporters and dissidents had the opportunity to learn if the testimonies they had given at earlier town hall meetings had been integrated into the preliminary recommendations.

Much to CESE’s credit, there appeared to be general agreement that the representations were fairly stated. The audience took the time to ask questions, present clarifications and examples of concerns, and take issue with or support the report’s findings. It was a somber yet enthusiastic gathering, which demonstrated that in the sometimes confusing transition to democracy, Morocco is moving in a constructive and healing direction.

The notions of healing and justice, along with fairness and transparency, were repeated often during the exchanges. Citizens who were skeptical that the report would be taken seriously even though it was commissioned by King Mohammed VI, were emphatic that it was long past time for locally elected officials to have the responsibility and resources to provide social and government services without bias. Those who were encouraged by the report’s initial conclusions praised its emphasis on transparency, accountability, and rule of law as markers for how the region should be governed. There was general agreement that short-term changes were critical to build credibility and indicate the seriousness of the regionalization project.

Next Steps

If one thing is clear from the Arab uprisings, it is that the transition to greater democracy and economic and political reforms can be quite challenging, as well as destabilizing. Morocco has avoided the conflict and bloodshed that has afflicted others in the region, yet it is clear from those with whom I spoke that there is a need for game-changing actions sooner rather than later. The introduction of judicial reform legislation, the anticipation of the new government in formation, which should make economic reforms less difficult to adopt, and the general acceptance of evolution rather than revolution as the way forward are all helpful ingredients in Morocco’s particular recipe for change.

It is interesting to observe, from the perspective of how US democracy evolved, that regardless of the cultural environment or diversity of the population, citizens today still aspire to the same goals: rule of law, justice, equality, and respect without discrimination. And achieving them requires patience, perseverance, and active participation by those citizens over the long haul.

The CESE report lays down serious markers for where Morocco should be heading, and it was done by Moroccans, for Moroccans. Nice.

Morocco’s CESE project: Capacity building key for regionalization

In late 2012, the Economic, Social, and Environment Council (CESE) was charged by King Mohammed VI with assessing “effective access to basic human, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the southern provinces.”It released its first report in March of this year. Another interim report is expected shortly, and by the end of 2013, the Council will complete a comprehensive assessment of the governance of Morocco’s southern provinces, which include the Western Sahara.

CESE is addressing five challenges: “boosting the economy; consolidating social cohesion and promoting culture; enhancing social inclusion and consolidating the fight against poverty; ensuring effective protection of the environment and sustainable territorial development; and defining responsible, inclusive governance.”

Morocco has done something unique in that it has instituted reforms from above rather successfully through gradual but serious steps.

The importance of the CESE project cannot be overstated. At a time when governments in the region are in turmoil over defining constitutional powers, mechanisms for decision-making, and embracing principles of governance, Morocco is an example of a path that can be taken through the shared commitment of a country’s leadership and its citizens. Once again King Mohammed is pushing a major policy shift by encouraging debate and consultation among all stakeholders, including the opposition, to learn from the past so that Morocco’s strategies are firmly grounded in what Moroccans value.

This is the same thinking that led to the Human Development Report, which evaluated the first 50 years of Morocco’s development after it regained full independence in 1956. Based on its recommendations, King Mohammed undertook the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), a multi-billion dollar effort that is the country’s cornerstone program to reduce poverty, end the marginalization of target populations, and promote sustainable economic development.

The CESE project has the same ground-breaking implications, since the King has made it clear its recommendations will result in guidelines for the regionalization strategy to devolve political and economic decision-making power to locally elected officials. As a colleague recently remarked to me, “Morocco has done something unique in that it has instituted reforms from above rather successfully through gradual but serious steps.” To complement this approach, the King is now focusing on capacity-building at the local levels to prepare the country for regionalization, and the CESE is the point of the spear.

What the CESE is doing and saying

In its initial report in March 2013, the CESE provided extensive coverage of the more than 50 meetings it held in the south, hearing testimony from more than 1,000 stakeholders representing “local elected officials, representatives of professional chambers, business leaders, trade union representatives, chiefs of external branch offices, and representatives of dozens of civil society organizations involved in human and social rights.”

In addition, extensive research on human development indicators is being collected and analyzed to determine the performance of government programs in the southern regions. These meetings are supported by a CESE citizens’ web-based forum called Al Moubadara Lakum to gather studies, recommendations, projects, analyses, and ideas about the “format of the new development model for the southern provinces.” In addition, CESE has called for proposals from researchers and doctoral students in fields related to this project.

To any objective observer, the report included criticism of the government as well as praise. Progress in health, education, and basic services was contrasted with deficient public administration, the predominance of security considerations in the approach to political rights, and the ineffective engagement of civil society. A key observation by the CESE team is that “among other shortcomings and limitations to address is a wake-up call for a change in the mindset, behaviors, and habits of policymakers and elites in charge of ensuring the development of the southern provinces.”

This calls for a progressive outlook of incremental change that mirrors the King’s proposed new relationship for governance. The report includes strong statements on human rights with specific references to seminal UN documents and the 2011 Constitution regarding the protection and pre-eminence of human and civil rights. In one salient statement, the report notes that, “Underpinning the expectations in the south in terms of social well-being, the realization and exercise of freedoms, and transparent, responsible attitudes by government authorities and their representatives is an aspiration for the advent of a mature civil society which is recognized and empowered to run local affairs.”

The CESE will release policy recommendations in the final report later this year, and its intentions are clear: to chart a path for Morocco’s regionalization that is based on a reformulated partnership among the people, the government, and the King. This is the legacy the King is committed to, and he will continue to take steps to ensure its achievement.