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Thursday, 17 March 2011

FEATURE: Muhammad's unrest

King Muhammad VI

As Saudi Arabia intervenes in Bahrain and Col. Gaddafi fights back the rebels in Libya, the rest of the Arab world tracks expectantly the evolution of the uprisings in the troubled countries, fearing contagion to their own lands.

The first protests in Tunisia and Egypt and, above all, the positive result they achieved, shook the political roots of the rest of the countries in the Arab strip in north Africa and in the Middle East. Within weeks, almost all the Arab countries registered major protests in the main cities, where citizens demanded, at the very least, political reforms.

The unrest spread even to Morocco, one of the most stable countries in the region, and a Westernised nation ruled by king Muhammad VI. The protests have achieved their goals in Egypt and Tunisia, overthrowing the dictators that firmly ruled the countries for decades, and have led to an almost open civil war in Libya. But, will ever Morocco fall into such turmoil?

Contrary to what is commonly thought, currently Morocco is one of the countries with less GDP of the region, with a GDP per capita much lower than Egypt's and roughly half that of Tunisia, for instance. Yet experts say that it is highly unlikely that Moroccans will ever try to remove king Muhammad VI from power.

Source: CIA factbook

Amid the turmoil

The wave of protests which shook all the Arab world arrived to Morocco on February 20th, when over 5,000 demonstrators gathered at Bab al-Had square in Rabat, calling for change. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of people demonstrated also in the main cities such as Casablanca, Agadir and Marrakesh.

The protesters set fire to police stations in Marrakesh and Larache, and vandalised a stadium, two political offices and two hotels in Hoceima, according to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. During the unrest five people died at a bank that was set on fire.

Just one day after the demonstrations took place all over the country, king Muhammad VI announced the creation of the Social and Economic Council, which would have the task of monitorising and carrying out reforms. It was a first movement towards the citizenship. Muhammad also added that the main priority for the executive would be fighting against poverty.

The last Wikileaks cables revealed that the royal Alaouite family was corrupted, and had been wasting thousands of dollars in the last years. On the other hand, the official unemployment rate of the country is only at 10%, but several Moroccans don't have any job, raising the doubt of the actual accuracy of these figures.

Source: BBC

Morocco's future scenarios

The removal of Ben Ali and Mubarak and the clashes registered in Libya and Bahrain lead to a question difficult to answer: will these 'Jasmine revolutions' spread all over the Arab countries, deposing all the long-term monarchs and dictators that have ruled these nations for decades?

Albeit the question remains complicated, experts agree that it is unlikely to see a change in the Moroccan regime. According to Jillian C.York, a freelance journalist based in Morocco, the public opinion is strongly divided between support for the monarchy and a move toward a parliamentary democracy. Yet the king has only been in power for 12 years -unlike in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia-, and hence the Moroccans don't have the same sense of frustration. On the other hand the demands of the protesters were mainly directed to a move to a parliamentary democracy where the king will play a minor role -like the Spanish one-, an end to corruption and more economic balance.

Journalist Matt Schuman explains that the situation in Morocco is very different from that of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Despite having a lower GDP, the poverty is not oppressive, and the Moroccans can live a simple life without being rich but neither without starving.

Another difference, according to Schuman, is that whereas in Egypt and Tunisia the protests were driven by a cultural elite of educated youngsters and intellectuals, Morocco suffers from a lack of literacy. Only around 50% of the population is educated, and therefore "Moroccans' illiteracy hampers the spread of information in general, and would definitely impede the organization of any type of protest movement".

Finally, Moroccans don't want to depose the king. Although there is a Prime Minister, political parties and elections, the lesser political bodies are corrupted. However, the royal family is seen as a 'credible figure'. On the other hand, since he was crowned king of Morocco, 12 years ago, Muhammad VI has carried out some political and social reforms, allowing certain freedom and democracy in the country.

According to Jillian C.York, "Moroccans who support the protests are generally taking advantage of the current political climate on the region, but they are not seeking the same things; they are not hoping to overthrow the king. The king is well-liked and has not been in power for very long. He has made major changes during his 12 years of rule and much of the country is happy with that".

The revolutions' third way?

Last week, and after nearly a month watching in silence the evolution of the uprisings in the neighbouring countries, king Muhammad VI announced in his first national address since the uprisings "comprehensive constitutional reforms", where "individual and collective liberties will be expanded". He also promised that the power to name the Prime Minister will be transferred to the Parliament. Moreover, he added that some powers will be devolved to Morocco's regions and the figure of Prime Minister will have more powers. The proposals for the reforms will be carried out by a special committee created ad-hoc, and will be submitted in June. It might be the beginning of a more democratic Morocco, meeting some of the demands of the protesters and becoming the Jasmine revolution's third way, aside from the overthrowing of the ruling class in Egypt and Tunisia, and the open war in Libya.

By CDR with 1 comment

Monday, 14 March 2011

FEATURE: Strengthening the Welsh dragon

Over 500.000 Welsh voted Yes in the third referendum in the history of Wales, giving the National Assembly further powers in the 20 subject areas in which it can legislate. From now on the Assembly won't need the permission of Westminster to legislate in any of these areas.

The Yes option has been backed by almost a 64% of the voters, in front of a 36% who voted no. The results show an increasing self-confidence in the Welsh citizens: in 1979 a vast majority of the voters said "no", whereas in 1997 the question held in the referendum was approved by a narrow margin. 14 years ago, only 50,3% of those called to the polls voted yes, whereas a 47,7% voted no.

The victory of the Yes campaign in the 2011 referendum shows that Welsh were longing for some changes in the legal and politic governance in the country. However, a major complaint of the citizenship was that there wasn't enough information available about the consequences of the referendum.

The turnout, which was as low as only 35% of those who were called to the polls, show that the questions raised by the referendum were not backed by the majority of the population.

font: BBC

Wales Office to disappear?

But the results of the referendum are already having direct implications. Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said this week that after achieving direct law-making powers, the so-called Wales Office's role is difficult to establish.

Jones explained that now it is "difficult to justify" the existence of three different offices for the devolved regions -Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland-, and proposed to create a new UK government department which would merge the three offices.

The Wales Office is a remnant of the past. It was established as a bridge between the British Government and Wales, and it was created by the UK Government to deal with all the Welsh matters.

According to Jones, this office has a diminished role after the last referendum. In the last years it was devoted to handle the National Assembly's requests for more powers, something that has been already granted after the Welsh voted 'yes' in the last referendum, which asked whether the citizenship wanted the National Assembly to be able to have further powers.

The road to devolution

The third referendum in the history of Wales is a milestone for the Devolution, the process whereby Westminster cedes powers to other devolved regions such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Wales has been legally part of the United Kingdom since the Union acts of 1535, whereby every law passed in England would be applied automatically in Wales also. In the late 19th century some acts concerning Wales were passed, such as the Welsh Intemediate Education Act, and a Department of the Board of Education was established in 1907 to deal with education matters in the region. Some years later, in 1919, the Welsh Board of Health was set up in Wales, and in 1949 the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire was established. Its main objetive was to oversee the effects of Government policy.

The origins of the referendum underlie on the so-called "Welsh Office", a sort of delegation that the Government of United Kingdom decided to open in 1965 in Wales to deal with Welsh matters. This office was established with the objective of executing the Government policy in Wales.

Although the Welsh Office gained more powers in the next years, it became clear that Wales was still regarded as an appendix of England, rather than a nation within a country of nations.

A few years later, in 1979, the Welsh citizens faced the first referendum in the history of Wales. They would vote if they wanted to create an assembly with the same functions as the Secretary of State for Wales, that is, the application of UK Government's policy on the region.

The majority of the Welsh who decided to participate in the polls decided to vote no. Over 950.000 rejected the plans exposed in the referendum, whereas only 243.000 approved them. At that time, almost all the main political parties in the region saw Devolution as a threat to the United Kingdom and a concession to the Welsh nationalism, hence campaigned for the no-vote.

Exactly twenty years later, in 1997, the Welsh had another opportunity to vote on a referendum about the autonomy of Wales and the Devolution process. In this new referendum, Welsh were asked whether they accepted the creation of a Welsh National Assembly which would have certain devolved powers, and which would not only apply the UK Government´s policy on certain matters, but would have the power of legislating, albeit the Assembly would be forced to ask the permission of Westminster.

The referendum was approved by a slight majority of only 50.3% of the voters, in front of a 49.7% that rejected the creation of an Assembly. After the polls, the UK Government approved the Government of Wales Act of 1998, whereby the National Assembly for Wales was established, with powers in twenty subject areas.

By CDR with No comments

Saturday, 12 March 2011

COMMENT: The Libyan jigsaw

As Gaddafi fights to recover the eastern enclaves ruled by the protesters, uprisings have been registered in the western cities, where oil workers are planning to go on a massive strike that will threaten to paralyse the economy of the country.

In the last days the Libyan government has ceded some enclaves in both the eastern and the western regions of the country to the protesters who demand democratic reforms and the end of the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, in power since 1969. Reports say that the ruling Libyan government has ordered to open fire against the protesters in the capital Tripoli, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch claim that there are more than 300 killed.

Protests in the main cities of the country have been repressed with brutality by the regime. Gaddafi has warned that he won't flee the country, and has threatened to start an open civil war if protests don't end immediately. In the meantime thousands of foreigners have fled the country as the protests increase.

Despite the turbulent situation of the country, Col Gaddafi's son, Said al-islam Gaddafi stated that the everything was "normal" in the main cities, where "ports, schools and airports are all open", he said.

font: CIA factbook

The current unrest in Libya has been a matter of discussion everywhere in the last days. John Griffiths, from the Socialist Worker Party in Wales, said that these uprisings in the Arab World have common features: "All of these countries have repressive regimes, but for decades they could offer bread to the population. Now they can't anymore. There is great luxury and wealth next to poverty, huge numbers of graduates leaving universities and a high unemployment rate. These are increasingly unpopular regimes with high levels of repression", stated.

Libya has many bonds with European countries. Gaddafi has an excellent relation with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, and other European economies maintained a good relation with the Libyan regime until the first clashes took place. United Kingdom also had trade agreements with Gaddafi, according to Griffiths: "Three months ago we were selling weapons to colonel Gaddafi to repress his people", said.

Currently Wales has tight bonds with Libya. There is a Libya-Wales Exchange association, which seeks to tighten collaboration between both countries in different areas such as culture, business and education. On the other hand, Cardiff University hosts a Libyan students society, and Cardiffians find the situation in Libya very worrying.

"The situation there is very bad. The problem is that these countries have been ruled by dictators and now they have to fight to get freedom", said Alen Gordon, from Cardiff.

The arab minorities in Cardiff also have their voice about the matter. Raed Baconi, from Lebanon, argued that "it is time for people to speak. The government has to work for the people, not for them, and now we are seeing that people are fighting to have the chance to speak". Ahmed Boulaz, an Algerian emigré, expressed his hope for a democratic future in the region: "What is happening in the arab countries reminds me of what happened in eastern Europe twenty years ago. The problem is that this dictators might be replaced by other dictators, that's why this is a very delicate moment for these countries. People have to make sure that they get a real democracy now", stated.

The unrest in Libya, one of the main oil exporters in the world, has also had a major impact in the price of crude oil. It has hit the $110 per barrel for the first time in the last three years, and it is likely that the prices will rise even further in the next days.


Oil prices

As the situation worsens in the positions held by the rebels, a fear of an open civil war has hit the whole country. The situation seemed to be controlled by the rebel forces, who were firmly advancing to the capital Tripoli from their main base in Benghazi, in the east of the country. However in the last days a counter-offensive carried out by forces loyal to Col.Gaddafi has undermined the tenacity of the rebels.

An offensive with tanks and air raids have hit the rebels, stopping their march towards the capital. The main fear now is that the conflict will be stuck for months and the situation will worsen.

The latest armed struggles in Libya also have had a direct impact on the price of the oil, rising almost $7 since last Monday and reaching $115 per barrel, the highest price since September 2008, where the price rose triggered by the economic crisis.

The clashes between the rebel forces and the Libyan army have hit the oil terminal at Ras Lanuf, damaging the factory. Experts fear now that the price of the oil will reach another historical maximum, as Col.Gaddafi prepares to bomb oil factories in the rebel territories in order to undermine the economic income they generate and retake the control of the region.

The main consequence is the instability of the stock markets around the world. Investors fear that the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and, above all Libya will spread to other oil-producing Arab countries, stopping the oil exports and therefore hitting the world markets.

Experts warn that an open civil war in Libya would hit very badly the world's economy by stopping the oil exports and therefore rising the crude oil prices.

In order to avoid nervousness among the investors, the US Government has admitted that is considering tapping its oil reserves to give more confidence to the stock markets and to try to stop the rising of the oil crude prices.

On the other hand both Britain and France are pushing to win support at the United Nations with the objective of setting a no-fly zone which won't allow Col.Gaddafi's forces to bomb the oil facilities in the eastern territories held by the rebels.

Libya is currently one of the main oil-producing countries, holding around 2% of the world's oil reserves. The production of crude oil has fallen since the start of the riots. Before the uprisings Libya produced 1.6 million barrels per day, and after almost one month of unrest the output has fallen to 1 million barrels per day.

By CDR with No comments
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