Friday, March 29, 2013

Time for business-executive politics in the MENA region

Time for the technocrats to take over in the Arab World

For decades Arab politics has been an easy ride for the well-established circles that governed states and countries in the MENA region. Whether it is by virtue of blood as in monarchies, money as in oligarchies or simply heavily organized lobbies with a deceiving democratic penchant, the politics our representatives and god appointed leaders engaged in, or lack thereof, has not seen much trepidations or dynamics that would enact a managerial paradigm shift.

Until the outburst of the Arab Spring…

Dictators ousted, oligarchs lynched and awry political institutions brought to a demise, it is more than ever critical to rethink how political engagement and leadership is meant to operate, not because it is now a privilege the Arab societies can afford, but because a transition post Arab Spring to liberal economies and democratic statehood cannot take effect in such a rapidly changing world as the 21st century.

Many could argue that the MENA region is in a natural phase of adaptation to the new realities the street pulse imposed, others would draw the parallel with the French revolution and the consequential bloody transition it endured before evolving into a democracy, yet that would have been the case if we were witnessing a corporate-like adaptation to new consumerism behavior; the reality is that we are now contemplating a damage-control and crisis-containment situation instead of a painful transition forward.

Politics is deeply linked to economics as Karl Marx rightly pointed out in his “Economic Determinism”, and in today’s world, this is even more true given how international trade, politics, business and domestic state management have all molded a unique and fragile system that can be impaired if one of its component goes bust. What I am trying to explain is that the economic environment the Arab Spring imposed on post revolutionary states has made any attempt for democratization unsustainable and non-viable in the short run. Economic recession, plundered foreign currency reserves, soaring unemployment rates and foreign deposits withdrawal are all a deadly recipe that hinders political success and sends approval rates down the pipes. It might seem as if economic troubles are a core part of a democratic transition, yet in a world where economic development is scoring a two digit growth in most parts of the developing world, financial hurdles coupled with political instability just makes it impossible for a country to recover and catch up in time with the speeding train. The public opinion is strikingly showcasing such phenomenon in Egypt and Tunisia where the economics didn’t add up for the casual citizen, bringing the masses from protest to protest with no clear vision of when it will all work as planned when the uprising was structured in the popular consciousness.

The stigma of political affiliation is not making things any easier for recovery. The ideological identity of the various representatives and institutions makes it hard for the public opinion to objectively assess the actions of the leadership, and to allow the state management to take due course. Whether it is the Muslim brotherhood, the seculars or the old regime affiliates, labels are not failing to bring down political efforts to wrap up the mess left behind the uprising. This leads to a state management that focuses not on credentials building, but on active defense of reputations and records from the stinging criticism of the public and from rapacious political opponents who capitalize on the failures of the state.

This allows us to formulate an understanding of the challenges the post Arab Spring imposes, and the potential nature of the solutions that can address such impediments.
The identity stigmatization is best resolved by the adoption of a technocrat system of governance that strips the decision makers from any political or ideological affiliation. A technocrat, not tied as much to approval rates, ideological bias or future political ambitions, can indeed channel more efforts into drafting legislations and tackling the nation’s most pressing issues. Technocrats also have the ability to better resolve the ongoing crisis given their expertise in their respective fields and ability to exploit their professional networks to stir solutions based on third party involvement and contribution. The educated businessman can indeed reach out to the business community and lay a framework for investment that is not tied to a certain political favoritism. The technocrat also, if drawn from the new school of business executives can take choices that lift the economy, education and health upwards regardless of the short-term discontent it creates. The technocrats in short do their job because they are cashing on managerial efficiency, not on political gaming.

Many see the necessity for well-established frameworks, figures and institutions as a pre requisite for state management, yet the importation of the business executives modus operandi to legislative decision making can prove to be a successful undertaking given its enormous impact on actually achieving results, regardless of the ethical reasoning one might have about its collaterals. What the Arab world needs right now are parachuted technocrats, business minded executives who will not stem from the political infertile cultivation fields, but from the likes of Harvard Business school or NYU stern.

What the people want and will always look for is not decent political etiquette, but rather palpable results that can ensure the growth of a prosperous middle class and thriving investment and entrepreneurial ecosystem, although both tend to converge at a certain point. Dubai is a good example of how business minded state management and state capitalism does lead to a prosperous society. Nothing ensures stability and socio economic development like beaming business confidence. If a country knows how to conduct business, then investments, international loans, deposits, economic growth and foreign currency reserves beautifully play along.

Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and hopefully Syria, when the massacre comes to an end, ought to follow the governance trend that is driving the developing world into a surge of growth and progress.

Politics today means business, and those who still want to run countries in the old fashioned way are doomed to a slow and painful death. The train of development doesn’t wait for political reform or ideological fights over power; neither does it choose which stations to stop at. The most critical part is that todays’ train is not the old steam powered vehicle of yesterday, but is a supersonic piece of engineering that cannot be caught up with if missed. What seems to be a right and virtuous struggle for political justice in various Arab countries is an economic suicide in the making, because if one cannot afford a job that puts a piece of bread on his table, little would he earn from going to the street protesting his right for political inclusion in the decision making. There is a moral in labor division, and that is efficiency. If we cannot let the people most qualified for a job take on their responsibilities, and attempt to indulge in fields we have no credentials for, then all we are doing is luring ourselves into a big deception. Stigmatizing technocrats as neo-oligarchs, heartless businessmen, financiers or top down executives is a hobby most of us are good at, but getting the job done is duty we fail at terrifically.

It is time for politics to be conducted like a business, not like a Machiavellian art of alchemy that needs not to be stained with modern world ways of operating. It is time for politicians in the Arab world to go out from their ivory towers and excel in public speaking, pitching, business planning, languages mastery and deals closing the same way their western counterparts are doing… Because those who write bills are Bain Capital, Exxon and JP Morgan, not some old Winston Churchill smoking a cigar and gazing at a massive globe next to his desk.

Mohamed Amine Belarbi

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reforms or Continuity? Pope Francis says Amen to both!

Roman Catholic Church on the crossroads of Continuity and Reform:

 With the announcement of the new head of the catholic church, now is the time to reflect on what are the signals the Vatican is giving to its followers and observers through the new appointment, and what are the policies that will be enacted in order to seal a new chapter in the long turbulent history of the 1.2 billion adepts strong borderless empire.

The start of a new page in the life of the Catholic Church cannot be discussed without a quick review of the period preceding it, namely the numerous scandals that rocked the very foundations of the Vatican. From the sex scandals involving priests and cardinals, to the financial fraudulent transactions undertaken by the “Bank of God”, to the shady disclosures of the relationship between the Vatican and Mussolini, the Catholic Church has had its share of downturns that didn’t go without impacting its credibility and reputation. It is thus understandable that a radical change was a critical necessity to re-brand the Church, and that the best way to go about such venture is to ultimately change the very icon of it: the pope. This reminds the casual observer of a similar undertaking in the US, where the election of a new African American president with an appealing charisma to the minorities, the Muslims and the East in general helped reconcile the US with the international community, and allowed it to regain its attractiveness on the world stage.

The difference between the US presidential election and the papal appointment is that, unlike in the US, the pope indeed exercises vast power and command over the policies of the Roman Catholic church, with not much constraints posed by the complex of cardinals and priests scattered inside the Holy See or throughout the globe. It is thus uncontestable that the election of a new head of church is not an aesthetic change but a true shift in the direction of the Christian Institution, a shift that will ultimately reflect the hopes, fears, beliefs and ideological biases of the new pope Francis.

A quick look at the background of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio already sends a wave of disappointment among the advocates of a 21st century liberal Church. The Argentinian cardinal’s position on same sex marriage for example leaves the growing numbers of Christian reformists with a bitter taste for the future of their God appointed government. In a letter dated June 2010, the cardinal doesn’t hide his resentment for the changing legal meaning of marriage, extended to include homosexual marriage, and makes it clear to his network of churches and priests in Argentina that fighting the popularization of the LGBT rights ought to be a divine quest.
The New York Times correctly pointed out the conservative nature of the Pope Francis in a recent article:
“A doctrinal conservative, Francis has opposed liberation theology, abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women, standing with his predecessor in holding largely traditional views.”[1]
 The background check, led by various journalists, does unveil more about the convictions and deeds of Pope Francis. Not only isn’t the new pope a great fan of homosexuals, but he isn’t either a fan of human rights delegation if we believe the rumors and the article Hugh O'Shaughnessy wrote in the Guardian in 2011. Pope Francis, according to the author, allegedly participated in hiding political prisoners victims of the “Dirty War” from a visiting commission of human rights.

Although Pope Francis’s past might convey a gloomy picture, it is nonetheless irresponsible to make precipitated judgments on the likelihood of the path the new pope will drive the church into. The papacy will ultimately affect the stances of the new pope given the enormous responsibility it imposes on its leader, and given the growing liberal aspirations of the Church followers without whom the Holy See would be pointless, and note, go bankrupt.

The decision of the conclave to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio is indeed a reflection of the new image the Vatican is trying to paint to the world, and what better way to do that than to appoint the first non European, Latino pope in the history of the Roman Catholic church?

Prior to the decision, the very resignation of the pope Benedict was a clear sign of the new currents unraveling in the Vatican, and his emphasis on “so many rapid changes” and “shaken” in his resignation speech streamlines the life crisis the Catholic Church is going through:

“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”[2]

It is thus unmistakable that the reformative prophecy Pope Benedict envisioned for his institution had to be enacted in order to preserve the “relevance” of the Vatican in today’s world. This relevance was sustained through the election of a Latin American cardinal, sending a strong message that the Church values its adepts in the South, which accounts for a great deal of the Christendom. This point didn’t go unnoticed, and even Obama made sure to reiterate its relevance and importance in a congratulatory note to the pope:

“As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day.”[3]

The internationalism of the Roman Catholic Church reverberates a strong belief that the Vatican is now stretching its appeal beyond the European fortress, and is indeed enlarging its reach in a geographical spot where loyalty to the Catholic Institution was challenged by various evangelical churches. This not only boosts the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, but also attends to its financial crisis that pushed its bank along Banco Ambrosiano to fall prey to the appeal of fraudulent activities linking it to money laundering and early financial entanglement with the Italian Fascist leader Mussolini.

Another signal the pope Francis sends to the world is the cutting with financial elitism inside the walls of the Vatican. The speculated wealth of the Holy See, its banking activities, its corruption scandals and the excessive luxury and overspending charges against its personnel didn’t fail to create an outrage against the Catholic Church, an outrage that the Humble and modest Francis will surely silence given his background, and surely his name significance.

All in all, the conservative approach of the pope Francis to sensitive matters, along with the grand reformative, if not strategic vision that his election bears to the outside observer sets the Roman Catholic Church in an interesting path of Continuity and reforms. Amen.

Mohamed Amine Belarbi


Thursday, March 14, 2013


The first major victory of the Seljuk Turks over the forces of the declining Byzantine Empire at the battle of Manzikert on 26th August 1071, gave prominence to the Turkic peoples especially those associated with Osman the great Turkish Muslim warrior. These peoples later became known as the Ottoman Turks or Osmanlılar (Turkish for “those associated with Osman”).

Like the battle of Gaugamela in 331BC, in which Alexander ‘the great’‘ dealt a crushing blow to the glorious Persian armies of Darius III, the Seljuk Turks or Ottomans in series of military triumphs, dealt the final blow to what was left of Emperor Constantine’s empire in the levant in the subjugation of Constatinople by Mehmed II in 1453. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia (the capitol of orthodox Christianity and the seat of the Patriach of Constatinople) an architectural master piece of Athemios of Tralles and Isodorus of Miletus by the victorious Ottomans to a mosque emphatically announced the rise of another Islamic power after the decline of the glorious age of the Arab Caliphs and Caliphates

The Ottomans (a non-Arab Muslim people) struck a chord different to the rulership style of their spiritual Arab brethren (the originators of Islam) in that, they sought a blend between the Orient and Occident. This was clearly emphasized in the administration of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (1432-1481) to Süleyman I, The Magnificent (1494-1566), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1520-1566), during whose reign the empire reached its zenith of power and splendour. During his reign, the Ottomans rocked the gates of Vienna----the seat of the Hapsburgs and lords of the Holy Roman empire.
At a moment when the Arabs lacked natural leadership, the Ottomans (Spiritual Bethren of the majority Arab Muslim middle east), proved a congruous force in bringing the middle east at par with advances of the ever seeking dominant European powers. The Ottomans were able to effectively administer their heterogenous religious and ethnic populations with minimal issues of tensions among the various subjugated peoples.


In signing the treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, the Ottoman Empire began to tread the path of a steady decline and non-relevance in international politics; and by the end the first world war in 1918, the Ottoman empire was in ruins! All subjugated peoples of the empire had gotten their agitation for independence and Constatinople (the Seat of Ottoman power) was under Allied (British, French and U.S) occupation.

At the moment of Ottoman desperation, a vanguard for Turkic liberation arose in Mustafa Kemal who in his nationalistic fervour  revoked the Treaty of Sèvres and pushed the Allied occupation force out of Constatinople. Abolishing what was left in the 623 year rule of the Ottoman Sultanate in deposition of Mehmed IV Vhadettin, Turkey became a republic on November 1, 1922. Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk (Father of the Turks) instituted revolutionary reforms in his new found republic among which are:

  • *    The abolishment of  the Sultanate and Caliphate (making Turkey a republic),
  • *    The ban on the wearing of Islamic dress in public (the fez cap and the hijab)
  • *    The separation of religion from state.
  • *    The Latinization of the alphabetical characters used in writing the Turkish language—a departure from the use of Arabic alphabetical characters. He also de-Arabized the Turkish language.
  • *    The introduction of European styled canonical law for governance.

Ever since then, Turkey began a pro-western path and it was no surprise when Turkey joined the western military alliance (NATO) in 1952; becoming a buffer against Soviet expansion in the Levant during the height of the cold war.
Thus, Turkey has been a darling to both the western powers and its Arab and Muslim neighbours in its unique relationship with both the middle orient and the occident. No wonder Turkey (a Muslim nation) has diplomatic relations with Israel (an unwanted entity to most Arabs) to the tune of joint military cooperations.

From its fall after the second world war, the population of Anatolia has witnessed a steady rise in Muslim population while the traditional Christian population has declined. Persecuted Muslim populations of the Caucasus found a welcoming home in Turkey and thus the Muslim population of Turkey has swelled from over 50% in the early 1900’s to 99%.
Despite Turkish attempts in joining the European Union after series of westernization policies, Turkish membership has been declined in reminisce of  its religious significance as a Muslim majority nation. This may not be seen as a set back for Turkish cause as she needs to identify her role as a bridge between the Levant and the Occident.

Whilst this role was well administered by the defunct Ottoman empire in its glory days, mordern day Turkey can draw an inspiration from its glorious Ottoman past. Her ability to chide Israel and still maintain diplomatic sanity with the Jewish state, walk arm in arms with the Western powers and still maintain spiritual communion with its Arab muslim neigbours most of whom practice Sunni Islam (the orthodox form of Islam) does lends a credence to any purported form of Turkish dominance of levantine politics.

Whilst Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have tried and failed trump the Arab and Muslim cause in the middle east and Iran (a majority Shiite nation) not seen as a credible option by most Sunni Arab Muslims, Turkey provides a worthy leadership.

At a time when western powers are wary of military intervention in the middle east in the face of inconclusive battles and withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s a vacuum for a Muslim leadership in the middle east as the Arab league lacks clear leadership vigour in tackling the unrest in the middle east.

As the Syrian conflict drags unending with countless hundreds of thousands of civilian causalities and the UN security council powers bickering their interests rather than resolve the quagmire, the initiative beckons on Turkey to front the leadership of the Muslim middle east!

Samson Faboye