Show Hide image

No vindication for neocons

People power is more potent than "shock and awe".

“Are we all neocons now?" That was the question posed by the US writer and historian Max Boot on the website of the leading neoconservative magazine Commentary on 28 January. Surveying the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, he concluded: "President Bush was right in pushing his 'freedom agenda' for the Middle East."

As dictators fall like dominoes across the region, the rehabilitation of George W Bush and his once discredited foreign policy is gathering pace. "Were the neocons right?" asked Chris Matthews on his MSNBC programme. "Egypt protests show George W Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world," proclaimed a headline in the Washington Post.

The argument goes like this: after 11 September 2001, Bush and his neocon gang - Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and the rest - reversed a 60-year trend of accommodating Middle Eastern despots. The neocons understood that poverty and terror were the product of a "lack of freedom" (to quote Bush).

By this reading, the invasion of Iraq, therefore, "liberated" 25 million Iraqis and planted the seeds of liberal democracy in an autocratic region. In 2005 and 2006, as elections were held in Palestine and Lebanon, neoconservative commentators celebrated a "new Arab spring" as Condoleezza Rice, the then US secretary of state, spoke about the "birth pangs of the new Middle East". Fast-forward five years and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt show that Bush's approach to "democracy promotion" was the correct one.

Such a thesis is deeply flawed. First, it is a crude rewriting of recent history. The war against Iraq was fought ostensibly for reasons of national security, not to promote democracy. Remember the words of the Bush administration's chief spokesman, Tony Blair, a month before the invasion, in February 2003? "I detest [Saddam Hussein's] regime. But, even now, he can save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully." Freedom for the Iraqis became the primary justification for the war only after weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a figment of the neoconservative imagination.

Second, it is bizarre and offensive to claim that those of us who opposed the war did so because we did not believe the people of Iraq were deserving of democracy or yearning for liberty. It wasn't that we were opposed to a "freedom agenda" in the Middle East but that we rejected the neocon formula that said democracy could be delivered through the barrel of a gun. We objected to the means, not the ends.

Third, it is necessary, therefore, to point out that, far from retrospectively vindicating the unilateral, aggressive and militarised approach to democratic reform favoured by the Bush administration in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt vividly illustrate the way in which democratic change can come from within, from "people power". The US approach - "bomb, invade, occupy" - has been made irrelevant. The Tunisian and Egyptian protesters were supported by Facebook, Twitter and al-Jazeera, not tanks, planes and "shock and awe".

Fourth, there is scant evidence that the self-professed neoconservative commitment to liberty in the Muslim world goes beyond rhetoric. While some neocons have belatedly backed the Egyptian revolution, some haven't. Take John Bolton, the moustachioed hawk who served as Bush's ambassador to the UN. "The real alternative is not Jefferson democracy v the Mubarak regime," he said in a radio interview on 28 January. "It's the Muslim Brotherhood v the Mubarak regime and that has enormous implications for the US, for Israel and our other friends in the region."

How about Elliott Abrams? This deputy national security adviser to Bush was one of a handful of neoconservatives to come out enthusiastically on the side of the Egyptian protesters and against Mubarak's government. But in government, Abrams was a prime mover behind a US plan, aided and abetted by Mubarak, to try to undo the results of the January 2006 Palestinian elections in which Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature.

The reality is that neoconservatives tend to back democracies only when those democracies back the west - specifically, the US and Israel. Theirs is a strategic and self-interested, rather than principled, support for "freedom".

Fifth, the idea that Bush fought for democracy in the Middle East in general and Egypt, in particular, is risible. Is this the same Bush who handed over $1.3bn in US military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo during each of his eight years in office? Is this the same Bush who said, in April 2004: "I'm pleased to welcome my friend Hosni Mubarak to my home," adding, "I look forward to hearing his wise counsel . . ."

Yes, Dubbya peppered his speeches with repeated references to freedom and democracy but the lofty rhetoric was not matched by actions on the ground in the Middle East - or elsewhere. In a 2007 report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that the Bush administration had friendly relations with more than half of the 45 "non-free" countries in the world.

These included Egypt and Tunisia - the latter is now free from the grip of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the former, at the time of writing, is on the brink of liberation from Mubarak's police. Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia could be next. And the neocons, smug and sanctimonious, can't take credit for any of these events. Are we all neocons now? Of course not.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the NS

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

Joelle Gueguen for Cafe Clock Marrakech
Show Hide image

Meet the master storyteller keeping Morocco's oral tradition alive in the internet age

Amid declining numbers of storytellers, veteran performer Ahmed Ezzarghani's ambition is to rescue Morocco's thousand-year-old tradition of storytelling from the era of technology.

The art of storytelling has been an integral part of Marrakech’s culture for generations. One of the most recognisable symbols of Djemaa el-Fnaa Square, the city’s main thoroughfare, is of animated men performing folk tales; stories about kings, families, lovers and beasts, each one meticulously crafted to educate, entertain and inspire.

But over the past decade, the number of storytellers present in the city has declined significantly. With the advent of new technologies and more lucrative revenue streams, many storytellers have retired from their profession or moved onto something new. For a while, it has seemed as if Moroccan storytelling may be lost completely. One man, however, has been fighting to keep this distinctive tradition alive in the modern world.

Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani is a master storyteller who has spent more than 60 years sharing folk tales as his profession. Now in his seventies, he’s training a new generation – a mix of university students and young professionals – in the skills of the ancient artform.

All photos: Joelle Gueguen for Cafe Clock Marrakech

“As I have grown older, I have realised that storytelling is dying, because the new generations don’t give it as much attention as ours did,” he explains. “But these young Moroccans, they came to me and said they wanted to learn. So we have been working together to preserve this tradition.”

In Ezzarghani’s youth, storytellers made a viable income from street performances in cities all over Morocco. Ezzarghani himself spent time wandering from lively port cities in the north to quiet towns and villages in the south, sharing his stories with as many people as possible. He spent the last few years of his storytelling career in Djemaa el-Fnaa Square, but retired in 2009 after battling with young performers who would sabotage his performances with staged fights or loud music. “The square has become a place for business instead of art,” he says. “These young acts don’t know the craft [of storytelling].”

One of Ezzarghani's apprentices performs.

Though Ezzarghani accepts that society has changed significantly since his ancient stories were first told, he is keen to emphasise that they still have a role to play in modern life. He believes that storytelling offers two important things to audiences: pleasure and a sense morality. “Storytelling has always been about both entertainment and education,” he says. “By that I mean it has offered both a show and a moral lesson. Each story is about these two sides of a coin.”

At the centre of his work to ensure the continuation of Marrakech’s heritage is Hikayat Morocco, a collective founded by Ezzarghani and his apprentices: Mehdi EL Ghaly, Malika Ben Allal, Jawad EL Bied and Sarah Mouhie.

“We as Moroccans grew up on this form of art,” says EL Ghaly. “Nowadays there are fewer storytellers. Their spaces are smaller and they’ve simply disappeared from Djemaa el-Fnaa Square.”

It was the observation of this fading heritage that led to the creation of Hikayat. “We aim to preserve the traditional Moroccan storytelling, as well as giving back to society and encouraging people to pay attention to this ancient form of education,” he says.

Another performer.

One of the biggest obstacles that modern storytellers encounter comes from technology. Apprentice Ben Allal explains that when videos are posted online, it becomes difficult to make a performance compelling, because the audience may already be familiar with the story. “Technology can be challenging for us, especially with the younger generations, because their lives revolve around social media,” she says. “We love the live interaction we have when we perform a story. It’s very important for a storyteller.”

Hikayat runs popular storytelling events at Café Clock Marrakech every week, attracting audiences to their interactive performances. Michael Richardson, the British expat who owns the café, has been impressed by the diversity of their audiences and the positive public response to their storytelling. “We want to be as open to the local population just as much as we are to any tourist, and I think we’ve achieved that. The audience is varied, and we want to keep it varied,” he says. “We’ve actually had young Moroccans come and visit us who’d never even visited the medina, despite living in Marrakech their whole lives. That’s pretty amazing.”

Passing the tradition on to Morocco's youth.

Richardson adds that some of the older audience members have spoken to him about their childhood memories of Marrakech’s storytelling traditions. Many used to perch on walls in the square and watch the storytellers, fascinated by the epic tales and energetic delivery. For these guests, visiting Café Clock for a storytelling night brings back a lot of fond memories, and shows that the personal and social connections with this artform run deep for the city’s residents.

Among the apprentices, there’s talk of trying to make a career out of professional storytelling in the future, but this isn’t their first priority for the moment; they feel that the preservation of this culture-defining tradition is more important than their individual aspirations. “Our aim now is to put Hikayat Morocco and the work we do on the map – not any commercial thing,” Ben Allal explains. “We have a lot of goals to reach before becoming professional storytellers. But this will come with time.”

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.