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Morocco: In the Kingdom of Illusions

from the Fall 2011 Innovation issue

By Martine Gozlan

CASABLANCA—In these perilous times in the Maghreb, it is easy to forget that more than 15 years ago, the brilliant Algerian novelist Rachid Mimouni sought refuge in neighboring Morocco. Threatened by Islamic fundamentalists in his own country, Mimouni saw Morocco as a bastion of creative and religious freedom in Arab North Africa. He died in exile, grieving over the tortures inflicted on his native land.

Younger Algerians who arrive here today are still relieved to breath the free air along the Corniche and stroll the glittering avenues. Barely 600 miles down the coast, in Algiers, the dark Islamist forces unleashed by the civil war still linger. But in “Casa,” there are bright lights and freedom. These visitors to Morocco are fully prepared to invest their trust in“M6”—Mohammed VI, the gentle son of a tyrant, ruler of a valiant member of the third world, guiding his country confidently toward a lifestyle approaching that of southern Europe.

At least that’s how it appears, and it’s precisely the impression your hosts want you to absorb—especially if you are a Western visitor. Politicians, businessmen, publicists, technocrats, and the royal family’s in-house intellectuals all know by heart the soft, lazy melody that seduces visitors and sweetens the mint tea served up by this enchanted kingdom. We are made to feel that we fit right in among people who resemble—indeed adore—the West, and France in particular. Our hosts have managed to hold at bay the Islamist extremists whose prejudices have threatened to engulf the entire region. So come on, let’s toast the “democratic transition” led by His Majesty and welcome his success. 

Still, it doesn’t take much to challenge such sacred cows. Merely a short turn off the whitewashed, French-style villas of the Aïn Diab down toward the real Casablanca, people speak nothing but Arabic, earn €150 ($217) a month (when not unemployed), and are regularly seduced by the intensity of Salafism—the most conservative branch of Islam, some of whose adherents advocate jihad against the West. 

In this Morocco, the World Bank tells us, one of every two people is illiterate, 83 percent of rural women can’t read, and the educational system ranks below that of Yemen. Morocco finds itself behind Algeria, Tunisia, and even Iran in the percentage of its public expenditure devoted to health care. In its hospitals, patients must furnish everything from suture thread for their operations to bottles of blood for transfusions. Barely 30 percent of the population benefit from any sort of health insurance. A quarter of the population live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Casablanca, like all of Morocco’s large cities, is encircled by shantytowns.

In one of them, El Hofra—known as “The Tomb”—families live five to a room of barely 15 feet by 10 feet. Children have never seen the Mediterranean, just a few miles away. Fatima Zazhra Abulaïch, a 14-year-old epileptic, has never been treated. Her mother does not have the 5,000 dirhams—$650—to pay for her care. At least 5,000 other souls somehow manage to survive in El Hofra, living in vermin-infested hovels that have managed to escape the operation known as “Cities without Shantytowns,” launched with great fanfare in the government-controlled media.

Still, the Arab Spring has flourished, if in a Moroccan manner, in this field of despair. It is in the Maghreb, after all, that the revolution was born. Tiny Tunisia gave the first push to the movement, designed to sweep away tyrannies—from the immensity of Egypt to Libya, now in the throes of a civil war, to Yemen, tribal and unpredictable, and finally to Syria under blood-soaked Bashar al-Assad. As for Algeria, Morocco’s conflict-ridden neighbor, it continues to be ravaged by injustice while its people still wait patiently for their hour, traumatized by the savage decade from 1991 through 2000 when civil war left over 150,000 dead.

The kingdom of Mohammed VI has been spared the dynamic of rebellion, which has transformed so many of the Arab people from passive subjects of despotism to clear-minded citizens of fledgling democracies. Morocco’s revolution, which began on February 20, encompassed a vast movement of rebellious youth. These forces marshaled not against the king himself—he remains the Commander of the Believers, dear to the pious Moroccan people—but against his privileges and wealth. Crowds flooded into the streets of the leading cities of Morocco—Marrakesh, Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier—from February 20 through July 1, the date of a referendum on constitutional reform proposed by his majesty in a formal address to the nation.

Still, any campaign of opposition was effectively impossible—barely three days separated the announcement of the referendum and the vote. The scope of the demonstration terrified the Palace. Indeed, in the days following the vote, a number of opposition youths, outraged by the absence of even a semblance of democracy in the balloting, did not hesitate to return to the streets in bloody protest marches.

But has anyone, either within Morocco’s establishment or abroad, objected to the royal gestures toward a whitewashed democracy? Not for a moment—instead, there is silence and forgetfulness of all the lies that have marked Morocco’s system of power for decades. Such lies, applied across the board in a form of political communication, are designed to empower the incumbent regime and long-standing Western ally.

Morocco has managed to avoid (at least until now) any hint of an Algerian-style revolution, or for that matter, a Tunisian-style secularization. These forces have allowed it a privileged status in Western political and media circles. The Palace and its publicists are remarkably adept at “selling” this image of a visionary monarch, each day renewing pledges to move forward toward a modern democracy. The result? Hundreds of thousands of individuals of the February 20 Movement, both secularists and Islamists alike, linking arms in futility.

The web of lies spun by the monarchy is based on an efficient manipulation. It’s clear that Mohammed VI lives in profound fear that the Arab Spring might be unleashed in his own nation. The Makhzen, the elite network surrounding the royal household, believes that the bell is tolling its demise. But the February 20 Movement, in sharp contrast with the rebellion in neighboring Tunisia, has not yet shown any revolutionary traits. All this springs from a society accustomed to years of passivity, traumatized by the terrorist attacks of 2003, and further scarred by a new jihadist bombing on April 28 in the heart of Marrakesh’s tourist center.

With this backdrop, a desire for radical change was developed deep within Moroccan opinion—at once fascinated by these forces and fearful as well. The king understood that he needed to make changes in appearance in order to change nothing fundamentally. Considerable discussion ensued before His Majesty suddenly announced that a referendum would be held. With a stroke, the ground was cut from under the February 20 Movement, which remains skeptical of the “tranquil revolution” of Mohammed VI, as the French press quickly dubbed the constitutional reforms.

The king, in a brilliant display of how the system really works, had effectively, by means of this referendum, continued to build a platform on foam and glitter. After the referendum, the prime minister gained new powers like the ability to dissolve the lower house of parliament, but the king remained in control of foreign policy and security. The king also renounced a certain element of the “sacredness” of his persona but simply substituted an article suggesting tewkir or “inviolability.” This concept implies at once “reverence and belief,” as suggested in the French daily Le Monde by Ahmed Benchemsi, former publisher of the courageously impertinent Moroccan magazine Tel Quel until he was ostracized by the Palace and forced to seek refuge in the United States.

Benchemsi, now a researcher at Stanford University, points out that the king continues to preside over the Supreme Council of the Judiciary. So the very concept of judicial independence is fictitious. There’s no doubt that “civil and social equality between men and women” for the first time is included in the constitution, but only thanks to the constant struggle of Moroccan feminists and their alliance with the February 20 Movement.

On the night of July 1, the Palace, the Makhzen, and the Moroccan media—at least those who still had the right to publish—trumpeted the outcome of the referendum: 98 percent approved, with 73 percent of the population participating. Having visited Morocco in the days immediately following this referendum, I can attest that these numbers could not have been reached without a conjunction of all the forces designed to perpetuate the existing system. In the slums of Marrakesh, the mokeddem, those who know everything—informants who report to the Ministry of the Interior’s secret police—began knocking on the doors of any who had not voted by late afternoon of referendum day. At 4 p.m., participation had not passed 25 percent of the electorate in the streets where I began my reporting.

“Quick, go vote! Get into the vans! Let’s go!” the mokeddem screamed to those reluctant to leave their homes. Exceptional efforts were being used to get out the vote throughout the country—thousands of cars and vans shuttled citizens to voting booths. Above all, for three days, rumors circulated that those who abstained would find their requests for housing or welfare payments frozen. As I worked through the suburb of M’Hamid on the outskirts of Marrakesh, I learned that instructors, teachers, and professors, normally charged with making sure that voting went smoothly in a country that is largely illiterate, were “discouraged” by telephone from carrying out their duties. In their place, taxi drivers, mokeddem, and those sure to vote in favor of His Majesty took control of the polls.

Everywhere, the media celebrated “the victory of a modern king,” and praised his love for freedom of expression and democratic change.

As for my souvenirs,  I have little more than bitter memories of July 2011—a time when I was followed everywhere I traveled in Marrakesh. Three plainclothes agents were stationed in front of my hotel, alerting their superiors whenever I left. I took the precaution of alerting a French diplomat where I was going. I was not afraid for my own personal safety, but I feared for any Moroccans I contacted.

These absurd moves by security forces only further demonstrate that despotic reflexes are still deeply embedded in Moroccan society—no matter how hard the king nourishes the illusion of a “Royal Spring of Democracy.” It’s clear that the fear of terrorism and the trauma unleashed by the April 28 bombing in Marrakesh have, to a degree, helped Mohammed VI neutralize the development of any broad revolutionary movement. 

Still, his stubbornness in refusing to redistribute his immense fortune to the vast mass of his people risks boosting the attractiveness of anarchists and jihadists who lurk in the shadows. At the same time, the February 20 Movement, with its clear-sightedness and new militarism, will likely leave its own footprints on the political scene. For the first time in the history of the monarchy, the image of an “untouchable king” is open to challenge.

A PASSIVE GOVERNMENT

In this ocean of misery, only one figure is allowed to publicly represent the hope for change—the king. His Majesty’s National Initiative for Human Development and his Foundation Mohammed V (named for the king’s grandfather) seek to cure the blind, educate girls, and bring water and electricity to the most backward regions. The king has created a vast charitable enterprise—an NGO with a monarch’s budget. As the king travels from north to south, opening clinics and consoling the bedridden, his omnipresent generosity relegates to the shadows the passive government, which does not have the means to carry out such grand projects.

In Casablanca, a pediatric cancer hospital was recently rebuilt from the ground up. Children with leukemia were being cared for by standards that would equal the best in France—thanks to the king’s wife, Princess Lalla Salma, and the foundation that bears her name. “Before, the hospital had no funding,” says veteran cancer researcher Saïd Benchekroun, “so, we created a private association. It struggled along from one private donation to the next, until recently along came the patronage of the princess. The Ministry of Health would never have had the means to underwrite such an initiative.”

Nearby, in the crowded, medieval slum of Casablanca known as the Medina, a clinic has been established to treat some of the city’s 15,000 premature babies. Named “A Taste of Milk,” the clinic functions thanks to the personal benevolence of five wealthy physicians—and the king’s National Initiative for Human Development, the royal factory of social projects, which has agreed to underwrite the care of 50 infants.

In today’s Morocco, such private associations don’t just supplement a government system. They have become the system. Royal charity, always lovingly documented on camera, detaches itself from the dirty business of politics to devote itself to the sacred work of redeeming the poor. This generosity, doled out selectively and unsystematically, leaves vast reaches of the country untouched. But that, perhaps, is not the best measure of its efficacy, since the point of charity is to offset, if not completely obscure, the king’s sumptuous suits, the fabulous gowns of his princess, and all the accompanying bling of palace life.

Of course, the king hardly has to choose between good deeds and the good life. “His fortune is larger than that of the Emir of Qatar, six times larger than the Emir of Kuwait, and vastly surpasses that of Albert of Monaco, the Queen of England, and the Queen of the Netherlands,” says Fédoua Tounassi, a journalist who has studied the wealth of the Moroccan royals. It is a level of wealth that stands in stark contrast to the rest of Morocco, which ranks 142nd in the world according to per capita annual income—less than $400 per person per month.

The task of maintaining M6’s image as “king of the poor” and muting criticism of his lavish lifestyle falls to Noureddine Ayouch, head of Shem’s Publicité, an advertising and public relations agency and the chosen mouthpiece of the Palace. In 1995, under Hassan II, Ayouch launched a system of microcredit loans for women.

A patron of the arts whose son, Nabil, is a celebrated filmmaker, Ayouch is also supervising the establishment and construction of the future national theater in Casablanca. In short, he is a Moroccan man for all seasons—and he never hesitates to praise his royal friend, describing M6 as “a modern man who aspires always to further the cause of democracy… authentic and true, profoundly good to the core, obsessed by the eradication of poverty, free society, and liberty.”

Of course, at the time he made those remarks, in the summer of 2009, three great daily newspapers and a weekly magazine had just been fined hundreds of millions of euros, effectively shuttering each of them, for having defamed none other than Muammar Gaddafi. Then there’s the journalist Ali Amar, whose latest work, a somewhat unflattering portrayal of Mohammed VI, was banned entirely in Morocco. Ayouch’s reaction to both actions, when queried by a visiting reporter from Paris? “Ridiculous measures, stupid prosecutions. His Majesty clearly was not informed—in no case was it his fault. I will call the Minister of Information on this right now,” turning to his phone.

Naturally, the minister isn’t there. What is there? The perpetual ambiguity that marks most interactions with a government under the all-but-total control of the king. Censorship, repression, corruption, the distress of the most humble, and the arrogance of the powerful—these are never the fault of His Majesty. The blame always seems to lie with judges, police, and bureaucrats—the multitude of incompetents with whom the poor monarch is forced to rule, yet who happen also to represent the only recourse of the deprived and disenfranchised citizens of his realm.

In reality, there is far more to the rule of the king and far closer ties between him and his bureaucracy than his supporters would have the casual observer believe. To prevent challenges from the traditional political parties—from the Istiqlal [PI] on the right to the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires [USFP] on the left—and, especially, to prevent the rise of Islamists in the Parti de la Justice et du Développement [PJD], his majesty has tapped his close friend and college classmate, Fouad Ali el-Himma, to form a royalist party. The Parti d’Authenticité et Modernité [PAM], as its name suggests, is supposed to represent authenticity and modernity.

Cobbled together with some loyal retainers chosen by the court, PAM has failed to gain any real foothold among a majority of voters—becoming little more than a pale successor to similar parties founded by the king’s father, at a rate of virtually one per decade since the 1960s. It has scarcely worked any better this time around. In the last major national elections—municipal balloting in June 2009 in the major cities, which are the traditional bastions of Islamist support—PAM candidates surged to a dominant victory—accumulating 21.7 percent of the vote, the strongest showing of any of the nation’s 30 political parties. PAM won 6,015 seats of the 28,000 being contested, outdistancing even the ruling pi party, which followed with 5,292 seats.

With political power so diffused, no real opposition force is ever likely to emerge. Indeed, the other opposition forces prudently put forward very few challengers. Only the hard-line Islamists of the Al Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity) movement, led by Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine and his daughter Nadia, took on the Palace directly.

This movement, illegal but tolerated until recently, develops local Islamist discourse not unlike views held throughout the Arab world. For years, it has drawn its power from the constant drum of denunciations of the immense riches of the monarch. It opposes the “Westernization” of the kingdom. Women’s rights, an occidental way of life for the upper class, and any political alliance with the West is considered an offense to the values of the Quran. The anti-Israeli rhetoric returns constantly, overlaid with anti-Semitism.

Mohammed VI, like his father and grandfather, employed André Azoulay as a senior counselor. Azoulay was Jewish and a virulent supporter of the Palestinian state. A brilliant diplomat and journalist by training, he was a strong proponent of the blending of cultures in his native village of Essaouira—a town that long boasted a vibrant Jewish population. This, no doubt, played no small role in encouraging Islamist aggressiveness. According to the Ministry of the Interior, Al Adl Wal Ihsane received barely 150,000 votes—though in the countryside where the misery quotient is somewhat higher, their real support is likely somewhat stronger. 

MOROCCAN ILLUSIONS

The pristine, green lawns surrounding the Parliament building in Rabat seem to hold with them the promise of a clean democracy. Of course, that is yet another Moroccan illusion. The nation’s capital is also home to a growing movement of unemployed college graduates. This force appeared here long before showing its face next door in Tunisia, unleashing demonstrations that led to the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January. In Morocco, only 13 percent of all youths find their way to a university, compared to 31 percent in Algeria and 34 percent in Tunisia. The results, however, are little different—after graduation, no jobs.

For years, these young people have regularly taken up their protests on the lawns of Parliament. Now they are threatening self-immolation—like the Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire last December, touching off the rebellion that would spread across the region and become known as the Arab Spring. The Rabat protesters promised to rescind their threats if jobs were forthcoming from political or business leaders. They’d had enough unfulfilled pledges from the government, which began a year after the new king ascended to the throne in 1999.

The leftist prime minister at the time, Abderrahmane el-Youssoufi, had opened a Pandora’s box, authorizing sit-ins in front of the Parliament. But he had failed to make good on other, more important promises—particularly jobs that the nation’s business establishment was either unable or unwilling to produce. And the demonstrations, once authorized, were hard to turn off, representing a dramatic rupture with the tight controls under the late King Hassan II. Suddenly, it appeared as though Morocco was moving toward a Western-style democracy. It would prove to be a democracy in appearance only.

The first threat of public suicides in central Rabat came long before Bouazizi took his stand in Tunisia. In June 2009, just as Mohammed VI was convening a session of his charitable foundation and pledging aid to four million of the nation’s poorest, a small group of protestors placed plastic bags over their heads and tried to hang themselves in public. Police and ambulances rushed the protestors, still alive, to the Avicenne Hospital. The movement ended just as the king’s foundation was unveiling a “vast program of public charity.” Even at its peak, however, this program never represented more than 0.25 percent of the nation’s GDP.

Today, demonstrators still gather on the lawns in front of Parliament, a vast mélange of political, social, and religious views—the legalized Islamists of the PJD, the Islamist extremists of Al Adl Wal Ihsane, and the last vestiges of the extreme left, all seeking new recruits to their disparate causes. The universities have become the terrain of young Salafists, often engineers or computer specialists, but few have ever managed to find their way into the political mainstream.

In his spacious office in Parliament, Lahcen Daoudi, vice secretary general of the PJD, holds forth grimly. “Everything pushes Moroccans toward extremism. Our youths, especially, stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the mosques and classrooms with Al Adl Wal Ihsane.” Anxious to avoid that brand of extremism, the PJD has found itself moving increasingly toward the model of Turkey’s ruling AK (Justice and Development) party and away from PJD’s founding mission, which was far more religious. Still, echoes of the Islamist sensibility remain.

“Today we are adapting ourselves to marketing,” Daoudi continues. “What works, here as in Turkey, is openness. If we want to see a million retired Europeans moving to Morocco”—apparently a concept that has crossed his mind as a potential revenue source for the royal treasury—“we are not going to impose Shariah law. But if, as Islamists, we want to be a part of the ruling coalition, we must reconcile ourselves to never having a majority on our own, and having all of our decrees signed by the king.”

A king who is increasingly uneasy about the profiles of PJD leaders—especially the man at the top, Abdelilah Benkirane. Between 1976 and 1980, Benkirane was one of the leaders of the “Chabiba Islamiya” or Young Islamists, a violent, clandestine organization of radicals who became known for assassinating their leftist opponents, the most celebrated being Omar Benjelloun—leader of the Union of Popular Socialist Forces. The current leader of the PJD, however, quit the Chabiba in 1982. Lately, he has adopted the profile of an upright citizen in a business suit.

If Benkirane had his way, the sale of alcohol would be banned throughout the kingdom, and there would be no mention of freedom of religion in the Moroccan constitution. “What does that mean, freedom of religion? That certain secular leaders can feast publicly during Ramadan? That sexual freedom and homosexuals can exist publicly?” the Islamist thundered recently.

For now though, even Benkirane continues to pledge his allegiance—reluctantly—to the king.

SECURITY CRACKDOWNS

Mohammed VI lives in fear of the terrorism that first emerged in a series of attacks in 2003, attributed to suicide bombers from Sidi Moumen, the largest and most sinister of Casablanca’s shantytowns. On May 16, 2003, Casablanca became the bloody scene of five suicide attacks that left 45 dead—including the 12 suicide bombers. The jihadists, emerging from the shantytowns, targeted a hotel, a restaurant that catered to tourists and businessmen, the headquarters of a Jewish institute, the gateway to a Jewish cemetery, and the Belgian consulate. In 2007, a suicide bomber was about to launch an operation, but before he could reach his target, he accidentally blew himself up in a cybercafé. He wound up as the only victim, but nonetheless, the secret police went on high alert.

In the wake of a series of probes after the first set of attacks, authorities believed they’d identified the source of the extremism, attributing the anarchy of the suicide bombers to the miserable conditions of Sidi Moumen. But the terrorists’ profiles morphed from year to year. The reactivated cells no longer emerged from the most impoverished neighborhoods. Rather, the appeal of terrorism now reaches into the ranks of young businessmen and students, some of whom hail from the most distinguished families.

The so-called “Belliraj network” was unraveled in February 2008. The group—which took the name of its founder, Abdelkader Belliraj—drew its members from the very middle class that the Palace touts as a panacea for terrorism. The authorities alleged that the Belliraj group was planning attacks on some of the nation’s most strategic sites. Its top leader, Mustapha Mouatassim, was a leading professor at the École Nationale Supérieure de Casablanca, one of the nation’s most distinguished universities. He was the founder of the Islamic cultural party, Al Badil Alhadari (Alternative Civilization), a front for more extreme Islamists.

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was pardoned by the king in April of this year. At time of the Moutassim’s arrest, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was also seeking a foothold in the country, leading many Western nations, especially the United States and France, to leap to Mohammed VI’s side.

But there should be little fear—there will never be an Islamic revolution in this country. To question the foundations of the monarchy is still political folly. The monarchy remains at the core of the nation’s very identity, but that will remain true, however, only if the bourgeoisie wakes up to reality and restrains the nouveaux riches—a group whose most flagrant excesses enrage the vast underclass.

These newly wealthy can be found in their fabulous villas in the heart of the chicest neighborhoods of Casablanca. Their preferred club is the Carré Rouge, a cabaret and casino, which in turn is the heart of the nayda, or “the revival” in Moroccan  Arabic, the musical movement that has been embraced by the “new Morocco,” especially the sexiest young women and the hottest “golden boys.” The nayda in Casablanca, is similar to the movida in Barcelona—a cocktail of fiesta, rap, rock, and freedom. It is fashion, long nights, and perpetual motion.

Still, there are naydas of the lower classes and those of the wealthy. For the nayda of the Carré Rouge, one has to be able to pay. Carré Rouge is the place to celebrate a birthday, an engagement, a graduation, or the signing of an important contract. (The VIP room features 5,000 dirham, about $650, minimum gambling tables—this in a nation where many live on less than $60 a month.) This excess, of course, poses an enormous risk to the establishment. While a privileged few pass their leisure time in the Carré Rouge, on the streets, the risk is of violence at the hands of the disenfranchised.

For now, the Palace has managed to buy off a host of individuals and groups who might turn to the streets for answers—spreading the joy of the nayda into the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Young musicians and struggling bands are eligible for the royal largesse, which has even extended to creation of a “Festival of the Shantytowns.” But it is an uneven beneficence. In Casablanca, half of the annual meat consumption takes place during festival time. For the rest of the year, people tighten their belts. And inflation has only intensified the misery.

“Too large a part of the population lives in misery from the rise in prices,” says Pierre Vermeren, a researcher at the Sorbonne and an expert on the “new Morocco.” Since 2007, prices have risen suddenly and dramatically. Inflation contributes to domestic instability, and in 2007, students and other protesters poured into the streets of Sefour, a town in the Middle Atlas mountains. When it happened again in Marrakesh, in 2008, a shiver of fear ran through the government, as worry spread that instability in this key tourist center could disrupt the entire nation’s economy.

The police reacted, seizing a number of the demonstrations’ leaders, including 20-year-old Zhara Boudkour, who was tortured and left outdoors, naked and menstruating, for three days—in front of a host of other male and female detainees. Boudkour quickly became a symbol of state brutality. Freed in May 2010, she returned to her home in Zagora, a small village in the valley of the Draa River, in southeastern Morocco, where Aziz El Yaakoubi, reporter for the weekly Journal Hebdomadaire observed, “The entire region mobilized—tribal leaders and politicians alike, the entire world vibrated with tension. Portraits of Guevara, Lenin, and Mao replaced those of the Alaouites (the royal family).” Crowds converged on the central plaza, where the police headquarters was located, and chanted, “Kill them, execute them, the children of the people will replace them!”

A RESURGENT LEFT

In the wake of these nascent opposition movements, a newly resurgent ultra-left has begun to ally itself with traditional Islamist university students to create a serious movement for change. A tangible opposition is building, one that could prove destabilizing in the future. Driss Benzekri, who was imprisoned by Hassan II for 14 years, served as president of a group that has documented 16,000 victims of brutal forms of government repression. Benzekri’s group, known as the Equality and Reconciliation Commission, has gone further than any other organization in the Maghreb. Its members have sought to shine a light on the kidnappings, torture, executions, and arbitrary imprisonments.

But the king and his ministers have refused to name the individuals responsible for the imprisonment and torture of the regime’s opponents. “Without names, our torturers will continue to act with impunity, using their medieval practices in the prison of Temara,” Benzekri observed before he died in 2007, citing the prison where victims of CIA “renditions” have also been detained.

At the beginning of September 2010, an issue of Tel Quel appeared, devoted to imagining the next 10 years of Mohammed VI’s reign. It was a comprehensive, if disheartening, exercise in futurology—a decade of stalemate, concessions to the most extreme Islamists who succeed in forming a government, followed by a complete reversal after bloody riots break out in 2017. 

Mohammed VI, his eyes opened, would have no other option than to return to the promises he made at the time of his coronation in 1999—freedom of expression, real modernization of society, and full rights for all women, as well as a diplomatic solution to the brutal conflict in Western Sahara, which Morocco continues to claim as sovereign territory. This dream scenario also features a complete reform of the Constitution that allows Parliament to free itself from control of the monarchy.

FAR FROM UTOPIA

This is all, alas, a dream. We are still far from such a utopia. The monarchy appears increasingly committed to its own particular form of paternal authoritarianism.

“We are cut in half,” observes Karim Boukahri, a columnist for Tel Quel. “Effectively, the street, like the Moroccan soul, has two sides.” And it has especially manifested in the position of women.

Beginning a decade ago, barely a year after his ascent to the throne, and under pressure after a host of demonstrations and a succession of suicide bombings in 2003, the king embarked on a series of reforms—banning polygamy, giving women free choice over whom to marry, giving men and women equal rights within marriage, and allowing women to keep their children and  homes after divorce. Finally, the age of consent for marriage was fixed at 18 years. Algerian women next door simmered with envy—the nation’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who came to power in Algeria at the same time as Mohammed VI, was forced to modify his nation’s codes, though somewhat less radically.

Still, underlying problems remain. The nation itself remains largely illiterate, feudal, and buried in a reverence for tradition. In a profoundly poor and patriarchal country, where dependence on a man is necessary to guarantee survival, fostering any real advance in women’s rights will be nearly impossible so long as the court grants legal exceptions based on state-sanctioned Islam.

So, while the age of marriage is fixed officially at 18 years old, tens of thousands of underage girls continue to be married—more than 33,000 in 2009, representing 10 percent of all marriages. Judges of the family courts are authorized to make exceptions to the law, and they do so with impunity—accepting 85 percent of all requests for underage marriages brought before them.

When challenged, the judges respond that the Prophet Mohammed married Aisha when she was only nine years old. With half the mosques in Morocco controlled by radical Salafists, there is little chance that even the most resolute effort to reform these practices would have much success.

On February 20, 2011, silent protest marches of as many as 5,000 demonstrators in major cities, including Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakesh, demanded substantial reforms. “This is only the beginning,” the marchers proclaimed hopefully. There were five deaths. Since then, there has been little progress. On March 9, 2011, as demands for change swept across the Maghreb, indeed much of the Arab world, Mohammed VI called for another overhaul of the constitution—opening the way for the July 1 referendum, designed to remove any excuse for further demonstrations, allowing passions to cool.

The result? That Stalinesque outcome of 98 percent approval with a 73 percent turnout. In the end, it left key provisions untouched that affirm the king as Commander of the Faithful, and reserve to him alone the right to govern through the dahir—decrees that are perpetually unchallengeable.

The February 20 Movement, the Moroccan mirror to the Arab Spring, is now at once being harassed by the government and recognized by the Palace, which claims that it wants to satisfy demands of the nation’s youth. The legal Islamists, those of the PJD, campaigned in support of the constitution and thus supported Mohammed VI, hoping, in return, that the monarchy will put the brakes on the efforts of their young opponents.

Legislative elections are expected on October 7. But no matter what the results, there can never be a return to the days before the Arab Spring. Morocco’s youth have had their breaths of freedom stifled, but by no means suffocated. They will surely continue, no matter what the price, to reveal truths about their monarch in this kingdom of illusions.

Translated from the French by David A. Andelman.

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Martine Gozlan is editor-in-chief of the French weekly Marianne and the author of seven books, including Tunisie, Algérie, Maroc: La Colère des Peuples (l’Archipel, 2011). Her latest, L’Imposture Turque (Grasset) will appear in October.

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