Morocco: Standing Up to the King

18.06.2011  |     |  The New York Times

Perhaps no Arab ruler responded as wisely to this year’s pro-democracy protests as the king of Morocco — although that is an exceptionally low bar.

When other dictators in the Arab world answered protesters with gunfire, King Mohammed VI grudgingly accepted demonstrations, at least when he was in a good mood. His regime claimed that antigovernment activism underscored the country’s openness, and on Friday the king announced constitutional reforms that seeking

m likely to reduce his own role in governing the country.

These days, as much of the Arab Spring has faded into an Arab winter of repression, Morocco still feels fairly spring-like. You can tell that from the denunciations of the regime thundered freely on the streets.

“We’re not a democracy,” Sami Mellanki, of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, told me emphatically. “Morocco is a police state!”

Well, yes, Morocco remains repressive and utterly undemocratic. But in most police states, people don’t dare call it that — at least not with their names attached. Fouzy Houssan, a high school student activist wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and looking like a protester from central casting, told me that the government was undoubtedly watching us — and then carefully and fearlessly spelled out his name for me to use.

I’m starting my annual win-a-trip journey, with a student, Saumya Dave, and a teacher, Noreen Connolly. We’re beginning in Morocco partly because it’s a somewhat hopeful entry point to Africa.

Morocco was once an exceedingly brutal tyranny, but it began to moderate in the 1990s. King Mohammed eased up further on human rights abuses after taking power in 1999. He released many political prisoners, allowed a truth and reconciliation commission, and promoted women’s rights. Under the king’s auspices, Morocco even has begun training female Islamic clerics, a bit like imams, called Mourchidat.

Yet the opening has been inconsistent, new political prisoners have been tossed into jails, freedom of the press is still a dream, and repression is particularly suffocating in the Western Sahara region that Morocco annexed while Spain was giving up its colony there. King Mohammed’s reign has also overseen a staggering rise in economic corruption. An American diplomatic cable, released through WikiLeaks, suggests that the palace uses government institutions “to coerce and solicit bribes.”

Indignant citizens used Facebook to organize major protests early this year. The king (who declined to be interviewed) seemed to take heed, for in March he promised substantial reforms.

His speech on Friday was an outline of what will change under a revised constitution. Among the reforms are a supposedly independent judiciary, a prime minister with increased powers, and official recognition of the minority Berber language. It amounts to a step away from autocracy, though not nearly creating the democracy that protesters want.

It’s troubling that even as the king has been talking about reform, he has engaged in a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in the last few months. One demonstrator died, apparently from his injuries. But the repression was just harsh enough to inflame protesters, not terrifying enough to scare them into staying home.

“Everybody gets hit,” Aymane Aoudi, a 20-year-old college student and activist, told me. “They even hit women and children.”

Another student, Imad Iddine Habib, proudly told me that he had been arrested three times this spring, and beaten two of those times. But the beatings become badges of honor among young people — more of an inducement to protest than a deterrent.

The king perhaps realized that he was digging himself deeper, because this month the regime has mostly refrained from beatings. The government now seems at a turning point.

The king can follow Bahrain’s example and use extreme violence to crush protesters. Or he can grit his teeth and put up with them — but then he will have to endure more criticism and accept more compromises.

If he does embark on wider democratic reform, he could make Morocco — already a pretty remarkable and wonderful country, where the semi-banned Islamist movement is so mellow that it has a female spokesman who advocates for women’s rights — even more of a trailblazer. Morocco would show Middle Eastern rulers that they can respond to popular pressure with ballots rather than bullets.

In my conversations with protesters here, I keep noting how much better off they are than those in Syria or Yemen. But they don’t care about that: they keep noting how repressed they are compared with Americans or Europeans. Maybe Morocco can help bridge that gap.

I don’t know if King Mohammed will do the right thing, but there’s a whisker of hope. If he moves over time toward turning Morocco into a British-style limited monarchy, that might be a historic step from a stormy Arab Spring to a balmy Arab summer.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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