A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Police Brutality in Morocco

Events are heating up in Morocco. The regime seems to have abandoned its early tactical reconciliatory approach to the demands of pro-democracy movement. Last Sunday, security forces violently repressed peaceful protesters in Casablanca. Protesters were clearly shouting: "no stone, no knife, peaceful [protests]" This still didn't deter the forces of order from using violence against everyone, including elderly women carrying young children.

It is apparent that early statements on reforms were mere strategies to diffuse a rapidly contagious and popular movement for change in Morocco. That early tactical retreat by the regime was meant to allay the Feb 20 movement, riding high on the wave of Arab spring. However, the plight of the Moroccan spring is in tatters as the little media attention it once garnered has virtually faded, especially with atrocities committed in Syria, Bahrain, ongoing conflict in Libya and shaky post-revolt tumult in Tunisia and Egypt. The regime is betting on this "quiet repression" of the protests, while engaging in rhetorical support for clichéd talking points of democratic change.

Recent police brutality is taking place as the whole country awaits the recommendations of the royal blue ribbon committee on constitutional reforms set by the king in March. Suffice it to say that no one is holding their breath for vast structural changes, still the scope of the recommendations could provide additional levels for analysis of the regime's strategy to placate the calls for reforms. The pro-democracy movement is steadfast in its demands and its call for weekly demonstrations. The recent repression will only galvanize the protesters with legitimate demands for political and socio-economic renewal in the kingdom.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Morocco's Shaky Commitment to Reforms

One would think that Morocco is headed towards better times, especially as the king promised constitutional reforms last March. There also seemed to be an air of openness in state-society relations. Even after the Argana bombing in Marrakech, state authorities showed a measured response to the terrorists act far short from the wholesale arrests launched after the 2003 bombings in Casablanca. Those were promising indicators of a nuanced state approach to civil society and protest movement's demands for democratic reforms. However, events in the last two weeks suggest a determined state retreat from early progress, and a shaky commitment to meaningful reforms.

Two weeks ago, widely read and contentious columnist, editor in chief of the daily al-Massae Rachid Nini was arrested by state forces and is in prison on charges of "offense against national and citizens' security." The vagueness of the charge only masks the true nature of the indictment against Nini, for he has been rounded up for the totality of his critical stances of the government, and at times vociferous comments against immorality in Moroccan politics. Nini's daily column "shouf-tshouf," (in Arabic: شوف تشوف) has in the past talked about taboo subjects from the health of the king to the transgressions of the security forces in Morocco. He faced hefty fines, notably an exorbitant 6 million MAD (approx. US $500, 000) in 2008, knife assault in Rabat, and a near exodus of several members of the editorial team of al-Massae. Now his social commentary has become too much of a nuisance for the authorities.

I have long thought Nini to be a populist, vitriolic and at times, a misguided journalist. However, this should never serve as a pretext to silence what ought to be the expression of freedom in any society. Charges against Nini are similar to those leveled against other fiercely independent journalists in the Moroccan press. Last year, Abu Bakr Jama'i saw his Le Journal bled to death for similar offense of upsetting the power that be.

Morocco's attempt to shed the relics of past limitations on associational and informational freedom has long been beset by unease towards the press' increasing criticism of the state. Reforms or project of reforms has to start at the altar of the press as a watchdog for the travails of state-society negotiations. The state cannot claim reform and change on one hand, but continue to brutalize society on the other. Today's violent state repression of the protests near the purported detention center in Temara (5 miles southeast of Rabat) is yet another setback. Dubbed by many protesters as Guantemara for alleged torture of political prisoners, the mere alleged existence of the secret detention center indicates a reversion to the mindset of intransigence towards legitimate demands for change. The detention center is a definite reminder of the notorious "years of lead" of the ancien régime that should forever be cast in the ash heap of Moroccan history.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Arrests in the Marrakech Bombing

Three suspects have been apprehended with alleged ties to the bombing in Argana cafe in Marrakech. Two are from the coastal town of Safi (220 miles south of Casablanca), while the third is a local Marrakechi (see Moroccan TV news cast here). Several questions have been raised about the absolute silence of the Moroccan authorities during the investigation. However, yesterday the Minister of the Interior Taieb CherKaoui held a press conference, in which he announced the capture of the three suspects. According to Moroccan authorities, the alleged conspirators are inspired by al-Qaeda an militant Jihadi ideology, but not operationally part of the terrorist network. Two of the suspects tried several times to join Iraq to partake in militant Jihad, but each time were expelled from Libya in 2008, Syria in 2007 and Portugal in 2004. This raises serious questions about Moroccan authorities' competence as they seem to have lost track of a committed militant Jihadi, and hence failing to anticipate the terrorist acts.

These developments were only eclipsed by the sensational news of the death of master terrorist Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Bin Laden's death deals a significant blow to al-Qaeda, but it is does not put an end to the militant ideology that has spelled disaster for the Islam and the world. Al-Qaeda may be losing ground, but al-Qaedism is still present amongst us, notably through its different subsidiaries in different parts of the world. In the Maghreb, the scepter of al-Qaeda is ever palpable with the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM remains marginally active in the northern Sahara region of Sahel, and responsible for kidnapping and killing scores of foreign aid workers and tourists.

AQIM maintains Jihadist aspirations to carry attacks in north African countries. But they've denied any involvement in the argana cafe bombing. In the midst of the Arab uprising, states might lose sight of the ever present threat of militant Islamism. There is a need for an effective counter terrorism strategy, which will not be successful without the joint cooperation between Maghreb and Sahel states. Perhaps the current Algerian-Moroccan rapprochement leading to an eventual re-opening of the borders is a positive step that could potentially aid in combatting AQIM. Such optimism is only tempered by the on-going conflict over the Western Sahara, which Algeria is significantly involved in on the side of POLISARIO.

UPDATE: Moroccan authorities arrested three more suspects in the argana bombing. All from Safi and allegedly had knowledge of the plot to bomb the cafe on April 28th.