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

Saturday, March 17, 2012


News of Amina al-Filali’s suicide continues to create a seismic reaction everywhere around the world. Even in Singapore where I am currently on a teaching assignment, local newspapers reported on the tragedy. Twitterverse is abuzz with feeds under the hashtag #RIPAmina . The 16-year old teen that took her own life after she was forced to marry her rapist has become a symbol for resistance against anti-women laws in Morocco. Several sit-ins took place in Morocco denouncing the “marry rapist” law and calling for a ban on the law. The government has pledged that the law will be amended. But the law itself is not the only issue, but a general attitude towards rape, domestic violence and women status in Morocco.

According to article 475 of Morocco’s penal code, a rapist or abductor can be exempted from all criminal charges if they marry their minor rape victims. The law stipulates that the guardians of the victim have to consent to the marriage with the court approval. This is a triple tragedy: Amina was victimized twice by her aggressor and an archaic penal code, her family, concerned by an ignorant cultural shame of rape and pressure from the public prosecutor conceded to her marriage to the rapist who robbed her out of her childhood; and the court system did not exercise its oversight authority to veto such a grave injustice.

The panoply of injustices that befell Amina has rightfully sparked a national debate on women’s rights and status of women in the kingdom. Despite the much vaunted mudawanna (family code) reforms of 2004, which among other, raised the age of marriage from 15 to 18, placed limitations on the practice of polygamy and gave women the right to petition the court for divorce, women in Morocco continue to struggle for equal and fair social, economic and political opportunities.

Women suffer from a high rate of illiteracy (58% among females) nearing in some cases 90 percent among girls in rural areas and disproportionate rate of unemployment as they struggle against gender bias. More importantly, women are victims of cultural and traditional prejudices in divorce, rape and sexual harassment. Laws reflect prevailing attitudes of a society, and in a society that often blames women for the crimes of their rapists, where those crimes are even reported, article 475 is an unjust attempt to keep the lid on a crime commonly understood to be against social chastity.

The law should not have even existed in the books. Minors should unequivocally benefit from the protection of the state. Not even parents, who may succumb to societal and traditional pressure, should have the final say as Amina’s case tragically shows. What kind of society are we, if we cannot protect our most vulnerable? What does it say about our moral fabric if we remand a victim to their culprit?Morocco’s laws and justice system are in dire need for reform, much like the whole structure of political system. Increased pressure from women’s rights groups such as the Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM) and the Union Action Féminine (UAF) is key to the renewal of public debate on the place of women in society. In the past, these groups articulated new discourses of women’s rights and human rights, and adopted a ‘self-limiting framework’ that is independent of political parties. With all their success ahead of the 2004 family code reforms, the infamous 475 law slipped through the cracks with the stipulation that the courts will exercise its authority judiciously and in favor of the weak and victim.

The case of Amina is a reminder that the kingdom long touted as a beacon for Arab progress still loiters under the brunt of archaic laws and a corrupt justice system. The sweeping reforms of 2004 are constantly challenged by tradition. It is time we fully empowered the existing laws that give women full citizenship rights, physical integrity, access to work, ownership and legal equality. It is also time we discarded all of he anti-women legislation like article 475.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Libya's Perilous Path

News from Libya have seldom been positive lately, which in and of itself, is not cause for alarm. Freshly liberated from the despotic and megalomaniacal rule of Colonel Qaddafi, this heavily tribal society still wrestles to find its path for political and socio-economic progress. However, news reports of eastern Libyan leaders’ declaration of “semi autonomy” in the oil-rich region of Libya has caused quite a stir in and outside Libya. More importantly, the declaration was made in the city of Benghazi, cradle of resistance against Colonel Qaddafi. Despite reassurance that the move is not meant to divide the country, a unilateral proclamation of autonomy may affect the territorial and institutional unity of Libya. According to the tribal representatives, militia commanders and politicians that made the declaration, the eastern region will have policing powers, its own parliament, courts and capital. Foreign affairs, military and oil will be administered by the central government.

The central government currently runs by the caretaker National Transitional Council offered no resistance to this move so far. Its interim leader Mustapha Abdul Jalil rejected talks of military action against the eastern tribes, for the simple reason that the National Transitional Council (NTC) does not have the military capabilities for such undertaking. Instead he blamed foreign powers for sowing the seeds of division inside Libya, and the poor performance of his own NTC. The eastern declaration will in all likelihood be subject to intense negotiations behind the scenes between the NTC and the major factions in the East, that increasingly feel a bias towards the west from the current interim government. However, it also points o the fact that Libya is still unstable months after rebels ousted Qaddafi with the help of NATO.

The process of stabilizing and rebuilding Libya faces three monumental tasks: the vacuous nature of the state bequeathed by Qaddafi, the refusal of decommissioning by the armed militia, and a general sense of mistrust among the major tribal factions in the country. Each one of these issues is potentially critical for the future of Libya and could make the country susceptible to major instability.

Four decades of despotic rule of Qaddafi have had a devastating effect on Libya. More than any other Arab states affected by the Arab uprising, Libya stands as an oddity where the ancien regime left little to no institutional legacy. In Qaddafi’s Libya, there was a complete institutional void. There were hardly any institutions, and where they existed, they were inchoate and partially formed. Gaddafi had veto power over all decisions, not as a president, but a leader of the revolution. Much of the edifice of the state was shaped in the image of the mercurial Qaddafi and sustained by a dizzying number of populist rubber stamp committees. The military was completely gutted and replaced by armed platoons under the command his sons and tribal allies. As a result, Libya today lacks a state apparatus, an organized military and foundational institutions to ease it through this period of transition.

Libya also features significant tribal fissures. For four decades, Gaddafi played tribes against each other, and there are still significant tribal rivalries in Libya. Years of wily and cunning strategy by Qaddafi resulted in a tribal landscape hardly conducive to the establishment of a sense of national unity. Qaddafi co-opted most of the western tribes during his rule bestowing patronage on his own tribe al-Qaddadfa, and other tribes in Sirte. The recent Eastern proclamation of autonomy is rooted in a perception of years of discrimination against Cyrenaican tribes and region in Libya. During the uprising in 2011, there were many reports of inter-tribe violence and acts of reprisal in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall. Not lacking in arms, each tribe is well equipped with heavy artillery in including, machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and even landmines. Reports also suggest that hundred of thousands of guns and ammunition were taken by various anti-Qaddafi militia groups during and after the fight to topple Qaddafi. My own sources in Libya at that time suggest that Qaddafi himself opened up his gun depots for local residents in Tripoli to obtain various sorts of heavy weapons.

Most of the militia have thus far refused governmental appeals for arms decommissioning, which complicates the task of the NTC to secure order and stability in the country. The existence of armed groups has also inhibited the efforts of the nascent government in Tripoli to impose the law and administer justice. Amidst reports of militia vigilante violence, the NTC is gradually losing control over an increasingly fractured society bordering on lawlessness. After 42 years of repression and tribal divisions, many Libyans mistrust the state and are wary of opposing tribes. Weapons have thus become a deterrent source of safety.

Libya like most of the Arab states that deposed their autocratic leaders, is at a critical juncture. Much of its future depends on the ability of the transitional government to navigate through these three thorny issues. Without a disarmed society and strong transparent institutions of government, the prospect for positive change is limited. Promise of a peaceful and free society is still within grasp, but there is also a great deal of peril if the construction of a national identity that transcends local tribalism fails.