It remains a crime to criticise the king, who still has the final say
DRIVE into Morocco’s countryside and you are likely to come across neat piles of white stones stacked on hillsides, forming giant Arabic letters that spell out the country’s motto, “Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik” (God, the Nation, the King). These words are officially sacred: any challenge to what they represent is punishable by law. King Muhammad VI’s Morocco has made much progress towards freedom of speech, but his regime still enforces the three-word motto with alacrity.
McDonald’s, America’s fast-food giant, recently discovered the limits of that tolerance when it was forced to apologise after distributing a map of its restaurants in Morocco without including the disputed Western Sahara as part of the kingdom. Despite calls for a boycott in the nationalist press, the chain’s swift self-abasement sufficed to quell the row, perhaps because it had already proved its commitment to national integrity by marketing a “McSahara” hamburger.
But other offenders have got off less lightly. In recent years, as the result of a spate of libel suits, journalists have had to pay ever-bigger fines which, press watchdogs say, are aimed at muzzling the independent press. Rachid Niny, editor of the bestselling populist daily al-Massae, was fined 600,000 dirhams (about $70,000), only a month after a court had told him to pay a record fine of 6m dirhams in another case. Mr Niny says that the growing size of the fines is meant to shut down his newspaper.
Two of Morocco’s most outspoken journalists have had to go into exile. Ali Lamrabet was banned from practising his profession, and Aboubakr Jamai fled to escape a massive fine. Other cases against leading journalists are pending; one has been charged with “prejudice to the person of the monarch”. The regime’s political opponents face similar sanctions. Nadia Yassine, daughter of the leader of Morocco’s largest Islamist group, al-Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence), has had a trial for lèse-majesté pending for three years, since she claimed in a casual remark to a journalist that she was not averse to having a republic.
Justice and Benevolence is an unusual Islamist movement. It combines Sufi mysticism, modern political language and the personality cult of its leader, Sheikh Abdesalem Yassine. It is also the country’s sole remaining serious political force that has not been brought into the official fold. Most other dissidents, on left and right, made their peace with the regime more than a decade ago, when King Hassan II, who died in 1999, was paving the way for his son. But followers of Justice and Benevolence refuse to take part until two of the constitution’s articles are revised: the 19th, which gives a lot of power to the king, recognising him as Commander of the Faithful, thus heir to the Prophet Muhammad and rightful leader of Morocco’s Muslims; and the 23rd, which states that “the person of the king is sacred and inviolate”. As a result, Justice and Benevolence faces steady repression. It is not certain that it will still refuse to compromise once Sheikh Yassine, now a fragile 80-year-old, has gone. But the rewards for joining mainstream politics look less tempting than before.
Abdelilah Benkirane, leader of Morocco’s other big Islamist group, the Justice and Development Party, the largest opposition force in parliament, accepts that his movement’s transition from secrecy to full integration has come at a price; it is kept in check by electoral shenanigans and other means. “The public is deeply dissatisfied with political parties, which operate under severe restrictions,” he says, pointing to a record low turnout in a general election in 2007, when his party came second rather than winning handsomely, as expected.
Mr Benkirane is no revolutionary. “I am deeply committed to this state, to the role of the king as holder of the balance between different parts of our national identity,” he says. “But there are only two ways to get out of this impasse. Either, against all odds, we remove the administration’s tight control of politics or we show we can make an impact by taking part in government.” But so far the regime seems bent on continuing to exclude Justice and Development from a governing coalition, which coalesced on an anti-Islamist platform.
Many secular-minded politicians agree that the regime controls politics too tightly. The biggest parties are hamstrung by their deference to the old establishment and by a phenomenon that some Moroccans call “transhumance”: the way politicians connected to the palace change their affiliation according to the calculations of the day. “We were right to integrate our parties into the system after wasting too many years fighting or boycotting it,” says a former minister from a left-wing party. “But we must keep up the pressure.”
Yet whereas Morocco’s monarchy has nimbly managed the transition from Hassan II to Muhammad VI and has steadied politics by opening it up to former dissidents, most political parties have not quite adapted to the new system, nor have they shown much sign of democracy within themselves. So people see little point in politics, reckoning that “all real decisions”, as they tend to put it, are still made in the palace or the interior ministry.
Nice enough when he’s home
As a result, the king has come under greater scrutiny by his people. He is said to be both reclusive and thin-skinned, occasionally losing his temper with his advisers. He spends a lot of time outside the country; at one point last year, the cabinet found itself constitutionally unable to enact new laws because he had been away for several months. When he comes home, he catches up on lost time by criss-crossing his country, opening new public facilities and dispensing largesse as ministers and governors trot along behind.
In September a court in the southern town of Agadir sentenced a blogger, Muhammad Erraji, to two years in prison plus a fine. Mr Erraji had criticised the king’s habit of doling out gifts on his trips, arguing that it encouraged a “culture of dependency”. Though the verdict was overturned, it showed that the taboo against directly criticising the king is still fiercely upheld. Later that month another young man, Yassine Bellasal, was sentenced to a year in prison (suspended) and a fine for offending the king. Mr Bellasal’s crime was to spray a spoof graffito of the national moto—“God, the Nation, the Barça”—replacing the monarch with his favourite football club, FC Barcelona. An appeals court recently upheld the verdict, suggesting that, even in football-mad Morocco, some things are still considered more sacred than the beautiful game. ----------------------