MOROCCO’S “THIRD WAY” FOR GENDER, YOUTH, AND EQUITY: SMOKE AND MIRRORS?

(originally posted March 18, 2013)

Morocco has been held up as a brilliant example of progress for other MENA nations grappling with questions of gender equity and democracy, even before the Arab Spring Revolutions. Expanding a trend that was inaugurated by his father, King Hassan II, King Mohammad VI made it clear that in his Morocco, women’s concerns mattered. During the 12+ years of his reign, the King has taken concrete steps to demonstrate the ways in which women would be publicly visible, equal partners in the development of the country’s democratic institutions. Forgoing his legal right to 4 wives (under Islamic Shari’a law), he vowed that Salma Bennani, a computer engineer who he married in 2002, would be his only wife.  Breaking with tradition, he gave her a title, H.R.H Princess Lalla Salma, and made sure that she was publicly visible, not just to his Moroccan subjects, but to the entire world. In 2003, he gave his blessing to the reform of Morocco’s Moudawana, or Personal Status Laws, an impressive feat whose legwork was carried out by a coalition of secular feminists, religious authorities and Islamic organizations, human rights activists, and community leaders.  (After initially rejecting it, the Party of Justice and Development, PJD, accepted the new Moudawana in 2003).  Following the bombing of Casablanca in 2003 by a group believed to be affiliated with the Salafia Jihadia, he inaugurated a program to train women as religious leaders (murshidat) and install them in mosques in urban and rural towns across the country.  The stated goal of this program, profiled in the film “Class of 2006” by Charlotte Mangin (Producer) and Gini Reticker (Director), was to combat a rising tide of Islamic extremism in the country, and to provide a cadre of mediators to interface between the Moroccan government and the ordinary people who would, presumably, confide in these women.  He has allowed civil society to flourish, and has not sought to ban even those civil society groups that have been critical of his still-considerable power.  After the king’s June 2011 announcement of revisions to the Moroccan constitution, he appointed Abdelilah Benkirane, the head of the PJD, as prime minister in November of that year.  This move followed the PJD’s dominance in parliamentary elections, in which they won a majority of seats. To all appearances, Morocco has made great strides towards being a more progressive, inclusive, prosperous, and equitable nation.  Or has it?

The voices emerging from the Moroccan blogosphere, including the young web-activists who occupy it, are hardly sounding an optimistic or congratulatory tone about these events.   In particular, the Feb 20th Youth movement and its supporters called attention to the ways in which old patterns of authority, exclusivity, and corruption, persist in the new Morocco.  Through large public demonstrations all over the country that began on February 20, 2011, continued throughout much of 2012, and involved a wide spectrum of disaffected Moroccans,  movement activists called attention to persistent socio-economic inequalities: the King and palace insiders continued to increase their already-significant wealth, while most ordinary Moroccans struggled to make decent lives for themselves, or languished in poverty. As the film profiling the February 20th Youth Movement, “My Makhzen and Me”, points out, the highest 3% own 77% of the country’s wealth; half of the country’s population remains illiterate; unemployment figures hover around 30% (or much more, by some estimates); most people do not have access to adequate health care; political dissidents continue to be beaten down in the streets (which the film documents in graphic detail), imprisoned and tortured; and journals that dare to question the palace’s business dealings are shut down. During the course of filming, some of the movement’s activists were issued letters by the Interior Ministry prohibiting them from engaging in “non-authorized” protests.  Unsuccessful in that strategy, the state later adopted two other, more effective approaches. One, they sent agents to infiltrate the secret meetings of the February 20th activists, and two, the Makhzen (the cabal of businessmen, tribal leaders, heads of security forces, royal insiders, large landowners, and high-ranking military officers and civil servants that is said to constitute the “deep state”, along with the King himself) paid poor men (the baltajiyya) to stage counter-demonstrations in support of the king and the new constitution (denounced as fraudulent by the February 20th Movement), and to denounce the Movement as made up of subversive elements seeking to undermine the country.  In effect, the rise and decline in the profile, and thus influence, of the February 20th Youth Movement reflects a strategy that the state has effectively wielded on several occasions: the deconstruction, co-optation, and slow dismantling of dissent.  The palace, ever conscious of maintaining its national symbolic capital, has been essentially able to remain aloof in the midst of the turmoil. This, too, is being called out by not only dissidents within Morocco, but occasionally, by elements of the mainstream foreign press.

In Morocco, the “deepest state” as professor Marc Levine dubbed it in a recent article for al-Jazeera, King Mohammad VI remains publicly visible (particularly for national commemorative and festival events), but is otherwise hidden behind his advisers and palace insiders. He does not give interviews to the Moroccan press, and only rarely to the foreign media. Despite being avowedly “politically neutral,” the palace has been criticized for the top-down approach that persists in Moroccan political, social, and economic life.  For example, critics charge that the King’s appointment of a commission to revise the constitution, instead of letting voters choose the commission themselves, set the stage for a “fraudulent” referendum (in which 98% of voters voted yes!) and ultimately illegitimate constitution. The former minister-designate for Parliament Relations, Idris Lashkar, claimed in an interview with the journalal-Safir that the government is stalling on transforming the constitutional reforms of 2011 into actual regulatory rules.  Thus, according to Lashkar, the government is still actually working according to the previous constitution. Despite this, many Moroccans remain acquiescent, if only by their silence.  Yet this does not explain the stance of many others who are not swayed by the palace’s promises of reform. The activists of the February 20th movement continue to meet, to share ideas, and to communicate, in person, and on the web, about strategies for dealing with Morocco’s trenchant problems.  Others have given up hope, frustrated with the slow pace of reform and the PJD’s inexperienced mishandling of the process of governance. Some believe that the time is simply not right, and that another opportunity will arise. Many continue to hold out hope that the king will still enact reforms, and so want to avoid doing anything to “rock the boat”. This last group of Moroccans are characterized in the blogosphere as ignorant masses who will uncritically support the monarchy no matter what.

Activists, including but not limited to those who participated in the February 20th movement, are increasingly targeting the king himself, saying that the latter’s efforts at reform are mere window dressing. The reform of the Moudawana, an impressive feat, gave credence to the belief in the possibility of true reform.  Yet the NGOs and activists on the ground continue the fight to educate women about the rights this new law gives them, almost 8 years after its passage.  The back-and forth wrangling between activists and the judiciary over the legal marriage age for women (originally 18 in the 2005 Moudawana, with proposals on the table to lower it to 16, while the actual marriage age is even younger for many women, particularly in the rural areas), is one indicator of the gap between the promise of the law and the shortcomings of its implementation. The plight of the women of the Soulaliyate, an ethnic group that is entitled to common lands, calls attention to the ways in which women are deprived of their legal inheritances because of entrenched patriarchal interests. The promotion of murshidat as religious leaders, critics assert, has merely been to enforce the King’s approved brand of Islam and to keep tabs on people. There is only one female minister, who holds a political office that is widely seen as quintessentially “female” in the MENA: Bassima Hakkaoui, Minister of Solidarity, Women, the Family, and Social Development. These kinds of reforms, aimed at women’s rights, have almost all been driven from the top down, making it harder for a truly national grassroots movement to emerge (and NGOs, which have proliferated in the past decade or so, are required to be registered with the Ministry of the Interior). As for the sharing of power between the king and the PJD that was underscored in the monarch’s speech of March 2011? Critics cite this as just another way in which King Mohamed VI has effectively wielded a strategy of co-optation of his opponents and managed to retain the same amount, and degree, of power and authority as before.

This last point bears elaboration: the initial relationship between the PJD and the king was cordial, while the French and Moroccan press noted the apparently “chummy”, lighthearted exchanges between Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and the king. Charging forward on a platform of fighting the corruption and cronyism that was stifling the country, the PJD soon found itself pinned between the Scylla of entrenched patronage networks and the Charybdis of an increasingly frustrated, agitated, and impatient population that had hung their hopes on rapid change. The PJD itself, like many of the current Islamic-oriented governments ruling the MENA has, of late, seemingly slipped back into old habits, arousing the suspicion of the palace and the population alike: while on a trip to a Qur’anic school in Marrakech last spring, Mustapha Ramid, the Minister of Justice, declared that foreigners mainly came to the city to commit “depraved” and “sinful” acts; later during that trip, he met with the with Salafist leader Cheikh Mohamad Maghraoui, a man infamous for declaring that girls should be allowed to marry at age 9. Following the March, 2012 suicide of Amina Filali, age 16, who was forced to marry her rapist, Bassima Hakkaoui was denounced for publicly claiming that in many cases, such marriages did no harm to the woman (though Ms Hakkaoui later come out in support of measures to punish rapists and give greater supportto their victims). More recently, The Minister of Communication, Mustapha el-Khalfi, made a series of announcements prohibiting the content that the Moroccan television stations, Al Aoula and 2M could broadcast (e.g. gambling, and calls to prayer in French and Spanish, among other things). Benkirane himself has been roundly criticized from all sides for a series of missteps: the Algerians accuse him of undermining efforts to normalize relations between Morocco and Algeria; youth activists charge that he has done nothing to restrain security forces, who beat, detain, and kill protesters with impunity; and ordinary Moroccans who are eager for change accuse him of being a feckless puppet of the Makhzen and the king. As for his party, the Moroccan and foreign press alike have increasingly characterized the PJD as unable to make the transition from oppositional force to governing body, suggesting, in some quarters, their (imminent) demise as a political force of any consequence.

There are also signs suggesting a more positive long-term outlook.  First, the bases of many of the political parties are broadening beyond their traditional elites, exemplifying the trend of “populist politics” that brought men like Mr. Benkirane to power.  Second, Moroccans are generally more aware now of their power to force change: the increased sense of discontent many feel now will likely lead to more Moroccans putting pressure on the government and the palace to increase the pace and substance of reforms.  This could also lead to the emergence of new leadership that is better prepared to go beyond slogans and public demonstrations to tackle the day-to-day business of transformation. The recent repeal of article 475 and the removal of the country’s reservations to CEDAW suggest that the Moroccan government is responsive to the pressure that ordinary citizens and activists put on it. Much of the pressure for that repeal came from women activists, particularly the Moroccan feminist movement, which still has the power and capacity to successfully negotiate legal rights for women. Third, despite persistent gender inequalities, Moroccan women are strongly represented within the business community, and they (as well as men) have benefited significantly from successful micro credit programs like those run by al-Amana, Morocco’s largest micro-finance institution. Women are also in demand in the labor economy in the labor-intensive, light manufacturing of textiles and electronics for export (chiefly as assembly-line labor). Fourth, technology has released the genie in the bottle: it has expanded the education and awareness of Moroccans in general, and nowadays, it is more affordable for young Moroccans. This also has implications for the February 20th Youth Movement, which, though currently in a weakened position, shows no signs of demise. Fifth, civil society is flourishing in Morocco not just in terms of its relationship with the king and Moroccan society, but also in its quest to become a more integral part of state consultations. On the other hand, some civil society organizations, particularly NGOs, which have exploded on the Moroccan scene in the past decade, have become too numerous for the state (i.e. the Interior Ministry) to adequately keep track of (although registration is officially “voluntary”).  And finally, though the king remains firmly ensconced at the top of Morocco’s chain of authority, power has been destabilized from the level of the family all the way to the top. This bodes well for the horizon of substantive reforms with the power to transform Moroccan society at most, if not all, levels, even if the pace of reform remains gradual and sluggish, at least in the short term.