Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 42-43

Special Report

Morocco at 50—the Age of Responsibility And Reform

By Marvine Howe

Moroccan human rights activist Khadija Rouissi holds a picture of her brother, Abdelhak, who was missing for 40 years before his sister learned he had died in police custody (Photo Marvine Howe).

FOR more than four decades, the Rouissi family knocked on every door, tracked down every rumor to learn what had become of a young, idealistic bank employee who disappeared from his home in Casablanca on Oct. 4, 1964. Like many educated Moroccans of the 1960s, Abdelhak Rouissi was an active trade unionist with leftist ideas, but he had never taken part in subversive action, according to his sister Khadija Rouissi, a leading Moroccan human rights advocate.

Then, in early January of this year, Rouissi was informed by officials of the discovery of what almost certainly was her brother’s grave. An unmarked tomb in Casablanca’s Sbata cemetery was registered under the name Abdelhak and dated barely a month after the bank clerk had gone missing. DNA tests were expected to identify the remains as those of Abdelhak Rouissi, one of thousands of Moroccan citizens to meet a violent death while in police custody.

“Now we can properly mourn the death of my brother,” Rouissi said in an e-mail message from Casablanca, giving credit to the Commission for Equity and Reconciliation, which has investigated some 16,000 cases of human rights abuse under the repressive reign of the late King Hassan II. “This process should alleviate the suffering of victims and their families and enable the country to undertake reforms so that the past atrocities will never happen again,” said Rouissi, who heads the Association of Families of Missing Persons.

The commission’s scathing report on past human rights violations has tempered current celebrations of Morocco’s half-century of independence. A second document containing a critical examination of achievements in human development since independence has added to the feeling of malaise. These unusually frank assessments of national failings were sponsored by King Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father, King Hassan, seven years ago.

In what appears to be a calculated risk, the 42-year-old monarch clearly hopes that the public catharsis will enable the country to turn the page on past errors and abuses and move on. “Enough selfishness, enough isolation and waste of valuable opportunities, enough squandering of resources and energies in false struggles,” King Mohammed told parliament earlier this year. The latest studies on human rights and human development, along with its predecessors, would serve as “foundations for a global reform,” he declared.

While applauding the royal agencies for acknowledging past abuses committed by the state, Morocco’s independent human rights organizations stress that these crimes continue under Mohammed VI’s rule. The rights groups have formed a follow-up committee to support the recommendations for reform and constitutional changes, but caution that everything depends on implementation.

When Morocco won its freedom from France in March 1956 and from Spain one month later, the nationalist movement was united in its aim to achieve a democratic, parliamentary monarchy under the leadership of popular King Mohammed V, grandfather of the present ruler. The European powers had developed Morocco’s infrastructure for the benefit of colonial interests and a compliant local elite, but the vast majority of the 10 million Moroccans (who have now trebled) were unschooled and living at a subsistence level.

Mohammed V established the basis of a constitutional monarchy, but died prematurely in 1961, after a minor nose operation. His son and successor, Hassan I, an enlightened despot, dominated Moroccan life for 38 years. At home, Hassan reigned with an iron fist, stifling critics, crushing any opposition and only easing his rule toward the end of his life. On the international scene, he was a brilliant statesman, dependable partner of the West and peace-maker on the Arab-Israeli issue. Encouraging foreign investments, King Hassan developed the economy in favor of the ruling elite and an expanding middle class. But it was a system of nepotism, patronage and corruption, one which worsened the gap between rich and poor.

On King Hassan’s death in 1999, Moroccans, thirsting for change, rallied around his son, who assumed the throne with promises of democratic reform and social justice. Without betraying his filial loyalty, King Mohammed distanced himself from the more egregious aspects of his father’s reign. Promptly dismissing the widely detested minister of interior and controversial aide, Mohammed VI relaxed restrictions on the press, reinstated political prisoners and exiles, held relatively free elections, named technocrats to spur development, and ordered a revision of the family code giving women more rights. Like his father, however, the young king retained absolute control over the reins of power.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, King Mohammed, who also is Morocco’s spiritual ruler, ordered special prayers for the victims and sent representatives to a memorial service. Since then, Morocco has appeared as a cornerstone of Washington’s democratization project for the Greater Middle East. During the king’s spring 2002 visit to the White House, President Bush announced plans to establish a free trade area with the kingdom. Subsequently, the U.S. proclaimed Morocco a “major non-NATO ally,” and the kingdom was invited to take part in NATO exercises. Robert B. Zoellick, the American trade representative, described Morocco as “a bright light of reform and moderation in the Islamic world.” Despite strong protests from Morocco’s independent press and public against American policies in the Middle East, at the end of 2004 Morocco and the United States co-hosted the first “Forum for the Future.”

After Islamic extremists carried out suicide bombings on May 16, 2003 against Jewish and foreign targets in Casablanca, killing 45 people, Rabat stepped up cooperation with the U.S. and Europe in the war against terrorism. The king pushed through parliament a tough anti-terrorism law and gave free rein to the security services to carry out thousands of arrests. Summary trials followed with harsh prison sentences—as in King Hassan’s time—only now the victims were Islamists, not leftists.

Since his accession to the throne, King Mohammed had come under pressure from human rights groups to set up a truth and justice commission on the South African model. After two years of negotiations, the palace agreed to establish the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Driss Benzekri, who was a political prisoner for 17 years. The commission held public hearings around the country and ruled that more than 9,000 cases would be eligible for compensation.

Presented as a major accomplishment of King Mohammed’s reign, the commission, whose mandate has terminated, made its final report public at the end of January. It was a frank and troubling view of human rights violations, kidnappings, torture and summary executions, organized or condoned by the state under King Hassan. The commission went on to recommend substantive constitutional revisions, including the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, government control over the security services, parliamentary oversight, and the primacy of international law in human rights.

The human rights organizations’ new watchdog committee criticized the commission for not allowing torture victims to name their abusers, barring punishment of the criminals and giving no guarantees against future abuse. It also called for the pursuit of many unresolved cases, such as the 1965 disappearance of opposition leader Mehdi ben Barka and violations against activists from the Rif Mountains and the Sahara.

Proposed Reforms

The other ground-breaking survey, “Morocco’s Human Development during the last 50 Years and Prospects for 2025,” was drafted by a committee of experts headed by the king’s adviser, Ab­del­aziz Meziane Belfikh. Moroccans have been dismayed in recent years over their country’s low ranking (124 out of 177 nations) on the United Nations scale of Human Development. The royal panel stressed that education in Morocco is in “a state of crisis,” indicators of infant mortality and maternal health are “alarming,” and economic growth “stagnant” since 1955, with persistent poverty. The report proposed detailed reforms, including the creation of an independent agency to fight corruption, and constitutional changes to promote regional development.

In acknowledging these problems, King Mohammed has shouldered a considerable burden. The question is whether he is prepared to relinquish some authority and undertake the constitutional reforms needed to transform this absolute monarchy into a modern democratic state of law. An immediate test of royal intentions is the new autonomy plan for Western Sahara, where nationalists have been struggling for independence for more than a quarter of a century. Now time is of the essence.

Morocco at 50 is impatient, due to rising expectations and decades of unfulfilled promises. The Moroccan public, now linked to the outside world through satellite, television and cell phones, has become more demanding. Young people, who cannot find jobs, form a volatile mass, vulnerable to extremists. The country’s independent press is an important voice of opposition, and human rights organizations are increasingly vocal. The main political parties, which have participated in ineffectual governments dominated by the palace, have lost credibility. Islamists, who have remained in opposition, are expected to win national elections in 2007—if they are free and fair. This would be a blow not only to Morocco’s secular elite, particularly women, but also to Paris, Madrid and Washington, who have lauded “the Moroccan model” of a moderate Muslim ally in the war against terrorism. 

Marvine Howe, a former New York Times bureau chief, is the author of Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges, available from the AET Book Club.

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