Moroccan Foreign Minister Incites Debate

The Moroccan Foreign Minister, Saad Eddine El Othmani’s, unexpected proposal to rename the “Arab Maghreb Union” as “”the Maghreb Union”  has re-energized the debate over the social, linguistic and political status of the Amazigh people in “post-Arab Spring” North Africa. Currently five nations make up the Arab Maghreb Union: Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Mauritania. Delegates from Tunisian and Algerian immediately rebuked the Moroccan Foreign Minister’s proposal.

Saad Eddine El Othmani's current proposal to rename the Arab Maghreb Union has sparked debate across the Maghreb

El Othmani believes that the removal of the word “Arab” from the name will better reflect the populations of five union states where a sizable number of citizens are not of Arab descent.  The Amazigh language and culture has been seriously diminished in North Africa countries. These countries have long been identified as Arab and Arabic speaking. El Othmani and the Amazign people believe that dropping Arab from the name will better reflect the Amazigh character and personality of North Africa. Algerian and Tunisian Foreign ministers oppose El Othmani’s proposal and argue that the word Arab refers to the geographical location of the five nations that compose the Union rather than describe the racial makeup of its inhabitants. Amazigh groups consider the Algerian refusal to change the name an attempt by the Algerians to keep the demands of its sizable local Amazigh populations at bay.

Emblem of the Arab Maghreb Union

Emblem of the Arab Maghreb Union

Even though it was the Moroccan Foreign Minister who proposed dropping the term Arab, there is still a great deal of opposition among Moroccans. Moroccan religious organizations are not in favor of the move as they believe the current name accurately reflects the Muslim heritage of the North African societies. In addition, some Moroccans are weary of the mounting activism of  Amazigh groups in Morocco. These groups are especially prevalent in the North and have been displaying anti-Moroccan slogans and sentiments.
I believe that having Maghred in the name of the trade organization illustrates the Arab influence in the region. I agree with El Othmani that dropping Arab from the name will make it more inclusive and acceptable to both Arabs and non-Arabs in North Africa. I believe it is a good compromise between the Arab elite who desire to cling to their beloved Mashreq and radical Berbers who want to return to pre-Arab Tamazgha.

Arab Art as an Early Indicator of Revolution

The New York Times published an article on October 5, 2011, about how looking back on Moroccan art and other Arabic art from the last decade can show the unrest that the people have been feeling. The works of art leading up to the Arab Spring revolution are truly moving and full of meaning. These works of art from the 2000s are great predictors of what was to come in 2011. The article goes on to discuss the depictions of true emotions in these works of art and how they indicate the future of revolution.

The article focuses on the Marrakech Art Fair, held in September and October of last year in Morocco. At this fair, the work of Moroccan photographer, Hicham Benohoud, was featured prominently. Here is the photograph that the article is centered around:

photograph of a child, physically tied to and trapped in his environment

Benohoud’s photography, along with the other works of art at the fair, capture the  yearning and longing that Moroccans have been developing over the past decade. Benohoud features children tied to their surroundings in his works; he is representing the entrapment that Moroccans experience in their society.

another photograph by Hicham Benohoud, featured at the Marrakech Art Fair

Here is another photograph from the show, featuring a Moroccan man and woman filled with yearning. The Marrakech Art Fair was a great predictor and indicator of the revolution that followed.

The works on show position Arab artists, whose desire for freedom was strongly reflected in their works, as visionaries of the changes these countries were to undergo.

“Clinton Should Urge Legal Reform,” says Human Rights Watch

Despite Morocco’s 2011 constitutional reforms, which signaled a move towards a more democratic and liberal society, there are still significant limits on freedom of speech for Moroccan citizens. There are still laws on the books that call for prison terms of up to five years for individuals who offend the government or Islam through speech. Human Rights Watch argues that these laws are not in harmony with Morocco’s revised constitution, and that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should push for change of these laws during her current visit to Morocco.

“Having praised Morocco’s 2011 constitution, Secretary Clinton should now urge authorities to revise both laws and practices so that they are in harmony with that constitution.” –Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch

Article 25 of the new constitution says that “freedom of thought, opinion and expression in all its forms is guaranteed”; and article 28 says “Press freedom is guaranteed and cannot be restricted by any form of prior censorship.”

However, article 41 of Morocco’s press code provides prison terms of up to five years for speech that “undermines the Islamic religion, the monarchical regime, or [Morocco’s] territorial integrity,” or that is offensive toward “His Majesty the King, and the royal princes and princesses.” Article 263 of Morocco’s penal code “provides prison terms for “gravely offending” public officials. Article 266 provides prison terms for “insulting” the judiciary or discrediting its rulings or attempting to influence the courts.”

It appears that the lofty commitments of the new constitution are not being matched by Morocco’s legal codes and authorities.


Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane Supports Changing Abortion Laws

On January 11,2012, the New York Times published an article about the possible change of Morocco’s severe laws and limitations on abortion. The article focuses on the newly elected Prime Minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, who has been in power since November of 2011. The Prime Minister is the Islamic leader of the Justice and Development Party.

Women at a political rally in Casablanca. The prime minister, who comes from a moderate Islamic party, would support an initiative to allow abortion in cases of incest and rape, one of his aides said.

Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane is pushing for change in regards to the laws surrounding abortion. He believes that in some cases, abortion is a viable option. The laws that are currently in place are too strict and do not provide Morrocan women with options.

The Prime Minister would like to change this so that in extreme cases, involving incest or rape, women would be allowed to have an abortion. The newly elected Prime Minister is already trying to make changes for the betterment of Moroccan society, just a few months into his new post. The Prime Minister would also like to address and attempt to remedy the issue of illegal, unsafe abortions that are taking place in Morocco. Many Moroccan women support the new Prime Minister and the changes to Moroccan society that he is trying to induce.

Overseas Press Club of America (OPC) Reproves King of Morocco for Jailing Satirist

I found this letter addressed to the King of Morocco posted on the website of the Moroccan Times. The letter was written by two members of the Freedom of Press Committee. The letter criticisms the King’s recent actions that infringed upon Moroccan citizens’ freedom of speech. I thought the letter was an interesting compliment to early posts about the imprisonment of Moroccan protesters for criticizing the king.

February 22, 2012

H.M. King Mohamed VI

c/o Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco

1601 Twenty First Street, NW‎

Washington, DC 20009‎‎

Fax: (202) 265.0161

Your Majesty:

Over the last several years, you have punished journalists for writing about your health and in one case, publishing an offending cartoon about the wedding of a relative.  So perhaps, we at the Overseas Press Club of America, along with journalistic organizations around the world, should not be entirely surprised that your government sent an 18-year-old juvenile to jail for a Facebook post that offended you.

Maybe, we should not be surprised either that you have sentenced to jail a 25-year-old for uploading a satire of you to You Tube.  But while there is precedent for your sensitivity to criticism in print; until recently, Morocco has had a reputation for fairly free exchanges on the Internet, the mark of an enlightened leader.

According to international media and Internet freedom groups, Walid Bahomane, 18, is being held for “defaming Morocco’s sacred values” with a satirical Facebook post.  We understand also that 25-year-old Abdelsamad Haydour has been jailed in the city of Taza for a You Tube video that gave you offense.  These actions are depressing and reactionary.

Your government seems to be reviving the bad old days of 2009 when you prosecuted three journalists for “criminal defamation” for writing about your health.  Since then, it has seemed that Morocco had modernized.  You permitted those three journalists to be released after brief incarcerations.  In one case, a year-long sentence was suspended.

Then, after massive national protests last year coinciding with the Arab Spring uprisings, your government amended your Constitution to guarantee significantly more freedom of speech. Defaming the monarchy can still be a criminal offense, but in practice, is a You Tube satire of you so damaging as to be criminal?  If so, that suggests your leadership may be more fragile than the world realizes.

We urge you to halt this descent down the road to repression and suggest that instead, you re-affirm your constitutional values. That includes dropping the charges against the juvenile Bahomane, freeing Haydour and recognizing that prosecuting journalists will in no way seal off your regime from the openness of the Internet.  All it will do is call world-wide attention to weakness.

Respectfully yours,

Robert Dowling                                                                                   Larry Martz

Freedom of the Press Committee


UN to Hold Talks Between Morocco and Rebel Group

United Nations spokesman Eduardo del Buey announced today that the UN plans to host negotiations between Western Sahara rebels, the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government from March 11 through March 13. Representatives from Algeria and Mauritania will also be present at the talks which are scheduled to be held at the Greentree estate on Long Island.

The Polisario Front  is a Sahrawi rebel group whose main goal is to achieve independence for the Western Sahara. Conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front began in 1975 when Morocco moved into the Western Sahara after the Spanish colonisers left. After Spain’s withdrawal, Morocco took over Saguia El Hamra while Mauritania took control of Rio De Oro. The Algeria-backed Polisario Front then proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on February 27, 1976, and waged a guerrilla war against both Morocco and Mauritania.

Disputed Region of the Western Sahara

For the next two years, the Polisario Front movement grew tremendously as Sahrawi refugees continued flocking to the camps and Algeria and Libya supplied arms and funding. The rebel army expanded to several thousand armed fighters.  The rebel army began to acquire more advanced weapons and increase their firepower. Camels where replaced by modern Jeeps and 19th-century muskets were replaced by assault weapons. The reorganized army was able to inflict severe damage through guerilla-style hit-and-run attacks against opposing forces in Western Sahara and in Morocco and Mauritania.

Coat of arms of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic

In 1991 the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front agreed to a ceasefire but still have not resolved their differences. In April 2007, the government of Morocco suggested that a self-governing entity, the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs take control and govern the area with some degree of autonomy from the Moroccan State. The Polisario front desiring full independence, drafted their own proposal to the United Nations. The stalemate caused the UN Security Council to request that both parties enter in direct negotiations to reach, “a mutually acceptable political situation.” The two sides are yet to resolve their differences with Morocco continuing to offer autonomy while the Polisario Front calls for full independence. Hopefully, renewed talks will allow the two sides to come to an agreement about the status of the Western Sahara. I believe, however, that it is unlikely that either side will be eager to make concessions. No progress has been made in 20 years so I feel that it is unlikely that the coming debates will drastically change the current situation in the region.

Separated families meet up again during a family visit in Western Sahara. Photo: UNHCR/S.Hopper

A Sahrawi woman walks in the desert near the Western Sahara refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria (AFP/File, Dominique Faget)


New EU – Morocco Trade Deal

The European Union approved a bilateral trade agreement with Morocco on Thursday, February 16th, a deal that will expand the duty-free exchange of agricultural goods between the two parties. Starting this spring, 70% of the EU’s agricultural exports will enter Morocco duty-free, while 55% of Morocco’s agricultural exports will enter the EU duty-free. There was controversy over this deal because of concerns that it would negatively impact small-scale farmers in both Europe and Morocco.

According to reports from the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), fruits and vegetables currently account for 80 percent of total EU imports from Morocco, and farming accounts for 13 percent of Morocco’s gross domestic output.

European Woes Spell Trouble for Morocco’s Economy

In the past Morocco’s economy has benefited from the country’s close ties to Europe. Currently, 2.5 million Moroccan migrants live and work in Europe. Moroccan migrant workers are generally based in France, Spain and Italy and work blue-collar jobs. Relatives in Morocco depend on whatever cash their relatives abroad can wire home. Remittances from migrant workers generate more revenue than Morocco’s top export, phosphate sales. The blue collar jobs held by many Moroccans are the most vulnerable to cuts when economies slow. This means that economic austerity in Europe is likely to spread to Morocco.

Morocco’s economy has  performed well during Europe’s debt crisis thus far. Part of the reason is the government’s increase in social spending to maintain political stability during last year’s Arab Spring. Finance Minister Nizar Baraka estimated this week that the economy grew 5 percent last year, up from 4 percent in 2010. Salwa Karkari, an economic expert and member of the parliament from the opposition USFP Socialist Union party said

“We have yet to see the full extent of the repercussions of the euro zone crisis on our economy.”

2012 looks to be a difficult year economically for Morocco. Around 60 percent of Moroccan export revenues are generated by trade with the European Union. In addition, 80 percent of Morocco’s foreign tourists come from Europe. The tourism industry  provides 400,000 jobs and 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Karim Tazi, chair of the AMITH, an industry lobby group said

“The forecasts for 2012 are not very optimistic…The conditions for 2012 should be more difficult. Exporters now have visibility only for the short term. France and Spain are our main markets.”

Economic troubles will test the power of the new constitution. Increased economic strife will fuel the protesters’ message and is likely to lead to more protests throughout the country. Morocco has managed to avoid a regime toppling revolution; however, economic disparity will continue to challenge the king and prime minister. The king and new government will have to work hard to maintain a level of satisfaction with their governance and economic policy.

To read more about the connection between Moroccan and European economies check out

Source: Reuters

Social Networking and Freedom of Speech

Here are some caricatures and political cartoons mocking King Mohammad VI taken from the Facebook page titled “Mohammad VI, My Liberty is More Sacred Than You.” The title of the Facebook group reflects the idea that until the 2011 Constitutional Reforms the Moroccan King was viewed as sacred. Social networking sites were essential to the organization of the student protests that began last year in Morocco.

Earlier this month a teenager was arrested and appeared in court to face accusations of “defaming Morocco’s sacred values” by posting unflattering images and videos of the king on Facebook. The arrest of Walid Bahomane has inflamed free speech advocates. It also addressed what power the Moroccan government should have over social networking sites. I  think is is fascinating that Facebook can be used to spark government and political reform. Facebook is not an innocuous website that teenagers use to socialize. Facebook can be made highly political and employed as a vehicle for societal change.

One Year Anniversary of Morocco’s Day of Dignity

Today is the one year anniversary of Morocco’s Day of Dignity and the beginning of the peaceful protests throughout the country calling for Constitutional Reform. Thousands of protesters gathered simultaneously in Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Tetuan, Beni Mellal, Kenitra, Agadir, Marrakech, Essaouira and in other, smaller cities such as Bouarfa, Sefrou, Bejaad and Jerada on this day in 2011. Stay tuned for updates about the situation in Morocco and reforms one year after the beginning of the protest movement.